Updated: Jun 9, 2019
I can only describe it as extremely frustrating to have mapped out a route through the narrow streets of Venice only to find myself standing before a canal I couldn't cross. Cut off by a few feet of water that might as well have been the English Channel, I stood looking right and left but found no bridge in sight. I'd have to backtrack to some recognizable piazza and try again. In Venice for the Biennale of Contemporary Art, I'd come with a group, La Maison d'Art Contemporain, from Avignon, where I lived at the time, and was late to meet two of my companions for drinks at the Hotel Danieli. Complicating matters was an acqua alta, flooding Piazza San Marco with waters even into the Basillica of San Marco. Oh well, nothing to do but try and try again. Luckily, after many twists and turns, I finally arrived. My friends greeted me and suggested I calm my nerves with a wonderful drink called a Bellini, which turned out to be a great suggestion for a number of reasons.
As I gazed across the Grand Canal at the Dogana (the Customs House), re-fitted to hold exhibitions of contemporary art, I could sip the delicious peach and prosecco concoction that bore the name of the famous artist, Bellini.
My friends chatted away in French, and I was only required to put in an occasional "oui" or "mon dieu." My mind inspired by the drink before me, drifted away from the contemporary and off to the Bellini family, Jacopo, the father; Gentile, the brother; and especially Giovanni, the star of the family. The Florentines were always suspicious of these wily Venetians because they loved color too much and paid not so much attention to drawing. And while it is not true that the great Titian never made preliminary drawings of the subjects of his paintings, it is true that his many pentimenti show that he changed his mind quite a lot. He'd begin to push the paint around, winding up not necessarily following the orignal drawing at all. He could do this, of course, because he painted in oil paints, and how had those come to Venice? Well, back to Bellini, sort of.
Venice, la Serenissima, ruled the seas, and many things arrived with the tides. Around 1475, a certain Antonello da Messina arrived bringing with him oil painting from Naples, where it was all the rage because of contact with the Flemish painters of northern Europe, like Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van der Weyden. Da Messina's altarpiece in the church of San Cassiano influenced Giovanni Bellini, who took to the use of oil paints. The rest of Italy had painted for years in egg tempera, and we have the benefit of their wonderful frescoes today because, as we all know, egg stains last forever. However, in a damp climate, frescoes (egg tempera in wet plaster), which are supposed to dry quickly, often don't. Oil paints have a certain drying process, true, but are much more amenable to climate. They offer the artists wonderful possibilities for realism, detail, and color variations. The magic of oil paint gives depth and subtlety and brings figures into reality.
Giovanni Bellini took those oil paints and laid the foundation for the golden age of Venetian painting, which included such greats as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The difference can be seen in the two Bellini portraits below. To the left is an oil portrait in which the cloak of the Doge has a luminous quality, and the figure itself stands out with realistic features. Even against a solid blue background, you still feel he is three dimensional. The Archangel Gabriel, of course is an ethereal being, so it is wonderful to imagine how beautifully and appropriately luminous he might have been if painted in oils. In tempera the treatment of the clothing has none of the touchable quality of the Doge's robe. While the colors of the wings and sleeves of the garment are lovely, as tempera so often is, there is a flatness to the face, and the figure does not stand out from the background in the same way. Personally, of course, as a watercolor painter and sometimes user of tempera, I love the Archangel Gabriel, most especially because he wears a strand of pearls around the top of his head. How heavenly and so perfectly Venetian, the master touch of the city's native son and great artist, Giovanni Bellini.
Bellini's soft, luminous style of oil painting became the hallmark of Venetian painting as the city's art entered the Renaissance through his influence. Yes, the Florentines valued good drawing as the basis of their art, but the Venetians came to rival them through the richness of their colors. Though his brother, Gentile, was more prominent during their life times, Giovanni garnered the respect and admiration of such greats as Albrecht Durer. Durer's first experience of Venice came as a student in Bellini's studio in 1495. When Durer made his second visit to Venice in 1506, he found his old master to still be "the best painter in Venice." As Bellini continued to paint well into his old age, he found he had troubles and competition from another of his students, Titian, who was hungry for commissions, fame, and dominance, which the elder Bellini tolerated with annoyance. In 1516 at the age of 86, Bellini died and was interred in the Basillica de San Giovanni e Paolo, the same one where from on high his beautifully painted Archangel Gabriel presides.
Thus I mused upon the art while throwing a word or two of French into my friends' conversation and enjoying that wonderful drink. The drink, Bellini, was created at the most famous bar in the world, Harry's Bar, in 1948, by the bar's owner, Giuseppe Cipriani. When white peach puree could be imported to the U.S., the drink took off in New York as well. All I can say is, it's good, and if you ever get to have one while looking out at the Grand Canal in Venice and contemplating art - Bravo!
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Photos of the canal and of Bellini's work are in public domain.
For this lovely picture, a shout out to Jamie Oliver. For the drink recipe click the link below.
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