Artibus et Historiae no. 67 (XXXIV)

2013, ISSN 0391-9064

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KEITH CHRISTIANSEN - Bellini and the Meditational poesia (pp. 9-20)

In the years around 1480 Giovanni Bellini created a group of works in which landscape acquires a new prominence. The group is comprised of the Transfiguration in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, the Resurrection in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, and the Saint Jerome in the Uffizi, Florence, all of which are altarpieces, and the Saint Francis in the Wilderness in the Frick Collection, New York. The Frick picture is crucial to our understanding of the transformation in Bellini’s art, for it was a private commission intended for a domestic setting (in 1525 it hung in the portega of the Contarini palace). In the altarpieces Bellini, in effect, introduced the dynamic he had perfected in his paintings for private devotion, in which the viewer is engaged in a new way – one that emphasized the subjectivity of an individual’s experience of a work of art.

The most important contribution to our understanding of this new dynamic has been made by Augusto Gentili. Gentili believed that the landscapes are ‘semiotic’: each detail carries a meaning or allusion to the primary theme. This seems, indeed, to be the case with some of Bellini’s paintings, but not all. There are cases in which the background establishes the contemporary relevance of the religious subject that is presented for meditation. But the process of meditation is an associative one, and it was his recognition of the subjective aspect of meditational practice that stands behind the rich allusiveness of Bellini’s landscapes. The fact that the painting in the Frick was commissioned by someone who belonged to the same confraternity as Bellini – the Scuola Grande di San Marco – suggests that one of the ways in which we can attempt to recreate the range of responses his paintings were intended to evoke is by recalling the various laude that were sung. These, too, are part of the devotional world of the fifteenth century. They also remind us that in addition to patristic literature, there was a popular, vernacular culture that was equally – perhaps even more – important in shaping Bellini’s ideas about devotional painting and the responses of his clients and viewers. This more open-ended poetics of landscape marks a new chapter in the history of devotional painting and sets the stage for the great poesie of Giorgione and Titian.

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