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Jacopo Bellini

Jacopo Bellini, the father of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini and father-in-law of Mantegna, was born in1400 according to Vasari; circumstantial evidence suggests a slightly earlier date of birth, perhaps in the mid-1390s. He was the son of a tinsmith or pewterer (stagnero) called Niccolò Bellini and his wife Franceschino. Vasari says that he was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, and he described himself as such on a fresco of the Crucifixion at Verona. In 1423-24 a pupil of Gentile (‘Jacopo di Piero of Venice’) was summoned to court in Florence for beating a boy who had thrown stones into his master’s studio, but it has long been disputed whether this is a reference to the young Jacopo Bellini (whose father’s name was not Piero but Niccolò). He is recorded as a painter in April 1424 in his father’s will.

He was commissioned in 1430 to paint a picture of the Archangel Michael for the church of San Michele in Padua. He painted the fresco of the Crucifixion for a chapel in Verona Cathedral in 1436. In Ferrara in 1441 he painted a portrait of Lionello d’Este in competition with Pisanello. In 1459-60 he painted with his two sons the altarpiece of the Gattamelata Chapel in the Santo at Padua. In Venice in the 1450s and 1460s he painted cycles of New Testament scenes for the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista and the Scuola di San Marco. Most of these works are lost, and the twenty or so paintings now associated with him are mainly modern attributions. He died shortly before 5 November 1471, when his wife Anna described herself in her will as a widow.

While Jacopo appears in early biographies (Vasari and Ridolfi) as a painter of large-scale narrative pictures and portraits, his surviving paintings are mainly half-length Madonnas and panels from altarpieces. More important than his paintings are two great ‘sketchbooks’ (British Museum and Louvre). The 229 drawings in these albums are remarkable for their range of subjects (biblical and mythological scenes, studies of buildings, sculptural monuments, statues, antique inscriptions, coins and reliefs, exercises in perspective, a tournament, street scenes, rustic scenes and landscapes, a flower study and a portrait), their elaborate perspective geometry and their imaginative recreation of the classical world. They were a source of many ideas and compositions for his two sons and the young Mantegna.


Bergamo. Accademia Carrara.
Madonna. Wood, 63 x 53.
The Child points to a bird he holds by a string tied to his forefinger. There may originally have been a parapet in the foreground, and the gold-patterned background is much restored. There is evidence that the panel originally had wings. Long ascribed to Gentile da Fabriano, it was first attributed to Jacopo Bellini in 1890 by Giovanni Morelli (Critical Studies). It is probably a very early work (late 1420s or early 1430s?), though the chronology of Jacopo’s production (based essentially on just one dated picture) is highly uncertain. Formerly in the Pinacoteca Borromini-Monti, it was bequeathed to the Accademia Carrara with the collection of Conte Guglielmo Lochis in 1859.

Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
St John the Evangelist; St Peter (each 85 x 24); St Jerome (33 x 24). Wood.
St John reads from his Gospel; St Peter holds a book and two golden keys; and St Jerome holds a model of a church. All three saints were originally shown full-length, standing in shell-topped niches; the St Jerome has been cut down. Three lateral panels from a polyptych; a fourth panel (cut down), representing a female saint with a floral wreath and gold vessel, is in a private collection. Attributed to Jacopo Bellini in 1971 by Francesco Zeri (Diari dei Lavori) as early works (1430-35?). Eisler (1989), who found the handling ‘somewhat coarse’, thought they were studio works. Acquired in 1821 with the Solly collection.

Brescia. Sant’Alessandro.
Annunciation. Wood, 219 x 98 (each panel).
This splendid, richly coloured and well-preserved altarpiece is still in its lavishly gilded original frame. It is thought to have been completed by January 1444 (when a copy of a document records the travel expenses of two friars of Sant’Alessandro, who were to bring back a ‘Nonziata’ from Vicenza). Its authorship was forgotten by the eighteenth century, when guidebooks described it simply as by an ‘ancient hand’. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was ascribed to Fra Angelico, who received payments for an Annunciation for Sant’Alessandro in 1432. The attribution to Jacopo Bellini was first made in 1890 by Giovanni Morelli (Critical Studies). Colin Eisler (1989), who described the picture as the most ‘exquisitely painted’ work ascribed to Jacopo Bellini, suggested that it was started by Gentile da Fabriano, but this idea does not seem to have attracted subsequent support. The predella contains five panels (each 35 x 40) representing scenes from the Life of the Virgin: the Birth of the Virgin; Presentation in the Temple; Visitation; Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore; and Death of the Virgin. Their execution has sometimes been ascribed to an assistant working in Jacopo’s studio.

