Bellini in his own light
D. L. ETTLINGER
Giovanni Bellini Giles Robertson (ouP/The Clarendon Press 84s)
When Ruskin, in his often quoted and highly contentious lecture 'The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret,' ferociously assailed 'the dark carnality' of the former while applauding the 'simplicity of a wild animal' in the latter, he could nevertheless not help de- ploring 'the changes brought about by Michael Angelo and permitted, or persisted in cala- mitously, by Tintoret.' However, he singled out one master great beyond doubt and cen- sure: Giovanni Bellini. Ruskin extolled him as one of the supreme artists of all ages and boldly called the altarpieces in the Frani Church and in San Zaccaria 'the two best pictures in the world.' Such praise conveyed more than an aesthetic judgment, for the embattled puritan critic discerned a sterner virtue in the Venetian painter. It was he alone who had remained without blemish at the Fall : 'In forty years all the new effort and deadly catastrophe took place. 1480 to 1520. Now, you have only to fasten to those forty years the life of Bellini, who represents the best of art before them, and of Tintoret, who repre- sents the best of art after them. John Bellini precedes the change, meets, and resists it vic- toriously to his death. Nothing of flaw or failure is ever to be discerned in him. Then Raphael, Michael Angelo and Titian, together, bring about the deadly change, playing into each other's hands. Michael Angelo being the chief captain in evil; Titian in natural force.'
This strange and overwrought paragraph is not just a typically Ruskinian outburst, splen- did in its sheer mass of emotional verbiage but a little bare of good sense. If it is a sermon —and surely, considering the speaker, it was meant to be one—the sentiments expressed are not simply heterodox, they are outright hereti- cal. For here is an attack on the allegedly divine heroes of art, on the accepted values of criticism and on the whole fabric of art history.
Ruskin's own historical vista and his per- sonal scale of values are too idiosyncratic to be still acceptable to a less committed onlooker. Moreover, today we are better informed about the complex nature of the Renaissance. But, e‘en fundamental disagreement notwithstand- ing, we should admit in fairness that in his own way Ruskin was trying to make good an injustice. It was perhaps sensibility rather than historical understanding which urged him to restore to his rightful place among the great masters a painter who had been a thorough- bred Venetian.
Of course, the Grand Tourists and their nine- teenth century descendants had been captivated by the picturesque charm of Venice, so per- fectly rendered in the pictures of Canaletto which were eagerly collected. They went to look at Titian and perhaps at Tintoretto, but they quickly hastened on to Florence and Rome, to the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, and to the admiration of everything that derived from it. For that was what they had been taught to do.
If they were shortsighted or limited in their appreciation they are hardly to be blamed. One cannot help being irritated. when looking at the exquisite paintings of Bellini, of Carpaccio, of Lotto and other Venetians, by the un- deniable truth that the very first historian of Italian art had been a somewhat parochial Florentine nationalist. Vasari—and we must still be awed by the intellectual grasp and sheer physical stamina which allowed him to gather the material for his vast and unprecedented enterprise—had left behind an influential set of persuasive aesthetic standards which hardly allowed for a proper appraisal of the peculiar enchantment of the School of Venice, though he did come in the end to a grudging recog- nition of Titian's genius. Thus Ruskin was doing more than rediscovering a forgotten painter—he was fighting an entrenched tradi- tion.
Though Vasarian prejudice hardly holds good any longer, and in spite of Ruskin's immense prestige, Giovanni Bellini's significance was hardly studied until recently. An impressive and beautiful exhibition of his works was held in Venice in 1959, but it is a little disconcert- ing to find that a widely read general history of art can still omit him altogether. True, there have been a number of papers by specialists and also monographs, but they did not manage to redress the balance. Mr Giles Robertson's study—long and eagerly awaited—would there- fore be welcome even if it were not so good a book as in fact it is.
The tone is set by the opening sentence which quotes Dilrer's famous reference in a letter written from Venice in February 1506 when Giovanni Bellini, well over sixty years old, had just finished the great altarpiece for San Zac- caria: 'He is very .old, and is still the best in painting.' Characteristically, the book ends with the same quotation. Mr Robertson writes not only as a detached scholar (with absolute com- mand over his material) but equally as a passionate lover of Bellini. Throughout these two aspects are inseparable, and much of the book's penetrating power and great charm derive from this rare combination. Simplicity and distinction of writing are yet an added advantage.
Wisely—and fortunately for his readers—Mr Robertson did not make it his aim to survey the entire surviving output that came from the Bellini workshop during an activity which spanned the unusually long period of about sixty years. 'I have sought rather,' he writes, `by considering an extensive selection of works, generally autograph but in a few exceptional cases of mainly studio execution,- to illustrate his significance as an artist and to trace the development of his art.' That may sound a little old-fashioned—and this, in some rather endearing way, is an old-fashioned book—but the very fact that Mr Robertson forwent the temptation to compile an exhaustive mono- graph proves to be to Bellini's profit. For the first time we can see him plain.
In an introductory chapter. Mr Robertson sets the scene by briefly describing the charac- ter of the Venetian Renaissance, arguing that Giovanni Bellini consummated a synthesis of the achievements of the fifteenth century on both sides of the Alps 'as a living tradition and not as a body of theoretical instructions or antique exemplars.' Synthesis, in fact, turns out to be the key to Giovanni's artistic per-
sonality, and in the following six chapters Mr Robertson shows through a series of sensitive analyses how first Flemish painting—Roger van der Weyden rather than Jan van Eyck— and later Mantegna, Dohatello, Giorgione and even Diirer helped to shape his style. But this is not a pedantic story of borrowings and in- fluences. Bellini shared with another great master of the Renaissance—Raphael—a rare quality of genius: the ability to fuse and transmute his experiences, the creative power of forging something new, personal and often unique from his impressions. Paradoxically, Bellini became original because he completely assimilated all that was best in men and works with whom he came into contact.
To have shown with fine perception the gradual emergence of an artist is the lasting merit of this book. Painting after painting is discussed and is always firmly kept in focus as a work of art. Mr Robertson, reticent and unwilling to probe too deeply the secrets of Bellini's imagination, only rarely allows him- self generalisations, but one observation, made while comparing Mantegna's and Bellini's Agony in the Garden (both in the National. Gallery), leads to a summing-up which at the same time bears upon the whole of Bellini's art:
`Light is seen here, not as in Mantegna's work, as the even medium through which, by its opposition to shadow, solid form is realised, but as something positive, a vibrating envelope by whose action the separateness of discrete forms is conciliated into a single whole—a many-coloured thing. This formal function of light is inseparable from its emotional con- tribution to the content of the picture. Light is seen here as love, the divine element permeat-
ing and binding nature and man together in a single order. The realisation of this formal and spiritual function of light is the true essence of Giovanni's achievement.'
Again, when speaking of the latest works, Robertson refers to 'this particular achieve. ment in the permeation of the landscape by the mood of the figure subject so that man and nature are presented as elements of a divinely illuminated whole.'
'A divinely illuminated whole.' Was Ruskin perhaps right after all? Did Bellini disdain the inquisitive, even scientific, spirit which motivated the Florentines and, above all, Leonardo, his younger contemporary? Did he accept the world as he found it without probing behind appearances? Mr Robertson has shown us that it was not so. Bellini was not a belated mediaevalist. He was aware of all 'progress' in the arts. In fact, he was always in touch with the latest. But he used what he found to his own ends, unencumbered by theory. He remained at all times a painter, and in doing this he was more single-minded than any other artist of his stature in his day.
With all this many fascinating questions are discussed in this book which must interest laymen and specialists alike. Thire is, for example, much about the tantalising relation- ship with Mantegna which is refreshing for its good sense. The 'unprofitable exercise' of chronological relations and contested attribu- tions, to which a straight answer can never be given, is avoided. There is instead an attempt to show the reader the fundamental' differences between two artistic temperaments. Of par- ticular interest is the discussion about the con- nection with Diirer, whom Bellini seems to
have greatly admired also on his part. Instead of the by now stale story of how the German became a colourist under the Venetian's in- fluence, we have a few stimulating pages reversing the argument and showing con- vincingly how much Bellini owed to Diirer.
There is perhaps one flaw in this otherwise eminently readable book. Too much of the argument with other scholars appears in the text—the notes are rarely more than references —and one may at times get a little impatient as one listens to an always urbane tussle with Longhi, the Tietzes or Walker. One cannot help feeling that the book would have been even better if some of these arguments had been confined to notes or an appendix in order to allow a freer flow of the narrative. Still, it is not a major fault. The plates, however, are a different and saddening matter. The Claren- don Press has given a distinguished book thoroughly undistinguished illustrations and has thereby impaired our enjoyment both of Mr Robertson's presentation and of Bellini's art.