Giovanni Bellini (Venice 1433 circa – Venice 26th November 1516), Madonna of the Small Trees – signed and dated under the foot of the Child:
IOANNES.BELLINUS.P. / 1487 Oil on panel 74 x 58 cm. – Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia
- He made the manner used before, which was dry, to be of a more exquisite and sweet style.
Carlo Ridolfi (1594-1658) – Le maraviglie dell’arte ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori Veneti e dello stato
Tempera grassa and various forms of “mixed media”
The study of Giovanni Bellini’s painting technique is particularly important as the painter was active in Venice between the second half of the Fifteenth Century and the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, a period characterized by profound technical modifications introduced in the city by Flemish artists.
In the paintings of this period there is a use of new techniques: oil emulsified with egg (tempera grassa) and also a succession of layers in tempera and oil (mixed media).
The use of oil as a binder (both emulsified with egg, or mixed directly with the pigment) offered new and multiple possibilities, but Giovanni Bellini’s technique still followed the procedures of the tempera as the painter tended to exploit the brightness of the underlying layer, in fact:
- the pictorial layers were constructed by superimposing regular and compact glazes,
- the shadows were obtained using the chiaroscuro of the preparatory drawing and the chromatic background,
- the highlights were spread in a single thin layer, and constituted the final touch .
The ground preparation
The preparations of the Venetian paintings were composed of gypsum and very weak glue, Giovanni Bellini sometimes added a bit of black in order to obtain a gray color, a procedure that accorded with the Flemish tradition. The surface was finally saturated with one or two layers of glue to limit its absorbency; sometimes the glue finish is replaced with a priming made of oil and lead white linked to the use of the oil binder that became common in those years .
Also in the gypsum and glue ground preparation the presence of linseed oil was often highlighted in the analyzes. In this period, the wooden supports and canvases were all prepared with the same materials and the pigments, if mixed with oil, were still spread on the white backgrounds. The Madonna degli Alberetti (The Madonna of the Small Trees), like many paintings by Giovanni Bellini, is performed on a single poplar panel.
Techniques of transferring the drawing
The drawings underlying the paintings of Giovanni Bellini are very accurate (even if there are cases of direct sketches on the panel, free and imprecise) and are not the result of an initial spontaneous idea but presuppose some preparatory drawings on paper . The techniques of transferring the drawing were not highlighted by the investigations but most likely they were cartoons, a procedure often used by Renaissance masters, transferred to the table with the method of tracing, stencil  or even pouncing whose traces could, in some cases, have been erased by the painter after having retraced the drawing with ink. Some preparatory drawings detected by infrared, on the other hand, had preserved the typical sequence of black dots along the outline left by pouncing, in Bellini’s workshop extensive use was made of cartons and templates to create both copies and variants of the same subject.
Giovanni Bellini – The colour and the painting technique – Pouncing
Often in Bellini’s drawings the hatching is done with a brushstroke rich in ink that leaves a drop at the end of the mark. Many hatches end with small dots, but in some areas the dots suggest the use of the “pouncing” technique using perforated cartoon since they do not seem connected to any of the lines.
The architectures and the folds of the mantles are often defined with a clear and precise incision mark that is made with metal tools and lead styluses according to the traditional Fourteenth-Century technique.
The preliminary drawing
Bellini executed an exceptionally complete and finished drawing especially for the figurative parts, the contour lines, often more marked in the shaded areas, are very fine in the features of the faces.
The definition of shadows and volumes is made in chiaroscuro with a typical diagonal hatching with parallel and regular lines with rather liquid, thin, elongated and rarely crossed brushstrokes, according to a method similar to the one he will use while painting ,while landscapes and backgrounds are often only sketches.
From the tests carried out it is clear that Giovanni Bellini often used the brush, also in relation to the fact that many parts of the preparatory drawing, especially at the end of the stroke (which is always inclined from right to left) show a thickening of the drawing, as if the the artist had stopped before continuing with the next section .
For the hatching Giovanni Bellini used ink (charcoal or oak galls) more diluted than that used for the outlines so as not to interfere excessively with the painting. This design is then faithfully followed in the background phase, contributing to the modeling. The drawing is sometimes left in sight to constitute maximum darkness or even to define the profiles clearly.
Underlying drawings so detailed are one of the characteristics of 15th-century Flemish painting, the hatched definition of chiaroscuro presented the painting almost in its final form.
In the Madonna degli alberetti the drawing has a very detailed contour line, while the shaded areas, in particular those of the skin tones, are defined with an oblique hatching, this is also evident on a visual examination due to the wear of the pictorial layers .
