A previously unknown work of the Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini has been discovered in Croatia. Painted around 1460, it depicts the Virgin and Child.
The discovery was made by Beatrice Tanzi, a Ph.D. student in Art History at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, while she was doing research in Dalmatia. At the Museum of the Benedictine monastery of St Margaret on the island of Pag she potted the extraordinary quality of the painting, which had been misidentified as the work of another medieval Italian artist.
Painted on a wood panel and measuring 54.5 x 44.5 cm, the artwork has suffered extensive paint loss, but the quality of the remaining, intact parts is extraordinarily accomplished. Tanzi believes that it dates to around 1460, which was still early in Bellini’s career. The Venetian artist would become renowned for his use of colours, with many of his works prominently on display in museums around the world.
The hand of the Venetian artist is clearly recognizable by a series of characteristics: the landscape behind the Virgin, hilly rather than mountainous, in which vegetation and water are depicted in short, almost miniature, brushstrokes. The face of the Virgin, on the other hand, is more damaged, especially on the right side, but the way its features are simplified can be compared with other female figures of the same period. Similarities can be seen with another of Bellini’s works from the time, the Triptychs of S. Maria della Carità, which are currently at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
“The attribution to Giovanni Bellini is corroborated,” explains Tanzi, “from a stylistic point of view, by a wide range of comparisons to the painter’s early works: a moment in which formal connections with the works of his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna can be discerned. We are, therefore, in a highly significant artistic juncture, one that produces the astounding miniatures of Strabo’s Geographia in Albi, the damaged Fodor Madonna (in a private collection), the Davis Madonna at the Metropolitan Museum, or the examples from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Pinacoteca Malaspina in Pavia.”
This discovery is particularly significant because it is the first painting by Bellini found in the Eastern territories of the Venetian Republic. It was also more than a century since a work by this Renaissance master was last discovered in the place where it was likely painted, the Benedictine monastery of Santa Margherita in Pag.
In the absence of confirmed documentary sources, Tanzi suggests a connection with the Mišolić (Latinized as De Missolis) family, one of the most prominent families on the island between the 15th and 16th centuries. Close and constant ties with Venice are, in particular, documented for Giorgio Mišolić, a nobleman and member of Pag’s High Council, count palatine and galley captain. In 1477 he was appointed to settle questions regarding the sale of salt in Venice.
Mišolić had also played a significant role in the construction of the new Benedictine church, commissioning a chapel within it to Giorgio da Sebenico, the greatest architect and sculptor in Dalmatia. It is therefore plausible that a person of his stature, both economically and intellectually, is likely to have been at home in advanced circles of artistic culture in Venice from which the painting likely originated.
Beatrice Tanzi’s research can be found in the article “A new attribution to Giovanni Bellini: the ‘Virgin and Child’ in Pag,” published in The Burlington Magazine – click here to access it.