Gentile Bellini was the eldest son of Jacopo Bellini and Anna Rinversi and born between around 1429. It has generally been believed that Giovanni was his younger brother; however, it has been suggested that Giovanni may have been born illegitimately to another woman resulting from an extra-marital affair or may indeed have been Jacopo’s half-brother. Anna did not include Giovanni in her will made on 25 November 1471, which under Venetian law indicated that Giovanni was not her legitimate son. Giovanni’s birth date has been debated as being between 1425 and 1440, but generally favoured to be 1435. But supposing that Gentile and Giovanni were in fact brothers, their sister Nicolosia and fellow artist, Andrea Mantegna married in 1453.
Gentile was originally more sought after and respected than Giovanni, but history saw that opinion reversed. Jacopo Bellini was himself an artist, and a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, after whom he named his son. Jacopo is best known for two large books, measuring approximately 41cm x 33cm; one, held in the Louvre in Paris, comprises mostly ink on parchment and is bound into a single volume. The other comprises single mounted sheets of high-quality paper with drawings made in lead-point and is held in the British Museum. Both volumes consist of about one hundred double-sided pages of 300 drawings, although approximately thirteen pages are missing from the work held in Paris. They consist of sketches of figures, animals and architectural details and are regarded as completed designs in their own right, and the only known set of comparable drawings from this period. Due to their delicate condition, the bound book cannot bear repeated handling, and the lead-point is susceptible to light damage – neither book is generally available to view. Originally, both volumes were handed down to Gentile and Giovanni, who based much of their work on their father’s concepts.
Gentile and Giovanni were taught by their father, encompassing colour pigments, drawing, tempera and oil painting. It was only in about 1465, when he was in his thirties, that Gentile began working individually. At the time, he was regarded as one of the pre-eminent artists of the day. One of the oldest surviving oil paintings in Venice is his The Blessed Lorenzo Giustinian (1465), tempera on canvas, 221 x 155cm (1445), held in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
Gentile’s Annunciation (c. 1465, tempera on canvas, 133 x 124cm) is held in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This should not be confused with another work of the same name (c. 1500) attributed variously to Domenico Morone, and Giovanni Bellini and finally Gentile Bellini. It comprises two parts, oil on canvas, each part 224 x 105cm. They were made as covers to the organ of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice. The reverse of one door depicted St Peter and the other St Paul, the latter now lost. The remaining works are held in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.
From 1466, Gentile was commissioned to paint numerous works for the Doge’s Palace, but most of these were destroyed in a fire in 1577. In 1469, Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor from 19 March 1452 – 19 August 1493), awarded Gentile the title of Count-Palatine. Five years later, in 1474, Gentile was appointed as the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice. His portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo (1478), tempera on panel, 63 x 46 cm, is held in the Museo Correr in Venice.
Ottoman (Turkish) Sultan Mehmed II (aka Mehmet) (1432-1481) finally overthrew Constantinople (now Istanbul) in May 1453. His conquest meant the end of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern extension of the Roman Empire), which had been a Christian stronghold for over a thousand years. One of Mehmed’s first acts of his conquest was to march on Hagia Sophia, a 4th century Greek Orthodox cathedral, and declare it a mosque.
The downfall of Constantinople was of great consequence to Venice, having been a gateway to Asian and African trade for centuries. The Sultan had long yearned to have his portrait painted by Italian artists, so in a stroke of diplomacy, in September 1479, the Venetian Senate delegated Gentile Bellini to undertake this in Istanbul. Gentile gifted him with a book of his father’s drawings and was to spend almost two years on his mission, which facilitated the exchange of art between Europe and Islam.
The resulting painting, Sultan Mehmed II, was well received by its subject; although Bellini had painted Mehmed in life-like detail, including his hooked nose and receding chin, the Sultan is quoted as saying he “could hardly understand how any mortal could possess the divine skill of imitating nature so vividly”.
An article for Artsy in August 2018 describes the work thus: In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway. Yet Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.
The bottom left-hand corner contains the inscription Victor Orbis’ (Conqueror of the World).
The painting is now in the National Gallery, London, despite being severely overpainted in the 19th century, resulting in a dispute that the original was painted by Gentile.
In light of its accuracy, the portrait and his other sketches of Turkish life and culture were copied many times over; these became coveted possessions, being passed down in families, as well as being used as a source of inspiration in art workshops.
Another important work, Seated Scribe (1479-1481, pen in gouache and gold on paper, 18.2 x 14 x 2.6 cm) is ascribed to Bellini; however, there is a suggestion that it may have been drawn by a Napoleonic court artist, Costanzo da Ferrara. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, where the work is held, describes it as ‘an intimate painting in miniature of a young member of the Ottoman court bent intently over a writing pad. Dressed in a navy velvet caftan woven with gold, the elegant youth wears bright silks at his arms and neck. The generous folds of his turban hold in place a ribbed, red taj – headgear worn in the court milieu of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481), who nurtured a passionate interest in portraiture and particularly in western traditions of the genre’.
