Giovanni Bellini's Fantasia: Isabella d’Este and ‘una bela fantasia’ by Gianbellino
The correspondence that took place from 1496 to 1506 between Giovanni Bellini and Isabella d’Este Gonzaga (through Isabella’s agents, M. Vianello, L. di Pavia and P. Bembo) reveals the frame of the new relationships between patrons and artists that is emerging at the turning of the Cinquecento in Venice. It shows us, in the liveliest way, the shift in the status of the artist that is taking place at that period of Renaissance, from “optimo imitatore” of nature or istoria to “optimo inventore” (cf. Cristoforo Landino’s Commentary on Dante’s Comedy’s 1481 and 1564 editions). In Bellini’s correspondence, such a change is epitomized by the very notion of ‘fantasia’, which he utilizes in order to resist to the impellent demand of Isabella d’Este of “creating some istoria or fabula antiqua of his invention”.
The aim of my paper is to explore and analyze in detail two dimensions of the notion of ‘fantasia’. In the first part, I intend to engage in the interpretation of Bellini’s use of fantasia, by means of a study of some of the major literary instances of that word in contemporary works by Cennino Cennini, Leonardo da Vinci and Mantegna. I shall stress in particular the idea according to which fantasia, when coupled ‘with skill of hand’, enables ‘to discover things invisible (cose non vedute)’ (cf. C. Cennini, Il libro dell’arte). In the second, I shall attempt to relate that notion with some iconographical aspects of Bellini’s works. I shall use his canvas called “Sacred Allegory” as a starting point for a deeper examination of that topic. This painting, which depicts four little children playing around a pomegranate shrub (with the Virgin Mary and several saints sitting or standing around), is often assessed by modern scholars as most atypical. One reason is that it gathers together elements that are seemingly not naturally related (e.g. the presence of the shrub in the middle of a marble terrace, or the depiction in the background of one of St Anthony’s encounters with the tempter), a trait actually peculiar to the notion of fantasia.
Through that study, my aim will be also to put to the test the idea according to which fantasia would be synonymous of ‘invenzione’, idea which seems at odd with the public opinion according to which Bellini’s work was in fact rather conservative and therefore very little inventive (cf. Lorenzo di Pavia’s assertion that Bellini is certainly not, in terms of invention, to be compared with the great Mantenga).
Keywords: Giovanni Bellini, Isabella D’Este, Fantasia, Invention
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