Gentile Bellini’s Venetian propaganda piece

One of the most emblematic images of Venice at the height of its power at the end of the fifteenth century, Gentile Bellini’s Procession in the Piazza San Marco, is a subtle propaganda piece designed to celebrate Venetian authority. The subject of this giant painting – a miracle of the relic of the True Cross that here performs an act of healing – is completely overshadowed: physically by the imposing St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, and figuratively by a large procession of the Venetian dignitaries and merchants. The buildings and the people are combined in the symbolism of Venice as a maritime power with an enlightened government that is underpinned by divine authority.

Bellini’s expansive canvass which now hangs in the Accademia was painted for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in 1496. The Brescian merchant whose son is healed through the intervention of the True Cross and whose story the picture commemorates is, however, rather lost in the crowd: he kneels in his red robes to the right of the last two canopy-bearers. Instead, a view of the basilica dominates the visual field. The architecture of the church is distinctively Byzantine but other buildings in its vicinity, Gothic and contemporary, share in the religious and political importance of Piazza San Marco as the setting for the painting.

The procession beneath the buildings that house the religious and political institutions of the Republic of Venice is a demographic cross-section of Venetian society. The doge is seen halfway on the right-hand side of the square and in recognisable costumes are present Venetian religious and political office bearers of varying ages and ranks as well as German, Greek and Turkish merchants. In the long and winding religious procession which carries the holy relic, Bellini has depicted the ordered nature of Venetian society – its diversity but also equality inside the square: the doge is one of a crowd which also comprises foreigners and women.

With the physical and human elements of Venetian power dominating the top and bottom halves of the painting, Bellini presents a narrative whose details reveal connections between these various elements. St Mark’s Basilica is a Byzantinising structure that was built to house the appropriated bones of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint. The basilica is adorned with booty from Constantinople acquired during a holy Crusades; a narrative which is also linked to the relic of the True Cross. And the procession of Venice’s religious and political elites is celebrating these events in a show of confidence in the city’s greatness and a sense of divine protection. And quite a spectacle it is!