Nearly all Learn Italy trips to Venice have been in mid-winter. A special moment for me has always been a visit to the church of San Zaccaria, just inland from the Riva degli Schiavoni, a couple of hundred yards from the Doges’ Palace. In the afternoon it doesn’t open till after four, so we have found ourselves going from evening gloom into a large and almost pitch-dark church. When everyone has gathered by the middle of the left-hand wall, I slip a fifty cent piece into the light machine and suddenly an astonishing picture is revealed, a large and magnificent altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini. Mary sits on a high throne holding the naked Christ child standing on her knee. Four saints – Peter, Catherine, Lucy and Jerome – stand symmetrically around, all apparently lost in profound thought, so it’s somewhat ironical that this kind of arrangement is called a ‘sacred conversation’. The colours are rich and gorgeous – lustrous bottle greens, rich browns with Peter’s silk cloak quite indescribable (hazel? caramel?); several blues, ranging from glimpses of the sky on either edge of the scene, via Mary’s tumbling mantle to Peter’s dark tunic; Jerome is in cardinal red. After taking in the figures, one starts to look at the background. The scene is set in a niche, with columns on either side, and a mosaic apse above, from the top of which a lamp is suspended. Is that an ostrich egg at the top? There is a strange face, an old man with a crown, on the top of Mary’s throne.
The niche is set within a real sculptured niche, with columns that match the painted ones. A rough edge between the background sky and the false and the real architecture shows where Napoleon had the picture cut down to make it easier to transport to France.
Dated 1505, when Bellini was about seventy-five, this image shows an absolute mastery of those lessons in perspective and illusory space that had been learnt and perfected during the Quattrocento. It is difficult to recognise and then remember that the mosaic is not real, that the ornate columns are a trick of the eye, that the silent figures in their private but closely adjoining spaces are not three dimensional.
Of course while I have been sitting at my computer typing this, trying to remember how powerfully the painting affected me, I have gone online and found an image of the San Zaccaria altarpiece, checked the dates of Bellini, homed in on certain details. How remarkable an age we live in, when all this can be done in seconds and in one domestic place (though I did have to walk into another room to find a map, to be sure that my memory of the church’s location was exactly right). The moment I looked at the image, of course, I ceased to know what I remembered and what I could see before me. When I had started to think about this (and other ‘sacred conversations’), what I had in mind was the figure at the front and centre of the picture which I have not yet mentioned: a seated young person playing a large musical instrument like a viola. (In fact I had not been sure whether there were one or two musicians.). To me it looks as if the figure is probably a girl – the green of her dress matches St Catherine’s garment and a kind of stole on Mary’s lap. I had thought – confused with other pictures of the same kind of subject – that she was an angel, but there is no evidence of wings.
All those Christmas cards of singing angels – Piero’s ‘Nativity’ in the National Gallery, with its five singer-musicians is always a popular subject – made me think about the introduction of ‘sound’ into a painting. Having worked on the flat surface to represent the virtual reality of volume and space, painters like to take on further challenges. Music and noise cannot be represented in two dimensions except by absence, showing us where sound would be. Artists start also to introduce and perfect the depiction of movement, and with movement comes the sense of a particular moment, and therefore time, the fourth dimension, is introduced into the equation. In this Bellini picture the only thing that can be imagined to be moving is the bow of the viola player, though even that seems paused, either about to start or having just arrived at completion.
So there we are. The rediscovery of a half-remembered altarpiece that is set in my mind perhaps chiefly because of the stage management of its presentation. We have seen it brightly illuminated in a way no one could have seen it for hundreds of years since it left Bellini’s studio, which I imagine to have been full of daylight. I wonder how and whereabouts in the church Napoleon saw it and decided it should be his. There are many similar altarpieces in Venice’s wonderful Accademia gallery, but seeing them all together offers a quite different experience to coming upon a single one in the darkness of a church on a winter afternoon.