Ferrara. Pinacoteca Nazionale.
Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 29 x 57.
Much damaged and restored. The composition is closely related to a drawing in Jacopo Bellini’s Paris sketchbook. A panel from a predella, which also included the Crucifixion in the Correr Museum, Venice, and the Christ in Limbo in Padua. It is considered by some to have been designed by Jacopo Bellini but executed by Giovanni as a youthful member of his father’s workshop. The predella has been hypothetically associated (by Colin Eisler in Arte Veneta, 1985) with the altarpiece of the Gattamelata Chapel, formerly in the basilica of the Santo in Padua, which Jacopo and his sons Gentile and Giovanni all signed in 1459 or 1460. (The chapel, the first on the right upon entering the church, was converted into the Chapel of the Sacrament in 1651.) A panel in Washington has also been linked with the altarpiece. Bequeathed by the Vendighini-Baldi family of Ferrara.

Florence. Uffizi.
Madonna. Wood, 69 x 49.
Perhaps the finest of Jacopo Bellini’s half-length Madonnas, and one of the best preserved. The halo and the border of the Virgin’s veil are decorated with kufic writing. Probably a relatively late work of the 1450s or early 1460s. Bought by the Uffizi from a certain A. Menichetti of Lucca in 1905; it is said to have come from the convent of San Michele and Monte Novissimo at Lucca.

Gazzada (near Varese). Museo di Villa Cagnola.
Madonna Enthroned. Wood, 131 x 46.
The Child, standing on the Virgin’s right knee, reaches towards a goldfinch perched on the right arm of the throne and attached by a string to his index finger. The Virgin’s blue mantle is richly patterned in gold. Presumably the centre panel of a large triptych or polyptych. It is now displayed in a nineteenth-century Gothic-revival frame, and is somewhat damaged and restored (especially towards the top edge). From the London collection of the German art historian Jean Paul Richter, who ascribed it to Gentile da Fabriano. The attribution to Jacopo Bellini was made by Guido Cagnola, the new owner, himself (Rassegna d’Arte,1904). It is considered a very early work (about 1430?), much in the International Gothic style of Gentile da Fabriano.

London. British Museum.
London Sketchbook’. Paper, each page about 42 x 34.
The volume contains 198 pages with 134 drawings, nearly all drawn in leadpoint on heavy white paper. An inscription on the first page giving Jacopo Bellini’s name and the date 1430 is not thought to be in Jacopo’s own hand; such a date could only refer to the earliest drawings. Jacopo’s drawing books are mentioned in his wife’s will of 25 November 1471 and were inherited by the eldest son Gentile. The London Sketchbook is believed to be the volume bequeathed by Gentile Bellini to his brother Giovanni in 1507 on condition that Giovanni finish the picture he had begun for the Scuola Grande di San Marco (now in Milan). It is certainly the ‘large book with pages of heavy paper containing drawings of leadpoint done by Jacopo Bellini’ recorded by Marcantonio Michiel in 1530 in the collection of Gabriele Vendramin. It was then largely forgotten until 1840, when its existence was publicized by the German historian Dr Gaye. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1855.

Los Angeles. County Museum of Art.
Madonna. Wood, 69 x 47.
The red roundels in the upper corners contain the first and last Greek letters for ‘Mother’ and for ‘God’. The Virgin’s gold halo is inscribed with the message ‘Hail Mary full of grace; the Lord is with you’, and her shawl has a kufic inscription on the border. Probably a late work (datings range from ‘about 1453’ to ‘about 1465’). The poignant motif of the Virgin and Child embracing cheek to cheek was popular in Byzantine art, but Gentile’s composition was probably also influenced by Donatello’s reliefs. Previously in a private European collection, the painting was bought at an auction at the Maison d’Art in Monaco in 1984 by a New York dealer, and was acquired by the museum the following year.

