The first Venetian painter to introduce High Renaissance art to Venice, Italy was Giovanni Bellini. He was also one of the first painters in Italy to abandon tempera method for oil painting, which made his works one-of-a-kind during the 16th century. His major work, Madonna with Child, is the perfect example of Bellini’s talent to convey the striking human emotions through drawing contours and figures against eloquent colors and shades.
Giovanni Bellini was somewhat isolated from other Italian painters because of his interest in learning and adapting the Northern Europe painting styles. As such, he was able to execute paintings that were different from among other Italian artists of his time, as he was the first to use deeper tints and shadings on painting. And this later on became a base of knowledge for the establishment of the Venetian School (of Painting).
Giovanni Bellini’s exact birth date is unknown but he is believed to be born around 1430 in Venice. He came from an influential family, with Jacopo Bellini as the patriarch. His father, Jacopo, was also a great painter and was an important figure to his sons’ artistic development. It should not come as a surprise then that Giovanni became an exceptional painter later on his life because his father supported him from the very beginning.
In fact, Giovanni also had formed collaborations with his brother, Gentile Bellini, showing that he had enough support system within his family. Gentile also became a well-known painter in Venice and together with Giovanni; both of them would work at their father’s studio providing assistance. In that studio, the brothers met the Paduan painter, Andrea Mantegna.
Andrea Mantegna influenced Giovanni in terms of his style and perspective. The painting, Saint Jerome in the Desert, by Giovanni reflects how much influence Mantegna and Jacopo had on him while he was progressing career. The similarities lie on Giovanni’s wobbly landscapes and outlined figures of St. Jerome in the Desert that were also present in most of Mantegna’s works.
What followed after the St. Jerome painting was the Dead Christ (1460). Although at this point of his career, Giovanni would still use the tempera method to paint panels, which was the commonly practiced style in Italy during that time. This painting depicts how the Madonna and St. John grieve over the dead body of Christ as they hold him into their arms. The orangey sky would tell us that the event happened at dawn, by which Giovanni was the first painter to utilize the dawn setting on a painting.
With that, we can conclude thus far that Giovanni Bellini had an early success in his career when he was in his late 20’s. And like most Renaissance artists, Giovanni craved for some change in styles and methods that prompted him to learn other techniques that originated from Northern Europe, from his friends and relatives and even from his pupils.
In 1470, Giovanni paid a visit to Antonello da Messina who was famous for his oil paintings. This style was adopted from the Flemish painter, Jan Van Eyck, which da Messina used for most of his paintings. Hence, when Giovanni met da Messina, he discovered the efficiency of oil painting in adding more depth and brightness than the other styles. And when he returned to Venice, he brought this new technique with him and he continued perfecting his craft over the years.
It was also during this period when Giovanni was hired to work alongside Gentile in the prominent Scuola di San Marco. One of his successful projects in the said school was his execution of Deluge with Noah’s ark, which is now a lost piece of art. Nonetheless, his first few paintings demonstrated how he valued giving attention to detail the most, including his observations of the Venetian landscape. This allowed him to produce very striking, realistic and seemingly alive paintings both in oil and tempera.
Following Giovanni’s 1470’s career stint, he had started working on the Transfiguration (1487) which was one of the first oil on panel paintings. He also worked on a series of altarpieces entitled the Coronation of the Virgin and the one that was dedicated to the Church of S. Giovanni e Paolo, which perished unfortunately in 1867 due to a hideous fire.
Post 1480’s, Giovanni had been working for the Doge’s Palace as a conservator and a painter. He also had the opportunity to work yet another series of commissioned paintings about the wars that took place during the reign of Frederick Barbarossa and the pope during that regime. This was also the period when the Quattrocento style and approach had been slowly wearing off in Venice because of the advent of oil medium introduced primarily by Antonello da Messina in the early 1470’s.
Oil painting allowed painters to blend colors according to the level of gradation and luminosity that they wanted. Thus, the paintings can become more tranquil, light on the eyes and charming. Giovanni’s Madonna and Child (1480), which is now being preserved in Burrell Collection in Glasglow, has a very commanding sweetness into it, that would make you feel in peace.
In the mid-1480 and beyond, Giovanni Bellini had been busy with working in the Hall of the Great Council. Although this work took most times of his day, he was still able to finish the San Giobbe Altarpiece (1487) and the San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505). Both of these paintings depict the Holy Conversation between the Madonna and the Saints, and which dome and overall picture is reminiscent of Byzantine art.
It seemed that for Giovanni, there is no such thing as retirement as he was still a practicing painter and a mentor to his pupils. One of his last works was the Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror (1515), which was also his first nude painting.
Giovanni then had some more collaboration with his students Titian and Giorgione. In 1514, Giovanni and Titian started painting The Feast of the Gods, but the master did not see the completed version of this work in 1529 because he died on November 1516. But apparently, his legacy will be continued by his students who later on became instrumental in establishing the Venetian High Renaissance art.