ROME.- The major monographic exhibition on "Giovanni Bellini" that Mauro Lucco and Giovanni C. F. Villa are organizing at Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale exhibition center, putting together a scientific committee of immense international prestige comprising the world's leading experts on the painter, is an operation that is going to entail numerous difficulties due to the fragile condition and immense value of the works of art involved, almost all of which are on wood and extremely large. This is the first monographic exhibition on Giovanni Bellini since Rodolfo Pallucchini devoted an exhibition to him at the Doge's Palace in Venice in 1949, almost 60 years ago.
Over 60 of the painter's works will be on show in Rome. That is almost three-quarters of the Venetian master's entire known output. The works of art will be on loan from the world's leading museums in Florence, Milan, Venice, Paris, London, Madrid, Washington, New York, Ottawa and Sao Paolo. Alongside the altarpieces -- to cite but one, the Baptism of Christ painted for the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza, painted on wood and over four meters high -- the exhibition will be probing the issue of private commissioning by displaying the complete series of Crucifixions and Pietas, as well as offering a selection of Madonna and Portrait prototypes, and above all, the major allegories and mythological scenes, with pieces such as the Continence of Scipio, a frieze over three meters long painted to imitate marble carving. This will be the first time that this work leaves its home in Washington's National Gallery of Art.
In keeping with a modus operandi now traditional at the Scuderie del Quirinale, the exhibition will not be confined to merely displaying absolute masterpieces. It will also provide an opportunity for a major review of the Venetian painter's works and their chronology, thanks to a crucial contribution from the main restoration bodies in Italy, with the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence heading the list. Giovanni Bellini's long career, which is fairly well documented after the turn of the 15th century, is far less well documented in its early stages. The early career of this painter, who is a key figure for any understanding of the development of painting in the second half of the Quattrocento in Italy, can be traced only through his works. The oldest dated painting of his that we have is the Madonna degli Albereti, currently in Venice's Accademia Gallery, which is signed and dated 1487 when the artist was already over 50. Thus ahead of the exhibition, which is in fact due to move on to the Accademia and the Museo Correr in Venice, a thorough search of the archives was conducted in Venice and a vast campaign of scientific investigation was undertaken, and the results have been astonishing. Not only have they revealed Giovanni Bellini's splendid preparatory drawings beneath the paintings, but they have also helped to substantively rebalance the chronology of the artist's output.
Very few great masters in history have been able to impress a new direction on the course of events while, at the same time, profoundly changing their own approach to painting. In that select group, the place of honor must go to Giovanni Bellini. In his Viatico, art historian Roberto Longhi describes the stylistic development of "one of Italy's greatest poets" as "starting off Byzantine, then becoming Gothic, later following in the footsteps of Mantegna and the Paduan school, then turning for inspiration to Piero and Antonello, and finally becoming Giorgione-esque". This approach is often interpreted as a chronological excursus in which the Venetian artist himself never takes precedence, thus ironically the vision of his lofty art has been somewhat blurred hitherto by the focus on his ties with other great masters of the time. Yet for about 60 years Giovanni Bellini was at the very hub of that highly original renewal movement, that cradle of independent painterly vocabulary, that turned Venice and its art inside out, thus allowing it to take pride of place on the international scene thanks to a new poetic style that first adopted and adapted the early Florentine Renaissance and Lombard experiences, and subsequently translated them into a fully "Italian" idiom.
Thus Giovanni Bellini became the artist responsible for the first true "national" unification of Italy, with an art that is not only intrinsically beautiful in itself, but that is easily comprehensible to all, transcending local stylistic differences and eventually becoming a fundamental focal point. Even before Leonardo, Bellini was the great inventor of the representation of sentiment and of nature, offering us works of extraordinary poetry in landscapes incorporating every lesson imparted in Italy and in the rest of Europe till then, with figures totally immersed in the space surrounding them, in a deeply moving and extremely convincing way. His works are all profoundly Venetian in the softness of his use of light, in the sober realism of his male and female figures, and in his taste for natural and eminently identifiable botanical detail.