Even when the painting was very small, Bellini engraved the architectural details with a clear and precise mark using geometric tools: the marks left by the compass are often recognizable. The subtle traces of the engravings are barely noticeable as the groove has been filled by the brushstroke.
The primer of lead white in linseed oil
In this work, as in almost all of the author’s works, on top of the regular gypsum and glue preparation studies found  a compact, thin and quite translucent layer (always less than 30 microns) of lead white in drying oil with a gray appearance.
These thin layers of “priming” made up of a layer of binder (to which a pigment was sometimes added) served to color or improve the surface, as well as to control the absorption of the binder by the preparation by isolating the paint layers from it.
The lead white oil primer, instead of the traditional glue finish, is linked to the common use of those years of the oily binder: the presence of lead favored the polymerization of the drying oil and, from an aesthetic point of view, enhanced the brightness and depth of the pictorial layers.
It is interesting to note that, unlike what was suggested by the sources of the time, the line of the drawing is covered by the primer, thus making it less visible to the painter while coloring and also requiring smaller thicknesses for the subsequent chromatic layers to conceal it
Local colored primers
On the preparatory layer, stratigraphic investigations have shown the presence of local primers composed of diversified pigments, the binder of which is probably of a lipoprotein nature (presumably egg).
Starting from the Sixteenth Century, with different methods and timing, primers of different colors compared to the backgrounds that would be applied on top began to spread, with the aim of obtaining particular effects. On the white preparation Giovanni Bellini, before starting to paint, performed chromatic backgrounds in relation to the subsequent pictorial layers, thus obtaining a thin semitransparent film, which allowed the underlying layer to be visible, modifying it in tone.
Among the analyzed paintings  for example, black backgrounds are used on which the artist has painted red drapes and robes, for the ultramarine blue mantles backgrounds based on red lacquer and white lead were used.
The realization of a purple hue is obtained with a layer of red lacquer and ultramarine lacquer on a lacquer base, while dark yellow backgrounds based on ocher and vermilion are used for the landscapes.
There is no shortage of examples in which Giovanni Bellini spreads on the preparation a green glaze on which he superimposes, starting from the mid-tones, thin brush strokes rich in mixture.
Field of color
In the paintings of the late 1400s and early 1500s there is a use of various forms of “mixed media”: the oil could be emulsified with egg thus taking the name of “tempera grassa”, or layers of tempera could be superimposed on oil backgrounds or oil layers on tempera backgrounds and the different techniques could also be used in different areas of the same painting. In general, the light backgrounds such as skies and skin tones were made with egg tempera, while the darker and more transparent shades of reds, blues and greens were obtained with binders based on siccative oils.
However, in its initial stages, the new technique follows the traditional methods of execution: overlapping of pictorial layers through regular and compact glazes, using the preparatory drawing for the shadows.
Also in the paintings of Giovanni Bellini the drawing is built on rather thin coatings of color, both using just egg or egg mixed with drying oils and oil (linseed or walnut) on it’s own.
The pictorial fields of color have no material relief of brushstrokes with the exception of the mantles that were made with color overlays. In order to distribute the mixture and to obtain a greater blending effect, Bellini often used light touches of the fingers, leaving fingerprints on the surface. However, the artist uses different techniques depending on the desired effects, ranging from the spreading of the color as glazes, to the mixed technique of hatching and fingerprints, to hatching only.
The backgrounds are painted first, leaving space for the figures that were created, later, directly on the ground preparation. The landscapes are made with transparent glazes and finished with quick lead white brushstrokes.
It is clear from the stratigraphy examination of the samples taken from the mantles that the artist applied the light tone first, then the mid tone and concluded with the shadows. Sometimes the preparation is left visible in transparency to obtain more a more delicate shading.
The complexions are painted with little to no thickness, using superimposed brushstrokes (two at most), given as very transparent glazes that allow the underlying hatching to be seen and which ultimately contributes to the definition of the shadows, the mid tones and the light ones were always painted in glazes. The highlights were spread in a single, very thin layer and were the final touch. In some details such as the eyes, Bellini left the dark background in the innermost parts around the lashes and then defined the highlights.
The artist seems to prefer mixtures of few pigments in the individual layers, though the sequences were made of very complex pictorial coatings, overlapping even five layers.
The stratigraphic analyzes performed on micro-samples taken from Giovanni’s works, in addition to identifying pigments and binders, also inform us about the structure and distribution of the materials, confirming the extent of the painter’s exceptional technical mastery in the use of color to obtain the tonal passages by successive glazes .
All the studied complexions appear to be made up of blends of lead white with parts of ocher and cinnabar, the latter especially used to redden the cheeks. Cinnabar is also present in the browns used for the hair. Sometimes lead and tin yellow (giallolino) replace ocher mixed with lead white and cinnabar. Charcoal black and red lacquers in skin tones are rare. The use of lacquer appears to be limited to the lips and in glazing; for the shadows Bellini uses ocher and earths, always applied with thin brushstrokes .
