Paintings and prosecco: Bellini e i Belliani

To Conegliano, in the Veneto, at short notice to visit the exhibition Bellini e i Belliniani in the Palazzo Sarcinelli. Short notice, because I only realised it was happening a week before it was due to close.  But a 24 hour trip to the Veneto was never going to be a hardship, and the town of Conegliano is long on charm, and mercifully short on tourists. I was lucky enough to have the exhibition almost entirely to myself on a Saturday afternoon.
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Many questions about the everyday functioning of the Renaissance painter’s workshop remain unanswered, and the curators of this exhibition in Conegliano set out in their introduction to the show an intention to address some of these questions by displaying together works by Bellini and by some of the artists dubbed his pupils, or followers.The artists of Venice are well outside the focus of my research, but the workings of the Renaissance workshop are highly relevant to an understanding of artistic production in Perugia at the close of the fifteenth century. In this period demand for art in the Umbrian towns was so high that numerous artists forged busy careers. The names of these artists, such as Berto di Giovanni and  Sinibaldo Ibi, are mostly unfamiliar today, but in the last decades of the fifteenth century these men operated thriving painting businesses and their skills were in great demand. In order to meet that demand they utilised designs, techniques and cartoons learned from Perugino, and produced numerous works that aped his style.
We know surprising little, however, about the detailed operation of artists’ workshops in the Renaissance. The existence of multiple paintings by different artists that are so similar as to appear to be ‘copies’ surely suggests collaboration. But what form did this take? Did pupils in a workshop copy finished works by the master, in order to hone their skills, and to produce paintings for less aesthetically demanding clients? Did the master lay out the designs and let the pupils do the ‘easy’ bits; returning to give it their finishing flourish? How do we even define who was a pupil, who a follower, or who should be dubbed ‘circle of’ a particular master painter? I went to Conegliano with hopes of learning something of how other scholars, focusing on other artists, are approaching these questions.
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Bellini is perhaps the perfect subject for such an enquiry; so many versions of many of his works are still known today, and his influence was widespread and long-lasting.  And certainly the printed Guide to the exhibition raises crucial issues such as ‘How was work carried out in the bottega? With what instruments? And following what rules?’. In his essay in the printed catalogue Giandomenico Romanelli discusses the existence of Bellini’s scuola, and the manner in which more and less talented pupils ‘copied’ the master’s works.  Romanelli also makes the pertinent observation that pupils paid the master whose workshop they joined, and were not selected for their ability. As a result, their abilities and therefore the quality of the ‘copies’ they made, varied widely. However the exhibition itself, although beautifully hung, and lit, never gets to grips with these issues.
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The highlight for me was the opportunity to view, side-by side, two versions of the Circumcision of Christ, both here attributed to Bellini’s pupil Marco Bello, although dated ten years apart. Reference is made to the almost identical painting of the same subject in the National Gallery in London, and the inclusion of a reproduction of this would have added impact to the exhibition’s claim to be focusing on issues of workshop production, and reproduction.  As it was I was able to pop into the NG the following day to remind myself just how similar their version (attributed simply to Workshop of Giovanni Bellini) actually is.
DSCN1982 Another glaring omission in the Palazzo Sarcinelli was surely the lack of any information from technical examination of the paintings. Modern methods such as infra red reflectology can reveal the underdrawing beneath the painted surface, and allow an understanding of how the composition was initially transferred to the panel. It was not clear whether this sort of examination has been undertaken. Without it, new understanding is limited.
What the display of the paintings together does do is to underline just how much there is still to be learned about the techniques used to make these duplicate images. The two versions of the Circumcision displayed here, and the one in the National Gallery, are dated at ten year intervals from each other. In our digital age we are so used to being able to call up in front of us any image we choose that it is easy to forget that the Renaissance artist was reliant on sight of the painting he wished to recreate, or on the use of a very detailed cartoon. In a pre-photographic era such precise reproduction is awe-inspiring.  In particular, it made me wonder just how  it was possible to make an exact copy a full decade after the first painting was completed, and had presumably left the workshop?
I left the exhibition buzzing with questions.  It was a treat to visit a show which stirs the intellectual curiosity. It would be nice to have had a few answers to contemplate as well. It did not quite get there.
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Oh  – and did I mention that Conegliano is also the heart of the Prosecco region? Fortunately there was still time for an aperol spritz before dinner……

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