Jacopo Bellini: Venice’s emerging Renaissance painter

Largely overshadowed by his son Giovanni, Jacopo Bellini dominated the art scene in Venice from the mid-1400s when he became instrumental in the creation of Venetian Renaissance painting. A pupil of Gentile da Fabiano with stints in Florence and Ferrara, he represents a transition from International Gothic to Renaissance. While his early linear perspective was a little more than the use of spatial representation by a late Gothic painter, he gradually introduced the principles of Florentine Renaissance into Venice.

Jacopo’s influence on Venetian painting was further expanded through his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, and his son in law, Andrea Mantegna, who were all successful artists of their time. Jacopo wasn’t merely the figurehead of the most influential artistic dynasty of 15th-century Venice. Acting both as medieval artisan and emerging Renaissance artist, he integrated creative spirit with entrepreneurial flair. The family workshop in time expanded to allow Gentile to become the de facto official painter of Venice.

Jacopo’s use of linear perspective may have been less correct than that used in Florence, but it still evokes astonishing illusionistic effects. A fine example of this is Crucifixion – my favourite Jacopo Bellini which now hangs at the Museo Correr in Venice. Part of a dismantled polyptych, it’s among his boldest compositions. Jacopo had positioned the cross at an angle, rather than frontally. In addition, the soldier and some in the crowd have their backs turned to the viewer who then becomes part of the crowd as well.

This is a stylistically transitional work, in which the modelling of the figures and the confident rendering of folds of cloth indicate an excellent understanding of the progressive art of 15th-century Florence. It depicts a sombre scene that strictly conforms to the Florentine Renaissance style of Masaccio and repudiates the rich colouring and courtly grace of Jacopo’s earlier known works where he tended to use gold pigment as part of the Byzantine-inspired decorative elements associated with International Gothic.

It isn’t easy to fully trace Jacopo’s development since only a small fragment of his work now survives. What is clear, however, is his ability to identify new trends in painting and adopt them as the Renaissance style became the new standard of sophistication. Jacopo’s extraordinary ability explains the success of his workshop and his dynasty, both of which were able to dominate Venetian painting throughout the second half of the 15th century more effectively than any other rival family, including that of the Vivarini.