Preaching to a lion

Nicholas Penny

  • Giovanni Bellini by Rona Goffen
    Yale, 347 pp, £39.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 300 04334 1

When, in 1553, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, one of the foremost artists in Venice, he was himself the leading painter in Padua. A marriage of this sort is unlikely to have been a love match, or at least merely a love match. One of Jacopo’s sons, Giovanni, may have been Mantegna’s pupil or protégé: he was five or so years younger than Mantegna, seems not to have achieved by this date any great reputation, and his early work was remarkably similar in manner to that of his brother-in-law, as is clear to visitors to the National Gallery in London, who have the chance to compare paintings by each, of more or less the same size, with the same subject (the Agony in the Garden) and in the same remarkable state of preservation.

Rona Goffen briskly notes that in both works Christ kneels to one side on a rocky platform, the Apostles sleep nearby in the foreground, and a road winds into a hilly distance on which Judas is seen conducting Roman soldiers. In both cases most, if not all, of the composition, she implies, comes from a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. And ‘there,’ she declares, ‘the similarities end.’ It is an astonishing assertion. The tight, twisting rhythms of the hills; the trees which seem to have had such a hard life; the bizarre anfractuosity of the rocks; the intricate broken folds and sharp edges of the drapery; the row of ringlets on Christ’s neck; the bold foreshortening of one of the sleeping apostles; the colours, especially the red cloak with nearly white highlights; the light recorded on Christ’s blue outer garment with fine hatched lines of gold; the tiny pebbles peppering the barren ground and rendered with a spatter of pigment such as can be achieved with a thumb and a stiff toothbrush – whether we consider idiosyncrasy of form or of handling, the similarities extend far beyond the mere basics of the composition.

It is inconceivable that these similarities do not amount to a debt on Bellini’s part, but Goffen, while admitting to a relationship between the two artists, sees them as merely having been inspired by the same models (Donatello, the antique, Jacopo Bellini, Squareione). Yet there is evidence that Bellini himself revered his brother-in-law as one would a master. More than thirty years later than the probable date of the Agony in the Garden, he was approached by Isabella d’Este, the greatest art collector of the day, to supply a poetic narrative for her studiolo. He was, her agents reported, diffident about the proposal because he was apprehensive that his works would not stand comparison with those of ‘Andrea’ in her possession. Eventually he supplied a Nativity instead, in the painting of which, it was said, he exerted himself specially, ‘out of respect for Messer Andrea Mantegna’.

Having underestimated the similarities between the two paintings of the Agony in the Garden, Goffen does not fail to dwell on the differences. ‘For Mantegna, everything is carved of stone, the clouds no less solid than the rocks on which Christ kneels,’ whereas Bellini’s ‘clouds and sky exist only as immaterial colour and light’. In the Mantegna there is no clear indication of the time of day, whereas in the Bellini dawn is breaking, the undersides of the clouds are orange and yellow and the shadows seem just to be departing from the hills. No earlier artist had painted cloud structures with comparable precision, or sunrise so effectively. It is not only light and air but also water which Bellini paints with novel conviction. The network of fine lines which he casts over his river describe its choppy surface, but Mantegna’s river seems to have dried up and the similar pattern of lines to be found there might be mistaken for the veins of the mineral bed. Bellini’s hills are less harsh than Mantegna’s, his rocky outcrops less crystalline. They seem more distant as well, and yet there is a more fluent relationship between foreground and background; the composition is less tense, the lines more relaxed. Mantegna’s tree cuts aggressively across the forms behind it, whereas the pollarded branches of Bellini’s are beguilingly confused with the steep paths on the hill. For Mantegna the landscape is a container packed with specimens. For Bellini nature is more inviting, more unified, and increasingly a solace to the spirit as well as a stimulus to the mind.

The angels which appear to Christ in Mantegna’s painting bearing the instruments of the Passion seem no less corporeal than the other figures in the painting, while the angel bearing a chalice in the Bellini seems to be fashioned out of the transparent glass for which Venice was by then already famous, no more substantial than the clouds and, like them, lit by the rising sun. Bellini’s greatest work of this type – his most ambitious landscape painting which includes a sacred narrative – is the Saint Francis in the Frick Collection in New York, where the landscape not only provides the setting but is, as Goffen puts it, ‘a second protagonist’. The saint stands with open mouth and open hands, but he is not, as was conventional, receiving the stigmata from a flying crucifix. He seems rather to be joyously ‘taking in’ the sights and sounds around him, and above all the light which falls like a blessing upon him. It is hardly possible to imagine an earlier artist painting such a subject.

Although Bellini did not paint a poetic narrative for Isabella d’Este, he did at the very end of his life paint one for her brother Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara – the so-called Feast of the Gods, dated 1514, two years before he died (now, after years in the conservation studio, back on display in the National Gallery, Washington). It is illustrated in colour in Goffen’s book; there is a detail, as well, showing how worn and damaged the painting is, but also how many exquisite passages remain. Hair is no longer conceived of as finely-fashioned wire, but as soft and flowing freely; on the other hand, the soil remains hard and covered in tiny pebbles; a linen sleeve is blown back and a girdle flutters in the breeze, although much of the drapery retains a certain papery crispness. The artist’s earliest stylistic affinities may still be discerned, but this painting is far closer to the young Titian (whose paintings were to be set beside it) than it is to Mantegna. Amid the brilliant colours of the draperies, heightened by the repeated whites of the linen, and the dark foil of the wood, the broken water and the lights on metal and glass and porcelain vessels glisten – such rich effects could only be achieved in oil paint. And in this medium Bellini, unlike Mantegna, had become a consummate master.

Can the creator of the Feast of the Gods really have feared a comparison between his works and those of Mantegna, a master whom he had, at least to judge from the Agony in the Garden, not only equalled but, in some respects, surpassed decades previously? Perhaps it was just an excuse; he was very busy and resented being given a tediously pedantic programme by one of Isabella’s pet scholars. But it seems worthwhile to speculate on what, in the field of poetic narrative painting especially, he might have felt that he lacked. Bellini had not often attempted to paint the human figure in action, whereas Mantegna, especially in his prints of battling sea gods and in the dancing nymphs and the fleeing vices which he painted for Isabella, showed himself particularly skilled at this. There is no more peculiar passage in Goffen’s book than that in which she likens the geometry of the six stationary saints placed in architectural symmetry around the throne of the Madonna in Bellini’s San Giobbe altarpiece (in the Accademia in Venice) to the rotating circle of restless figures in Leonardo da Vinci’s approximately contemporary Adoration of the Magi. Bellini would never have composed a painting in such a dynamic manner.

The idea of comparing Leonardo and Bellini was one which did occur to their contemporaries, and we know that Isabella d’Este asked in 1498 to borrow a portrait by Leonardo in order to study it beside ‘certain beautiful likenesses by the hand of Zoanne Bellino’. The exercise surely revealed another limitation in Bellini. In his faces there is a relatively narrow range of expression and the sitters in his portraits – among which that of the Doge Leonardo Loredan in the National Gallery, London is the best, and by far the best preserved – are impassive, whereas Leonardo excelled at painting faces which seem to be listening or about to speak.

Returning to the Feast of the Gods with these considerations in mind, we will be struck by their relevance. The subject comes not from ancient literature but, as Philipp Fehl discovered (and as Goffen here acknowledges), from the Ovidio volgarizato, a popular, modernised ‘Tales from Ovid’. It shows Priapus raising the skirt of a sleeping nymph called Lotos. In a moment a braying ass will waken her and alert the other Thebans, who are engaged nearby in a licentious picnic. Some of the solemnity, so oddly combined with the rusticity of the scene, may be intended for the chaste girls specified in the source: they are endowed with the monumentality and dignity which Bellini gave to his Madonnas – but the other figures are remarkably still and staid, considering the groping and carousing which is going on, and we may well wonder whether Bellini could have painted even an orgy differently. Yet a couple of the faces, those of an old man and a faun, are highly expressive, indeed transfigured by an animal grimace.

