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Reviewed by:
  • Giovanni Bellini
  • April Oettinger
Oskar Bätschmann . Giovanni Bellini. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2008. 256 pp. index. illus. chron. bibl. $55. ISBN: 978-1-86189-357-4.

Oskar Bätschmann's handsomely illustrated monograph offers an overview of Giovanni Bellini's career and problems associated with his oeuvre. In his synthesis of modern studies on Bellini's stylistic development, Bätschmann draws heavily upon the articles found in The Cambridge Companion to Giovanni Bellini, edited by Peter Humfrey (2004). In addition, Bätschmann reexamined the archival documents associated with Giovanni Bellini, as well as contemporary written accounts of Bellini, and cites these at the end in a useful chronological table.

Bätschmann presents a chronology of major paintings from Bellini's career, grouping works under thematic chapter headings related to the artist's stylistic development. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with Giovanni Bellini's early training, [End Page 1251] beginning with an overview of his father's career and his encounters with the art of Andrea Mantegna and Northern European painters. Chapters 3-5 ("Transformations," "Invention," and "Composition" ) treat specific genres and subjects found in Bellini's oeuvre. "Transformations" addresses Bellini's small-scale devotional panels, including the Madonna and Child and the half-length Pietà, focusing on how the painter modified such images from Byzantine icons into emotive narrative paintings with landscape backgrounds and additional figures in the composition. "Invention" further explores Bellini's use of emotion and light to heighten the immediacy of his subject matter through the examples of the Saint Francis in the Frick Collection and images of Christ's Transfiguration. Lastly, the chapter turns to the relationship between painting and poetry in Bellini's Sacred Allegory, a subject that would have lent itself well to further discussion of the poetics of Bellini's painting.

In chapter 5, "Composition," Bätschmann again takes up Bellini's style; in particular, the compositional strategies he employed in sacra conversazioni such as the Pesaro Altarpiece, and the San Giobbe Altarpiece. Included is a review of "the Antonello Problem," or the extent to which Antonello da Messina's presence in Venice between 1475 and 1476 shaped the invention of the Venetian sacra conversazione and Bellini's altarpieces. The chapter concludes with an assessment of symmetry versus asymmetry in Bellini's large pale. According to the author, only toward the end of his career did Bellini add a dimension of dynamism by playing on the slightly skewed composition that characterizes the Diletti altarpiece in San Giovanni Crisostomo, a painting that anticipated the compositions of Sebastiano del Piombo and Titian.

"Harmony," the final chapter, presents an engaging account of Bellini's color composition in light of the discourse on the paragone between painting and music in the sixteenth century and after. Of particular interest is Bätschmann's discussion of images of artists as musicians, from the famous group of music-making Venetian painters found in Veronese's Marriage Feast at Cana to a lesser-known engraving by Domenico Gandini, an example of nineteenth-century historicism that depicts Albrecht Dürer in the company of Giorgione, who plucks a theorbo. Ut pictura musica, a theme found in Vasari's biographies of the purportedly music-loving Giorgione and Leonardo, may have also informed Bellini's music-making angels who, according to the author, may at once represent Bellini's translation of "acoustic phenomena in visual terms" (190) and allude to the artist's own identity as a composer of color tones. While it is difficult to assess the extent of Bellini's concept of musicality and color composition, Bätschmann provides a number of instances in which writers and artists over the centuries from Carlo Ridolfi to Poussin associated Bellini's painting —and Venetian color —with musicality, or musica pittoresca. These observations complement Paul Hills's Venetian Colour (1999), a surprising omission from Bätschmann's text.

With the exception of the last chapter, Bätschmann's book bears upon Bellini's stylistic development, with little in-depth discussion of the visual and literary culture that shaped Bellini's painting or the role of recent contextual studies, such as Patricia Fortini Brown's Venice and Antiquity (1997) or Debra Howard's...


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pp. 1251-1253
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Archived 2009
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