Bellini was also commissioned by Mehmet II to create his likeness in a bronze medal; it was sold to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in New York on 31 January 1944, who gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA, in 1957, where it is still held. The casting made in c. 1480 weighs slightly under 175g and measures 9.38cm and has ‘Sovltani F Mohameti Imperatoris Magni’ inscribed around the circumference.
Bellini also created a series of erotic pictures for the Sultan’s harem between 1479-1481, but which have not survived.
An apocryphal story has been told that when Gentile created a painting of the head of St John the Baptist on a salver, the Sultan admired the work but indicated that the neck ‘stretched too far out from the head’. Gentile disagreed, so the Sultan had a slave beheaded in front of him, to demonstrate how the neck indeed retracted once separated from the torso. In horror, Gentile attempted – unsuccessfully – to be released from his contract, fearing a similar fate.
Bellini returned to Italy by November 1480, and the Sultan died a few months later. Venice proclaimed the news with ‘La Grande Aquila è morta!’ (‘The Great Eagle is dead!’) and Europeans generally celebrated. Mehmet’s son, Bayezid II, did not follow his father’s beliefs; he removed Bellini’s works from the palace and disposed of them at the Bazaar, where they were bought by Venetian merchants for a pittance.
Bellini was commissioned with fellow artists Pietro Perugino, Lazzaro Bastiani, Vitore Carpaccio, Giovanni Mansueti and Benedetto Rusconi to complete a series of nine paintings called The Miracles of the Relic of the Cross, for the Sculo Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. Perugino’s work has been lost, but the remainder is now housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia. One of Gentile’s two contributions to the series was the Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco (c. 1496, tempera on canvas, 347 x 770 m). The other was the Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo (c. 1500, tempera on canvas, 323 x 430 cm).
The paintings were commissioned to commemorate a fragment of the True Cross that Philippe de Mézières (1327-1405), Chancellor of the Kingdom of Cyprus and Jerusalem, donated to the confraternity. The series describes the recovery of the relic which fell into the canal during the annual procession. The scenes portray in painstaking detail the crowds and buildings, and the successful retrieval of the relic by Andrea Vendramin, the Doge of Venice and ‘Grand Guardian’ of the brotherhood. Figures portrayed include the Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornarno, as well as Giovanni Gentile and a self-portrait of Gentile himself.
Bellini’s drawing of a Turkish Jannissary (c. 1480, pen and ink on paper, 21.5 x 17.5cm) was acquired by the British Museum in 1824, where it remains. Janissaries, or ‘new soldiers’, were elite corps – troops and bodyguards – probably established in the Ottoman Empire by Murad I (1632-1389). This is comparable to his A Turkish Woman (1480, 214 x 176cm) also held by the British Museum.
His Virgin and Child Enthroned (c. 1485, oil on wood, 121.9 x 82.6cm) incorporates Islamic influence in the prayer rug at Mary’s feet.
Venice’s trade also extended to other partners in North Africa and Levant (the term ‘levante’ was used at the time to describe maritime commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean. Besides Anatolia (Asian Turkey), this included Greece, Syria/ Palestine and Egypt.
The patron saint of Venice, St Mark, was originally from Alexandria in Egypt; his mausoleum, the Basilica of San Marco was built in the Greek Byzantine style in his honour. These ties saw many Greek Christians flee Muslim rule to settle in Italy. As a result of this, Bellini painted the portrait of Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus who was the widow of King James Lusignan II. The painting (c. 1500, oil on wood, 63 x 49cm) is now held in the Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
Gentile’s final work was not completed by him at his death. St Mark Preaching in St. Euphemia’s Square in Alexandria, Egypt (1504-1507, oil on canvas, 3.47m x 7.70m) was commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice. It has been held in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan since 1809, following the Napoleonic wars.
Gentile began the painting in 1504 and probably asked his brother Giovanni to complete it, knowing that he would not be able to do so himself, however, it is likely that Giovanni refused. Gentile then had it included in his will that a collection of his drawings would be inherited by Giovanni only if he completed the work. Giovanni duly received these drawings via the Scuola on 7 March 1507.
It is not evident which portions of the painting were completed by which brother. It is believed that Gentile completed the background and characters on the right-hand side, while Giovanni completed characters in the central and left-hand portion.
Gentile Bellini’s students included Titian, Vittore Carpaccio and Bartolomeo Veneto. In about 1557, Italian author and translator, Lodovico Dolce said that ‘Titian could not bear to follow the dry and laboured manner of Gentile… Because of this, leaving this awkward Gentile, Titian attached himself to Giovanni Bellini: but his style did not entirely please him either and he sought out Giorgione’.
After Giovanni Bellini died, Titian was appointed painter to the Republic of Venice. He was knighted in 1533 and further appointed court painter to Emperor Charles V.
Gentile Bellini died on 23 February 1507 and was interred in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo.