For lovers of Italian Renaissance art, this has been a pretty stellar year in terms of exhibitions. Amongst the major ones, the Rome/Berlin Sebastiano del Piombo show over the summer was an eye-opener, and this autumn’s double whammy of Andrea Mantegna in Paris and Giovanni Bellini in Rome offered strong contributions to this museum-goer’s sweet hangover this year.

I haven’t had time to write much about the former here on the Bunker, unfortunately, but suffice to say that it is an enormously impressive show — a formidable showcase of a great artist that makes a number of controversial claims, but at the same time is presented with enough scholarly responsibility that one is encouraged to make up one’s own mind.

Presenting an equally remarkable, if more limited selection of works, the Bellini show provides the viewer with an impressive overview of the oeuvre of this, one of the greatest of masters of European painting. It is astonishing to follow the development of this great bringer of light to painting, from his earliest works in tempera to the late, glorious Christian syntheses of natural and divine illumination, wrought in luminous oil.

It is now Christmas, which has given me something of a breather, and what better way to celebrate than to think some about Bellini?

When examining the sky in a panel such as the Louvre Crucified Christ with the Madonna and St. John the Evangelist, one sees how Bellini made use of the translucent character of his egg-based medium to build up a surprisingly rich crepuscular glow on the horizon. The individual layers are rather simply stratified, but by careful overlays as well as slight displacement of individual layers, Bellini achieves what amounts to an optical blend of colours that due to the quick-drying nature of tempera was impossible to reach through dissolution.

In an interesting hypothesis, co-curator Mauro Lucco proposes that this panel was originally made as the cimasa (top piece) for the Polyptych of St. John the Baptist in the Church of the Carità in Venice, of which the main panels are lost, but the predella (subsidiary panel) — showing the Story of Drusiana, from the life of St. John the Evangelist — is preserved in a private collection in Munich. This rarely seen work, earlier attributed to Carpaccio and Lauro Padovano, is included in the Mantegna show, where it is presented as a work by the young Bellini of around 1453-55.

This opens a whole can of worms that I am reluctant to engage fully here, but still at least must outline: the fraught question of Bellini’s year of birth. Early 20th-century art historical tradition places it in the late 1520s or early 1530s. The former notion has been more or less discarded, while the latter, which would make him a more or less exact contemporary of Mantegna — who was born in 1431 and became Bellini’s brother-in-law when he married his sister Nicolosia in 1453 — has remained viable. In recent decades, however, the notion that he was probably a late, illegitimate child, born around 1440, has gained widespread acceptance.

One of the main reasons to believe this latter notion, as indeed do the curators of the Rome show, is that there are no works that can be securely attributed to Bellini before 1560, when he is documented to have collaborated with his father Jacopo and his brother Gentile on the so-called Gattamelata Altarpiece in Padua.

The curators of the Mantegna show — led in this matter by Luciano Bellosi and Giovanni Agosti — are firm proponents of the earlier birth date, and theirs is a passionately argued response to the increasingly accepted late one. As already indicated, they propose the Story of Drusiana as a work of the 1450s and make a reasonably sound comparison with Bellini’s earliest signed work, the St. Jerome and the Lion in Birmingham, which they date around 1453 (while Lucco places it in 1459).

They base the rest of their argument on a number of miniatures made for a book now preserved in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, which they attribute to Bellini. The book is dated 1453, making it impossible for Bellini to have worked on it were he born around 1440. It is a hard call: a couple of the images, especially a view of a council meeting, in which exquisitely rendered light fills the room from the windows at the left, could well be by Bellini, especially since it is built up of the same tiny, meticulously hatched strokes that give such shimmering life to his paintings — a technique surely derived from efforts at creating sensual texturing from quick-drying tempera (which was usually applied in even layers), and since then applied with great success to oil painting. Of the remaining two illustrations, however, one seems to me too stiff and pedantic and the other too ornamental to be by him.

