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Giovanni Bellini, Catalogo Ragionato

By Our editors - 17. July 2020
Preview the new catalogue raisonné on the Venetian master with an entry on the altarpiece at the San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice.
Catalogue entry below by Giovanni Villa
Translated by Nicholas Hall
Saints Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse, 1513
oil on panel
300 x 185 cm
San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice

This altarpiece, still in its original location, the right-hand altar in the Greek-cross formed church of San Giovanni Crisostomo (in Venetian Grisostomo), for compositional freedom and technical boldness is one of highest accomplishments of the final period of Bellini, and one of the absolute highpoints of his art; this is all the more evident in a building which is embellished with two other masterpieces, the marble altarpiece opposite by Tullio Lombardo and that by Sebastiano del Piombo on the high altar, dedicated to the eponymous Saint John Chrysostom. Responding to these recent works in his last invention in the field of the altarpiece – and also, as previously at San Giobbe, Santa Corona (Vicenza) and San Zaccaria, responding to the architectural renewal of a church building – Bellini demonstrated how the boundaries of his style were extended by constant and continuous innovation.

Saints Christopher, Jerome and Louis of Toulouse in its original location in San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice

We know every detail of the genesis of this work, beginning with the provision in the will of the Venetian merchant Giorgio Diletti made on 13 July 1494, to build his funerary chapel in the church. This had fallen victim to a disastrous fire in 1475, and in 1497 reconstruction began under Mauro Codussi. Diletti entrusted the commission, and with it 300 Ducats, to the Scuola Grande di San Marco, and probably in the same year the Scuola awarded the future commission to its confrere, Giovanni Bellini. Diletti died in 1503 and the parish priest Alvise Talenti, the incumbent from 1480 to 1516, supervised the project and, spurred on by Diletti’s widow Ursia who in her own will of 1511 repeated the dying wishes of her husband. On 13 April 1509 funds for the commission were made available, and the confraternity entrusted it to Giovanni Bellini who brought it to completion four years later.

Although the painting has always remained in place above its altar, it has had a complex life in terms of conservation. In 1733 a statue of Saint Anne was nailed to it, and then, following the protests of the Scuola di San Marco, this was replaced by a statue of Saint Anthony, which although no longer attached to the panel was still present when it was described by Moschini (1815). Deeply venerated, the altarpiece has undergone a formidable series of restorations to remedy the damages caused by the unusual construction of the support, the planks of which were vertically, not horizontally, causing distortions in the surface of the panel. In addition, the paint had been darkened by votive candles. Already in 1771, in fact, Zanetti recorded that it was blackened with a “dense and dark patina”. Cleanings are documented in 1826, and a restoration was entrusted to Giuseppe Gallo Lorenzi in 1856; the removal of drops of wax on the lower right part took place in 1935 and a there was a further cleaning in 1940. Following an infestation of woodworm the panel was removed from the church in 1973 and brought to the Gallerie dell’Accademia where, between 1975 and 1976 it was restored by Antonio Lazzarin and then exhibited in the museum.  It was eventually returned to the church in 1979 when the parish priest guaranteed it would henceforth be lit electrically. In 1992 Lazzarin cleaned it again, removing further traces of darkened smoke. It is inevitable that with such a sequence of interventions, the work has been abraded, especially in the delicate pigments, for example in the tones, painted in realgar and orpiment which should be a brilliant orange, of the cloak of Saint Christopher: one of the principal protagonists in the painting who, more than setting the stage for the dialogue between the two poles of religion, meditation and pastoral activity, brings about a highly original compositional solution, whose structure is without precedent.

