Giovanni Bellini

Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, from 30 September 2008 to 11 January 2009.

1. Giovanni Bellini (c. 1438/1440-1516)
Pesaro altarpiece, c. 1472-1474
Oil on panels - size of the main panel : 262 x 240 cm
Pesaro, Musei Civici (top panel : Musei Vaticani)

The Giovanni Bellini exhibition in Rome could have formed a sort of diptych with the one devoted to Mantegna at the Louvre. And yet they are as different as they could possibly be. Whereas the second one, well presented, intelligently focuses on replacing the artist in his period and reveals a commendable pedagogical dimension, the Roman retrospective chooses to concentrate only on the painter in a monographic undertaking which is as disappointing as it is ambitious.

Everything about this exhibition is irritating. As soon as the visitor enters he immediately feels impressed — this is after all the purpose — by the sight of the Pesaro altarpiece (cat. 17), a work which should never have left the museum which houses it, as the size, complexity and the obvious fragility of its structure make moving it around an extremely problematic endeavour [1]. At least this pala might have been presented in the conditions it deserves. But in an attempt at absurd dramatization, the exhibition plunges the visitor into almost total darkness, with the paintings emerging from the shadows thanks to coloured spots, worse still in an uneven manner. The large Baptism of Christ from Vicenza thus receives more light at the bottom, as if the divine rays had chosen to underscore the presence of the Savior. The view is completely distorted, as this does not correspond to either a church installation nor to a classical presentation in a museum, and certainly not to the manner in which the painter would have wished. The often raking light exposes the poor condition of some of the paintings as for example the Lamentation over the Dead Christ between Saint Mark and Saint Nicolas from the Doge’s Palace in Venice (cat. 12), although it is correctly presented as being one of the most important paintings in the retrospective. Why move these masterpieces and then submit them to such treatment ? Just as unbearable is the security system which triggers a shrill alarm as soon as visitors inadvertently step over an invisible limit in front of the works. The noise, which is set off once a minute, at least, and perhaps more when attendance increases, serves no purpose as the guards no longer pay attention to it.
The layout of the rooms in the Scuderie del Quirinale in no way helps the organizers. As the large formats could only be displayed on the ground floor, the choice has been to mix all of the artist’s periods, ignoring chronology without really achieving a clear iconographic segmentation either. And yet, Giovanni Bellini’s evolution was a remarkable one from the beginning to the end of his career, thus leaving the visitor without a clue, especially as there are no explanatory panels (the booklet handed out at the entrance lacks much information and can only be read in the rare places where there is a ray of light, usually at each end of the rooms).

2. Giovanni Bellini (c. 1438/1440-1516)
Virgin with Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor, 1505
Oil on panel - 95.7 x 81.8 cm
Birmingham, Museums and Art Gallery
Photo : Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

We will not go into the details here concerning the attributions and will refer the reader rather to studies by specialists of the period, notably the one by Neville Rowley which will appear in the next issue of the Burlington Magazine. Nevertheless, it would be wise to raise a question or two about certain paintings, for instance one of the first ones on display, the Genzano Polyptych (cat. 9) which strikes the viewer by its mediocre quality. The Virgin with Child in the central panel, of better calibre, nevertheless strikes the visitor with its stiffness. Is this altarpiece, which is presented in the exhibition as an acknowledged work, really by Giovanni Bellini ? It is hard to see how he could have painted this panel which seems in fact to be the labour of several hands, some of which are very awkward. The comparison with the first known painting by Bellini, Saint Jerome, exhibited alongside and which was done ten years earlier is no match for the polyptych. Here and there, some works seem to be by someone other than the artist and the chaotic hang does not make comparisons easy. Thus, the Virgin with Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor (Holy Conversation Vernon) from Birmingham (ill. 2 ; cat. 51), signed and dated in 1505, that is at the end of his life, is exhibited in one of the first rooms. The very uneven quality of the figures shows that it is in great part due to the workshop. Something which looks obvious to the practiced eye (and one need not be a specialist of Renaissance Venetian painting) may not be so for the average visitor and it is highly unlikely that he will read the catalogue from cover to cover (certainly not during the visit in any case) where this is explained [2]. Masterpieces (and there are many of them) should not be mixed in with dubious works or those produced largely by assistants unless this is clearly explained.

3. Giovanni Bellini (c. 1438/1440-1516)
Noah’s Drunkeness, 1515-1516
Oil on canvas marouflé on panel - 91.8 x 150.3 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Besançon

The exhibition concludes with Noah’s Drunkeness from Besançon (ill. 3 ; cat. 62). Nothing in the previous rooms prepares us for this totally different manner, completely Giorgionesque, by Bellini. And yet plenty could have been said in order to illustrate the evolution of the painter towards this style, distinctly more apparent in the catalogue which has chosen a chronological order. The visitor, arriving in front of this strange and highly original painting then leaves the retrospective with the definite impression of not having understood a thing about one of the greatest geniuses in the history of painting. “A Giovanni Bellini retrospective would be quite a spectacle !” These words, pronounced by Roberto Longhi, are recalled in the introduction to the catalogue by the curator of the exhibition. It is more than likely that the disappointment of this great historian of Italian art would have been inversely proportionate to his expectations.

Mauro Lucco and Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa (ed.), Giovanni Bellini, Editions SilvanaEditoriale, 2008, 384 p., 35 €. ISBN : 97888-3661133-1.

Visitor Information : Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV Maggio 16, Rome. Open daily from 10.00 to 20.00, Friday and Saturday through 22.30. Admission : 10 and 7,50 €.

Didier Rykner, lundi 17 novembre 2008


[1] The only positive aspect is the fact that the retable and the panel which hung above it, today held at the Pinacoteca in the Vatican, can be seen together again here for three months.

[2] This is specified only in the entry. Only one painting is formally presented in the catalogue as “Giovanni Bellini and workshop”, n° 61, the Virgin with Child Surrounded by Saints Presenting the Magistrates of Venice from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, although its quality is much higher and surer than many of the other works presented in the exhibition.

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