(b. ca. 1429, Venezia, d. 1507, Venezia)
Procession in Piazza San Marco1496
Tempera and oil on canvas, 367 x 745 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
The Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice called upon the most respected Venetian painters of the period, including Pietro Perugino, Vittore Carpaccio, Gentile Bellini, Giovanni Mansueti, Lazzaro Bastiani and Benedetto Diana to paint nine canvases for the Great Hall of their headquarters showing the Miracles of the Holy Cross, the story of the miracles performed by the fragment of wood from the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. This fragment had been donated to the brotherhood in 1369 by Philip de Mezières, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Cyprus and Jerusalem, and had soon become an object of great veneration and the symbol of the Scuola, one of the most important and wealthy Venetian confraternities.
The canvas painted by Perugino has been lost, but the eight surviving paintings executed between 1496 and 1501, contain depictions of some of the most famous parts of Venice. Since the imposing series of pictures (known as 'teleri') are all in the Accademia now it is easy to compare them: we notice immediately the basic difference between the archaic choice of images, sometimes portrayed purely as a sort of inventory, offered by the older artists and the new, lively depictions of the city painted by Carpaccio.
Gentile Bellini painted three of the teleri. The first is dated 1496 and represents the miraculous intervention of the Holy Cross in St Mark's Square on 25th April, 1444 on the occasion of the Feast of the Holy Cross. During the procession a merchant from Brescia by the name of Jacopo de' Salis knelt before the relic of the Holy Cross being carried by the members of the Confraternity and prayed that his dying son should be saved. The son recovered immediately.
In the incomparable wide angle view the spectacle of St Mark's Square and the ceremony taking place unfold. On the left, the Procurate Vecchie are still the one-storey buildings there since the time of Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-1178); the Gothic buildings which lie beyond were demolished in the early sixteenth century to make way for the construction of the Clock Tower designed by Coducci. At the end of the square the Basilica of St Mark's still glows with the gold of the marble decorations and the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics of which only one that survives is the one above the arched doorway on the left. The Porta della Carta too stands splendid in its original gilded marble decorations, a brilliant caesura between the Basilica and the Palace of Doges. On the right, grouped around the base of the campanile stands the cluster of buildings including the Orseolo Hospice which was to be demolished in the sixteenth century so that the Procuratie Nuove could be built in its place as part of the plan for the Square produced by Jacopo Sansovino. The ancient buildings reflect the reddish bricks of the floor of the square which remained until Tirali changed them for the present grey slabs of stone patterned with white marble in 1723.
The painter's attention was no less committed when reporting the procession. While the members of the government with the Doge at their head preceded by the standard-bearers, the trumpeters and the symbols of power, are level with the campanile, the members of the Confraternity stand out in the foreground, dressed in the white of the Scuola. In the middle of the group escorted by candle-bearers a canopy covers a golden 'soler' on which is carried the precious relic of the Holy Cross. Reality in the scene is treated faithfully and in minute detail and to encompass the whole event the perspective is widened artificially. In this 'mediaeval' canvas Gentile Bellini achieves a choral grandeur within which he fixes his portrait of men and buildings.