Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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the handmaid of the Lord. The painter who set such an
image before us could scarcely have been without a pro-
found and tender respect for the woman's office, an exqui-
site adoration for the Child.

While the younger brother kept in this traditional path,
giving to it all the inspiration of his manly and lofty
genius, his brother Gentileentered upon a different way.
Probably he too began in nfs father's workshop with mild
Madonnas; but ere long the young painter must have
found out that other less sacred yet noble subjects were
better within his range of power. His fancy must have
strayed away from the primitive unity of the sacred
group into new compositions of wider horizon and more
extended plan. The life that was round him with all its
breadth and rich variety must have beguiled him away
from the ideal. The pictures he has left us set Venice
before us in the guise she then wore, as no description
could do. In the two great examples which remain in
the Venetian Accademia there is a sacred motive: they
are chapters in the story of a miraculous holy cross. In
one, the sacred relic is being carried across the Piazza,
attended by a procession of wonderful figures in every
magnificence of white and red, and gilded canopy and
embroidered mantle. And there stands S. Marco in a
softened blaze of gold and color, with all the fine lines of
its high houses and colonnades, the Campanile not stand-
ing detached as now, but forming part of the line of the
great square; and in the midst, looking at the procession,
or crossing calmly upon their own business, such groups
of idlers and busy men, of Eastern travelers and mer-
chants, of gallants from the Broglio, with here and there
a magistrate sweeping along in his toga, or a woman with
her child, as no one had thought of painting before. We
look, and the life that has been so long over, that life in
which all the offices and ceremonies of religion occupy
the foreground, but where nothing pauses for them, and
business and pleasure both go on unconcerned, rises be-
fore us. The Venice is not that Venice which we know;
but it is still most recognizable, most living and lifelike.
No such procession ever sweeps now through the great
Piazza; but still the white miters and glistening copes
pour through the aisles of S. Marco, so that the stranger


o herself, in everything -vant,

of the Lord. The painter who set such an

scarcely have been without a
id tender respect for the woman's office, anexqui-
ration for the Child.

lie younger brother kept in this traditional path,
tj to it all the inspiration of his manly and lofty
s, his brother Gentile entered upon a different way.
ably he too began in his father's workshop with mild
Madonnas; but ere long the young painter must have
found out that other less sacred yet noble subjects were
better within his range of power. His fancy must have
strayed away from the primitive unity of the sacred
group into new compositions of wider horizon and more
extended plan. The .': '. hat was round him with all its
breadth and rich variety must have beguiled him away
from the ideal. ": < he has left us set Venice

before us in the gVMe sire u*<t wore, as no description
could do. IT .^s which remain in

the Venetian t< 4 sarred motive: they

are chapters in CAMPANILE OF ST. MARK
one, the sacred roll .-. r.-.-ss the Piazza,

attended by a pn i figures in every

magnificence of whit< i canopy and

embroidered mantle. A" S. Marco in a

softened blaze of gold ami -.. Hnr-s si

its high houses and colonn ,le not >

jag detached as now, but f the line of the

square; and in the HP. at the procession,

/ssing calmly upon their :ness, such groups

'ers and busy men, of Eastern travelers and mer-
\ gallants from the Broglio, with here and there
te sweeping along in his toga, or a woman with
is no one had thought of painting before. We
ife that has been so long over, that life in
offices and ceremonies of religion occupy
t where nothing pauses for them, and
busin- ire both go on unconcerned, rises be-

fore us. itce is r..-t that Venice which we know;

but it is v ' recognizable, most living and lifelike.

