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Gentile Bellini

Son of the painter Jacopo Bellini and brother of Giovanni. His date of birth is sometimes put at 1429 (his mother, Anna Rinversi, made a will that year when pregnant with her first child), but this may be too early. According to Vasari, he was named after Gentile da Fabriano, his father’s master. His early career is obscure, but he was sufficiently famous by 1469 to be knighted by the Emperor Frederick III, who was visiting Venice that year for the carnival. In 1474 the Venetian Senate voted to accept his offer to refurbish the decorations of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace. His cycle of history pictures, painted over many years with Giovanni Bellini among others, was totally destroyed by fire in 1577, as was his series of official portraits of the Doges of Venice.

On 1 August 1479, after the signing of a peace treaty with the Turks, the Venetian Senate received a request from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II for a ‘good painter who knows how to make portraits’. Gentile Bellini was chosen for the task, and left for Constantinople on 3 September, taking two assistants. He stayed about a year, producing 'a great many marvellous paintings of [Mehmet] and almost countless other subjects'. The Sultan rewarded him with another knighthood and a gold chain weighing 250 crowns. Almost all the paintings he did in Constantinople are lost. His portrait medal of the Sultan and some drawings survive.

Though presumably trained by his father, his earliest pictures, like his brother Giovanni’s, show evidence of Mantegna’s influence. His style remained linear and rather dry. His major surviving works are large narrative canvases painted for the scuole (charitable lay confraternities) of Venice, which are full of portraits and picturesque views of the city. Most of his independent portraits are profiles. He died on 23 February 1507 (at the age of ‘nearly eighty’ according to Vasari) and was buried in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.



Bergamo. Accademia Carrara.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 20 x 14.
The man, dressed in a red tunic and black headscarf, is shown in profile against a light blue background. The attribution, made by Berenson (1936 and 1957 Lists), has sometimes been doubted, but was accepted by Jürg Meyer zur Capellen in his 1985 German monograph on Gentile Bellini. From the collection of Conte Giacomo Carrara, bequeathed to the city of Bergamo in 1796.

Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
Madonna and Donors. Wood, 75 x 46.
The Child holds a pomegranate and blesses the two donors, a nobleman and lady, who are portrayed bust-length in profile. Gentile’s name is inscribed on the bottom of the (original?) frame, but the authenticity of the signature has occasionally been questioned. Probably a very early work, possibly dating from the 1450s. Acquired in 1821 with the Solly collection.

Berlin. Kuperferstichkabinett.
Self-Portrait(?). 
Paper, 23 x 19.
This fine charcoal portrait shows a middle-aged Venetian citizen, bust-length and three-quarter view, wearing a round cap (beretta) and with a sash (stola) draped over his right shoulder. The identification of the man portrayed as Gentile Bellini was first proposed in 1898 by the German art historian Georg Gronau, who observed a resemblance with the portrait medal of Gentile cast by Vettor di Antonio Gambello (called Camelio). The same man seems to be portrayed among the bystanders in Gentile's huge 1496 canvas of the Procession in the Piazza San Marco (Accademia, Venice). (He appears to the left of the processional canopy.) The attribution of the drawing has oscillated between Gentile (as a self-portrait) and Giovanni Bellini (as a portrait of his brother). It has been carefully pricked for transfer, suggesting it was used as a cartoon for a painted portrait. It was one of almost 3,500 sheets of drawings acquired by the museum in 1902 with the collection of the Berlin silk merchant Adolf von Berkerath. 

