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Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: The Bellini and Andrea Mantegna


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JACOPO BELLINI, the Venetian painter, had been a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, and after the departure of Domenico Veniziano from Venice, found himself without a rival there. He had also two sons of fine genius, the one named Giovanni and the other Gentile, named after Gentile da Fabriano, whom he held in memory as his loving master and father. As his two sons grew up, Jacopo himself taught them diligently the principles of drawing, but before long they both surpassed their father greatly. This rejoiced him much, and he constantly encouraged them, saying that as the Tuscans boasted that they grew strong by conquering each other, so he desired that Giovanni should first conquer him, and then that he and Gentile should contend together.

He painted many pictures with the aid of his sons on canvas, as they almost always do in that city, using very seldom the panels of maple or poplar, which are so pleasant to work upon. For if they use wood in Venice, it is always the wood of the firtree, which is brought in abundance to that city down the river Adige from Germany. But usually they paint on canvas, either because it does not crack or because you can make the picture any size you will, or for the convenience of sending them about.

Afterwards separating, they lived apart, but none the less did the two sons re~erence each other, and both their father, praising each the other, and each esteeming himself inferior, thus seeking to surpass one another no less in kindness and courtesy than in the excellence of their art.

The admiration excited by their paintings caused many of the Venetian gentlemen to propose that they should take advantage of the presence of such rare masters to have the Hall of the Great Council painted with stories of the great deeds done by the city in war, and other things worthy of memory. And this work was entrusted by those in rule to Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, and the painter Vivarino; but poor Vivarino, having accomplished part with great honour, died, and it was necessary that Giovanni Bellini should complete his work.

Not long after, some portraits having been taken to Turkey to the Grand Turk by an ambassador, that emperor was so struck with astonishment that, although the Mahometan laws prohibit pictures, he accepted them with great goodwill, praising the work without end, and what is more, requesting that the master himself be sent to him. But the senate, considering that Giovanni could ill support the hardships, resolved to send Gentile his brother, and he was conveyed safely in their galleys to Constantinople, where being presented to Mahomet, he was received with much kindness as a new thing. He presented a beautiful picture to the prince, who admired it much, and could not persuade himself to believe that a mortal man had in him so much of the divinity as to be able to express the things of nature in such a lively manner. Gentile painted the Emperor Mahomet himself from life so well that it was considered a miracle, and the emperor, having seen many specimens of his art, asked Gentile if he had the courage to paint himself; and Gentile having answered "Yes," before many days were over he finished a lifelike portrait by means of a mirror, and brought it to the monarch, whose astonishment was so great that he would have it a divine spirit dwelt in him. And had not this art been forbidden by the law of the Turks, the emperor would never have let him go. But either from fear that people would murmur, or from some other cause, he sent for him one day, and having thanked him, and given him great praise, he bade him to ask whatever he would and it should be granted him without fail. Gentile modestly asked for nothing more than that he would graciously give him a letter of recommendation to the Senate and Signory of Venice. His request was granted in as fervent words as possible, and then, loaded with gifts and honours, and with the dignity of a cavalier, he was sent away. Among the other gifts was a chain of gold of two hundred and fifty crowns weight, worked in the Turkish manner. So, leaving Constantinople, he came safely to Venice, where he was received by his brother Giovanni and the whole city with joy, every one rejoicing in the honors which Mahomet had paid him. When the Doge and Signory the letters of the emperor, they ordered that a provision of two hundred crowns a year should be paid him all the rest of his life.

Gentile painted a few works after his return; but at last, being near eighty, he passed away to another life, and was buried honourably by his brother Giovanni. Giovanni, widowed of Gentile, whom he had always loved tenderly, continued to work for some time, and applied himself to painting portraits from life with such success that it became the custom for every one whc attained to any rank or position to have their portraits painted by him, last, having attained to the and was buried bv the side of his brother.

Connected with this family by marriage was Andrea Mantegna, who came of very low birth, and when a boy kept cattle in the country round Mantua; but as he grew up, Jacopo Squarcione, a Paduan painter, took him into his house and, perceiving his talents, adopted him as a son. Squarcione, however, knowing himself to be not the best painter in the world, and desiring that Andrea might learn more than he knew himself, made him study from copies of antique statues and pictures, which he fetched from different places, particularly Tuscany and Rome. By these means Andrea learnt much, and began to produce works of so great promise that Jacopo Bellini, the father of Gentile and Giovanni, and the rival of Squarcione, gave him for a wife one of his daughters. But when Squarcione heard of it, he was so enraged with Andrea that he became his enemy, always finding fault with his pictures publicly, saying it would be better if he did not colour his pictures, but made them the colour of marble, for they had no resemblance to life. These reproaches stung Andrea much, but they were of use to him, for he perceived that they were in great part true, and set himself therefore to study from life. Nevertheless it was always Andrea's opinion that for study good antique figures were better than life, because in them the perfection of nature taken from many persons is united, which is rarely the case in one body.

For Lodovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, who esteemed him greatly, he painted much, representing for him the Triumph of Caesar, which is the best thing he ever did. He gained so much fame by it that Innocent VIII, hearing of him, sent for him to Rome. It is said that the Pope, being much occupied, did not give money to Mantegna as often as he wanted it, and therefore when he was painting the Virtues he put among them Discretion. And the Pope, going one day to see the work, asked Andrea what it was, and he answered, "She is piscretion." So the Pope answered," If you would have her well accompanied, put by her side Patience." And the painter saw what the Holy Father meant, and said no morc. But when the work was finished, the Pope sent him away with many rewards and favours.

He delighted, as Pollaiuolo did, in engraving, and among other things engraved his Triumph. He was a man of gentle manners, and will be remembered not only in his country but through all the world, so that he deserved to be celebrated by Ariosto, who at the beginning of the 33rd canto, enumerating the most illustrious painters of his time, says- "Lionardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino."


Source. These texts were at http://ubmail.ubalt.edu/~pfitz/ART/REN/VASARI.HTM,but vanished from the net, and so they have been restored here.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects, by Giorgio Vasari: newly tr. by Gaston du C. de Vere. With five hundred illustraiions, London, Macmillan and & The Medici society, 1912-15.

Other translations include:

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the painters, sculptors and architects. London, J. M. Dent; New York, Dutton [1949-50]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects. Abridged from the translation by Gaston DuC. DeVere. Edited, with an introd., by Robert N. Linscott. New York, Modern Library [1959].

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists. Selected and translated by E.L. Seeley. Introd. by Alfred Werner. (New York, Noonday Press, [1965, c1957]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists; a selection translated by George Bull. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng. : Penguin Books, 1987.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the artists; translated with an introduction and notes by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1991.).


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