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Giovanni Bellini, like his brother Gentile Bellini, began his career as an assistant in the studio of his father, Jacopo Bellini (c. 1400-70). His early work, executed in tempera, reflected a confluence of Byzantine stiffness and the analytical precision of the Flemish. Soon Bellini trained himself to become one of the early masters in the techniques of oil painting. He was later influenced by Donatello (to whose works he was exposed while executing with his father and brother the Pala Gattamelata for the Church of Sant'Antonio da Padova) and by the work of his sister's husband, Andrea Mantegna.
By 1479 Bellini had succeeded his brother in executing a cycle of great historical scenes for the Chamber of the Grand Council [Maggior Consiglio] in the Doge's Palace. Giovanni Bellini's six or seven canvases in the series, acclaimed as among his masterpieces, were destroyed in the devastating Palace fire of 1577.
The theme of Madonna and Child recurs frequently in Bellini's work. Mariolina Olivari comments in Giovanni Bellini [p. 4], "Bellini's paintings are characterized by a strange, subtle tension that always binds the mother and child in a relationship of profound pathos." One of Bellini's most masterful works is the Madonna and Child enthroned with SS. Peter, Catherine, Luisa and Jerome, painted in 1505 when he was approximately 75 years old. The painting is in the Church of S. Zaccaria. Bellini's late work, however, is characterized by highly naturalistic landscapes.
In 1506 Bellini's brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna died after completing only one of a cycle of four paintings commissioned by Cav. Proc. (later Cardinal) Francesco Cornaro (B-60). Thereupon, Cornaro turned to Bellini to execute, with his studio, The Continence of Scipio, perhaps based on a drawing by Mantegna. (See P. F. Brown, Venice and Antiquity [New Haven, 1996], pp. 252-5.) The painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari noted in 1568 that Giorgio Cornaro (presum. H-4, the nephew of Cardinal Cav. Proc. Francesco) had in his collection at that time another of Giovanni Bellini's paintings, Cena at Emaus; that work, although recorded in an engraving and several derivations by another artist, has not survived.
In The Uffizi: A Guide to the Gallery [Venice: Edizione Storti, 1980, p. 60] Umberto Fortis has noted that "Bellini with his absorption of the achievements of the greatest masters of the age traces the development of Venetian Humanism itself in his own evolution as a painter, to attain a superior, serene autonomy of compositional values."
Bellini trained many younger artists in his workshop, including Giorgione, Titian, Jacopo da Montagna, Rondinello da Ravenna and Benedetto Coda of Ferrara. He was recognized in his own time as the leading painter of his period. Upon visiting Venice in 1506, the German artist Albrecht Durer wrote: "He is the best painter of them all." The prominent writers of his time also joined in his praise, including Pietro Bembo in his verses and Ariosto in Orlando Furioso, Canto 33. In Vasari's words, "There is no lack at Venice of those who endeavored to honor him when dead with sonnets and epigrams, just as he had honored his country when alive."
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