Tomorrow is the feast day of St Mark, so this week’s picture is St Mark Preaching in Alexandria. It was originally commissioned from Gentile Bellini by the Venetian confraternity of the Scuola di San Marco in May 1504, but not quite finished when the artist died, nearly three years later, in February 1507. In his last testament, Gentile requested that his “very dear brother” Giovanni Bellini complete the work; and bequeathed to him, by way of recompense, a precious album of drawings by their father, Jacopo Bellini. On completion, this colossal canvas hung in the Scuola di San Marco for three centuries, but is now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan.

Giovanni Bellini’s contribution to the work appears to have been limited. His hand can be detected principally in the subtle transitions between light and shade in the picture, as well as in its dramatic sky. Giovanni has long been considered a greater artist than his brother, deeper and more mystical in temperament, as well as a more skilled and sensitive painter of emotion and atmosphere. But in Renaissance Venice, Gentile was every bit as famous as his younger sibling. He specialised in panoramic group scenes like the one reproduced here, full of detail and enlivened by numerous small touches of actuality, such as exotic costumes and architecture. Most of his large-scale paintings have been destroyed by fire – always hard to contain in Venice, with its tightly clustered buildings – but they won him great renown in his own lifetime.

Often set in faraway places, Gentile Bellini’s works appealed to the perennial Venetian spirit of wanderlust. They were pictures painted for a people curious about other cultures, with eclectic tastes in clothes, art and building styles alike – a people always on the lookout for...

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