Lovere (near Brescia). Academia di Belle Arti.
Madonna. Canvas (transferred from panel), 98 x 58.
The Virgin, crowned as Queen of Heaven, supports the Child, who stands on the parapet, naked except for a coral necklace, and makes the sign of benediction. The frontal pose is in the Byzantine tradition, but the feeling for volume shows an awareness of contemporary Florentine art. Signed on the cartellino on the parapet. Datings range from the late 1440s to mid-1460s. From the Monastero di Corpus Domini in Venice; the monastery was closed in 1810 and the picture was sold in 1815 to a collector from Bergamo. It was treated early in the twentieth century by the famous restorer Luigi Cavenaghi, who transferred the paint surface from panel to canvas.

Matelica (60 km southwest of Ancona). Museo Piersanti.
Seven Saints. 
Wood, 29 x 60.
The saints, standing full-length in arched compartments, are all readily identifiable. Bernardino of Siena displays his monogram; the hermit Onuphrius wears his loincloth of leaves; Stephen has a stone embedded in his skull; Bartholomew holds his flaying knife and a model of a castle (said to resemble Matelica); Lawrence has his gridiron; Sebastian is shot with arrows; and Catherine has her wheel and martyr's palm. This small horizontal panel (dossal) came from Matelica Cathedral, where it was placed over the third altar on the left as a predella to the Madonna di Constantinopoli. The Seven Saints and the Madonna were both transferred to the museum in the 1960s. The Seven Saints is thought to be a product of Jacopo Bellini's workshop. It may be about contemporary with the Gattamelata Altarpiece (now dismembered), which Jacopo and his sons Gentile and Giovanni signed in 1459 or 1460. The execution is sometimes ascribed to a very youthful Giovanni Bellini.
Virgin and Child ('Madonna di Constantinopoli'). Wood, 81 x 61.
The Virgin, crowned as Queen of Heaven, supports the Christ Child, who is seated on a cushion on the parapet and raises his hand in blessing. This hieratic image was greatly venerated in Matelica and carried in processions. Attributions have been made to the Marchigian painter Antonio da Fabriano and to the Friulian master Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo. Recent opinion, however, has viewed the Madonna – like the Seven Saints that served as its predella – as a product of Jacopo Bellini's family workshop. The execution is sometimes attributed to the young Gentile Bellini.     

Milan. Brera.
Madonna. Linen mounted on wood, 50 x 45.
The Virgin and Child are represented frontally in an illusionistically painted quatrefoil frame. Jacopo Bellini’s only dated work: a (repainted) Latin inscription on the frame states that ‘in 1448 Bellini produced these forms with his genius’. Discovered in 1912 in the church of the Servites at Rovera di Casalfiumanese, near Imola.

Milan. Museo Poldi Pezzoli.
Madonna. Wood, 70 x 36.
A ‘Madonna of Humility’, with the Virgin seated on a cushion on the ground. The Child’s nakedness may symbolise his sinless and sacrificial nature. Obviously damaged: there are substantial exposed paint losses towards the bottom edge and the surviving paint surface is badly abraded. Sometimes ascribed to Jacopo Bellini’s workshop or circle. Acquired by the museum in 1908 from a P. Poldio of Milan for 2800 lire.

New York. Metropolitan Museum.
Madonna. Wood, 88 x 64.
The paint, particularly on the figure of the Child, is extremely abraded. The fine frame is original (though damaged and heavily restored). The attribution to Jacopo Bellini was published in 1930 (by Lionello Venturi in L’Arte) on the basis of comparisons with the signed Madonnas in the Venice Accademia and at Lovere, and does not appear to have been questioned. Sometimes considered an early work because of the simplicity of the design and the gold background, but late datings have also been proposed. Formerly in the collection of Conte Foresti at Carpi (near Modena). Acquired from a Florentine dealer in 1928 by Jesse Isidor Straus of New York and donated to the Metropolitan Museum by his widow, Irma, in 1959.

Padua. Museo Civico.
Christ in Limbo. Wood, 29 x 58.
There is no Gospel authority for Christ's Descent into Limbo, called the Harrowing of Hell in old English; but it appears in New Testament apocrypha (eg. the Acts of Pilate) and was accepted by the Church from early times. Limbo is represented as a rock-cut tomb filled with Old Testament patriarchs. The penitent Adam kneels to kiss Christ's hand. The Good Thief stands on the left with his cross, surrounded by devils frustrated that they have failed to claim his soul. The composition is closely based on a drawing in the album in the British Museum. From a predella; there are other panels at Ferrara and Venice (Correr Museum). It has been conjectured that the predella belonged to the altarpiece of the Gattamelata Chapel, formerly in the Santo in Padua, which Jacopo and his sons Gentile and Giovanni signed in 1459 or 1460. Donated by Antonio Piazza in 1844.