Boston. Gardner Museum.
A Turkish Scribe. Pen and gouache on parchment, 18 x 14.
The vertical Arabic inscription has been translated as: ‘work of Ibn Muezzin who was a famous painter among the Franks’. It has been suggested that ‘Ibn Muezzin’ (‘son of the caller-to-prayer’) may be a mistranslation of the name Bellini. Gentile could have made the pen drawing in 1479-80 at the Turkish court, and worked it up in watercolour for the Sultan. An alternative attribution was made in 1980 (by Maria Andaloro and Julian Raby) to the shadowy Costanzo da Ferrara (or di Moysis) on the grounds that ‘Muezzin’ could be a garbled rendering of ‘Moysis’, Costanzo’s father’s name. Costanzo made two medals of Mehmet, but no paintings by him are known. The attribution to Gentile Bellini was upheld by Meyer zur Capellen (in his 1985 German monograph on the artist) and by Caroline Campbell and David Chong (in the catalogue of the 2006 exhibition Bellini and the East at Boston and London); but the issue has not been settled. The sheet came from an album of European engravings and Oriental paintings compiled in Persia in 1544-45 for Bahram Mirza (a son of the Shah). It was acquired in Istanbul in about 1905 by Frederick Martin (who attributed it to Gentile Bellini in an article in the Burlington Magazine). Purchased from Martin by Mrs Gardner in 1907 for £1,500 through the agency of the society portraitist Anders Zorn.

Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
Portrait of Doge (Pasquale Malipiero?). Wood, 53 x 43.
The Doge is shown bust-length and in profile, wearing the cape and horned cap of his ceremonial dress. The design on the cape is almost completely effaced and gold leaf has disappeared from the cap, but the profile and the modelling of the face appear to be in good condition. The Doge has been tentatively identified as Pasquale Malipiero, whose portrait appears on a bronze medal cast by Pietro da Fano and on the tomb monument sculpted by Pietro Lombardo in Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Malipiero was made doge in 1457 and died in 1462. The portrait is unlikely to have been painted from life; it might have been based on the medal or on an earlier portrait. Probably acquired in Paris in the 1860s or 1870s by Thomas Buckminister Curtis of Boston. His daughter-on-law donated it in 1936 to the Morgan Memorial Co-operative, which sold it the same year to the museum for $20,000.

Budapest. Museum of Fine Arts.
Portrait of Caterina Cornaro. Wood, 63 x 49.
The Latin inscription (possibly in Gentile’s own hand) in the upper left corner states: ‘I am of the race of the Corneli and bear the name of the Virgin whom Sinai buries [ie. St Catherine of Alexandria]. The Venetian Senate calls me daughter and I have been the servant of the thrones of the nine kingdoms of Cyprus. What I am you may see. But the hand of Gentile Bellini the elder portrayed me in this small panel.’ Caterina Cornaro (1454-1510) ruled Cyprus from 1474, when her husband James II of Lusignan died, until 1489, when she was forced to concede the kingdom to Venice. She was given in compensation the little township of Asolo (near Treviso), where she lived for the next twenty years. In Gentile’s portrait she is dressed regally, with a jewelled coronet, transparent veils over her face and a costume adorned with gold, rubies and pearls. However, the portrait suggests that her reputation as a great beauty was inflated. It could conceivably be the one of Caterina mentioned by Vasari, which he ascribes to Jacopo Bellini. From the collection of János László Pyrker, Patriarch of Aquileia, which he bequeathed to the museum in 1836. The portrait was restored at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, for an exhibition, The Renaissance Portrait, held there in 2011-12. Discoloured repaint was removed and splits in the panel (which had been drastically thinned in the late nineteenth century) were treated. 

Feltre. Pinacoteca.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 12 x 9.
The man, dressed as a prelate, is shown in profile against a bright blue background. The tiny panel came to the museum in 1845 from the collection of a Signore Dei. The attribution to Gentile Bellini was made in 1925 by Giuseppe Fiocco in the Italian journal Dedalo. It appears to have been rather little discussed, but was accepted by Meyer zur Capellen in his 1985 monograph on the artist.

