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The Genius of Bellini the Elder

November 26, 1989|Bernard Barryte | Barryte is curator of European art at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. and

Integral to the pleasures of this season are the sumptuous art books with which publishers tempt the holiday shopper. One of the best of this year's treasure trove is THE GENIUS OF JACOPO BELLINI: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (Harry N. Abrams: $195; 496 pp.), an extraordinary achievement for which both author and publisher deserve praise. Colin Eisler offers an extensive, urbane and richly nuanced text that elucidates the 581 high-quality reproductions. Clarifying Jacopo's artistic contributions and providing insight into the context and content of individual works, this lavish volume is an exemplary vehicle for restoring this influential painter to his rightful status among the paramount artists of the early Renaissance.

Though he is generally acknowledged to be the founding father of Venetian Renaissance painting, Jacopo Bellini (c. 1400-c.1470) has been overshadowed by his heirs. The existing literature focuses on his sons, Gentile and Giovanni, and his son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. They exploited Jacopo's legacy so successfully that his work was substantially neglected. Although Jacopo enjoyed the patronage of the church, state, and patricians of Venice, today only about 40 paintings (including one gem recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) are attributed to him in the catalogue raisonne appended to this volume. This situation, combined with the paucity of documents (also published in an Appendix), accounts for the somewhat uneven character and frequent recourse to conjecture in Eisler's introductory survey of Jacopo's 50-year career.

If the paintings provide an insubstantial armature for an overview, remarkable evidence of Jacopo's genius survives in two sketchbooks preserved today in the British Museum, London, and the Louvre in Paris. They are almost unique examples of the portfolios vital to an active quattrocento workshop and their 298 drawings constitute the largest cohesive representation of early Renaissance draughtsmanship. The reader's access to this fragile material has been facilitated by modern technology. The now muted beauty of the leadpoint London drawings has been almost magically revealed by infrared photography; new color photography enhances our appreciation for the exquisite intricacy of the Paris sheets, drawn as they are in a most delicate medium, silverpoint on vellum, with some subsequent ink embellishment.

Considered together, the albums reveal Jacopo's influential fusion of the Byzantine and Gothic traditions prevailing in Venice with the new classicism emerging in Florence. In the Paris book Jacopo "cherishes the wisdom of the panorama and revels in chivalric narrative" whereas the "breakthroughs of the early Renaissance" achieved through an "intense understanding and unrivaled exploration of landscape and cityscape" are revealed in the London volume.

Unlike previous scholars who discuss the drawings chronologically, Eisler examines them thematically, studying Jacopo's successive versions of such traditional subjects as "St. Jerome in the Wilderness" and "St. George and the Dragon." This strategy enables the author to trace the emergence of a new pictorial language in landscape, portraiture, the nude, and architectural rendering while his exegesis of individual images reveals much that is distinctive in Venetian iconography. In addition, Eisler's allusions to social, political, and related artistic developments (e.g., scenography and perspective) can be explored by reference to the extensive footnotes. Suggestive appendices invite further speculation on Jacopo's contribution to manuscript illumination and printmaking.

Though he implies that Jacopo effected a revolution in Venetian painting by harmonizing the Gothic and Classical in altarpieces of humane piety and landscapes that can inspire acts of spiritual or physical courage, Eisler refrains from summarizing the significance of Jacopo's career, and this is perhaps the wisest decision. If specific elements of Jacopo's accomplishment were carried to fruition by Gentile Bellini and Mantegna, the limited surviving work suggests that the full scope of Jacopo's innovative genius may be understood only in the lyrical paintings of Giovanni Bellini.

"The Genius of Jacopo Bellini" will certainly become the standard monograph on this important artist and it is therefore an essential acquisition for libraries. However, because the drawings especially are endlessly fascinating, it is to be regretted that the understandably exorbitant price will inhibit all but the most ardent from having a copy at home for perpetual delectation.

Although no comprehensive catalogue raisonne of the work of Giovanni Bellini (Jacopo's son) has yet appeared in English, Rona Goffen has written a useful new book on this influential Italian artist, a welcome addition to the literature on quattrocento painting.

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