Paris. Louvre.
Madonna and Child with Donor. Wood, 60 x 40.
The exquisite extended landscape shows four walled cities, with a great range of mountains in the distance. On the left, the Magi ride towards the stable with the Holy Family. The picture was bought by Otto Mündler, the famous German art expert and dealer, in Milan in about 1860. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1873. It was ascribed to Gentile da Fabriano until 1908, when Paul Schubring identified the artist as Jacopo Bellini and the diminutive kneeling donor as Lionello d’Este, the future lord of Ferrara. If the donor is a portrait of Lionello (which is disputed), the picture may date from about 1441, when (according to a sonnet by the bureaucrat and amateur poet Ulisse Aleotti) Jacopo Bellini painted a portrait of the young prince in friendly competition with Pisanello, in emulation of the contests between ancient Greek artists. It has even been suggested that the Louvre picture is Jacopo’s winning competition portrait, but this seems unlikely. It has been suggested that the donor could be one of Lionello’s brothers or half-brothers (perhaps Ugo or Meliaduse). The picture has been dated most often to the early 1440s, though Eisler (1989) places it a decade earlier.
Paris Sketchbook’. Vellum, each page about 43 x 29.
The volume contains 184 pages with 95 drawings, executed mainly in drypoint with pen additions (which may be original). More luxurious than the London Sketchbook, it is thought to be the one presented by Gentile Bellini to Sultan Mehmet II on his mission to Constantinople in 1479-80. It was found in 1728 in Smyrna (Izmir) by Jean Guérin, agent of the French king. It then disappeared again, and was sensationally rediscovered in the attic of the castle of the Marquis de Sabran-Pontevès, near Bordeaux, and acquired by the Louvre in 1884.

Poughkeepsie (New York). Vassar College.
Triptych: St Jerome between SS. Francis and Anthony Abbot. Central panel: 110 x 45; wings: 93 x 28.
The frame is modern. Formerly ascribed to Antonio Vivarini (Berenson’s 1957 Lists) and to ‘a late fifteenth-century Paduan’ (1967 catalogue). Boskovits (1985) attributed it to Jacopo Bellini with a date of about 1450. Eisler (1989) thought it was painted ‘with the help of several assistants’. Given by Charles M. Pratt in 1917. Two other panels of saints (each 86 x 24), only recently discovered, are believed to have belonged to the same polyptych. (These panels, which probably represent St Augustine and St Bernard, were published in 1994 by Everett Fahy in Importants Tableaux.)

Turin. Galleria Sabauda.
Annunciation; Birth of the Virgin. Canvas, 113/112 x 152.
These two damaged canvases were acquired by the museum in 1873 from the heirs of the painter and dealer Natale Schiavoni, who claimed they came from the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. They are thought to have formed part of a cycle of at least a dozen scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and Christ. The cycle is likely to have been painted in Jacopo Bellini's workshop between around 1453 (when the Scuola paid the artist twenty ducats towards a dowry for his daughter Nicolosia's marriage to Andrea Mantegna) and 1465 (when the Scuola paid the artist eight ducats for an unspecified task). The cycle is mentioned briefly by Vasari (1550) and Sansovino (1581). It is described at some length by Ridolfi (1648) – though by this time it had already been replaced by a new cycle painted by Domenico Tintoretto, Andrea Vicentino and Sante Peranda.
Two other canvases from the cycle (the Marriage of the Virgin and Adoration of the Magi) were bought in the early twentieth century by the American author John Jay Chapman and are now with the New York dealer Stanley Moss. A further five canvases (the Meeting at the Golden GateVisitationPresentation of Christ in the TempleChrist among the Doctors; and Wedding at Cana) were once owned by the nineteenth-century Scottish collector William Graham and have been rediscovered recently in a private collection. (See the article by Joseph Hammond in the August 2016 Burlington Magazine.)    
The pictures, executed in tempera on canvas, are very worn and much restored. Their condition has led to doubts about their attribution. For Hammond (op. cit.): 'It is likely that the compositions were produced under Jacopo's supervision, with contributions by him and his son Gentile.' 