No such '-: -weeps now through the great

Piazza; b white miters and glistening <

pour through - of S. Marco, so that th'


and pilgrim may still recognize the unchangeable accom-
paniments of the true faith. The picture is like a book,
more absolutely true than any chronicle ; representing not
only the looks and the customs of the occasion, but the
very scene. How eagerly the people must have traced
it out when it first was made public, finding out in every
group some known faces, some image all the more inter-
esting because it was met in the flesh every day! Is that
perhaps Zuan Bellini himself, with his hair standing out
round his face, talking to his companions about the pass-
ing procession; pointing out the curious effects of light
and shade upon the crimson capes and birettas, and
watching while the line defiles with its glimmer of candles
and sound of psalms against the majestic shadow of the
houses? Still more characteristic is the other great
picture. The same procession, but more in evidence,
drawn out before us with the light in their faces as they
wind along over the bridge, with draperies hung at every
window and the women looking out, at every opening
one or two finely ornamented heads in elaborate coifs
and hoods; while along the Fondamenta, on the side of
the canal, a row of ladies in the most magnificent cos-
tumes, pilgrims or votaries kneeling close together, with
all their ornaments jeweled necklaces and coronets,
and light veils of transparent tissue through which the
full matronly shoulders and countenances appear unob-
scured look on, privileged spectators, perhaps waiting
to follow the procession. It is a curious instance of the
truth of the picture that this is no file of youthful beauties
such as a painter would naturally have chosen, but, with
scarcely an exception, consists of buxom and full-blown
mothers with here and there a child thrust in between.
It is said by tradition that the first of those figures, she
with the crown, is Catherine Cornaro, the ex-queen of
Cyprus, probably come from her retirement at Asolo to
view the procession and see a little life and gayety, as a
variation on the cultured retirement of that royal villa.
The object of the picture is to show how the cross, which
has fallen into the canal by much pushing and crowding
of the populace, floats upright in the water and is mirac-
ulously rescued by its guardian in full priestly robes,
notwithstanding the eager competition of all manner of
swimmers in costumes more handy for the water who


have dashed in on every side; but this, though its pious
purpose, is not its most interesting part.

It is difficult, as has been said, to find any guidance of
dates in the dimness of distance, in respect to matters so
unimportant as pictures; and accordingly we are unable to
trace the progress of the decoration in the great hall. It
was delayed by many causes the indifference of the Signo-
ria and the lukewarm interest of the painters. Gentile
Bellini received permission from the Signoria to go to the
East in 1479, an ^ is there described as engaged on the
restoration of a picture in this magnificent room, origi-
nally painted or begun by his namesake (or, as we should
say in Scotland, his name-father, Jacopo Bellini having
named his eldest son after his master) Gentile da Fabri-
ano a work which the magnificent Signoria consider his
brother Giovanni may well be deputed to finish in his
place. Nor is it more easy to discover what the principle
was which actuated the Signoria in selecting for the deco-
ration of the hall that special historical episode which is
so problematical, and of which even Sanudo says, doubt-
ing, that "if it had not happened, our good Venetians
would never have had it painted " a somewhat equivocal
argument. The pertinacity with which the same subjects
were repeated three times first by the earliest masters,
then in the full glory of art by all the best of the Bellini
generation and by that of Titian; and at last in the decay
of that glory, after the great fire, by the Tizianellos and
Vecellini, the successors of the great painters departed,
whose works remain is very curious. Perhaps some-
thing, even in the apocryphal character of this great
climax of glory and magnificence for Venice, may have
pleased the imagination and suggested a bolder pictorial
treatment, with something of allegorical meaning, which
would have been less appropriate to matters of pure fact
and well-authenticated history. And no doubt the people
who thronged to look at the new pictures believed it all
entirely, if not the great gentlemen in their crimson
robes, the senators and councilors who selected these
scenes as the most glorious that could be thought of in
the history of the city; how Venice met and conquered
the naval force of Barbarossa and made her own terms
with him, and reconciled the two greatest potentates of
the world, the Pope and the emperor, was enough to fill


with elation even the great republic. And the authority
of fact and document was but little considered in those
stormy days.