London. National Gallery.
Virgin and Child Enthroned. Wood, 122 x 83.
The Virgin is represented as Queen of Heaven, wearing a crown and a robe of red and gold brocade and seated on a huge throne of inlaid marble. The Child, standing on her left knee, holds a pomegranate, symbol of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Much restored: the faces in particular preserve little of their original character. The use of EQVITIS in the signature indicates a date after 1469 when Gentile was knighted. Nevertheless, the picture might be a comparatively early work (1470s or early 1480s). It has been suggested that it was the central panel of a polyptych mentioned by early writers as painted by Gentile for the Mercer’s Guild in Venice, but there is no definite evidence for this. It was acquired in Venice by Sir Charles Eastlake around 1860 and bought from his widow in 1894 by Ludwig Mond, who bequeathed his collection to the National Gallery in 1924.
Cardinal Bessarion with His Reliquary. Wood, 102 x 37.
The panel formed the door of a reliquary tabernacle. (There were keyholes, now filled in, on the right.) Cardinal Johannes Bessarion gave the reliquary, which held two fragments of the True Cross, to the Scuola della Carità in Venice in 1472. He is shown in profile (with a conspicuously bulbous nose) praying before the reliquary, while two white-robed members of the Scuola stand on the right. The tabernacle was dismantled in 1744, when a new Baroque altar was commissioned for the reliquary. By 1821 the panel was in the collection of Emperor Francis I of Austria. During the Second War World, it was seized by the Nazis with the collection of Serena Lederer of Vienna. In 1950 it was given by Erich Lederer to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but it was returned to his heirs and sold at Christie’s in 2001. Acquired by the National Gallery in 2002. The reliquary remains in the Scuola’s meeting room (now incorporated into the Accademia).
Sultan Mehmet II. Canvas (possibly transferred from panel), 70 x 52.
Mehmet II (1432-81) conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He is shown, almost in profile, under an illusionistic classical arch and behind a parapet covered with a bejewelled cloth. The three gold crowns on either side may refer to his three realms of Greece, Trebizond and Asia. Though often reproduced in art and history books, the portrait is usually consigned to the reserve galleries because of its poor condition. It is almost entirely repainted, and the inscription (bottom left corner) giving the names of Gentile Bellini and Mehmet is not original. An older inscription (bottom right corner) gives the date 25 November 1480. This date – if correct – suggests that the portrait was painted during Gentile’s diplomatic mission to Constantinople in 1479-80. After Mehmet’s death in 1481, all Gentile Bellini’s Turkish paintings were reportedly sold in the bazaar, where they were acquired by Venetians. The portrait was picked up in Venice by Henry Layard in 1865 from a man whose father, an English contractor, had obtained it from the Venturi family to meet a debt. He had it ‘restored’ by Giuseppe Molteni, and exhibited it in his palazzo (Ca’ Capello) on the Grand Canal. After Lady Layard’s death in 1912, his pictures became the property of the British Government.
A small variant of the National Gallery portrait (in which the head is very similar but Mehmet is glancing over his left shoulder) was included in the exhibition Venice and the Islamic World held in Paris and New York in 2006-7. It  was subsequently sold at Sotheby's in October 2007 as the work of a 'follower of Gentile Bellini'.
A double portrait, sold at Sotheby's in July 2015 with an attribution to Gentile Bellini's workshop, shows Mehmet very much as in the National Gallery picture. He faces a young turbaned man (identified by an old inscription as his son).
Portrait of a Man (Giovanni Bellini?). Canvas, 69 x 59.
Morelli (1885) suggested that the sitter, who holds a pair of compasses or dividers, might be Gerolamo Malatini, who taught perspective to Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Cecil Gould (1969) suggested, on the grounds of a resemblance to a profile drawing at Chantilly by Vittore Belliniano, that he might be Giovanni Bellini. The picture, which is very worn and restored, is first recorded, as a portrait of an architect by Gentile Bellini, in Conte Lechi’s collection at Brescia. It was purchased by the National Gallery from Jean Paul Richter, the German connoisseur, in 1886. The attribution has often been doubted (eg. by Meyer zur Capellen in his 1985 monograph), but has been retained by the gallery.
Doge Niccolò Marcello. Wood, 62 x 45.
The sitter’s name and the date 1474 are given in an (eighteenth-century?) inscription on the back. Niccolò Marcello was Doge in 1473-74. Catalogued for many years as a school picture; but pentimenti (in particular, the nose has been increased in size) suggest that it might conceivably be an original portrait from life rather than a copy. Bequeathed with the Layard collection in 1916. There is a similar portrait in the Vatican Gallery.