Whatever the case might be, the question remains open, and although Lucco’s belief in the late birth date may well be the most just, his effort at constructing an early phase of Bellini’s career is considerably less convincing. Bafflingly, he sees similarities between the aforementioned Birmingham St. Jerome and a donatellesque Madonna and Child in Los Angeles, which he describes as of the moment, around 1457, when the young Giovanni was still working within his father’s style, but started transcending it :– doing a kind of “hyper-Jacopo.” The painting is attractive, but it is utterly unlike the St. Jerome or anything else painted by Bellini around this time, such as the remarkable Madonna and Child in Amsterdam, which is surely an early work. I see absolutely no reason not to retain the old attribution to Jacopo, and — reversing the influence — would date it sometime in the 1560s.

Even less convincing is the attribution of a crudely painted polyptych featuring the Madonna Enthroned with the Child from Genzano, supposedly a work by the young Bellini of around 1468-70. While no doubt painted by somebody familiar with Bellini’s work, it is so far from the master’s work of this or any period — not only in its archaic design and stilted modelling, but also in its over-articulated brushstrokes — to make his authorship impossible. This is the kind of attribution that does more harm than good, undermining somewhat as it does the otherwise impressive connoisseurship that drives the show.

Returning after this rather lengthy excursus to the Louvre Crucified Christ, I find it hard to reconcile with the Drusiana predella. Obviously, there is a difference between the amounts of attention an artist generally would devote to these different, subsidiary parts of a polyptych, but the figures in the Louvre picture are stronger and more defined — even slightly harsh — in their modelling, while the light is rendered with greater delicacy. This is a picture of the period where Bellini was most influenced by his brother-in-law Mantegna, especially in his approach to figure drawing, whereas the Drusiana predella looks like a slightly earlier work. Contemporary sources do describe the polyptych as having been crowned by a crucified Christ, but it does not necessarily have to be this one. Since it cannot be much later than the early 1560s, this would, if correct, support the early dating of the Drusiana.

This brings us to the interesting issue of Bellini’s mantegnesque phase, which for obvious reasons is one of the bones of contention between the opposing views concerning his birth date. The compelling hypothesis of Bellosi and Agosti is that there was a period in the mid- to late 1450s when these two great contemporaries were working closely in tandem, experiencing a crackling synergetic development akin to that of Braque and Picasso in their cubist period. In support of this, they cite a number of works by Mantegna dating to that decade — such as the St. Justina from the Polyptych of St. Luke (c. 1453-55) — that seem clearly influenced by Bellini.

This is obviously a very attractive idea, and there is no doubt that the two painters inspired each other significantly for a time, but the dates are all open to questioning as far as I am aware, and the mutual influence does not in any case have to have been of the same exact moment. At any rate, it would linger for many years in the works of both artists — in Bellini’s case, there is a distinct mantenesque influence throughout his work of the 1460s, while his brother-in-law’s almost organic layering of rocks persists in his work of the 1470s. And as late a Mantegna as the wonderful Copenhagen Suffering Christ as the Redeemer (c. 1485-90) owes much to Bellini in the luminescent white of his otherwise crisply rendered burial shroud and the glow of the dawn.

I started talking about the evolution of light in Bellini’s art, and I find the quintessential theme running through his work to be how humanity can be perceived in terms of light metaphor. Inspired by the great Flemish oil painters, Bellini brought a theretofore unprecedented attention to the representation of light as it appears in nature, making the divine qualities with which light is invariably infused in Christian art all the more acutely felt.

At the same time, while he was certainly not the first artist to do so, he emphatically made the Christian ethos come alive through the emotional realism, the touching humanism, of his characterisations. His art is one of the most compassionate representations of Christianity. Never shying away from painful reality, it is always reassuring, encouraging us to believe, both in ourselves and God. And light is the divine spark of his treatment of the human countenance, especially in his later work. His figures radiate. Almost pantheistic in ethos, a picture such as the marvellous Kimbell Risen Christ constitutes everything in the same light.

