Artists Who Achieved the Impossible

The Renaissance art of Giovanni and Jacopo Bellini illuminates the enduring fascination of Venice

GIOVANNI BELLINI by Rona Goffen, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 347 pp., $60


by Colin Eisler, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 496 pp., $195

THERE is something about Venice that led a friend of mine to burst into song on Piazza San Marco, ``Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your voice and sing, Hosannah, Hosannah, Hosannah for your King.'' Though not a historian, she perceived what some Venetians in the Renaissance felt about their own culture, la Serenissima - the most serene - in part expressed through its republican form of government, the most stable and long-lasting in Europe.

The ``myth of Venice'' idealized the society. Yet in the Renaissance, one visitor to Venice wrote to a friend in Rome that he had ``seen the impossible in the impossible.'' He meant that he had been able to see some of the impossibly large number of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and buildings of Venice, itself impossibly built on the water.

Rona Goffen devotes her authoritative new book, ``Giovanni Bellini,'' to the most famous painter of early Renaissance Venice. She writes that his portraits, such as the one of ``Doge Leonardo Loredon'' featured on the cover, ``enoble'' these individuals beyond what their actions sometimes warranted.

Goffen's earlier work has drawn attention to the unique qualities of the Venetian Renaissance. Venice ``cherished'' its historic links with Byzantium, particularly after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Painters reflected this in their art.

Goffen notes the central role played by the Byzantine mosaics in San Marco (then the doge's chapel) in the artists' visual imaginations. The glass tesserae produce forms through patches of colored light rather than through lines; so Bellini softened the contours of his forms and modeled them with colored light.

Goffen has established that the Byzantine icon should be understood as the model for the format and mood of Bellini's madonna and child paintings. The figures' inwardness and restraint also ``expressed the stated Venetian ideal of decorous comportment.''

In this book, Goffen also explains the incomparable luminosity in Bellini's landscapes. She argues convincingly that the natural beauty and soft atmospheric light in the landscape behind the sacred figures is the result of Bellini's sense that nature was a metaphor for qualities of these individuals. It is also ``expressive of God's presence.'' ``Bellini translates the mundane into the sacred through atmospheric light,'' she writes.

Goffen demystifies Bellini's famous ``St. Francis in Ecstasy'' in the Frick Museum in New York. She writes that the ``landscape is a second protagonist ... as expressive of God's presence ... immeasurably more important ... than the specific symbolism of individual objects, although these too play their part.'' And suddenly we wonder if Bellini knew Psalm 104 praising the beauty of creation.

The sheer sense of ``harmonious well-being'' in the ``Madonna of the Pear'' (circa 1488) and the ``polychromatic'' beauty of the San Zaccaria altarpiece of 1505 may have been the reason for Albrecht D"urer's high esteem of Bellini. When D"urer visited Venice for the second time in 1506, he wrote that although Bellini was very old (only Titian and Michelangelo had longer working lives), he was ``still the best in painting.''

Giovanni Bellini's paintings are magnificent - which makes us long even more for the lost mural paintings, such as those for the Great Council Hall of the doge's palace, the hall in which as many as 1,800 nobles would meet every Sunday afternoon to conduct the business of government.

But in two large drawing books of his father, Jacopo Bellini, we see ideas conceived on a mural scale that informed Giovanni, his brother, Gentile, and their brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. In these books, Jacopo's compositional principles of asymmetrical organization, of embedding the narrative focus in the minutiae of daily life, and of arranging movement along the surface of the picture plane, established effective and non-Florentine pictorial structures. These undergird many Venetian paintings in the 150 years from Jacopo Bellini to Paolo Veronese.

The drawing books are the raison d'^etre for the other major book on a Bellini to appear this fall, Colin Eisler's ``The Genius of Jacopo Bellini,'' although he also publishes fine color plates of the few elegant panel paintings that survive of the senior Bellini's work. A volume on Gentile Bellini appeared four years ago. The attention to this family of painters in part manifests the world's concern for Venice. Certainly the range of countries in which Eisler's book will appear - the United States, Britain, and continental Europe - hints at the interest in the culture of this unique city, a remarkable survivor, largely unchanged since the Renaissance.

Eisler shuffles the drawings on paper from the British Museum book and those on vellum from the book in the Louvre and regroups the pages into a type of iconographic handbook, that is, so that they can be seen according to their subject matter. Not all scholars will agree with Eisler's variety of suggestions as to how these drawings were to be used. The consensus now is that the drawings are finished works of art, which represent Jacopo Bellini's thoughts and experiments.

The drawings are endlessly engaging in themselves. In the Louvre book, we discover shepherds shyly gazing from behind the wattle fence toward the Holy Family. Mary has not yet noticed their quiet arrival. Yet their presence seems so natural, for only one other traveler on the windy road at daybreak looks with interest toward the stable. This is one of the many pages in the vellum book that were ``originally made by Jacopo Bellini in leadpoint and later drawn over with pen and ink by himself and assistants, notably his sons,'' according to Albert Elen, whose technical analysis of the books appears in the appendix.

Infrared photography has brought out traces that otherwise are almost invisible in the leadpoint drawings on heavy white paper in the British Museum book. We can even see the woods in front of which a serene and thoughtful Mary travels on a donkey with the baby Jesus, Joseph, and their servants as they make their way toward Egypt.

Other pages are filled with elaborations on the architecture of the doge's palace and other parts of the city. In one characteristic courtyard, a faintly visible stonemason sits on the ground before a flight of standard 15th-century exterior stairs, to work with hammer and chisel on a figural statue. Jacopo Bellini's ruled guidelines for the architecture remind us that the drawing is not a snapshot view but a constructed work of art.

Through Goffen's and Eisler's beautiful new additions to our knowledge of Venice, we can learn more about how the Renaissance artists actually achieved what seems almost impossible.

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