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Work The Beheading of John the Baptist

Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries

La décollation de saint Jean-Baptiste

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo G. Blot

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Author(s):
Bartolucci Sara

The album of drawings from which this picture comes, is a pivotal work in Bellini's oeuvre. A high point of his artistic achievement, it has spurred a reassessment of his work, and a renewed understanding of his genius. The father of the Venetian school, Bellini's work was the source of its many important innovations. He revolutionized the concept of drawing, transforming it from a secondary medium to a genre in its own right.

The Bellini sketchbooks

The Beheading of St John the Baptist comes from one of two albums - in the Louvre and the British Museum - of drawings by Jacopo Bellini, the fifteenth-century founder of the Venetian school. Bellini made the Louvre drawings on vellum in 1430-60, followed by those on paper in the British Museum. After studying in Gentile da Fabriano's studio in Florence, he trained with Pisanello, adopting the latter's formal vocabulary and developing a personal style influenced by classical antiquity. Bellini is a leading representative of the so-called International Gothic style. In Venice he established a large studio, and was assisted by his sons Giovanni and Gentile. Both sketchbooks, but especially the one in the Louvre, pose a number of problems of interpretation which have led some commentators to question their attribution. The drawings are mostly executed in drypoint, with pen additions whose origin remains unclear. Having examined both albums, the art historians Bernhard Degenhard and Annegrit Schmitt have concluded that both the original drypoints and the subsequent additions in pen are the work of Jacopo Bellini.

A genre in its own right

Bellini's sketchbooks do not set out to tell a story or explore a coherent theme; there is no link between the various subjects represented. Neither are they preliminary studies: the drawings are works of intrinsic value, among the earliest examples of the use of the medium to create works of art in their own right. The subjects represent a mix of the sacred and the secular, with a particular interest in scenes of Venetian life. Architecture often plays a leading role, sometimes to the point of obscuring the picture's ostensible subject matter. Bellini's drawings exploit his immediate environment while at the same time re-working motifs and themes from classical antiquity. These highly finished "presentation drawings" paved the way for the "capriccio", a new genre of fanciful architectural views that made the fortunes of more than a few Venetian painters.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist is shown taking place in the courtyard of a fifteenth-century Venetian palace. In a single composition Bellini has brought together three successive episodes from the story: the kneeling saint awaiting the soldier's sword; Salome mounting the staircase with the head of the prophet on a dish; and Herod's banquet. The Biblical subject is in fact no more than a pretext: the artist gives free rein to his imagination, constructing an architectural setting of such complexity that it is difficult to distinguish the scenes. As in the rest of the sketchbook, Bellini devises a fanciful architectural style in which sculpture plays an important role, mixing characteristically Venetian Gothic motifs with forms borrowed from the classical canon. Giovanni and Gentile, who worked in their father Jacopo's studio, were to make abundant use of the sketchbook material.

Bibliography

Bacou R., Chefs-d'oeuvres vénitiens de Paolo Veneziano à Tintoret, Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1954, no. 61.
Bacou R., Première exposition des plus beaux dessins du Louvre et de quelques pièces célèbre des collections de Paris, Editions de laRéunion des Musées Nationaux
Tietze H. et Tietze Conrat E., The Drawings of the Venetian Painters in the 15th and 16th Centuries, New York, 1970, pp. 106-11, no. 364.
Carli E., "Jacopo Bellini, l'Album dei disegni del Louvre", Antichità Viva, XXIII, 1984, nos. 4-5, p. 65.
Degenhart B. and Schmitt A., Jacopo Bellini-L'album dei disegni del Louvre, New York, 1984, p. 30, 119.
De Fiore G., I modelli di disegno nella bottega del Rinascimento, Milan, 1984, pp. 87-88.
Pignatti T., "L'Album dei disegni del Louvre di Jacopo Bellini", Arte Veneta, XL, 1986, pp. 242-243.
Eisler C., The Genius of Jacopo Bellini. The complete Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1989.

Technical description

  • Jacopo BELLINI (Venise, vers 1400 - vers 1470/1471)

    The Beheading of John the Baptist

    circa 1430-1460

  • Drypoint, pen, traces of wash

    H. 38 cm; W. 26 cm

  • Jacopo Bellini; his widow, Anna Rinversi; Gentile Bellini, his son, by inheritance, 1471; taken by Gentile Bellini to Constantinople in 1479 and presented or sold to Sultan Mehmed II. Rediscovered in Smyrna in 1728. Marquis de Sabran-Pontevès Collection, France; acquired 1884.

    401484

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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