Tied into this compassionate element, is the way Bellini has of making us feel comfortable in our own skin, encouraging spiritual contemplation through evocation of physical well-being. I have already written elsewhere about how he achieves this in his late, great San Zaccaria altarpiece (1505), but cannot bypass in silence the commanding presence of the Pesaro altarpiece, showing Christ Crowning the Madonna, which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition where it has been reunited with its cimasa, the breathtaking Anointment of Christ normally kept in the Vatican.

Although the register is clearer and the light falls less hazily than in the late masterpiece, the idea is the same. Marble flooring in the morning sun, warming the bare feet of the saints, while their loosely draped clothes are rendered with a tactile luxuriousness — whether burlap or brocade — that makes one comfortable just looking at it. The fluffy cumulus on the horizon is lined with reddish warmth of the same radiance that deepens Christ’s rich, purple robe and — in the cimasa — enkindles the face and garment of especially Joseph of Arimethea. A perfect moment of devotion.

The most immediately remarkable feature is the window onto the landscape created by the architectural frame of the throne-like seat of Christ and the Virgin. By inserting this, Bellini achieves an optical effect that must surely have been enhanced in the church where the altarpiece was originally installed — emphasising the depth of space of the building itself by stimulating the viewer’s projective imagination to a landscape beyond the walls. A window on the world at its best, and thus almost a summation of Bellini’s artistic achievement as such.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Bellini’s art, to me, has always been the evident stylistic difference between even pictures produced more or less at the same time. The exhibition provides the viewer ample opportunity to consider this issue, not the least in the many madonnas included. By showcasing such a selection of these bread-and-butter works, it encourages consideration of this issue and the concomitant one of the role of Bellini’s assistants in the daily production of the studio.

Dated to around 1485-90, we for example have such pictures as the slightly dry Bergamo Madonna, her smoky counterpart in the Kansas City Nelson-Atkins Museum, and the so-called Madonna of the Trees from the Accademia in Venice, which is more loosely and suggestively painted than either of them. From his later years, we have works such as the soft filter Accademia Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and a Female Saint (c. 1500-1504) as well as the two famous madonnas in Detroit (1509) and Milan (dated 1510), one comparatively strongly delineated, the other more softly suggested.

All of these pictures are of indisputably high quality and their central passages convince entirely as Bellini’s work. Nevertheless, they are clearly different from each other. This may in part be accounted for by differences in their state of conservation — it is certainly a factor in such a picture as the Madonna of the Trees — but there must be other, more important reasons. It seems evident that studio involvement must account for some of it — the famous Bergamo picture, for example, underwhelmed me somewhat, appearing overly dry and slightly formulaic in comparison with the much more vibrant Madonna of the Trees.

And in any case, it seems obvious that the background of this picture was painted by someone else — pedantic and literal, it imitates the master without understanding him. I do not know whether this means that Bellini himself painted the considerably more suggestive background in the Nelson-Atkins picture, or whether it was executed by someone who had a better grasp of his approach. It seems clear however that he had assistants do a lot of the work, especially on backgrounds, which also accounts for the major differences between those in the three later pictures. Of these, the Milan picture is of the highest quality all round, and consistent in handling across the surface, while the background of the Detroit picture, beautiful as it is, seems uncharacteristically forceful, applied as it is in rather thick, long strokes of the brush.

I am far from a specialist on Bellini, and much less on his studio, so I shall refrain from further speculation here, and merely emphasise the distinct impression I have that, whatever responsibility his assistants may have had for these differences, the master himself evidently was able to change and adapt his style, whether to suit the tastes of a patron or his own artistic impulses. The Accademia picture, for example, is one of several sweetly toned, richly coloured pictures painted in the first decade of the 16th Century, of which others — such as the Birmingham Madonna and Child with Sts. Peter and Mark and a Donor, the Thyssen Madonna and Child with ?Simeon and Female Saint, and the Borghese Madonna and Child — are included in the exhibition. In these pictures, contours are softened and forms rounded, and a couple of them place additional emphasis on sumptuous decorative effects such as the pattern on the female saint’s robe in the Accademia picture.

