After 500 years Bellini deserves so much more than a lone drunk

Bellini_Presentation at the Temple

“He is very old, yet, he is still the best painter of them all”Albrecht Dürer – Visiting Venice for a second time in 1506

We live at a point in time at which we are fortunate to witness some big landmark commemorations. 2016 has already seen the 400th anniversary of death of William Shakespeare and the 500th anniversary of the passing of Hieronymus Bosch. Sadly, and this isn’t just a reflection on the disorder of the Italians, there are no such plans (at least as far as I am aware) at any major institutions to commemorate Giovani Bellini who died in November 1516.

What the Dutch have done to promote their own fantastical Hieronymus has rightly been lauded. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it has done wonders for promotion of Den Bosch.  There is really something to be said for seeing a body of works, however modest in terms of the number of canvasses, in one place. It enables us to see an artist’s work in the round – sometimes that means the ‘so so’ canvasses and the masterpieces. We are nevertheless richer for it. Visions of Genius wasn’t just marketing speak – it was manifestly demonstrated in room after room.

Venice does have a program with the functional title of ‘Bellini 500’. It’s a gesture towards one of its greatest artistic sons, but feels at best a half-hearted effort. I was fortunate over the May bank holiday to go along and see the Drunkenness of Noah. This single image is all I can find by way of the Bellini 500 program. It’s a superb work and shows an artist who, despite his advancing age, is still as inventive and as great at communication as he ever was. The work has long been in my ‘Bellini file’ and the Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology of Besançon has to be commended for putting it on loan.


But the one work however delightful only wets the appetite. Like the famous Venetian finger food Cicchetti I wanted to devour more. Summoning the waiter wouldn’t resolve this dilemma: he would simply have nothing else to offer me.

Perhaps the religious nature of Bellini’s oeuvre alienates the modern viewer. That didn’t stop Forli’ mounting its superb and popular Piero della Francesca exhibition. We just have to accept that whilst we may live in a secular world that wasn’t the case 500 years ago. Madonna and Childs may not be to everyone’s tastes but when done as brilliantly and sympathetically by such an important and influential artist as Bellini then we really can cope.

What only adds to the sense of frustration is the fact that Venice already has within its reach so many great canvasses by this significant artist – a personal favourite is the Presentation at the Temple from the Querini-Stampalia pictured above. The Museo Correr and the Gallerie dell’Accademia both have many of the defining images. Bellini is one of the foundation stones of their world class collections. The city’s religious institutions, notably the Frari and San Zaccaria, have others. The Accademia does lend, as Giorgione’s La Vecchia in an earlier post demonstrates. The jointly administered Venetian Museums could therefore reasonably expect to receive sufficient support from the international community to mount a major retrospective of the work of Giovanni Bellini. I’d have relished an expansion to see the works of the other members of his famous family, Jacob the father and Gentile the brother; even his influence on his brother in law Mantegna. What we are not short of with Bellini is material to work with. It’s well documented that he had some rather high profile artistic supporters – notably the German Albrecht Dürer.

Bellini revolutionized Venetian painting, dragging it towards a more sensuous and vibrant style which is so rich in texture and colour that it is truly distinctive. Through this famous pupils Giorgione, whom he sadly outlived, and especially Titian the impact he had on Venetian painting and styles elsewhere cannot be underestimated.

The great Italian museums may be under new management but this failure to properly commemorate Bellini with a major exhibition shows they still have a very long way to go.

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