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

Pesaro Altarpiece

Oil on panel, 262 x 240 cm
Musei Civici, Pesaro

The Pesaro Altarpiece, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, is one of the artist's masterpieces and a pivotal work of his mature years. The painting does lack a precise chronological reference, and about this, and the closely linked and equally unresolved question of its commissioning, critics are particularly intransigent, arriving at controversial and far from conclusive results.

The altarpiece certainly has a politico-religious value which is impressed in and in some way determines the composition. On the one hand it celebrates the profession of Franciscan faith (an Order linked to the Sforza family, then lords of Pesaro, by strong bonds of devotion and protection) through the presence, at the sides of the throne and in the left and right-hand pilasters, of saints whose cult was particularly venerated and fostered by the friars in Pesaro and in the territory of the signoria. But, on the other hand, they are particularly significant by virtue of a symbolic meaning attributed to their presence: George, the knightly saint so dear to the noble courts, and Terence, saint of Pesaro represented as an ancient "miles", occupy the compartments at the base of the pilasters, where heraldic insignia were usually placed, and thus represent the civil and military power of the Sforza. Behind Terence, on the left, a Roman memorial tablet with a bust and an inscription extolling the emperor Augustus completes the celebratory reference to the 'potestas' of the ducal family.

The occasion for the execution of the altarpiece is also a matter of uncertainty and controversy. It might have been ordered to celebrate the taking of Gradara, the Riminese fortress conquered by Pesaro in 1463: the many-towered and fortified landscape in the background of the Coronation would in this case refer to the representation of Gradara. Alternatively, we might consider the marriage between the lord of Pesaro and Camilla of Aragon in 1474.

Stylistically, the Pesaro Altarpiece marks the achievement of a new balance. The lesson of Mantegna appears to have been sublimated in the light of that of Piero della Francesca, thus opening the way to yet another issue: where and when, in other words, had Bellini been able to contemplate and become so well acquainted with the art of Piero della Francesca. Probably the Pesaro Altarpiece itself constituted for him the occasion of a journey from Venice to the Marches, which was among other things his mother's birthplace, and therefore the possibility of a direct appreciation of the works of Piero della Francesca.

The typically Venetian architecture of the altarpiece recalls that of some contemporary funerary monuments, primarily that of the Doge Pasquale Malipiero, erected by Pietro Lombardo in the church of St John and St Paul. However, the typology of a frame that is integral with the painting, in the interests of an inseparable perspective and spatial continuity, is fundamentally new (even if it drew on various precedents, such as Mantegna's San Zeno Polyptych). The idea of the throne's open back-piece, a veritable painting within a painting, serves precisely to resume and further articulate this new structural and compositional definition. In the great altarpiece that followed, that of San Giobbe (c. 1487) and in the altarpieces to come this intuition would develop and mature until it reached a total, and also optical, indivisibility of the painting from its frame, which constitutes the only real access to it, the starting point of the vision itself.