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

The Feast of the Gods (detail)

Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The painting was originally in the so-called "alabaster chamber" of Alfonso I d'Este in Ferrara. This small room, used as the duke's study, was situated in Alfonso's private apartment in the "covered way", which connected the Castle of Ferrara to the Ducal Palace. It probably took its name from the marble reliefs by Antonio Lombardo that were in it. The painted "historie" ordered to decorate it, according to a scheme worked out by Alfonso himself, possibly with the assistance of humanists like Mario Egnicola, also included three paintings by Titian when the decoration was completed (Bacchus and Ariadne, London, National Gallery; Offering to Venus and The Andrians, Madrid, Prado) subsequent to Bellini's Feast, and indeed actually wanted by Alfonso to accompany it. The artists contacted by the Duke to complete the decoration of the room had been: Fra Bartolomeo, who died before being able to paint anything; Raphael, who also died after having prepared only some drawings which were never translated into finished works, and lastly Titian, who accomplished his own paintings taking into account the ideas that had belonged to his predecessors and which are evidenced by old copies and drawings.

According to Vasari, Titian also intervened directly on Bellini's Feast, "whose work not having been able to finish completely, for he was an old man, was given over to Titian, as the most excel. Of all the others, who completed it". Only the X-ray test carried out in 1956 resolved the debates and varying interpretations which had arisen from this sentence of Vasari's. They revealed that the painting had three different drafts; an original one by Bellini; and another two, partial and later, which may be interpreted as "revisions" of a short time after, one belonging to Dosso and the other to Titian and which mainly regard the woody landscape that provides the scene's background. Bellini had in fact conceived and painted a landscape containing only a few scattered trees with light foliage. This was transformed by the overpaintings, first into a landscape with ruins and houses and a dense leafy wood, then, in the final version by Titian, the present one, into one that is dominated by a rocky spur set against a cloud-filled sky. The poses and clothes of some of the figures were also changed, or an attribute pertaining to its divinity was added (Neptune's trident, Apollo's lyre, etc.). Probably two corrections are not attributable either to Titian or Dosso, but to yet another painter: the left arm of Cybele and the right arm of Neptune, which are rather coarsely finished.