A Great Venetian Painter in the Service of a Sultan
Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)
In 1479 Gentile Bellini was sent to work in Istanbul.
How disappointing that so little evidence remains AWED by Giovanni Bellini, mentor to Durer, Giorgione and Titian, the great Venetian painter who, like Verdi centuries later and in another field, both formed his followers and kept pace with them into his eighties, we tend to overlook his elder brother Gentile. Gentile it was who succeeded as head of the Bellini workshop - far the most important in Venice in the 15th century - when their father Jacopo died in 1470-71, he who then became, in a sense, official painter to the Republic.
To Gentile the government and institutions of the city turned for official portraits and formal memorials recording historical events, the refurbishing of the Greater Council Chamber of the Doge's Palace among them - the total loss of which in a fire has contributed to our current ignorance and unenthusiastic opinion of him.
We judge him by what little remains - large paintings of open urban scenes busy with crowds that even when engaged in religious happenings have a calm and secular air about them. These we find dry, meticulous, prosaic, industrious and obedient to the requirements of record, and his reputation is not helped by the imitations of plodding followers.
In 1479 the panjandrums of Venice dispatched the reliable Gentile to Istanbul to work briefly for Sultan Mehmet II, vanquisher of Byzantium and conqueror of its capital, Constantinople, a quarter of a century earlier. The tiny republic and the vast Ottoman empire had been at odds most of that time but had at last reached the necessary settlement; the Turks had not stopped short in the ancient eastern capital of the Roman empire, but had driven on into Dacia and Thrace, taking control of the Black Sea and the Aegean, pillaging the fortress ports of the Adriatic, expanding into the southern Balkans, threatening the North.
Even the wily Venetians were compelled to concede to their inexorable force if they were to retain any part of their long- established control over the great trade routes from the East and their penetration into ultramontane central Europe. As a civilising gloss to a treaty that imposed a heavy levy and an annual tribute on the Venetians, deprived them of significant forts, territory, influence and income, but ended desperate years when formal conflict with the Turks had been all but indistinguishable from piracy and pillage, Mehmet, seeming to promise his enemies cultural influence in place of economic power, requested the services of good Venetian artists at his court.
He was well aware of the wonders of the Italian Renaissance, and the Senate wisely sent him their best and most exalted painter, Gentile Bellini, as a diplomatic courtesy.
Like Suleiman the Magnificent the better part of a century later, Mehmet was as much scholar and connoisseur as conqueror. He had a splendid library of books, manuscripts and miniatures, his young palace companions and imperial pages were taught fine script, drawing, painting and music, and were, it seems, chosen for their physical beauty; cosmography, natural history-and the canonical texts of classical literature were among his interests; his Persian and Arabic books were exquisite with non-figural (and occasionally figural) embellishments; and poets, storytellers, astronomers and theologians were welcomed at his court. In this intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere, Gentile Bellini must have been perfectly at ease.
His fifteen months in Istanbul between September 1479 and January 1481 are now examined by the National Gallery in its exhibition Bellini and the East, Gentile's contact with the world's most awesome warrior illuminated by the handful of paintings and drawings that can be associated with this extraordinary moment of cultural exchange, supported by portrait medals and related objects of …
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Publication information: Article title: A Great Venetian Painter in the Service of a Sultan. Contributors: Sewell, Brian - Author. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: April 28, 2006. Page number: 40. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.