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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Gentile Bellini was a famous Venetian painter from the 15th century, and one of a number of important artists to come from the same family. He was particularly precise in style, specialising in portraiture and depictions of scenes from the Middle East.

The Orientalist movement within western art would continue for many centuries as travel and trade took Europeans to new cultures and the exchange of ideas became more common. Gentile can be considered one of the original founders of this style of art, having been sent abroad by the wealthy Venetian Empire as a means to placate rulers abroad. He would become enchanted by some of the scenes that he came across, and upon returning to Italy Gentile Bellini would continue to use some of these influences within his work, now purely for his own amusement. It would be the architecture of these regions which became so striking within his work and these paintings would help other Europeans to learn about the cultures that existed outside of their own borders. Islamic culture would be of particular interest, and was certainly on of the more advanced cultures at that point. It would be the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who welcomed him to Constantinople in 1479 which started this process. In later centuries there would be many French artists who headed to North African nations which continued the Orientalist movement.

Giovanni Bellini was the younger brother of Gentile and is now considered the more gifted of the two in most artistic circles but early in their careers the opposite was true. Doges of Venice would welcome Gentile as his official portrait artist and many high paying commissions soon followed, both for the Doges themselves but also for other wealthy patrons in Venice at the time. Having established himself within the city, he would be sent abroad at the age of around fifty, charged with the task of pleasing key trading partners through the exchange of cultural ideas. He would eventually paint Sultan Mehmed II in person, which was a clear signal of the progress that he was making. Upon arriving home he explained his positive experiences of the culture that he came across during his time in what was then known as Constantinople and the impact would remain in his work for the rest of his career. Some in recent centuries have argued that Gentile's approach was less natural than that of his younger brother, but the influence that he left cannot possibly be denied.

Just to underline the artistic roots of this family, besides the two brothers there was also Andrea Mantegna who would become his brother-in-law. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, was Jacopo Bellini, the artist's father, who laid the ground work for his children to flourish with an influential career of his own. Jacopo is most famous for encouraging the use of oil techniques within Italy, which previously had only been the domain of Early Netherlandish artists until the impact of figures such as Antonello da Messina who played an important role in exchanging ideas with their North European counterparts. Jacopo built up a respected art studio in order to complete a variety of commissions and his two sons would be quickly introduced into it. Here they would learn all of the fashionable artistic techniques of the period and then over time would develop their own paths, which were formed from a combination of personal taste and their own unique experiences. Gentile's work was undeniably influenced by his travels and he became known as one of the most highly skilled artists in Europe at the time, though his reputation has somewhat diminished in recent years, now being somewhat overshadowed by other members of his family.

Prior to heading out to foreign lands, Gentile would take on a number of very large pieces which were installed directly into various public buildings. This was entirely typical of the period and has helped to ensure that many of his paintings remain within Italy, because of the difficulty in moving them from their original locations. The very nature of the patrons and their interests ensured that his skills would be used for the decoration of many buildings within the key cities of Italy, as we now know it. His huge artworks from the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista was certainly a highlight and these massive undertakings would normally require the help of assistants or collaborations in order to be delivered within an acceptable timescale. Some he worked on directly with his brother, Giovanni, and they also found that these collaborations helped to spread ideas between themselves, ultimately aiding the development of them both. Venice was a key location for connecting cultures at this time, and so eventually the powers in charge of this Republic would see an opportunity to use art as a means to strengthening relationships abroad.

Titian would follow both Bellini brothers for a short time but eventually preferred the work of Giorgione over them instead. He found some of Gentile's work to be laboured, but part of the problem may have been items from his studio, some of which were substandard, being incorrectly attributed to the artist. Titian himself would become the most famous Venetian painter of them all, and so his opinions have negatively impacted the way in which we see Gentile Bellini's oeuvre ourselves. It is also only fair to remind ourselves that some of Gentile's best work has since been destroyed, most frequently from fire damage. This leaves part of his work unreflected in the displays that we have today, perhaps contributing to the modern bias towards his brother, Giovanni. All of this aside, his impact was still considerable when considering his role in bringing about the Orientalist movement which provides historians with an insight into the mixing of cultures during the 15th and 16th century, and how civilisations went about placating each other during times of peace and profitable trading routes.

Besides those already mentioned, some of the artist's other highlights included the likes of Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco, Madonna and Child Enthroned, Portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo and also Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo. There are below fifty artworks that still remain from his career and that have been confidently attributed to the artist, with many more having derived from the family studio and whose origin can therefore be a little more confused. Those of the 15th century or earlier have unfortunately been subject to many lost, stolen or destroyed artworks over the centuries that have passed since and so an existing oeuvre of this size is actually relatively large by comparison to other notable Venetian painters from around that period in Italian art history. The majority of his most famous paintings remain in Italy, such as Venice or Milan, with a few others to be found in London, Madrid and also Budapest in Hungary. Whilst being more respected during his own lifetime, most today discover his work via some of his family members whose reputations have since risen beyond that of his own