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Saint Jerome, silhouetted against the sky, is seated high on a rock, alone, foreshortened, with in front of him his book which rests on an unusual lectern, a lone Christological fig tree (St. John, I. 35-51) , here deformed like an anomalous bonsai with new sprouting branches “[…} right above the worshipping head of the thoughtful [saint]” (Gentili, 2017). Its function is to connect the first and second planes and to leave less isolated the saint in the narrow space beyond the marble balustrade, here introduced to distinguish the architectonic and natural space which, because of the light, seem to perfectly overlap. In the space closer to us, immediately contiguous with the real space of the church, mighty pilasters support a triumphal arch whose underside is decorated with mosaic tessera decorated with a Greek inscription. Planted with monumental solidity, both structural and formal, stand the hard-working Saint Christopher in counterpoint to the thoughtful, charismatic, Saint Louis of Toulouse. Together they represent the active life; in the worldly realm they stand within easy reach of the faithful,  whereas Jerome symbolizes the cerebral life, dedicated to study, and instead inhabits an isolated space, outside of the society of men. The experience of Christopher and Louis is easily imitable and reproduceable, while that of Jerome appears to us in a dimension of spiritual perfection, reserved for a narrow circle of the elect. This is why the artist chooses to place the hermit high up on a highly ascetic desert mountaintop, under a tree of perfectly natural appearance but also of weighty symbolic value. His white and red clothes have been associated by Lattanzi and Coltellacci (1985) with those of vestments worn by priests for the feast of Pentacost, in a metaphor of the ascent after the Resurrection. Louis is, instead richly robed: a poly-lobed clasp representing the image of Christ blessing, holds together his elaborate dark green damascene cope, inlaid with golden thread and bordered with red silk; in the crook of the gilded metal crozier, richly decorated with curlicues and knots is attached a statuette which according to Tempestini (2000) “seems to reproduce that of the primiceri (archpriests)  reproduce that of the Primiceri, now in the Treasury of Saint Mark, in the condition it was in before later modifications have since changed it”. All is rendered with a full-bodied application of paint, with lively impasto, from the masterly execution of the face of Christopher to the ease of movement of the figures themselves.

Detail of St. Jerome
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Recorded by Sansovino (1581) as “the panel of St Mark”, in an error possibly made on account of its similarity to Titian’s altarpiece in the church of the Salute, the painting was described by Ridolfi (1648) described as a “…Saint Jerome on the peak of a crag with a book in his hand, Saint Christopher and Saint Louis, not only of beautiful form but also of mellow color”. These identifications were later, however, to be disputed, beginning with Paoletti (1893), who on the basis of a seventeenth-century transcription of the will of Diletti, argued at length, but absurdly, that the donor intended the saint on the left to be Saint John Chrysostom who was for some time a hermit, but most importantly Patriarch of Constantinople, who was often represented  wearing red and orange vestments. Lattanzi and Coltellacci (1985), on a reading of a manuscript copy of the will made in 1516 by the patriarchal secretary and preserved in the parish archive of San Canciano in Venice, and on an eighteenth-century print in the State Archive of Venice, in the files of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, correctly re-instated the saint as Saint Christopher. Furthermore, they pointed out that the bishop saint on the right had to be Louis of Toulouse, despite his misidentification as Augustine after a nineteenth-century restorer had placed the inscription De Civitate Dei on the cover of his book. That this is indeed the Angevin saint, despite the lack of the lily of France on his cope- curiously seen by Ruggeri Augusti (1978) and Lattanzi and Coltellacci (1985)- is confirmed by the presence of Saint Francis, founder of the order, on the embroidered border of the saint’s cope.❖

Detail of Saint Louis of Toulouse

Critics are substantially in agreement with the identification of Jerome- with the exception of Gamba (1937) and Heinemann (1962) who saw him as Saint John the Evangelist. Robertson (1968) identified the Greek inscription on the mosaic-covered vault which transcribes the second verse of Psalm 14 (13 in the Vulgate), alluding thus to John Chrysostom author of homilies on the psalms: “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God”. A warning to the wise, whose state of grace should never lead to pride, the inscription was also a reference, as Lattanzi and Coltellucci observe, to the Greek edition of the Psalter edited by Aldo Manuzio in Venice between 1496 and 1498, a product of the erudite circle in which Giovanni Bellini himself habitually moved.