This is found again in the figure of Ham laughing at the nakedness of his drunken father, Noah, in a strange painting in Besançon. The theme of this painting may have been suggested by the Feast of the Gods and this is likely also to be true of the painting of a nude woman with a mirror in Vienna, which Bellini signed in 1515. Bellini had made it clear to Isabella d’Este that if he did paint a poetic narrative for her he would choose the subject. No doubt the subject of Priapus and Lotos was his idea. In these other paintings of the naked and the nude which followed, he may have been exercising, at the age of about eighty, a new freedom – painting for himself. He had, of course, always enjoyed some freedom, above all in the invention of his luntane, as Isabella’s agent called his landscape backgrounds. These he introduced even in his large altarpieces, which were probably the most exactly prescribed of his commissions.

Goffen is responsive to the beauty of Bellini’s paintings. She writes with enthusiasm and supplies helpful information. The inadequacy of her account of Bellini’s early work is not the only problem with this book, however. She frequently misinterprets the paintings, usually in order to impose profound or complex meanings on them. The book opens with a consideration of the little painting of Saint Jerome in the wilderness which hangs in the Barber Institute in Birmingham, one of Bellini’s earliest surviving works. Goffen quotes from Jerome’s letter describing his life in the desert alone with wild beasts and scorpions, how he found the style of the prophets repellent, how he yearned for his library of literary classics in Rome, how in a fever he had a vision in which he was before the Judge, who accused him of being a follower of Cicero, not of Christ. Bellini’s painting, Goffen claims, shows him after he has changed his ways. ‘Bellini treats the viewer-worshipper as the unseen witness of Jerome’s saintly isolation ... no anecdotal detail attracts (or distracts) our imagination, but the artist engages our spiritual involvement by conveying the mood of the scene, which we are invited to share and emulate.’ Readers of this passage will be startled to find that the saint is represented by Bellini as preaching to a lion, one hand pointing to heaven and the other gripping an open Bible. The lion is seated with its mouth open in amazement (or agony), raising its front left paw, in which a large thorn is stuck. A rabbit peeps out of its hole. Jerome and the lion is the real subject, which comes (like Bellini’s great poetic narrative in Washington) not from ancient literature but from a modern collection of legends. Goffen makes an entertaining, if pious narrative painting sound like a severe spiritual exercise.

In the chapter ‘Images for Private Devotion’ Goffen reviews the numerous paintings of the Virgin and Child for which Bellini is now (and probably always was) especially admired. In many of these the Christ child lies, sits or stands on a marble ledge which passes across the lower part of the painting. No doubt because this bears some relation to the way in which the top of the tomb appears in paintings of the dead Christ supported by angels, or by Mary and Saint John, she proposes that the parapet can be read as an altar and is thus ‘the metaphoric equivalent of the tomb and of the Virgin Mother herself, because in each of these Christ was enshrined and from each he was born’. Yet there is no reason to suppose that ledges were understood as anything other than ledges – a convenient artistic device suggestive, perhaps, of the painting as window, as well as something for the child to rest on. Had it alluded to altars and tombs and wombs, the ledge would not, surely, have been so popular in contemporary portraits, including those by Bellini.

It would be interesting to learn why in one painting the child has to be restrained by the Virgin from climbing over the ledge. Goffen interprets the Virgin’s action in this case as ‘calling attention’ to his partly-exposed genitals, a gesture which ‘seems calculated to remind the viewer-worshipper’ of Christ’s humanity, and her red sleeve, exposed by this action, is designed to remind us of the blood which would be shed at the circumcision.

Goffen treats the paintings as political as well as theological puzzles. The Contarini Madonna in the Accademia in Venice includes a distant landscape which, she claims, is ‘essentially wild and uninhabited’ on one side (there are in fact some buildings and meadows) and on the other side, behind Christ’s blessing hand, features a hill town. According to Goffen, ‘the suggestion is that the Lord blesses the society and endeavours of humankind.’ ‘Indeed,’ she continues, ‘land-capes, dominated by Mary and her son, may allude to the domination of the Venetian mainland by the republic, characterised and personified both as the Virgin and as Christ.’ Many of the devotional practices of the Renaissance now need explanation, but the whole point of most religious imagery was that it was simple and direct in its appeal. Another scholar declares on the dust-jacket that this work ‘should become the definitive modern study of Bellini for a good long time’. It shouldn’t, but it probably will. And yet how vastly superior Giles Robertson’s Giovanni Bellini of 1968 is, and how much better it would have been to reprint it with some colour plates and notes on the recent literature.