During Albrecht Dürer’s second stay in Venice, in 1506, he wrote back to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nüremberg about his experiences in the Serenissima, amongst other things describing the artists at work there. Of the elderly but still very much active Giovanni Bellini, he wrote that he was still “der pest im Gemoll” — ‘the best in painting.’ When Dürer wrote this, Bellini had recently completed his altarpiece for the Church of San Zaccaria (where it remains), dated 1505, a so-called Sacra Conversazione, ie. the Madonna and Child surrounded by select saints, a traditional model in ecclesiastic art dating back centuries. But crucially innovative, hugely influential, and deeply touching.
This was a time when a trio of young, ambitious and singularly gifted artists, Giorgione, Sebastiano Luciani (later anointed ‘del Piombo’) and Titian — the latter two pupils and the former a close associate of Bellini’s — were poised to displace the older master as the central innovator in Venetian painting, and change its course forever. The San Zaccaria altarpiece, however, is evidence that Bellini himself understood what was happening. Far from oblivious to the innovations of Central Italian artists, especially Leonardo’s dissolution of the barrier between individual and world, Bellini was at this point consistently defining his figures in clear, but liquid light, proving that he was, indeed, still pest im Gemoll.