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'Mark Preaching in Alexandria' by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini

A larger image of 'Mark Preaching in Alexandria' by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini

Veiled Women based on a Saracen in Peregrinationes in Terram Sanctam, Breydenbach & Reuwich, 1486

Picture source: pinacotecabrera
Gentile Bellini (1429–1507)
Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430–1516)
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.
Source: Web Gallery of Art

    About 1504-1507 Gentile and Giovanni Bellini made another picture inspired to the East. It was St. Mark preaching in Alexandria now kept in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, but made for the Scuola Grande di San Marco.

    In this picture we can see several Oriental elements. It is clearly inspired by the so-called Mamluk mode that was present in Venetian paintings between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th c. The buildings have Mamluk decorations.

    It is possible to see the column of Pompey’s Pillar and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (totally destroyed in 1480) on the right and the minaret of ibn Ṭūlūn mosque of Cairo on the left.

    On the left it is possible to see also the obelisk of Theodosius of Constantinople (or that of Heliopolis ?) and on both sides of the central building there are two structures that look like the pulpit of the church of St. Mark’s of Venice.

    The great building on the foreground hints to Byzantine architectures. It has elements of the Chora church (Kariye Camii), Aya Sofya, Küçük Aya Sofya of Costantinople, St. Mark’s of Venice and San Vitale of Ravenna.
Source: Gentile Bellini E l'Oriente by Maria Pia Pedani

Like most other costume book makers, Vecellio selected his Africans from other artistic contexts. For example, Vecellio extracted some of his residents of Cairo, including the Moorish Nobleman of Cairo (fig. 13), Woman of Cairo (fig. 14), and the Christian Indian in Cairo (fig. 16) from Gentile Bellini's St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria painted for the albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Marco (fig. 32).74 It is helpful to consider these figures in their earlier context by examining the circumstances

74 The identification of this source for Vecellio's Egyptian costumes was made by Jeanine Guérin dalle Mese, L'occhio di Cesare Vecellio: abiti e costumi esotici nel '500 (Alessandria, 1998) 131.

of Bellini's painting in the confraternity's meeting place. After their original building burned in 1485, the members of the confraternity undertook a lavish reconstruction project. Gentile's historia was the first painting commissioned for the main meeting room and was designated for the position of honor on the east wall where the members entering through the doorway in the west wall would immediately see it. The room's decoration would eventually include a cycle of seven narrative paintings.75 At the time of Gentile's death in 1507, the composition was almost completed, and his brother Giovanni was tasked with its finishing touches in Gentile's will.76
            Images of the life of St. Mark, the patron of both the city of Venice and the confraternity, were frequent sites for the representation of Africans because the story's key events occurred in Egypt.77 In Gentile's scene from the life of Mark, the Egyptians listen to the gospel alongside representations of the confraternity's own members. Bellini's composition was possibly inspired by Cima and Mansueti's narratives of St. Mark's evangelism and martyrdom in the Orient located in the apsidal chapel at the Church of Crociferi. The chapel belonged to the Guild of the Silk Weavers (Arte de Setaiuoli), who considered St. Mark to be their patron. Patricia Fortini Brown points out that Bellini's exotic imagery was appropriate for a scuola whose members had included such viaggiatori as Alvise da Mosto, Giosafat Barbaro, a Venetian diplomat, and

75 The cycle included the following historias: Giovanni Mansuetti, St. Mark Healing Anianas; Gentile Bellini, St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria; Giovanni Mansuetti, Episodes in the Life of St. Mark (Arrest and Trial of St. Mark) ; Vittore Belliniano, Martyrdom of St. Mark; Palma Vecchio and Paris Bordone, Miracle of St. Mark in a Storm at Sea (or Sea Storm); and Paris Bordone, Presentation of the Ring to the Doge. See the description of the albergo's cycle in Patrica Fortini Brown, Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio (New Haven, 1988) 291-295.
76 Brown, 293.
77 The life of St. Mark is represented in twelve episodes in mosaics along the barrel vault of the ante-vestibule of the southwest corner of the Basilica de San Marco in Venice. The ante-vestibule was once the main entrance to the basilica. The area is now referred to as the Cappella Zen. See Brown, 33-37.

Ambrogio Contarini, who brought back a piece of the True Cross to Venice from Constantinople.78
            Brown characterizes St. Mark Preaching as a fantasy (fantasia) with authentic elements intended to evoke an exotic setting that does not necessarily depict an authentic Orient.79 However, she explains that the image, painted in the "eyewitness style," appears to be visual testimony.80 The imagined scene takes place on invented topography that references an Alexandrian setting and includes reference to Mamluk costume while also recalling Venice's Piazza di San Marco.81 Bellini never traveled to Alexandria, but he did spend time in Constantinople, the seat of Ottoman rule. He depicted a single figure in the Ottoman dress that he observed firsthand. The Turk stands as an Ottoman presence to the right of St. Mark's podium and balances Gentile's own self-portrait on the other side. The turban on his head is wrapped horizontally and is topped with a taj, the red cap rising above the white fabric.82 The other men wear turbans in the Mamluk style. A Mamluk turban lacks a taj and is sometimes wrapped vertically.83 Vecellio's Moorish Nobleman of Cairo was excised from the Mamluk crowd. Interestingly, Vecellio stated

78 Ibid., 74.
79 Ibid., 206.
80 Ibid., 4. Brown uses "eyewitness style" to describe the invented scenes that appear to be documentary in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Venetian narrative paintings.
81 Ibid., 208-209. As a reference to Alexandrian topography, Brown points out the Column of Diocletian behind the wall to the right of the basilica. Also, she explains that the leftmost tower could be the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria's harbor. Finally, she explains that the obelisk in front of the wall to the left of the basilica corresponds to one brought by Emperor Augustus from the temple of Amon at Heliopolis and placed in front of the Caesarium of Alexandria.
82 Ibid., 197.
83 My conclusions about the costumes in St. Mark Preaching are derived from Julian Raby's discussion of Mamluk headwear in Venice, Dürer and the Oriental Mode (London, 1982) 35-41.

that his turban is in the Turkish style even though it is actually Mamluk because it lacks a taj.84

84 According to Vecellio, "I Moro di conditione del Cairo portano in capo un dulipa vte simile à i Turchi do sessa…" See Habiti antichi et moderni, f. 424r.
Source: pp. 26-29, African Costume for Artists: The Woodcuts in Book X of Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, 1598 by Laura Renee Herrmann

See also 'The Triumph of St George' by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, 1502
'St George Baptizes the Selenites' by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, c.1507
'The reception of Ambassador Domenico Trevisiano at Damascus' painting by Gentille Bellini school, 1511
Illustrations of Mamluk Costume and Soldiers
Other Italian Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers

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