BELLINI, Giovanni
(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)

Madonna with the Child (Greek Madonna)

Tempera on wood, 82 x 62 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Of all the still youthful Madonnas by Bellini the masterpiece is the so called Greek Madonna of the Brera Gallery in Milan, which entered the Museum in 1808 following the Napoleonic repression. It was originally in the Ducal Palace in Venice. According to some sources the figures were originally set against a gold background, on which the words "Mother of God" and "Christ" were written in Greek (hence the name of the painting). Obviously, a background of this type would have made it archaic and "archaizing", considerably accentuating the Byzantine appearance of the panel, a veritable Marian icon. The 1986 restoration has established that the still remaining traces of gold beside the Greek letters were a 16th-century addition, while Bellini had originally conceived the sky as it appears now: blue and almost entirely covered by a small curtain held up by a cord. Over the traditional preparatory ground (gypsum and animal glue) he had sketched out the preliminary drawing, marking in with extreme precision even the chiaroscuro with subtle and highly regular criss-cross strokes which can be seen in infra-red photography. This technique used by Bellini must have been famous if Paolo Pino in his Dialogo di pittura (1548) writes that "drawing the painting with such extreme diligence, composing it with chiaro and scuro as Giovanni Bellino was wont to do" was to be discouraged "for it is work thrown away since everything must be covered with the colours".

This type of drawing shows similarities with the rigorous Flemish constructive technique, though under closer scrutiny it appears to be aimed at a search for a much more solid and volumetrically constructed plastic quality. The delicate imperturbability of the Madonna, which would always remain a distinctive feature of Bellini's Virgins, shows not only its aforementioned Byzantine-iconic roots, but also how much the artist's culture owes to this heritage.