For the blue of the Virgin’s mantle, Giovanni Bellini used pure natural ultramarine in layers of even three coatings spread over a thicker layer of white lead and red lacquer, the effect of depth in the shadows was often rendered with a translucent binder.
The red garments are composed of cinnabar or red lacquer on dark or green backgrounds and the shades were created by modulating the final layers by veiling. To give the effect of depth for the shadows, he applied varnishes of lacquer. Another robe is painted with brushstrokes of cinnabar mixed with lampblack on a lead white layer with a bit of azurite on which he superimposed the red lacquer to define the shadow.
The purple robe is obtained with a thick brushstroke of red lacquer and enamel on a high-coverage base of cinnabar and red lacquer. The purple shade of the mantle is sometimes made on a red lacquer base and finished with red and ultramarine lacquer making the shade deeper with a veil lapis lazuli. Bellini uses violets more than any other of his contemporaries, obtained by mixing ultramarine and red lacquer or directly using violet lacquers. He is perhaps among the first to introduce the combined use of orpiment and realgar for lights and mid tones and this will become a constant imitation for later painters, from Lotto to Tiziano .
In the green garments the recognizable pigments are lacquers and copper-based greens mixed with lead and tin yellow. The light tones, applied first, were darkened with a more intense veil of the same mixture of pigments. There is often a thin golden thread applied by gilding.
The lawn seen in the Pietà is composed of five superimposed layers of color applied with a mixture of lead white, copper green, lead and tin yellow and a few particles of bitumen in varying proportions. In the Transfiguration the pictorial layer of green color is formed by a mixture of lead white, finely ground green earth and malachite .
For the brown tones he did not use natural earths but a mixture composed of lead white, charcoal black, a little ocher and vermilion particles which, mixed in different proportions, gave greater brilliance to the brown colors that otherwise would remain opaque. Trees and shrubs are made with this blend. Brown tones are also obtained with a blend of cinnabar and giallorino.
To make gray colors instead of simple mixtures of white lead and black pigment, it was common to add cupric greens to a layer of red lacquer.
In the sky and in the landscapes the color was spread in overlapping layers with brushstrokes that blend into the background, to which more subtle touches were added to define the clouds and the details of the vegetation.
A single layer, composed of white lead and good quality natural ultramarine blue in lipoprotein binder (probably egg) was detected in correspondence with the sky, the coats are made with very different techniques and sometimes Bellini used up to 5 or 6 layers of color with an alternation of substantial brushstrokes and glazes . The landscapes are made with transparent glazes and finished with quick lead white brushstrokes. Lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) is also often used in a mixture (not overlapping) with azurite or, sometimes, with smalt blue. The artist does not fail to use indigo, a pigment rarely used in Fifteenth-Century painting .
The different parts of the landscape were created using a mixture of blue pigments with verdigris, yellow and ocher, veiling them with copper resin or liquid brown coatings of earth or bitumen .
Manfredi Faldi 2019
 Rosetta Bagarotto, Rossella Cavigli, Luisa Gusmeroli, Maria Chiara Maida, Alfeo Michieletto, Gloria Tranquilli, Antonella Casoli, Stefano Volpin, La tecnica pittorica di Giovanni Bellini, in AA.VV., Il colore ritrovato, Bellini a Venezia, a cura di R. Goffen e G. Nepi Scirè, Milano, Electa 2000 p 184
 “Dagli esami effettuati sui dipinti di Giovanni Bellini è molto raro riscontrare, al di sotto degli incarnati, una finitura a colla. Tutti i campioni sottoposti ad analisi presentano, con una sola eccezione, una preparazione a gesso e colla animale (a cui riportano i composti proteici rilevati mediante micro-FTIR) che evidenzia caratteristiche comuni in cinque casi su sei: con un gesso, principalmente biidrato ma non esente da particelle più grossolane di gesso anidro (anidrite), dalla granulometria mediamente fine e piuttosto disomogenea relativamente lontana da ciò che si riscontra nelle preparazioni tre-quattrocentesche, nelle quali il gesso “grosso “sopra il supporto ligneo è ricoperto da molteplici mani di finissimo gesso “sottile”. S. Caglio, F. Frezzato, G. Poldi, Pigmenti, leganti, strati: osservazioni analitiche sulla tecnica pittorica del ‘Battesimo di Cristo’ di Giovanni Bellini a Vicenza PDF
