The painting represents Christ standing on Mount Tabor and revealing his divine nature to Peter, James and John.
The episode is narrated in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke and here it is set in a natural landscape, surrounded by green field, with a city and buildings in the background, and some of them really exist. These include the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna.
Christ is the figure in the center, dressed in white, standing with open arms, surrounded by light. On his sides you can see prophets Elijah and Moses, depicted in slightly turned positions, wearing large robes and holding scrolls, one of them with the writing in Hebrew “5239”. According to critics, the number indicates the year 1478-1479 of the Christian calendar, which would reveal the dating of the work.
In the foreground, right in front of Christ, are the three apostles Peter, James and John, shocked and incredulous by the unexpected vision. John, the figure on the right, is lying down with an astonished look, Peter, in the center, is kneeling and facing the sky, while James, also in his knees and one hand raised upwards, seems to want to run away in fear.
The particular thing about Bellini’s composition is the choice to set the scene in a natural landscape, and no longer in a simple background or banal setting where the scene takes place. In fact, nature became and an integral part of the sacred episode, after a turning point in the painter’s career, starting from the sixties of the 15th century. Having abandoned the harsh and graphic style of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, Bellini decided to choose lighter tones, taking influence from Piero della Francesca and Antonello da Messina. The Venetian artist softened the shapes and created a combination, which would become typical of the 16th century Venetian painting, between color and warm, golden, unifying light, but also between man and nature.
A very original aspect is also the choice of humanizing the figure of Christ, who is placed on the same level with the prophets, firmly on the ground, as if to underline the exceptional meaning of his transfiguration.
There are several symbolic elements, such as the broken tree on the left, which probably alludes to the death and resurrection of Christ, to which also refer the ivy branches on the stump, symbol of the immortal soul. Around 1505 Bellini painted this tree in an almost identical in way in the Pietà, preserved today in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, where he also represented real buildings in the background.
The painting is signed “IOANNES BELLI” in the foreground, in the small chart hanging on the fence, and it probably comes from the Fioccardo chapel in the cathedral of Vicenza. In the 17th century it was in the collection of Palazzo Farnese in Rome, where it was mentioned for the first time in 1644. It is likely that the painting was moved together with other important works of the family collection to the palace of Capodimonte in the following century, with Charles of Bourbon, son of Elisabetta, the last descendant of the Farnese family, who became king of Naples in 1734.
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.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.