The subject on which Gentile Bellini was at work when
he left Venice was the naval combat between the Doge
Ziani and Prince Otto, son of Barbarossa, which ended
in the completest victory; while that allotted to Giovanni
Bellini was the voyage in state of the same Doge Ziani to
fetch with all splendor from the Carita the Pope who was
there in hiding under a guise of excessive humility as
the cook of that convent. At that period, identified thus
by his brother's departure, Giovanni Bellini must have
been over fifty, so that his promotion did not come too
soon. It is not, however, till a much later period that
we obtain the next glimpse, authentic and satisfactory, of
his share of the great public work, in which there were
evidently many lapses and delays for which the painters
were to blame, as well as weary postponements from one
official's term of power to another. Early in the next
century, however, in 1507, in some pause of larger
affairs, the council seems to have been seized with a sud-
den movement of energy, and resolved that it would be
no small ornament to their hall if three pictures begun
by the late Alvise Vivarini could be finished, along with
other two, one of which was not even begun, " so that
the said hall might be completed without the impediments
which have hitherto existed." It would almost seem to
be the pictures confided to the Bellini which were in this
backward condition, for the Signoria makes an appeal
over again to " the most faithful citizen, our Zuan Bel-
lini," to bestir himself. But the negligent painter must
by this time have been eighty or more, and it was evi-
dently necessary that he should have help in so great an
undertaking. His brother had died that year a very old
man, and a younger brotherhood was coming to light.
And here we find what seems the first public recognition
of another name which is closely connected with those of
the Bellini in our minds, and to which recent criticism has
allotted even a higher place than theirs. The noble sena-
tors or councilors, suddenly coming out of the darkness
for this object, appear to us for a moment like masters of
the ceremonies introducing a new immortal. " Messer
Vector, called Scarpazza," is the assistant whom they


designate for old Zuan Bellini, along with two names un-
known to fame, " Messer Vector, late Mathio," and
"Girolamo, painter," no doubt a novice whose reputation
was yet to win. Carpaccio was to have five ducats a
month for his work; the other, Messer Vector, four;
Girolamo, the youth, only two "and the same are to be
diligent and willing in aid of the said Ser Zuan Bellini in
painting the aforesaid pictures, so that as diligently and
in as little time as is possible they may be completed."
A warning note is added in Latin (perhaps to make it
more solemn and binding) of the conditions above set
forth in which it is " expressly declared " that the little
band of painters bind themselves to work "continuously
and every day " laborare de continuo et omni die. This
betrays an inclination on the part of the painters to avoid
the public work which it is amusing to see. Let us hope
the Signoria succeeded in getting their orders respected;
no absences to finish a Madonna or St. Ursula which
paid better, perhaps both in fame and money; no return-
ing to the public service when private commissions failed;
no greater price for what may be called piece-work, for
specially noble productions; but steady labor day by day
at four or five ducats a month as might be, with the
pupil-journeyman to clean the palettes and run the
errands! In Venice, as in other places, it is clear that
the state service was not lucrative for art.

Six years after we find the work still going on, and
another workman is added. " In this council it was de-
cided that Tiziano, painter \_pytor\, should be admitted to
work in the hall of the Great Council with the other
painters, without, however, any salary, except the agreed
sum which has usually been given to those who have
painted here, who are Gentile and Zuan Bellini and Vector
Scarpazza. This Tiziano to be the same." It will strike
the reader with a certain panic to see with what indif-
ference these great names are bandied about as if they
were the names of a set of decorators; one feels an awed
desire to ask their pardon! But not so the great Ten,
who held the lives and fortunes of all Venetians in their

About the date when old Bellini was thus conjured to
complete or superintend the completion of the wanting
pictures, another painter from a very different region


from a landward town fortified to its ears and full of all
mediaeval associations, in the middle of Germany came
to Venice. The high-peaked roofs and picturesque tur-
rets of Nuremburg were not more unlike the rich and
ample facades of the Venetian palaces, or the glow and
glory of Venetian churches, than was the sober life of
the Teuton unlike the gay and genial existence of the
Venetians. Albert Durer found himself in a southern
paradise. He gives the same account of that Venetian
life at first hand as Vasari does in his historical retro-
spect. He finds himself among a crowd of pleasant
companions; players on the lute, so accomplished and
sensitive that their own music makes them weep; and
all, great and small, eager to see, to admire, to honor the
great artist. " Oh, how I shall freeze after this sunshine!
Here I am a gentleman, at home only a dependent," he
cries; elated, yet cast down by the difference, and to
think that all these fine Italian lords think more highly
of him than his bourgeois masters in Nuremburg. San-
bellini, he tells his friends, has come to see him, the
venerable old man very old, but still the best painter of
them all, and a good man, as everybody says: and from
this master he receives the sweetest praise and a com-
mission to paint something for him for which he promises
to pay well. Old Zuan Bellini, with his vivacious Vene-
tian ways, and the solemn German, with his long and
serious countenance, like a prophet in the desert what
a contrast they must have made! But they had one lan-
guage between them at least; the tongue which every
true artist understands, the delightful secret freemasonry
and brotherhood of art.