London. British Museum.
Portrait Medal of Mehmet II. 
Bronze, 9.5 in dia.
The obverse of the medal shows a bust of Mehmet in profile, while the reverse shows the three crowns of his empire (Constantinople, Iconium and Trebizond) and bears Gentile Bellini's signature. Although Bellini's name alone appears on the medal, it is likely that he was only responsible for the design and that the casting was done by the sculptor Bartolomeo Bellano, a Paduan student of Donatello, who accompanied the painter to Constantinople in 1479-80. There are some fifteen surviving examples of the medal. Other museums with one include the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Ashmolean (Oxford), the Museo Correr and Ca d'Oro (Venice) and the National Gallery of Art (Washington).   

Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Annunciation. Wood, 133 x 124.
The Virgin receives the news in a splendid Renaissance portico, while the Angel kneels outside in a narrow street that leads to an arcaded square. On the cartellino at the bottom of the picture, the word OPUS is well preserved but the artist’s name has disappeared (or was never added). The picture came from a private collection in London, where it was ascribed at first to the Veronese painter Domenico Morone. An attribution to Gentile Bellini, as an early work, seems to have been first suggested (orally) in 1929 by Roberto Longhi, and has been adopted by the Thyssen-Bornesmisza collection ever since it acquired the picture in 1937. Other attributions have been made: Philip Hendy lent towards Giovanni Bellini at one time, Berenson (1957 Lists) proposed Jacopo da Montagnana (a minor Paduan follower of Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini) and Heinemann (1977) suggested Lazzaro Bastiani.

Milan. Brera.
St Mark Preaching in Alexandria. Canvas, 347 x 770.
The domed building in the background, while resembling the Basilica of St Mark’s, is intended to be the Temple of Serapis. The exotic costumes, obelisk with hieroglyphs, camels and giraffe attempt to evoke the Islamic Near East. This huge canvas was begun in about 1504 by Gentile and left unfinished at his death in 1507. Gentile left his ‘beloved brother Giovanni’ his book of their father’s drawings on condition that he finish the picture, a condition that Giovanni duly fulfilled. Gentile included a self-portrait among the group of Venetians in official togas in the left background, wearing the gold chain presented to him by Mehmet II. The overall composition was Gentile’s, and Giovanni’s contribution seems to have been limited chiefly to finishing figures in the foreground and buildings at the sides. The figure of St Mark, painted by Giovanni, seems to have been derived from mosaic representations of the saint in the Basilica of St Mark’s. The picture originally hung in the albergo (meeting room) of the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Campo San Zanipolo at Venice, and was part of a cycle which also included St Mark baptising St Annianus by Giovanni Mansuetti (also in the Brera) and the Martyrdom of St Mark by Giovanni Bellini and his pupil Vittore Bellianiano (which is still in Venice). The St Mark Preaching was removed to the Brera in 1808 after Napoleon closed the Venetian scuole.

New York. Frick Collection.
Doge Giovanni Mocenigo. Wood, 65 x 48.
On the basis of an inscription (now painted over as false), the sitter was once thought to be Andrea Vendramin (Doge from 1476 to 1478). He has been convincingly identified as Giovanni Mocenigo (who succeeded Andrea Vendramin as Doge in 1478 and died in 1485) on the evidence of other known portraits of him (eg. those in the Correr Museum, Venice, on the frieze of Doges in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Doge’s Palace, and on a medal). In the early nineteenth century, the picture was in the collection of William Beckford of Bath; it was sold in 1845 for 63 guineas to a J. L. Strothert (also of Bath), whose son sold it in 1926 to Langton Douglas, who sold it on to Frick the same year. Well preserved.

