GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516)
'The Transfiguration of Christ', 1480 (oil on panel)
Giovanni Bellini, the major artist in Venice at the time of Antonello's arrival, was hugely impressed by the fluency of Flemish oil painting and adapted the technique for his own work. The advantages of oil paint over other techniques were its slow drying time and its translucency. Its slow drying time allowed artists to broaden their brushstrokes and blend transitions of tone and color to a smoothness that was previously unachievable. Its translucent qualities allowed them to focus on the tonal under-painting to establish a composition that was modelled in light, over which they would apply transparent glazes of color to create a radiant jewel-like finish.
We see all these qualities in Bellini's painting of 'The Transfiguration of Christ', one of his first experiments with oil paint. This work depicts an extraordinary scene (Mark 9:2-13) where the human meets the divine: when Christ, together with Moses and Elijah, is glimpsed in his heavenly glory by the apostles, Peter, James and John. "He (Peter) did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
The visual metaphor that Bellini uses to capture the mystical aura of this event is that eerie sunlight you encounter when the air bristles with static electricity just before the arrival of a thunderstorm. The advancing storm clouds above Christ also symbolize his approaching passion and death on the cross. This charged atmosphere of dramatic light, glowing color and naturalistic textures does remarkable justice to this spellbinding scene.
GIOVANNI BELLINI (1430-1516)
'Detail from Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan', 1501 (oil on panel)
Although oil painting evolved in Northern Europe, it matured as a medium in Venice. We can see the range of its development if we compare two portraits of the Doges of Venice by Bellini and his pupil Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), who dominated Venetian painting for 60 years after his master's death.
In the Bellini portrait, the aim is to create as naturalistic likeness as possible. The smooth surface of the Doge's skin and the luxurious texture of his silk brocade jacket are stunningly rendered in meticulous detail. In painting the portrait, the artist constructs the work in three basic stages:
- Over a thinly painted drawing Bellini develops the depth of color in the skin, the unadorned areas of fabric and the background with translucent layers of color.
- Then he picks out the drawing of the decorative thread work and other small details in more opaque colors using very fine brushes.
- Finally, he builds up the tonal form of the figure with dark transparent glazes and opaque highlights to unify all the elements of the image.
'Detail from Portrait of Doge Marcantonio Trevisani', 1553-54 (oil on canvas)
In the Titian portrait, we have a broader painting technique that exploits the natural qualities of oil paint for expressive effect. Where Bellini disguises his brushstrokes for illusionistic impact, Titian embraces the tactile qualities of the medium and uses them as an element that reflects his personality as an artist. What his paintings lose in terms of detail, they gain in spontaneity. Titian’s breath-taking brushwork has a vitality and beauty of its own, irrespective of what it represents. In his painting of the Doge, we see the full potential of oil paint: a fluid and malleable medium that is applied both thinly and thickly to create a depth of color and variety of textures. Titian's technique expanded the creative potential of oil painting and laid the foundations for a more expressive approach to art in the centuries ahead.