“National Gallery of Art: Bellini masterpiece, Feast of the Gods, restored“
Splendor of `The Feast of the Gods’ Is Restored
by Jason Edward Kaufman
In Washington, D.C., a remarkable conservation effort has shed new light on one of the great paintings of the Italian Renaissance: Giovanni Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods.
The large canvas was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and executed in 1514 by Bellini (c. 1427-1516), the preeminent painter of 15th-century Venice. Within fifteen years, a large portion of the composition was repainted by Titian (1488-1576), the leading painter of 16th-century Venice.
How much of the picture is Titian’s and how much Bellini’s has long been debated by scholars. Now, owing to a scientific study headed by David Bull, chief of conservation at the National Gallery, these questions have been answered and new facts disclosed. The findings are presented in an extraordinary didactic exhibition, the highlight of which is the newly cleaned masterpiece.
The main room includes the mural-sized canvas, and various smaller works by Venetian artists from the National Gallery’s collection. A second room chronicles the phases of the conservation laboratory’s investigation, and in an adjoining theater, Bull narrates a fascinating, 30-minute film that elucidates every aspect of the project.
The Feast of the Gods illustrates a story from Ovid in which a group of Roman gods, goddesses, and satyrs are relaxing in a forest when the braying of Silenus’s ass wakes them in time to discover Priapus about to ravish the as-yet sleeping nymph Lotis.
After cleaning, the breathtaking spacial organization and luminous atmosphere of the painting have been revealed, and its dazzling Venetian colors and meticulously rendered details restored. Before the cleaning the spectator would scarcely have noticed the gemlike ultramarine of the infant Bacchus’s tunic or the intense orange of Silenus’s robe; the astonishing realism of the still life passages on the foreground stage was veiled in yellowed varnish; and the hair of the turning nymph in the center, the glistening waterfall in the middle distance to the left, and the satyrs frolicking on the hillside were all but concealed under a dense blanket of grime.
It has long been recognized that the composition was amended by Titian. The old story was that Bellini, nearing the end of his career, had been too old to complete the painting. But, one might well ask, if Bellini did not finish his painting, why did he sign and date it? (His inscription appears on a tag attached to the wine vat in the lower right corner.)
As Bull explains, this legend stems from the misreading of a line in Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Titian (1568). Vasari writes that Bellini, “being an old man, was not able to finish the work [“opera“] completely, [so] Titian was summoned … [and he] applied himself very diligently and executed the two scenes needed to complete the room.”
Vasari refers not to The Feast of the Gods as Bellini’s unfinished “work” (indeed, he calls it one of the artist’s finest paintings); the “work” that Vasari refers to as having been unfinished by Bellini is the remainder of Alfonso’s program of decoration for the camerino. To further support this interpretation, Bull notes that a 1514 letter from the Duke authorizes a final payment to Bellini, whose only known commission for Alfonso was this canvas.
Nevertheless, all scholars agree that the landscape in the painting is the work of Titian. A letter of around 1600 describes the canvas as “a painting by Bellini with a landscape by Titian.” Their relative roles in the composition have been deciphered with x-radiography, infra-red reflectography, and microscopic analysis of cross-sections of paint samples.
From cross-sections it was ascertained that no alterations had been made to Bellini’s figures. The x-rays showed, however, that tree trunks, such as those at the right, with a distant landscape glimpsed between them, once formed a continuous frieze across the background. This was Bellini’s original scheme.
In the upper left portion of the x-ray appear some buildings, traces of which are visible to the naked eye in the sky to the left of the hill. It was recognized that these structures represented an intermediate alteration, later overpainted by Titian. The reflectograph was vague, but showed essentially the same thing.
From cross-sections of minute flecks of paint, it was determined that a bright green layer of pigment corresponded with the buildings and extended across nearly the whole upper portion of the painting. The brushwork of this extensive first alteration, most clearly visible in the reflectograph, describes foliage markedly different from the more organic leafage painted by Titian.
A comparison with the brushwork in the camerino’s frieze painted by Alfonso’s court painter, Dosso Dossi, proved quite similar, in fact identical. Thus, the conservation laboratory discovered that the landscape in Bellini’s painting was first altered by Dosso Dossi, and subsequently repainted by Titian.
Not all of Dosso’s effort remains concealed by Titian’s brush; some glints of the brighter green underpaint show through in the treetops, and enigmatically, Titian left an entire section by Dosso in the upper right, including a leafy branch and a perching pheasant.
The question remains, what could have caused Alfonso to alter his Bellini masterpiece? In the film, Bull points out that to do so today would constitute an “incredible sacrilege … like melting down a Michelangelo statue.” The answer has to do with the Duke’s purpose in commissioning the work.
In his camerino, Alfonso sought to unite paintings by the greatest painters of the day in a harmonic program of decoration. When Raphael and Fra Bartolommeo died before completing their contributions, Titian was called in to execute a total of three pictures, two of which were to flank Bellini’s Feast.
It seems probable that after completing the last of his Bacchanals in 1525, Titian was asked to bring the Bellini into harmony with the adjacent pictures, perhaps even to make their background landscapes appear continuous. After finishing his three commissions, Titian returned to Ferrara one last time in 1529 for an eleven-week stay, during which no additional work is recorded. It was probably at this time that he painted the background of The Feast of the Gods.
As to why Alfonso invited Dosso to retouch the painting in the first place, there may have been some plan to pair the painting with Dosso’s Bacchanal of Men, which also hung in the camerino. Or perhaps, as Bull hypothesizes, “Alfonso had found Bellini’s concept for a Bacchanal too archaic for his taste, lacking in spirit and energy.”
As an introduction to the behind-the-scenes detective work involved in the conservation of artworks, this modest exhibition is exemplary, as is the sensational film, produced by the National Gallery in association with Byron McKinney Associates, Inc.. One hopes that the success of this installation will send a signal to curators that rewarding exhibitions can result from painstaking attention to works in one’s permanent collections.
“The Feast of the Gods” continues at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., through April 29. For further information call (202) 737-4215.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Mar. 19, 1990, p. 14.