The Early Renaissance

(Renaissance  Art Map)


Della Robbia

Giovanni Bellini



The great Flemish masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, with its principal panel of the Adoration of the Lamb, was placed in the cathedral of St Bavo in Ghent in 1432. It was begun by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan, after his death in 1426. The outer panels depict the Annunciation and the donors and John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The central panel depict biblical scenes, groups of angels, processions of the blessed, and Adam and Eve. The theme is the Redemption and the story of mankind, with the lamb as an Eucharistic and apocalyptic symbol. The Gothic city depicted in the background is the Holy City of Jerusalem, under the guise of a typical Flemish urban centre. The vibrant and diverse colours, the wholly accurate details and. above all, the analytical naturalism that captures the most distant detail as clearly as the objects in the foreground, are all outstanding. The altarpiece can be seen as heralding the beginning of the Flemish Renaissance in painting, the result of a growing mutual assimilation of ideas. Regional styles were interacting along traditional lines of communication dictated by trade and history. in both directions from the Lower Rhine to Tuscany, from Paris to Rome, and from Seville to Naples and Palermo. Out of all these influences, a single "Renaissance" stvle was born.


Hubert and Jan van Eyck
The Ghent Altarpiece
(wings open)
Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent


See COLLECTION:  Della Robbia

The Della Robbia Family

Luca della Robbia (c.1400-82), his nephew Andrea (1435-1525), and Andrea's son Giovanni (1469-1529) and great-nephew of Luca della Robbia Girolamo (1488-1566) were the key members of this Florentine family of sculptors, particularly renowned for glazed terracottas with splendid white, blue, yellow, green, and brown enamel. Much admired until the 19th century, their work has not enjoyed much critical acclaim since. Luca, whose art can be compared to that of Ghiberti, created works full of expressive vigour, including the Visitation in San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia and the tondi (roundels) showing the Apostles and the Evangelists in the Pazzi chapel in Florence. Giovanni created the Opere di Misericordia for the frieze for the Ceppo Hospital in Pistoia.

Luca della Robbia
Madonna and Child
Orsanmichele, Florence

Hubert and Jan van Eyck
The Ghent Altarpiece: Adam

Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Hubert and Jan van Eyck
The Ghent Altarpiece: Eve

Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent



Hubert and Jan van Eyck
The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent






Little is known of the early works of Rogier van der Weyden, and any evaluation of him as an artist is usually based on the few works attributed to him, including the Last Judgment (1444-48), commissioned for the Hotel Dieu of Beaune in Burgundy. It is a large, ambitious work on nine panels, vividly depicting the judgment of anguished souls. The painting that is generally considered his masterpiece is The Deposition (1440). This work is quite unlike that of his teachers Campin and van Eyck; it is far more powerful and emotive, with the grief and the tears on the faces of the mourners portrayed in meticulous detail. An extremely influential artist, by the mid- 15th century, van der Weyden had established a busy workshop and enjoyed an international reputation. His technical skill and self-confidence led to his ability to take on commissions of a monumental scale. He was known and visited by many Italian artists, and ideas and techniques were exchanged between them. References to him are found in the De Icona by the Italian humanist theologian Nicholas of Cusa.


Rogier van der Weyden
The Last Judgment Polyptych





Little is known about Antonello da Messina's life, but his familiarity with the work of Piero della Francesca and the time he spent in Venice in 1475 are established facts. From an early age, Antonello acquired a clear and disciplined sense of spatial values, as can be seen in his geometric background design. The Venetian scenery heightened his lively sense of colour, adding an intense and mystical nature to his later painting of the lagoon at Venice. This search for inner truth made Antonello one of the greatest portraitists of all time. He had contact with Flemish painting, firstly during his training in the Neapolitan studio of the court painter Colantonio. Among the Venetians encouraged to follow in his footsteps were, most notably. Giorgione (1477-1510) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516). In creating his work Transfiguration, Giovanni abruptly abandoned the sharp, precise style of his brother Gentile and his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna that he had earlier employed. In his liberal use of colour and his mastery of half-light, Giovanni succeeded in expressing his feelings on the mysteries of creation and the natural world.


