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The Bellini Workshop: Emancipations, Enterprises, and Cittadini Originari


Despite the Bellini being the most influential and well-researched artistic family of fifteenth-century Venice, no comprehensive study of the Bellini workshop as an entrepreneurial venture has been published. The circumstances of the workshop's establishment, early expansion, transference from one generation to the next, as well as other basic issues remain largely unexplored. Many scholars presumably believe that the meager traces of relevant material provided by fifteenth-century sources cannot support an extensive inquiry into these and related topics. Indeed, the major research problems include enduring questions concerning the biological and legal relationships between the Bellini, a scarcity of extant paintings executed by the Bellini prior to 1460, and a dearth of documents describing the early Bellini workshop.

The dissertation demonstrates, however, that by employing cross-disciplinary methods and novel approaches, and by drawing upon a wide range of primary sources that include civil laws, acts of magistracies, tax registers, home inventories, Scuole records, legal documents, and, of course, paintings and drawings by the Bellini and their contemporaries, it may indeed be possible not only to lay significant groundwork toward such a history of the Bellini workshop, but also to commence its construction. After establishing the biological and legal relationships between the Bellini and periodizing the development of the Cittadini Originari, the burgeoning social class to which the family belonged, the dissertation isolates and explores a number of decisive turning points in the life of the workshop and of its current master. These include the workshop's foundation, its early expansion, and its transference from Jacopo to Gentile, as well as Gentile's legal emancipation, ennoblements, rise to de facto official painter of Venice, and artistic "emancipation."

In the case of the Bellini, the dissertation argues that the exigencies of running a successful fifteenth-century painting workshop demanded business tactics that often exerted a discernible and sometimes commanding influence over the pictorial strategies in the art that the workshop produced. Acting both as Medieval artisan and emerging Renaissance artist, Jacopo Bellini integrated a fount of creative artistic spirit with an entrepreneurial pragmatism that was characteristically bold, oftentimes clever, and occasionally miscalculated. Because the history of the Bellini family of artists is so closely tied to that of painting in early Renaissance Venice, the dissertation reshapes our understanding of the importance of commercial concerns, legal issues, social identity, fama or civic reputation, marketplace competition, and the uneven demand for various types of paintings in the Bellini workshop, and by extension, on the development of Venetian Renaissance art.

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