It was when he had arrived at this venerable age, over
eighty, but still coming and going about these pictures in
the great hall, and alert to hear of and visit the stranger
from Germany who brought the traditions of another
school to Venice, that Bellini painted his last or almost
last picture, so touching in its appropriateness to his
great age and concluding life, the old " St. Jerome" in San
Giovanni Crisostomo, seated high upon a solitary mount
with a couple of admiring saints below. Perhaps he had
begun to feel that old age needs no desert, but is always
solitary, even in the midst of all pupils and followers.
He did not die till he was ninety. It was the fashion


among the painters of Venice to live to old age. Among
other works for the great hall, it is understood that
Bellini painted many portraits of the doges, of which one
remains, familiar to us all, the picture now in our National
Gallery of that wonderful old man with his sunken
eyes of age, so full of subtle life and power. History
bears no very strong impression of the character of
Leonardo Loredano. He held the helm of state bravely
at a time of great trial, but the office of doge by this
time had come to be of comparatively small importance
to the constitution of Venice; however, of all the potent
doges of Venetian chronicles, he alone may be said to
live forever. With all these thinkings, astute yet humor-
ous, which are recorded in his eyes, and his mouth
scarcely sure whether to set with thin lips in the form it
took to pronounce a fatal sentence, or to soften into a
smile, this dry and small, yet so dignified and splendid
old man remains the impersonation of that mysterious
and secret authority of the republic by which, alas! the
doges suffered more than they enjoyed. The painter is
said in his moments perdus to have painted many portraits
among others that Imagine celeste shining like the sun,
which made Bembo, though a cardinal, burst into song:

" Credo che il mio Belli n con la figura,
T'habbia dato il costume anche di lei,
Che m'ardi s'io ti mira, e pur tu sei,
Freddo smalto a cui gionse alta ventura."

In the meantime the elder brother, Gentile, had met
with adventures more remarkable. In the year 1479, as
has been noted, the Signoria commissioned him to go
to Constantinople at the request of the sultan, who had
begged that a painter might be sent to exhibit his powers,
or as some say who had seen a picture by one of the
Bellini carried thither among the stores of some Venetian
merchant, and desired to see how such a wonderful thing
could be done. This is, we may point out by the way, a
thing well worthy of remark as a sign of the wonderful
changes that had taken place in the East without seriously
altering the long habit of trade and the natural alliance,
in spite of all interruptions, between buying and selling
communities. Even within these simple pages we have
seen the Venetians fighting and struggling, making a


hundred treaties, negotiating long and anxiously for
charters and privileges from the Greek empire in the
capital of the East; then helping to destroy that imperial
house, seizing the city, setting up a short-lived Latin
empire, making themselves rich with the spoils of Con-
stantinople. And now both these races and dynasties are
swept away, and the infidel has got possession of the once
splendid Christian city, and for a time has threatened
all Europe, and Venice first of all. But the moment the
war is stopped, however short may be the truce, and how-
ever changed the circumstances, trade indomitable has
pushed forward with its cargoes, sure that at least the
Turk's gold is as good as the Christian's, and his carpets
and shawls perhaps better who knows? There is nothing
so impartial as commerce, so long as money is to be made.
Scutari had scarcely ceased to smoke when Gentile Bellini
was sent to please the Turk and prove that the republic
bore no malice. One can imagine that the painter went,
not without trepidation, among the proud and hated
invaders who had thus changed the face of the earth.
The grim monarch before whom Europe trembled received
him with courtesy and favor, and Gentile painted his
portrait, and that of his queen no doubt some chosen
member of the harem whom the Venetian chose to rep-
resent as the sharer of Mohammed's throne.

