Jacopo Bellini

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Jacopo Bellini

Italian artist

Born 1400 - Died 1470

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JACOPO BELLINI (c. 1400-1470-1471) was the son of a tinsmith or pewterer, Nicoletto Bellini, by his wife Franceschina. When the accomplished Umbrian master Gentile da Fabriano came to practise at Venice, where art was backward, several young men of the city took service under him as pupils. Among these were Giovanni and Antonio of Murano and Jacopo Bellini. Gentile da Fabriano left Venice for Florence in 1422, and the two brothers of Murano stayed at home and presently founded a school of their own (see VIVARINI). But Jacopo Bellini followed his teacher to Florence, where the vast progress lately made, alike in truth to natural fact and in sense of classic grace and style, by masters like Donatello and Ghiberti, Masaccio and Paolo Uccello, offered him better instruction than he could obtain even from his Umbrian teacher. But his position as assistant to Gentile brought him into trouble. As a stranger coming to practise in Florence, Gentile was jealously looked on. One day some young Florentines threw stones into his shop, and the Venetian pupil ran out and drove them off with his fists. Thinking this might be turned against him, he went and took service on board the galleys of the Florentine state; but returning after a year, found he had in his absence been condemned and fined for assault. He was arrested and imprisoned, but the matter was soon compromised, Jacopo submitting to a public act of penance and his adversary renouncing further proceedings. Whether Jacopo accompanied his master to Rome in 1426 we cannot tell; but by 1429 we find him settled at Venice and married to a wife from Pesaro named Anna (family name uncertain), who in that year made a will in favor of her first child then expected. She survived, however, and bore her husband two sons, Gentile and Giovanni (though some evidences have been thought to point rather to Giovanni having been his son by another mother), and a daughter Nicolosia. In 1436 Jacopo was at Verona, painting a Crucifixion in fresco for the chapel of S. Nicholas in the cathedral (destroyed by order of the archbishop in 1750, but the composition, a vast one of many figures, has been preserved in an old engraving). Documents ranging from 1437 to 1465 show him to have been a member of the Scuola or mutual aid society of St John the Evangelist at Venice, for which he painted at an uncertain date a series of eighteen subjects of the Life of the Virgin, fully described by Ridolfi but now destroyed or dispersed. In 1439 we find him buying a panel of tarsia work at the sale of the effects of the deceased painter Jacobello del Fiore, and in 1440 entering into a business partnership with another painter of the city called Donato. About this time he must have paid a visit to the court of Ferrara, where there prevailed a spirit of free culture and humanism most congenial to his tastes. Pisanello, the first great naturalist artist of north Italy, whose influence on Jacopo at the outset of his career had been only second to that of Gentile da Fabriano, had been some time engaged on a portrait of Leonello d'Este, the elder son of the reigning marquis Niccolo III. Jacopo (according to an almost contemporary sonneteer) competed with a rival portrait, which was declared by the father to be the better of the two. In the next year, the last of the marquis Niccolo's life, we find him making the successful painter a present of two bushels of wheat. The relations thus begun with the house of Este seem to have been kept up, and among Jacopo's extant drawings are several that seem to belong to the scheme of a monument erected to the memory of the marquis Niccolo ten years later. He was also esteemed and employed by Sigismondo Malatesta [PIC] at the court of Rimini. In 1443 Jacopo took as an articled pupil a nephew whom he had brought up from charity; in 1452 he painted a banner for the Scuola of St Mary of Charity at Venice, and the next year received a grant from the confraternity for the marriage of his daughter Nicolosia with Andrea Mantegna, a marriage which had the effect of transferring the gifted young Paduan master definitively from the following of Squarcione to that of Bellini. In 1456 he painted a figure of Lorenzo Giustiniani, first patriarch of Venice, for his monument in San Pietro de Castello, and in 1457, with a son for salaried assistant, three figures of saints in the great hail of the patriarch. For some time about these years Jacopo and his family would seem to have resided at, or at least to have paid frequent visits to Padua, where he is reported to have carried out works now lost, including an altar-piece painted with the assistance of his sons in 1459-1460 for the Gattamelata chapel in the Santo, and several portraits which are described by 16th-century witnesses but have disappeared. At Venice he painted a Calvary for the Scuola of St Mark (1466). His activity can be traced in documents down to August 1470, but in November 1471 his wife Anna describes herself as his relict, so that he must have died some time in the interval.