Rome. Pinacoteca Capitolina.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 32 x 25.
The elderly man, dressed in a purple tunic and black headscarf, is shown in profile against a dark blue background. Among the pictures acquired by Pope Benedict XIV in 1750 from the Pio da Carpi family. An attribution to ‘Gentile Bellini or his workshop’ seems to have been suggested first by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in their History of Painting in North Italy (1871). Other suggestions (eg. Uccello, Pisanello and Jacopo Bellini) followed; but a number of more recent writers (including Meyer zur Capellen in his 1985 monograph) have supported the Gentile Bellini attribution.

San Francisco. Young Memorial Museum.
Doge Leonardo Loredan. Parchment on panel, 33 x 26.
This small formal profile portrait probably dates from about 1501, when Loredan was elected Doge at the age of sixty-five. It may have been a sketch from life, from which larger official versions were made. Acquired in 1950.

Trogir (Traù in Croatia). Pinakoteka (San Giovanni Battista).
St Jerome; St John the Baptist. 
Canvas, each 151 x 106.
Two full-length, life-size figures. They decorated the shutters of the organ in Trogir Cathedral. The organ was built in 1484 by Fra Urbano – a noted Venetian organ-maker, who also built an instrument for St Mark's Basilica. The two canvases, previously given to Carpaccio, were attributed to Gentile Bellini by Van Marle (1936) and Berenson (1957).  

Venice. Accademia.
Beato Lorenzo Giustiniani. Canvas, 221 x 155.
Lorenzo Giustiniani (1381-1456), an Augustinian of patrician birth, was Bishop of Venice and became the first Patriarch of the city in 1451. He is shown full-length, aged and haggard, his right hand raised in blessing and his left arm cradling a book. He is flanked by two kneeling monks, while two angels stand in the background, one holding a bishop’s mitre and the other a cross on a long staff. The picture was originally a processional standard and is much damaged and frequently repainted. It was painted just nine years after Giustiniani’s death and is Gentile’s earliest securely dated work (1465). The likeness was probably based on a figure executed by Jacopo Bellini for Giustiniani’s tomb in San Pietro in Castello. From the Venetian church of the Madonna dell’Orto, which had been taken over by a religious order – the secular canons of San Giorgio in Alga – that Giustiniani had founded. Transferred to the Accademia in 1852. Restored in 2005.
Procession in the Piazza San Marco. Canvas, 367 x 745.
White-robed members of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista carry their venerated relic of the True Cross across a crowded St Mark’s Square. A specific event is illustrated that took place some fifty years earlier. On St Mark’s Day, 25 April 1444, a merchant of Brescia, Jacopo de’ Salis (to the right, dressed in red), whose son lay dying, prayed to the relic, and the boy was miraculously cured. The painting provides a meticulous record of the appearance of the Square at the end of the fifteenth century. St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the base of the Campanile all look much as they do today (though only one of the original Byzantine mosaics on the Basilica’s façade – that on the far left, over the Portal of Sant’Alipio – still survives.) The painting is signed and dated 1496. It is the earliest of three large canvases that Gentile contributed to a cycle of nine or ten paintings, illustrating miracles attributed to the relic of the True Cross, which decorated the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista. It occupied almost the entire width of the west (entrance) wall of the room. Along the bottom edge, two large cuts for doorways have been filled with canvas inserts. Gentile’s two other canvases for the room are also in the Accademia, as are five by other painters – Giovanni Mansueti (two), Vittore Carpaccio, Lazzaro Bastiani and Benedetto Diana. One or possibly two pictures – by Perugino and/or Marescalco (Giovanni Buonconsiglio) – are lost. The golden reliquary shown in the paintings, which had been given to the Scuola in 1369 by Philippe de Maizières, Cancelliere of the Kingdom of Cyprus, is still preserved in the Scuola’s chapel on the Rio Marin.
Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo. Canvas, 323 x 430.
This painting illustrates an event that is said to have taken place shortly after the relic of the True Christ had been given to the Scuola in 1369. During the annual procession to the church of San Lorenzo, the reliquary fell from the bridge into the canal, but remained miraculously suspended above the water until Andrea Vendramin, Grand Guardian of the Scuola, was privileged to jump in and rescue it. In the group of gentlemen kneeling to the right, Gentile is said to have included portraits of himself and his brother Giovanni, while to the left is Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, wearing her crown. Signed and dated 1500, and the second of the canvases painted by Gentile for the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola. It hung in the middle of the north wall, between Lazzaro Bastiani’s Donation of the Relic and Giovanni Mansueti’s Miracle in Campo San Lio.
The Miraculous Healing of Pietro dei Ludovici. Canvas, 369 x 259.
Pietro dei Ludovici is cured of a fever by touching a candle sanctified by contact with the relic of the True Cross. The scene takes place in the chapel of the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista with the brethren in their black and crimson robes in the foreground. Signed. Probably completed in 1501, and the last of the three canvases painted by Gentile for the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola. It hung on the south wall, between Giovanni Mansueti’s Healing of the Daughter of Benvegnudo da San Polo and Benedetto Diana’s Healing of the Son of Alvise Finetti.

