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

Sermon of St Mark in Alexandria

Oil on canvas, 347 x 770 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

On the death of Gentile, Giovanni Bellini inherited from his brother the celebrated sketchbooks of their father Jacopo, though on one condition: that he finish the large canvas with the Sermon of St Mark in Alexandria, commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which Gentile had started in 1504. On 18 February 1506, in fact, when Gentile dictated his last will, the canvas was already "in large part done", though not finished. It was the Scuola di San Marco itself that confirmed Bellini's assignment to complete the painting on 7 March of the same year, a few days after the death of his brother.

The plan of the large "historia", conceived as an ordered representation on a wide stage closed on three sides by large architectural walls, was clearly Gentile s. The style of the architecture, suggested to the painter during his journey in the East (where he had been sent by the Republic in 1479 in the retinue of a diplomatic mission) is reminiscent of Mameluke prototypes, which led to the speculation that Gentile may have proceeded from Constantinople to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, and from there have recorded new architectural ideas that were different from Ottoman styles, the. latter being more familiar to Venetians.

The official narrative, however, hinges on the crowd gathered around the preaching saint in the square, where, according to Venetian canons of public portraiture, the characters appear as a socially and hierarchically defined group.

Critics have advanced a number of theories concerning the extent to which either brother was responsible for the painting of this large human group. Apart from Vasari, who in the first edition of the Lives (1550) mentioned Gentile as the only author of the painting, only to drop this idea in the second edition (1568), the old historiographers attributed the Sermon to both brothers without entering into detail about the individual contributions.

Modern critics see Giovanni as the hand behind the more precisely psychologically analyzed portraits, placed in the central group, many of whom are shown with a three-quarter turn, and of some characters on the far left. Others assert that St Mark himself, in addition to the senator listening on the right, may be the work of Giovanni.

Here too the research carried out before and during the last restoration was useful in giving new and more precise answers to the problem, revealing the numerous modifications of arrangement and character that some faces have undergone, and the additions and corrections applied to a part of the drawing of the buildings.

But beyond the precise detailed statements, which are in fact secondary, the intervention of Giovanni should be evaluated on the overall conception of the composition. Moving and animating the characters, indeed, restoring to them a unique and peculiar individuality, lightening, even if slightly, the severity of Gentile's "order", Giovanni went beyond the solemn historical consecration typical of his brother's great narrations and imprinted in the "story" a human dimension together with a masterly development towards modernity.