 Rona Goffen, Bellini disegnatore e la sua attività giovanile, in AA.VV. Carpaccio, Bellini, Tura, Antonello e altri restauri quattrocenteschi della Pinacoteca del Museo Correr, a cura di A. Dorigato, Catalogo della mostra (Venezia, 1993), Milano, Electa 1993 p.222 pp. 17-23
 Nella Madonna col Bambino conservata ad Amsterdam, cat nr 2, “il disegno rivelato dall’esame all’IR non mostra alcun tratteggio ma soltanto linee di contorno irregolari e punteggiate. Una possibile spiegazione è che sia stato utilizzato uno stampino ritagliato e che il ricalcare intorno alle forme tagliate irregolarmente abbia creato contorni frastagliati”. AA.VV. The early Venetian paintings in Holland. Catalogue of the Exhibition (Florence, 1978), a cura di H. W. van Os, J.R. J. van Asperen de Boer, Maarssen, Gary Schwartz 1978 p 33
 Gianluca Poldi, Le analisi non invasive sull’ “Imago Pietatis” di Bellini, note tecniche e confronti, in Giovanni Bellini. Dall’icona alla storia, a cura di A. De Marchi, A. Di Lorenzo, L. Galli Michero, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, 9 novembre 2012–25 febbraio 2013), Torino 2012, pp. 93-95 PDF
 Paolo Spezzani, in Carpaccio, Bellini, Tura, Antonello e altri restauri quattrocenteschi della Pinacoteca del Museo Correr, cit. p 216
 Gloria Tranquilli in Il colore ritrovato, Bellini a Venezia cit. p 60
 Ibid p.222 “Il piombo, determinato anche nei punti in cui la preparazione risulta scoperta, denuncia in tutti i dipinti l’impiego di un’imprimitura a base di biacca al di sopra della preparazione a gesso e colla. “
 Simone Caglio, Fabio Frezzato, Gianluca Poldi, PIGMENTI, LEGANTI, STRATI: OSSERVAZIONI ANALITICHE SULLA TECNICA PITTORICA DEL BATTESIMO DI CRISTO PDF
 Gianluca Poldi, Dentro la bottega veneta in Questioni di tecnica pittorica tra restauri e analisi scientifiche, I grandi veneti. Da Pisanello a Tiziano, da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Capolavori dell’Accademia Carrara di Bergamo, a cura di G. Valagussa e G.C.F. Villa, Cinisello Balsamo 2010, pp. 190-197, 2010 PDF
 S. Volpin, A. Casoli, L. Alberici, I materiali nella pittura di Giovanni Bellini: tredici opere analizzate, in AA.VV., Il colore ritrovato cit. pp. 175-180; Gianluca Poldi, Le analisi non invasive sull’«Imago Pietatis» di Bellini, note tecniche e confronti, cit. p 94
FEDERICA MANOLI E PAOLA ZANOLINI, Note sul restauro e sulla tecnica pittorica dell’«Imago Pietatis» del Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Le analisi non invasive sull’ “Imago Pietatis”, cit. p.88; Il colore ritrovato cit. pp. 192-193
 Gloria Tranquilli, Madonna in trono che venera il Bambino dormiente, in AA.VV., Il colore ritrovato cit. p 42
 Simone Caglio, Fabio Frezzato, Gianluca Poldi PIGMENTI, LEGANTI, STRATI, cit. p85
 FEDERICA MANOLI E PAOLA ZANOLINI, Note sul restauro cit. p 89
 Lorenzo Lazzarini, Il colore nei pittori veneziani tra il 1480 e il 1580, in Pittura veneziana: materiali, tecniche, restauri, STUDI VENEZIANI. RICERCHE DI ARCHIVIO E DI LABORATORIO (SUPPLEMENTO N. 5, 1983) PDF
 ReC Scientifica srl, Sezioni stratigrafiche e riconoscimento dei pigmenti e dei leganti, in AA.VV. Carpaccio, Bellini, Tura, Antonello, cit. p.219
 AA.VV., Il colore ritrovato cit. p 193
 Gianluca Poldi, Note quasi sparse sul colore e la tecnica di Giambellino. Nuovi studi analitici, in G. Poldi e G. C. F.Villa, Indagando Bellini, Milano 2009, pp. 163-169
 Simone Caglio, Fabio Frezzato, Gianluca Poldi, PIGMENTI, LEGANTI, STRATI: OSSERVAZIONI ANALITICHE SULLA TECNICA PITTORICA DEL BATTESIMO DI CRISTO cit p 85 PDF
Share this article
Artenet was born in April 2000 to share experiences and knowledge in the field of Artistic Techniques, of Restoration and Diagnostics applicable to the paintings sector; It has devised and promoted an innovative didactic methodology that integrates studies and research from the three different disciplines.