In contrast, the Detroit and Milan Madonnas are, each in their way, much more forcefully iconic pictures. And if one brackets the remarkable Birmingham picture, which contains two of Bellini’s most compelling character studies in the two saints, they are more concerned with imbuing their protagonists with the kind of empathetic divinity I talked about earlier.

Nowhere is this chameleon-like ability of the master more evident than in the picture closing the show, the strange and seemingly unprecedented Derision of Noah from Besançon. The crumbling faculties of old age have rarely been as earnestly treated in painting. There is an innocence of abandon in the expression of Noah’s sleeping face, while his body splays tellingly, dried by life.

Although there is a palpable tinge of cruelty to his son Cam’s sardonic grin, it also seems a slightly desperate laugh at his own transience. It is often how we cope. And the sombre dignity of the other two sons, Sem and Jafet, covering their father — slightly indignant and sensitively composed, respectively — imbue the scene with quiet compassion.

What a remarkable work to have produced towards the end of such an illustrious career! A testament to how innovative an artist Bellini remained to the very end. So innovative that one might be forgiven for not believing it, upon seeing the painting. It is astonishingly bold in its brushwork, exhibiting an impasto in especially the whites that rivals Sebastiano del Piombo’s in the organ shutters for San Bartolommeo (c. 1510). And, while part of this may be accounted for by the picture’s being very abraded and having undergone several restorations, there is no doubt that a lot of what the original hand put down remains.

It simply does not quite look like anything else we know from Bellini’s hand. It has the same graying sfumato of the late Pietà altarpiece at the Accademia (c. 1514-16), the rather weak, slightly stunted anatomy of several of his later pictures, and the quiet fervour of the great San Giovanni Crisostomo altarpiece (c. 1513). The bowl looks very similar to that which is so famously rendered in tweaked perspective — anticipating Cézanne — in the stunning Verona altarpiece (c. 1510, one of the showstoppers of the exhibition), and the rendering of the red cloth is not unlike its counterpart in that picture.

But really, it looks different from all these pictures. It would have been fantastic to have the opportunity to compare it with the Washington Feast of the Gods, undertaken in 1514 and left unfinished at the artist’s death, to be completed later by his former pupil Titian. My memory of that picture, however, is that it is considerably smoother in finish than the present one, and thus once again testament to the changeability of Bellini’s style.

At the end of the day, however, any of the alternative attributions that have been advanced simply do not work. There is a similarity of approach to theme, composition and anatomy in the work of the Bergamesque painter Giovanni Cariani, but as far as I know, his brush never moved this boldly, and we have no work by him approaching this in sheer force and originality. Lorenzo Lotto was more of an unorthodox thinker, and could conceivably have thought of something like this, but even at his most giorgionesque never worked as expressively as this, especially not at this early stage of his career. Lastly, the picture seems entirely alien to Giorgione’s artistic mind, not to mention his always rather controlled handling.

In other words, it must have been painted by Bellini, whose very range of stylistic approach and artistic inquisitiveness makes him the only, really likely author of this masterwork. And actually, I suspect that there may actually be a direct comparison to be made to the stunning Dead Christ in Stockholm (c. 1514-15). I have unfortunately not seen this picture in the flesh, but from reproductions it seems to me to exhibit a similar dry handling of paint, with areas of bold, expressive impasto. Together they form a moving testament to Bellini’s compassion, glowing as they do with the spark of life.

The Bellini show runs till January 11, the Mantegna show till January 5. Thanks to Paul Joannides and Chris Fischer for good discussions.