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

Barbarigo Altarpiece

Oil on canvas, 200 x 320 cm
San Pietro Martire, Murano

The painting representing the Madonna and Child, St Mark, St Augustin and the kneeling Agostino Barbarigo, and musician angels is known as the Barbarigo Altarpiece. It is signed and dated in the centre of the Virgin's throne: "IOANNES BELLINVS 1488".

The painting, one of the few chronologically undisputed points in Bellini's career, dates to 1488, the date written after the signature in the centre of the Virgin's throne. The first source concerning the altarpiece is the will of the person who commissioned it, Doge Agostino Barbarigo. Belonging to an important family of the Venetian aristocracy, Agostino, a unique case in the history of the Republic, had succeeded his elder brother Marco to the dogate, although the death of the latter, following a furious public argument between the two brothers over political differences, was seen by many as his responsibility. To demonstrate that he was the heir and loyal continuer of his brother's actions, in the first years of his office especially he had promoted a series of public artistic commissions (the Scala dei Giganti, entrusted to Marco and Pietro Lombardo, the Torre dell'Orologio of Mauro Codussi, the completion of the Ducal Palace with the building of the wing towards the Rio), aimed at a stately and hegemonic image of Venice, consonant with the political ideas which had been Marco's and which he had made his own. At the same time, in a private context, he was engaged in the erection of a grand funerary monument in Santa Maria della Carità for himself and his brother, commissioned Gentile Bellini with the official portrait of Marco for the series in the room of the Maggior Consiglio (a portrait that was executed between 1486 and 1487), and entrusted Giovanni Bellini with the task of painting a "pala granda" (large altarpiece), as a token of expiation for his moral debt, which he placed in the most prominent position of the main hall in the family palace.

In the painting St Mark, with an expression of affectionate protection, presents the kneeling Agostino to the Virgin. According to the words of the Doge himself, both the background landscape and the walled fortress on the right (similar to the one in the Pesaro Altarpiece of some years before) refer semiologically to Mary. The withered tree, on the other hand, a symbol of death and of guilt that must be expiated, refer to the Doge's family disgrace.

Dying in 1501, after a much-debated and variously evaluated dogate, Agostino left the canvas to the women's monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli at Murano "because that figure of our Lady with angels is well suited to being placed above the high altar of her church...". And he added, "... And that neither our sons-in-law nor our daughters (Agostino had had five children, but the only son had died before him), nor our grand-children may put it in our great house, nor in any place other than above the high altar of that very pious monastery". Nonetheless, the canvas was soon moved to make space for an Annunciation commissioned to Titian.