How Italians got crazy over Christo’s floating piers and ignored Bellini’s 500 years anniversary

Piero Bisello

2016 marks five hundred years since the death of Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, the seminal artist who embodied the transition from the old Byzantine style and what has been called Venetian Renaissance, the dawn of oil painting in Italy.


Looking at Europe, 2016 is a year charged with other commemorations in culture: five hundred years since the death of Hieronymus Bosch, four hundred years since the passing of William Shakespeare. Both these two anniversaries have been celebrated and will continue being celebrated greatly by public institutions of the Netherlands and England, with multiple events and exhibitions on the agenda.


In the case of Giovanni Bellini, the anniversary celebrations has unfortunately shown some limitation of the Italian public institutions in promoting heritage, with both the Venetian museums and the regional ones seemingly putting less efforts than their English and Dutch counterparts. Undeniably, it has also been an issue of limited budget, which has resulted in less loans from abroad and the cheaper “stress on the local” in the organised events. However, what also appears to be lacking is a proper aggregation of the various initiatives that did get funded.


Whereas for both Shakespeare and Bosch the leading institutions have created a centralised Internet “portal” with a proper list of all that’s on for the commemoration, there is nothing like this for the celebration of Giovanni Bellini.


The website of Venice museums, which have sponsored the exhibition “Un capolavoro a Venezia” (A masterpiece in Venice) where Bellini’s last painting “Ebrezza di Noè” was borrowed from Musée des Beaux-Arts of Besançon, does mention a collaboration with a plethora of other public and private organisations, but it doesn’t list anything of what these have organised for the occasion. Such lack of clear information could have easily been overcome by creating a common communication strategy.


In case of fragmentation like this, narrower inclusion is often the result. For example, we think the public would have benefited if the important series of conferences on Giovanni Bellini, organised by private donors Save Venice Inc, had been promoted by the city and regional museums as well.


In the context of this series, we recently attended the talk of Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa who brilliantly exposed years of research on Bellini in the packed room of the Rosand Library in Venice.
If promoted together with the exhibition at Museo Correr, a potential visitor could have had the chance to hear the scholar talking about the use of technology in the analysis of ancient painting, and what this type of studies have unraveled of the artist’s ways of working throughout the years.


In collaboration with physicist Gianluca Poldi, Villa extensively used the images from four different types of scans (infrared reflectography, false colour infrared, X-ray fluorescence and reflectance spectrometry) to inspect the technical aspects of Bellini’s painting, proving how the master was able to completely reinvent his technique in a 60 year-long career. From drawing to brief sketching, what the hidden layers of these paintings show is the development from the style linked to Gothic and Byzantine traditions to the proper oil painting technique “a corpo”, the typical and most celebrated expression of Venetian artistic modernity between 14th and 15th century. As Villa said in his lecture, not many artists in history managed to dramatically reinvent themselves until their very last moments.


Romanticising and mythicising a single historical figure is an issue many of these anniversary commemorations tend to have. Villa’s lecture indeed celebrated the genius of Bellini, and yet his technological approach through Boldi’s physical analysis gave a very different twist to the topic.


In a city like Venice, which often prides itself of being technologically backward, where “come una volta” – (made as the good old times) has turned from a positive gimmick into some kind of dysfunctional fetishism, seeing the artistic work of one of its old masters rightly scanned and analysed as it was material for a scientific experiment, would have served the broader public well.


We believe a contemporary approach to ancient art makes it contemporary. This is especially true in the case of academic studies in the humanities, where worn out topics can be revived through what science offers right now (see for example the recent increase in popularity of academic fields such as computational linguistics or so-called “digital humanities”). These trends are simply happening despite the fact that the relationship between old cultural institutions and contemporary technology has naturally been a stiff one.


As we have mentioned, technology in this context is not only limited to the cross-disciplinary methodology of an academic research like the one of Villa and Poldi. It also refers to the use of contemporary tools when it comes to open important institutional initiatives to the public. An inclusive Internet portal, a proper use of the existing digital channels, a sophisticated promotion on social media: all these things don’t necessarily require Northern European budgets to help surpassing the pathological parochiality of Italian institutions and to drastically change the reception of big occasions such as Giovanni Bellini’s death anniversary.


If these institutions still need to be persuaded that they need to be open to contemporary technology if their aim is to attract more public, they can perhaps look at the example of the Floating Piers by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a land art installation on Lake Iseo in Italy whose attendance by the public exceeded all the expectations. Without even expressing any judgement on the artwork itself, it is undeniable that much of its public success was prompted by how widely it spread on social networks.


Whether in the context of sophisticated academic research or in the approach to communication strategies, the fields of art and humanities need to come to terms with the accelerated change and improvement of contemporary technologies, letting them prove a luddist attitude in the cultural sector is no longer desirable.

November 25, 2020