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The critical judgment on the San Giovanni Crisostomo altarpiece has always been extremely favorable since the first arguments for placing it in relation to later developments in Venetian art: “a picture only second in style and monumental grandeur to that of 1505 at San Zaccaria, a painting which lacks the firmness of touch conspicuous in the master’s productions at the beginning of the century, but remarkable for glow of tone and breadth of treatment, in projected shadows, chiaroscuro and drapery” observed Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1871). In a similar interpretative vein Fry (1899) also wrote, “And if the drawing still shows traces of quattrocento methods, if the chiaroscuro is not so rich as Titian’s and Giorgione’s, still in the consistent elaboration of a particular passing effect of atmosphere, Bellini has gone beyond what his pupils accomplished. It is only in the landscape art of the beginning of the present century that we can find a scene thus entirely modulated to the dominant key of a sunset light.” A work so imbued with modernity in the brushstrokes which delineate every fold of the draperies imbued with such atmospheric light inspired Adolfo Venturi (1915) to write that the “figure of Augustine shows a cinquecento development and the young head, bathed in soft light, brings to mind Giorgione for its sentimentality and dreamy expression”, and Van Marle (1935) suspected that the rich and saturated palette could only be explained by the presence of Titian working alongside the old master. In recent times, Patricia Meilman (2015), also, compared this painting to the St Mark Enthroned altarpiece by Titian in Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. Meanwhile, Gamba (1937) connecting the chromatic affinities with the painter from Cadore, underlines that “rarely in the works from the last years of Gian Bellini does one find eyes so luminous and penetrating as those of the Saints and the Christ Child, whose weight one upon the shoulders of Saint Christopher seems palpable. One would say, that our master with this work wanted to show the quintessence of his own art, superior to the triumphs of the greatest painters of any other country”. Hendy (Hendy, Goldscheider, 1945) comments “Giorgione had not painted a picture so sumptuous as this, and Titian would never paint one so scrupulously integrated. These terrific young men had nothing to teach their teacher in the way of strength or unity or intensity of expression” and before then, Moschini (1943) had suggested that Bellini knew how to react to the recent developments in painting “[…] obtaining a simplified grandeur and expressing in an original way- always with a structured perspective- the new research into color and space”. According to Lucco (1996) this is “a work in which is metabolized, with almost transcendent serenity, the Giorgionesque bond between the figures and ambience, and already looks forward to a reconsideration of volumetric values which would be pre-eminent in his very last years.”  Meanwhile, the idea, first broached by Pallucchini (1949;1959), emerged that there were precedents for Bellini’s work by Sebastiano del Piombo. One was the figure of of Saint Bartholomew on the organ shutter of San Bartolomeo in Rialto completed in July 1511 (see Lucco 2008 and Barbieri 2015) which seems connected to that of Saint Louis. The other work with parallels to Bellini’s altarpiece is Sebastiano’s Saint John Chrisostom with Saints Catherine(?), Mary Magdalene, Lucy, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist and Theodore already painted for the same church in 1504-1508 for the high altar; it is a paradigm of monumentality both physical and spiritual. The titular saint must have seemed a most original invention with his head placed in profile as he intently studies the scripture, his mitre behind him and his crozier leaning casually against his shoulder, all viewed against a theatrical architectural backdrop. Bellini’s panel can be interpreted as a response to the young Sebastiano (for his relationship with Bellini and an examination of the two artists’ contemporaneous work in the first two decades of the sixteenth century, see Barbieri 2015), just as a few years before he had painted a Baptism of Christ for the Garzadori Chapel in Santa Corona, Vicenza reprising and updating a similar composition by Cima da Conigliano. The composition here is unified by the atmospheric light, which is diffused from the landscape to bathe the foreground saints in a warm glow, despite their position in a quasi-interior, in front of the low marble wall, which remains the only nod to the quattrocento tradition. If the picture plane tends to follow the simple stone framing of the altar and of the barrel-vaulted chapel, this play of inside-outside seems to aim for a different effect, a telescopic perspective ideally connected to the sculptural group of Tullio Lombardo on the altar directly across the church, executed between 1499 and 1502. The architecture of Bellini altarpiece reprises Lombardo’s own structural forms, creating a strong visual bond between the two works, a sort of illusionism on a central axis, very different from the side-oriented solution arrived at by Sebastiano del Piombo with the high altar. The painting is traditional only in the iconographical details: Jerome repeats to a great extent the figure of the same saint on the little panel in Washington while the outline of the head of Christopher, the upturned gaze towards the sky seems to be the final evolution deriving from the Saint Peter Martyr in the Pinacoteca Provinciale of Bari, given new life in the Saint Benedict in Zagreb. The structure of the painting is laid out with traces of incisions of striking modernity: with infra-red we can identify not only the traces of charcoal pressed on from the cartoon but above all a thick series of incisions made by hand directly upon the preparation, instrumental in defining the brushstrokes not only dense in color but laid on heavily, defining an unusual vibrance and passages of chiaroscuro which is totally modern.

One can affirm again that at the very beginning of tonalism, in the turn of the new century, of Giorgione, Titian and Sebastiano, we find that Giovanni Bellini is still there, “the most modern of the old, and the oldest of the modern”, as Pietro Selvatico wrote in the mid-nineteenth century in his Storia estetico-critica delle arti del disegno.❖

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