Giovanni Bellini Madonna Contarini


Gallerie dell' Accademia di Venezia


1475 - 1480


680 x 700 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The oil on panel painting is a tender depiction of the bond between Mary and Jesus when he was a child, described as two monumental figures, but represented at the same time with great sweetness, especially in Mary’s case. The Virgin is dressed in a red robe and a large blue cloak that covers her head, as in traditional iconography, and she is placed behind a marble parapet on which little Jesus is resting. He is supported by his mother and raising his little right hand in blessing. At the center of the balustrade is a cartouche with the signature of the author of the work IOANNES BELLINVS, while in the background you can see a calm, hilly landscape with a large green field and in distance a city with towers, a castle and other buildings and mountains with fresh snow on them. Some critics have identified the tower on the far left as the one at the central square in Vicenza, which was clearly visible to those who arrived in the city from Venice or Padua. Starting from between 1470 and 1480 the landscape became an important element for Bellini, who represented it with great realism and naturalness even in works of different subjects. The intimacy of the relationship between the young and affectionate mother and the Child with a gaze that seems to look beyond the terrestrial life, already aware of his destiny, is rendered very natural by intimate details, such as the embrace of the Virgin, who is holding her son with both hands, her tender gaze at her child, in addition to her serene and maternal look. The painting is similar for its subject and type to a series of Madonnas with Child painted by the artist and his workshop early in his career, with figures that often had more or less the same physical appearance, pose and expression, and he only changed garments, or as in this case, the representation of the background. Therefore it is probable that the cartoon that was used for this and other works – often with some variations – was a prototype used by the painter and his students for this type of commission, mostly intended for private devotion. The most similar work is Madonna of the Small Trees, also preserved in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the first Madonna that Bellini signed and dated 1478. Madonna Contarinni is preserved in Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice since 1838, when it was donated along with other works by the aristocrat Girolamo Contarini, whose family owned the painting at least from the 16th century. The work dates around 1475-1480, based on the figure of the child, which recalls the one in the Altarpiece of San Giobbe that was made in those same years and it was part of the legacy that Taddeo Contarini left with testament in 1587 to his grandson Girolamo.

Artist Details

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Bellini was born in Venice probably around 1430. He studied with his brother Gentile and his father Jacopo, who were known artists, but he also showed interest in Vivarini and especially in the work of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. He went to Padua from 1443 to 1453 where he was influenced by Donatello’s work, which can be seen in his works made in the 1460s with shallow lines in landscapes and figures and with bright and polished colours. Among them are the altarpiece of San Vincenzo Ferreri (SS. Giovanni and Paolo), the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration (Museum Correr), the Prayer in the Garden (National Gallery, London) and juvenile paintings of Madonna and Child and Pietà. Bellini often softened the forms and preferred less harsh tones of colours, which can be seen in the altarpiece of Pesaro (Coronation of the Virgin, Museo Civico) of 1475. During this period, he also painted the Madonnas of Brera and Santa Maria dell’Orto, the Transfiguration of Capodimonte (1480 - 85) and the altarpiece of San Giobbe (1480) the Triptych of Frari (1488) where you can already see some typical 16th-century influences. The composition is large and solemn, peaceful and sweet, before the works of San Zaccaria (Madonna in the throne with saints, 1505) and San Giovanni Crisostomo (St. Jerome, 1513) where the form and colours are inspired by the works of Giorgione and Titian. Bellini died in Venice in 1516.

Collection Details

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The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.

In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.

The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480). The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.

The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.

The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.

In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.

In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.