Venice. Accademia.
Madonna (no. 582). Wood, 94 x 66.
The Virgin (three-quarter view) supports the curly-headed Child, who is seated on a cushion on the parapet, holding a pear in his left hand and making the sign of benediction with his right. The background consists of numerous cherubs’ heads picked out in gold. Signed on the original Gothic arched frame. The faces are much abraded and restored. The panel came to light in 1789 in the possession of an Abbot Foscarini at Padua and was acquired by the engraver Giovanni Maria Sasso; it had entered the Accademia by 1829. Formerly judged early, but now generally considered a mature work. There are drawings for the cherubs’ heads in the Louvre.
Madonna (no. 835). Wood, 71 x 52.
Jacopo Bellini’s Madonnas are often rather stiff and hieratic, but the figures here are posed with considerable naturalness. The Virgin (three-quarter view) holds a lively Child, who kicks its feet, tugs at the neck of her dress with one hand and reaches up with the other to chuck her under the chin. The picture is much abraded and restored, and it has lost its original frame (the outline of which is still visible in the background). It came from the parish church at Legnara, near Padua, in 1920. Probably a mature work.

Venice. Museo Correr.
Crucifixion. Wood, 29 x 57.
The Three Maries to the left of the cross and St John grieving to the right. One of three surviving panels from a predella; the others are at Ferrara and Padua. Bequeathed to the city of Venice in 1830 with the collection of Teodoro Correr, and said to have come from the convent of San Zaccaria. Previously ascribed to the Paduan School, the attribution to Jacopo Bellini was made by Berenson in his Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894). Sometimes considered a very early work of Giovanni Bellini.

Verona. Castelvecchio.
Crucifixion. Canvas, 297 x 178.
By far the largest of Jacopo Bellini’s surviving pictures. The crucified Christ is shown life-size against a strong blue background (largely repainted). Signed on a cartellino at the foot of the cross. The use of a canvas rather than wooden support suggests that it might have been painted as a processional banner. Discovered in the Bishop’s Palace at Verona and presented to the museum in 1869 by Cardinal Luigi di Canossa. Jacopo Bellini is known to have been active in the city in 1436, when he painted a large and famous fresco (destroyed in 1759) for a chapel in the Cathedral, but this canvas is likely to be considerably later (late 1450s or 1460s).
St Jerome in the Desert. Wood, 95 x 65.
The picture was ascribed to Bona da Ferrara until 1908, when Corrado Ricci attributed it to Jacopo Bellini on the basis of its relationship to drawings in the Paris and London sketchbooks. The animals (including a monkey, birds of prey and two winged dragons) in the craggy landscape seem strangely out of proportion with each other and with the figure of St Jerome. What appears in the far distance to be a statue of a man atop a column is probably a ‘pillar hermit’ (St Simon Stylites?). Poorly preserved, the paint cracked and worn. Possibly a very late work. One of seventeen paintings stolen from the museum in November 2015 and recovered some six months later in May 2016. 

Washington. National Gallery.
SS. Anthony Abbot and Bernardino. Wood, 110 x 57.
St Anthony wears the grey Hospitalers’ habit and holds his crutch and a book. St Bernardino wears the brown Franciscan habit and holds his monogram with the name of Christ. The oddly shaped pink object at the right edge of the panel is thought to be the cover of a sarcophagus. It has been suggested that the panel formed the left wing of the Gattamelata Altarpiece, painted (according to an inscription recorded by a late sixteenth-century writer, Valerio Polidoro) in 1459 or 1460 by Jacopo and his two sons for the condottiere’s funerary chapel, dedicated to St Francis and St Bernardino, in the Santo at Padua. Some critics think that Jacopo was assisted by Gentile in the execution of the panel. Three predella panels (at Ferrara, Padua and Venice) have also been linked with the altarpiece. Sold at Sotheby’s in 1981 as by Carlo Crivelli; the attribution to Jacopo Bellini was made by Miklós Boskovits in 1985. Acquired by the National Gallery in 1990. The panel is badly warped and the paint surface somewhat abraded and retouched.