See also COLLECTION: Giovanni Bellini

Giovanni Bellini

born c. 1430, , Venice [Italy]
died 1516, Venice

Italian painter who made Venice a centre of Renaissance art comparable to Florence and Rome. Although the paintings for the hall of the Great Council in Venice, considered his greatest works, were destroyed by fire in 1577, a large number of altarpieces (such asthat in the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice) and other extant works show a steady but adventurous evolution from purely religious, narrative emphasis to a new naturalism of setting and landscape.

Little is known about Bellini's family. His father, Jacopo, a painter, was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, one of the leading painters of the 15th-century Gothic revival, and may have followed him to Florence. In any case, Jacopo introduced the principles of the Florentine Renaissance to Venice before either of his sons. Apart from his sons Gentile and Giovanni, he had at least one daughter, Niccolosa, who married the painter Andrea Mantegna in 1453. Both sons probably began as assistants in their father's workshop.

Giovanni's earliest independent paintings were more strongly influenced by the severe manner of the Paduan school, and especially of his brother-in-law, Mantegna, than they were by the graceful style of Jacopo. This influence is evident even after Mantegna left for the court of Mantua in 1460. Giovanni's earliest works date from before this period. They include a “Crucifixion,” a “Transfiguration,” anda “Dead Christ Supported by Angels.” Several pictures of the same or earlier date are in the United States and others at the Museo Civico Correr in Venice. Four triptychs, a set of three panels used as an altarpiece, are still in the Venice Accademia, and two “Pietąs,” both in Milan, are all from this early period. His early work is well exemplified in two beautiful paintings now in the National Gallery of London, “The Blood of the Redeemer” and “The Agony in the Garden.”

In all his early pictures he worked with tempera, combining the severity and rigidity of the Paduan school with a depth ofreligious feeling and human pathos all his own. His early Madonnas, following in his father's tradition, are mostly sweet in expression, but he substituted for a mainly decorative richness one drawn more from a sensuous observation of nature. Although the pronounced linear element—i.e., the dominance of line rather than mass as a means of defining form, derived from the Florentine traditionand from the precocious Mantegna—is evident in the paintings, the line is less self-conscious than Mantegna's work, and, from the first, broadly sculptured planes offer their surfaces to the light from a dramatically brilliant sky. From the beginning Giovanni Bellini was a painter of natural light, as were Masaccio, the founder of Renaissance painting, and Piero della Francesca, its greatest practitioner at that time. In these earliest pictures the sky is apt to be reflected behind the figures in streaks of water making horizontal lines in a mere strip of landscape. In “The Agony in the Garden,” the horizon moves up, and a deep, wide landscape encloses the figures, to play an equal part in expressing the drama of the scene. As with the dramatis personae, the elaborately linear structure of the landscape provides much of the expression, but an even greater part is played by the colours of the dawn, in their full brilliance and in the reflected light within the shadow. This is the first of a great series of Venetian landscape scenes that was to develop continuously for a century or more. To a city surrounded by water, the emotional value of landscape was now fully revealed.

The great composite altarpiece with St. Vincent Ferrer, which is still in the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, was painted perhaps 10 years later, toward the mid-1470s. But the principles of composition and the method of painting hadnot yet changed essentially; they had merely grown strongerin expression. It seems to have been during a voyage down the Adriatic coast, made probably not long afterward, that Bellini encountered the influence that must have helped him most toward his full development: that of Piero della Francesca. Bellini's great “Coronation of the Virgin” at Pesaro, the first Venetian picture in the full style of the Renaissance, probably reflects and carries still further in composition the ideas expressed by Piero in an unrecorded “Coronation of the Virgin,” the lost centrepiece of a polyptych originally in the church of S. Agostino at Borgo Sansepolcro. Christ's crowning of his Mother beneath the effulgence of the Holy Ghost is a solemn act of consecration,and the four saints who stand witness beside the throne are characterized by their deep humanity. Every quality of their forms is fully realized: every aspect of their bodies, the textures of their garments, and the objects that they hold. Aswith work by Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, the perspective and the polychrome of pavement and throne help to establish the group in space, and the space is enlarged by the great hills behind and rendered infinite by the luminosity of the sky, which envelops the scene and gathers all the forms together into one. Harmony is the aim of all art, but the significance of the harmony depends upon the significance of its parts, as well as upon the degree of its intensity. Here, Bellini has provided humanity with the full grandeur of nature, and it is nature endowed with all that is religious in man. The unity achieved has an emotional warmth that is uniquely his.