The above are all the facts concerning the life of Jacopo Bellini which can be gathered from printed and documentary records. The materials which have reached posterity for a critical judgment on his work consist of four or five pictures only, together with two important and invaluable books of drawings. These prove him to have been a worthy third, following the Umbrian Gentile da Fabriano and the Veronese Pisanello, in that trio of remarkable artists who in the first half of the 15th century carried towards maturity the art of painting in Venice and the neighboring cities. Of his pictures, an important signd example is a life-size Christ Crucified in the archbishops palace at Verona. The rest are almost all Madonnas: two signed, one in the Tadini gallery at Lovere, another in the Venice academy; a third, unsigned and long ascribed in error to Gentile da Fabriano, in the Louvre, with the portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta as donor; a fourth, richest of all in color and ornamental detail, recently acquired from private hands for the Uffizi at Florence. Plausibly, though less certainly, ascribed to him are a fifth Madonna at Bergamo [EN], a warrior-saint on horseback (San Crisogono) in the church of San Trovaso at Venice, a Crucifixion in the Museo Correr, and an Adoration of the Magi in private possession at Ferrara. Against this scanty tale of paintings we have to set an abundance of drawings and studies preserved in two precious albums in the British Museum and the Louvre. The former, which is the earlier in date, belonged to the painters elder son Gentile and was by him bequeathed to his brother Giovanni. It consists of ninety-nine paper pages, all drawn on both back and front with a lead point, an instrument unusual at this date. Two or three of the drawings have been worked over in pen; of the remainder many have become dim from time and rubbing. The album at the Louvre, discovered in 1883 in the loft of a country-house in Guienne, is equally rich and better preserved, the drawings being all highly finished in pen, probably over effaced preliminary sketches in chalk or lead. The range of subjects is much the same in both collections, and in both extremely varied, proving Jacopo to have been a craftsman of many-sided curiosity and invention. He passes indiscriminately from such usual Scripture scenes as the Adoration of the Magi, the Agony in the Garden, and the Crucifixion, to designs from classic fable, copies from ancient bas-reliefs, stories of the saints, especially St Christopher and St George, the latter many times repeated (he was the patron saint of the house of Este), fanciful allegories of which the meaning has now become obscure, scenes of daily life, studies for monuments, and studies of animals, especially of eagles (the emblem of the house of Este), horses and lions. He loves to marshal his figures in vast open spaces, whether of architecture or mountainous landscape. In designing such spaces and in peopling them with figures of relatively small scale, we see him eagerly and continually putting to the test the principles of the new science of perspective. His castellated and pinnacled architecture, in a mixed medieval and classical spirit, is elaborately thought out, and scarcely less so his groups and ranges of barren hills, broken in clefts or ascending in spiral terraces. With a predilection for tall and slender proportions, he draws the human figure with a flowing generalized grace and no small freedom of movement; but he does not approach either in mastery of line or in vehemence of action a Florentine draughtsman such as Antonio Pollaiuolo. Jacopo's influence on the development of Venetian art was very great, not only directly through his two sons and his son-in-law Mantegna, but through other and independent contemporary workshops of the city, in none of which did it remain unfelt.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Vasari, ed. Milanesi, vol. iii.; Ridolfi, Le Maraviglie, &c., vol. i.; Francesco Sansovino, Venezia Descritta; Morelli, Notizia, &c., di un Anonimo; Zanetti, Pittura Veneziana; F. Aglietti, Elogio Storico di Jacopo e Giovanni Bellini; G. Bernasconi, Genni intorno Ia vita e fe opere di Jacopo Bellini; Moschini, Giovanni Bellini e pittori contemporanei; E. Galichon in Gazette des Beaux-Arts (i866); Crowe and Cavalcaselle, History of Painting in North Italy, vol. i.; Hubert Janitschek, Giovanni Bellini in Dohmes Kunst und Künstler; Julius Meyer in Meyers Allgemeines Künstler-Lexileon, vol. iii. (1885); Pompco Molmenti, I pittori Bellini in Studi e ricerche di Storia d'Arte; P. Paoletti, Raccolta di documenti inedsti, fasc. i.; Vasari, Vile di Gentile da Fabriano e Vittor Pisanello, ed. Venturi; Corrado Ricci in Rassegna d'Arte (1901, 903), and Rivista d'Arte (1906); Roger Fry, Giovanni Bellini in The Artists Library; Everard Meyncil, Giovanni Bellini in Newness Art Library (useful for a nearly complete set of reproductions of the known paintings); Corrado Ricci, Jacopo Bellini e i suoi Libri di Disegni; Victor Goloubeff, Les Dessins de Jacopo Bellini (the two works last cited reproduce in full, that of M. Goioubeff by far the most skilfully, the contents of both the Paris and the London sketch-books). (S.C.)

Source: Entry on the artist in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia.

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