Venice. Museo Correr.
Doge Giovanni Mocenigo. Wood, 62 x 46.
The sitter is shown in pure profile, as in other surviving ducal portraits by (or attributed to) Gentile. His identification as Giovanni Mocenigo is confirmed by medals and by his tomb portrait by Tullio Lombardo in Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The portrait may have been painted shortly after he became Doge at the age of 70 in 1478, and shortly before Gentile’s visit to Constantinople in 1479. It was exhibited for many years as a work of Giovanni Bellini and then given for a time to Lazzaro Bastiani. It was reattributed to Gentile Bellini in the early 1950s, after dark overpaint had been removed by cleaning. It appears to be unfinished. From the collection bequeathed to the city of Venice in 1830 by Teodoro Correr.
Doge Leonardo Loredan. Wood, 67 x 51.
Leonardo Loredan, the subject of the famous portrait by Giovanni Bellini in the London National Gallery, was Doge from 1501 to 1521. He is shown here in profile, wearing his familar Doge's cap (corno ducale) and a cape of cloth-of-gold with red arabesques. Through the window is a view of the Venetian lagoon, with the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore clearly identifiable. There are several almost identical versions of this portrait. (One at Bergamo has been attributed to Carpaccio; one at Dresden was destroyed in 1945; and there are others at San Francisco and elsewhere.) Until recently, the Correr's version was generally considered a copy (or even a nineteenth-century fake), and it was kept in storage, obscured by a thick layer of yellowed varnish. Following restoration and technical analysis in 2003, the museum concluded that the painting was an authentic early sixteenth-century work. However, specific attribution remains difficult and, since 2003, the portrait has been variously ascribed in museum publications and releases to Gentile Bellini, the School of Giovanni Bellini and Carpaccio.

Venice. Seminario Patriarcale.
Portrait of Beato Lorenzo Giustiniani. 
Wood, 52 x 38.
This striking profile portrait nearly replicates – bust-length – the posthumous image of the Beato Lorenzo Giustiniani blessing on the processional banner painted by Gentile Bellini in 1465 for the church of the Madonna dell'Orto (now in the Accademia). Donated to the Seminario in 1909 or 1913. After a restoration in 2006, it was catalogued by the gallery as 'attributed to Gentile Bellini'. There are several other versions, including one – slightly smaller and without the blessing right hand – in the National Museum at Warsaw.    

Venice. San Marco Museum.
Organ Shutters. Canvas, each 430/33 x 211.
These four large canvases formed the double-sided doors of the organ in the Chiesetta di San Teodoro, next to the sacristy in San Mark’s Basilica. The huge standing figures of St Mark and St Theodore were on the outside of the doors, and the scenes of St Jerome in Penitence and St Francis receiving the Stigmata were on the inside. Early works, signed and once dated 1464 (according to Crowe and Cavalcaselle). Mantegna’s influence is very apparent (eg. in the foreshortened arches with swags of fruit in the St Mark and St Theodore and in the fantastical rock formations in the backgrounds of the St Jerome and St Francis). Formerly displayed in the little church of San Basso, near St Mark’s Basilica. Restored in 2007-9.