A new degree of technical achievement is implied. The fact that at this point Giovanni painted mainly in oil does not completely explain his greatness. Piero was one of many Italian painters who were already using the oil medium. A legend that Giovanni ceased to paint in tempera only after he was introduced to oils by Antonello da Messina, who was in Venice in 1475/76, is without point, for much the same effects can be produced in either medium.

It is the way of using the medium that makes the difference—and that depends upon the painter's intentions and upon his vision. It was Bellini's richer and wider vision that determined his future development. Oil paint is inclined to be the more transparent and fusible and therefore lends itself to richer colour and tone by allowing a further degree ofglazing, the laying of one translucent layer of colour over another. It is this technique and the unprecedented variety with which he handled the oil paint that gives his fully mature painting the richness associated with the Venetian school.

Giovanni's brother Gentile was chosen by the government to continue the painting of great historical scenes in the hall of the Great Council in Venice; but in 1479, when Gentile wassent on a mission to Constantinople, Giovanni took his place. From that time to 1480 much of Giovanni's time and energy was devoted to fulfilling his duties as conservator of the paintings in the hall, as well as painting six or seven new canvases himself. These were his greatest works, but they were destroyed when the huge hall was gutted by fire in 1577. We can now only gain an approximate idea of their design from “The Martyrdom of St. Mark” in the Scuola di S. Marco in Venice, finished and signed by one of Giovanni's assistants, and of their execution from Giovanni's completion of Gentile's “St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria” after his brother's death in Venice in 1507.

Yet a surprisingly large number of big altarpieces and comparatively portable works have survived and show the steady but adventurous evolution of his work. The principles and the technique of the Pesaro altarpiece find their full development in the still larger Madonna altarpiece from S. Giobbe in the Venice Accademia, where the Virgin enthronedin a great apse and the saints beside her seem ready to melt into the reflected light. This seems to have been painted before the earliest of his dated pictures, the half-length “Madonna degli Alberetti,” also in the Venice Accademia, of 1487.

While for the first 20 years of Giovanni's career the subject matter was limited mainly to Madonnas, Pietąs, and Crucifixions, toward the end of the century it began to be greatly enriched not so much by the wider choice of subjects, which were still mainly religious, as by the development of the mise-en-scčne, the physical setting of the picture. He became one of the greatest of landscape painters. His study of outdoor light was such that one can deduce not only the season depicted but almost the hour of the day.

Bellini also excelled as a painter of ideal scenes; i.e., scenes of primeval as opposed to individualized images. For the “St. Francis in Ecstasy” of the Frick Collection or the “St. Jerome at His Meditations,” painted for the high altar of Sta. Maria dei Miracoli in Venice, the anatomy of the earth is studied as carefully as those of human figures; but the purpose of this naturalism is to convey idealism through the realistic portrayal of detail. In the landscape “Sacred Allegory,” now in the Uffizi, he created the first of the dreamyenigmatic scenes for which Giorgione, his pupil, was to become famous. The same quality of idealism is to be found in his portraiture. His “Doge Leonardo Loredan” in the National Gallery, London, has all the wise and kindly firmness of the perfect head of state, and his “Pietro Bembo”(?) in the British royal collection portrays all the sensitivity of a poet.

Both artistically and personally the career of Giovanni Bellini seems to have been serene and prosperous. He livedto see his own school of painting achieve dominance and acclaim. He saw his influence propagated by a host of pupils,two of whom surpassed their master in world fame: Giorgione, whom he outlived by six years, and Titian.

The only personal description extant of Giovanni is from the hand of Albrecht Dürer, who wrote to the German humanist Willibald Pirkheimer from Venice in 1506 “. . . everyone tells me what an upright man he is, so that I am really fond of him. He is very old, and still he is the best painter of them all.”

Sir Philip Hendy



Giovanni Bellini
Transfiguration of Christ

c. 1487
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples


Della Robbia

Giovanni Bellini


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