At the National Gallery

Peter Campbell

Exhibitions illustrating the interaction of cultures often display one-way relationships – the influence of Japanese prints, say, on French 19th-century painting. Not so the exhibition Bellini and the East (at the National Gallery until 25 June), which documents a rich multi-directional traffic. The central work among those on show is the National Gallery’s Gentile Bellini portrait of Mehmed II (shown here). Its influence in the East can be seen in Turkish watercolours derived from it, and others based on a portrait medal of Mehmed by Costanzo di Moysis. Style alone does not tell where things come from. There is a round-bottomed brass box, inlaid with silver (perhaps made to hold sweets) signed by Mahmud al-Kurdi: it is no longer believed that he worked in Venice. But there is a salver decorated in the Levantine manner which was almost certainly made in the West. The reliquary Cardinal Bessarion presented to the Scuola della Carità – Venetian metalwork combined with paintings in a Byzantine style – is in the exhibition, and so is the painting Gentile made for the door to the tabernacle which housed it, showing the reliquary itself and the cardinal and two brothers of the scuola praying before it.

The religious and secular politics of the period the exhibition covers – roughly speaking, the years from the fall of Constantinople to the accession of the 19-year-old Mehmed in 1451 through to the early 1500s – are complicated. The pictures and objects, on the other hand, have a wonderful clarity. There is a kind of realism in painting which convinces by leaving much to the imagination – we fill in what broad brush strokes and shady corners suggest. That presentation of reality relies on sleight of hand, it convinces by making you imagine the thing painted through marks which do not slavishly record all that can be seen. An older, more straightforward way of showing things as they are is to make pictures which are also visual inventories. It is this second kind of truth which dominates the exhibition. Detailed accounts, painted with measured skill, of the look of places, clothes, furnishings, buildings and people pay tribute to the substance and texture of the material world. The devotional and historical pictures Gentile was in demand for are also records of the places where Venetian merchants traded and of the quality of goods bought and sold. The men themselves, in formal black or senatorial red, gather or process, they listen to St Mark preaching in Alexandria, appear as ambassadors in Damascus or kneel to watch a miracle in Venice. Venice Incorporated is dignified by religion.

Mary, in Gentile Bellini’s Virgin and Child Enthroned is dressed in a red cloak of patterned velvet; the throne on which she sits is placed within a niche inlaid with coloured stone. Her feet rest on a Western Anatolian prayer-mat. A more modest, less finely dressed Virgin and Child by his brother Giovanni is exhibited alongside a Cretan icon of the same subject. The comparison shows that the painting’s solemn, sweet humanity is achieved through poses and gestures which follow a Byzantine formula. But the icon itself, for all that it looks at first glance to be purely Byzantine, shows signs of Western connections in the brooch fastening the Virgin’s cloak and the pattern on Christ’s clothes. A group of contracts from 1499 between a Venetian and a Greek merchant and a group of Cretan painters refers to the shipment of 700 icons, some in the Western style (‘forma alla latina’), the others in the Byzantine ‘forma alla greca’.

The trade in visual ideas runs alongside the trade in goods which made Venice rich, and that trade cannot be separated from war and its anxieties. After the Ottoman sack of Constantinople, Venice, still embellished with plunder from the Crusaders’ earlier depredations, became a haven for part of Constantinople’s exiled Greek population and a ruler of Greek colonies. Trade with the East was, however, too important to be stifled by religion. The war between the Ottoman Empire and Venice which began in 1463 was brought to an end by a treaty negotiated in 1479. It was at that point that Mehmed asked the Venetians to send him a painter. Gentile Bellini, excused the historical pictures he was doing for the Doge’s palace, made his way to Istanbul. Of the work he did there the exhibition has the Mehmed portrait, drawings of costumes, and a watercolour of a seated scribe which found its way to Persia, then back to the Ottoman court and finally to its present home: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was copied often on the way and a Persian version of around 1600 hangs beside it in the exhibition. The wall paintings he may have made have not survived.

Questions of attribution create less anxiety here than they do in many exhibitions. It may be that the costume drawings are workshop copies; a date recently discovered in the Louvre Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus shows that the old attribution to Gentile cannot stand; the National Gallery Circumcision is now reckoned to be from Giovanni’s workshop rather than his own hand. But none of these changes reshapes one’s idea of the characters of the artists. Rather, they enrich our knowledge of the capabilities of the workshop. With Giovanni’s pupils Titian and Giorgione, by contrast, personality becomes as important as the mastery of craft. Misattribution then causes a blurring of what is essential.

Mehmed’s openness to Western art was not shared by his son and successor Bayezid II, who sent paintings, Christian relics and heathen baubles off to be sold in the bazaar – that was how Mehmed’s portrait found its way back to Venice. Yet for a time at least painters from East and West had much in common. Delicacy of line, purity of colour, decoration rather than drama, decorum. By the time Rembrandt made drawings after Indian miniatures that common aesthetic had gone. It is as if one of two dialects evolved into a different language. You can see how Rembrandt takes pleasure in what is foreign: you can’t imagine a Persian manuscript painter reciprocating by absorbing his style.