The portrait of the sultan, formally dated, has been
brought back to Venice, after four hundred years and
many vicissitudes, by Sir Henry Layard. It represents
no murderous Turk, but a face of curious refinement,
almost feeble, though full of the impassive calm of an
unquestioned despot. The Venetian, as the story goes,
had begun to be at his ease, cheered, no doubt, by the
condescension of the autocrat before whom all prostrated
themselves, but who showed no pride to the painter, and
by the unanimous marveling surprise, as at a prodigy,
of all beholders, when a horrible incident occurred. He
would seem to have gone on painting familiar subjects,
notwithstanding the inappropriateness of his surround-
ings, and had just finished the story of John the Baptist
" who was reverenced by the Turks as a prophet." But
when he exhibited the head of the Baptist on the charger
to the sultan, that potentate began to criticise, as a man
who at last finds himself on familiar ground. He told


the painter that his anatomy was wrong, and that when
the head was severed from the body, the neck dis-
appeared altogether. No doubt with modesty, but
firmly, the painter would defend his work; probably for-
getting that the sultan had in this particular a much
greater experience than he. But Mohammed was no
man to waste words. He called a slave to him on the
spot, and whether with his own ready sword or by some
other hand, swept off in a trice the poor wretch's head,
that the painter might be no longer in any doubt as to
the effect. This horrible lesson in anatomy was more
than Gentile's nerves could bear, and it is not wonderful
that from that moment he never ceased his efforts to get
his dismissal, "not knowing," says Ridolfi, "whether
some day a similar jest might not be played on him."
Finally he was permitted to return home with laudatory
letters and the title of Cavaliere, and a chain of gold of
much value round his neck. The Venetian authorities
either felt that a man who had risked so much to please
the sultan and keep up a good understanding with him
was worth a reward, or they did not venture to neglect
the recommendation of so great a potentate for they
gave the painter a pension of two hundred ducats a year
for his life. And he was in time to resume his pencil in
the great hall where Ridolfi gives him the credit of five
of the pictures, painted in great part after his return.
All this no doubt splendid series was destroyed a hundred
years after by fire; but, as has been already noted, the
subjects were repeated in the subsequent pictures which
still exist, although these, with the exception of one by
Tintoretto and one by Paolo Veronese, were executed by
less remarkable hands.

Gentile Bellini died in 1507, at the age of eighty, his
brother nearly ten years after; they were both laid with
so many others of their brotherhood in the great church
of San Giovanni e Paolo, where the traveler may see their
names upon the pavement in all humility and peace.

The nearest to these two brothers in the meaning and
sentiment of his work is Victor Carpaccio. His place
would almost seem to lie justly between them. He is
J the first illustrator of religious life and legend in Venice,
as well as the most delightful story-teller of his time, the
finest poet in a city not given to audible verse. The


extreme devotion which Mr. Ruskin has for this painter
has perhaps raised him to a pedestal which is slightly
factitious at least, so far as the crowd is concerned, who
follow the great writer without comprehending him, and
are apt to make the worship a little ridiculous. But
there is enough in the noble series of pictures which set
forth the visionary life of St. Ursula to justify a great
deal of enthusiasm. No more lovely picture was ever
painted than that which represents the young princess
lying wrapped in spotless slumber, seeing in her dream
the saintly life before her and the companion of her
career, the prince half knight, half angel whose image
hovers at the door. The wonderful mediaeval room with
all its slender, antique furniture; the soft dawn in the
window; the desk where the maiden has said her prayers;
the holy water over her head, form a dim, harmonious
background of silence and virgin solitude. And what
could surpass the profound and holy sleep, so complete, so
peaceful, so serene in which she lies, lulled by the solemn
sweetness of her vision, in which there is no unrest, as of
earthly love always full of disquiet, but a soft awe and
stillness as of great tragic possibilities foreseen? The

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 24 of 35)