The Renaissance came late to Venice. Giotto had been dead nearly a hundred years when Jacopo Bellini, returned in 1429 from a sojourn in Florence, opened his atelier at San Geminiano and offered lessons in the Florentine "way." Jacopo was equipped with a set of perspective boxes in which he strung little figures of wax and cotton -- an innocent, amateur's device to assure obedience to the rules laid down in Tuscany for correctness of perspective. Such mechanical aids to correctness remained popular in Venice. A hundred years later, Tintoretto constructed toy houses in which to try out effects of light and shade -- a vulgar stagedirector, the critic Longhi calls him, cranking away at his thunder-machine, his rain-machine, his lightning-machine... He also made use of a collection of casts from the antique and from Michelangelo.
In Padua, to which the pioneer Jacopo removed, his contemporary, the pedant Squarcione, was teaching the lessons of the antique from a collection of ancient Greek and Roman statues, reliefs, and fragments. This classicizing of Squarcione's had a narrow aim: the correctness of ornament. His pupils went beyond him. The flowers and fruit and columns of the Paduan school, the thrones and architectonic details are decorative, "antiqued" frames for perspective paintings of the harshest realism: the "graphic" figures of Mantegna, his gelid dead Christs and harrowed, harrowing crone Madonnas, weeping big tears as hard as rocks.
All this was humanized in Venice, by Mantegna's brother-in-law, Jacopo's illegitimate son, "manly John Bellini," as Ruskin was fond of calling him, thus making him into a sort of honorary Englishman. Yet the adjective is right. Giovanni Bellini was a true manly type, sweet and sensitive, yet stalwart in his feeling, an ideal citizen of the pacific Republic, living to a vast old age, working and learning to the very last, like some humble craftsman, apprenticed first to the Gothic-Byzantine tradition, then to Mantegna and his school, then to Piero and to the Van Eyck oil process, and finally to his young pupil, Giorgione, whom he began to learn from when he had passed his seventieth year. In his long life span, extending well into the sixteenth century, he embodied, phylogenetically, the successive stages, from early dawn to full morning, of that New Day which was the Venetian Renaissance.
The Van Eyck secret came to Venice from Flanders via Naples, carried by a Sicilian, Antonello da Messina. Venice had been a waystop for migratory artists even before Jacopo opened his school. The city was full of Greeks -- colonies of mosaic-workers and those madonna-makers of whom El Greco, the Cretan, much later, was one. There were the Slavs who gave their name to the Riva degli Schiavoni and who introduced -- with Gregorio Schiavone and Antonio da Negroponte -- a slightly Russian note into Venetian painting. In Jacopo Bellini's time, a Lombard colony of architects and sculptors, the family known as the "Lombardi," had started building churches and chapels and funerary monuments and the new marble palaces with disks of porphyry and serpentine that made such an impression on Philippe de Commines. Uccello had been in Venice, working on the Chapel of the Mascoli in St. Mark's. Guariento, from Padua, had painted frescoes (of which a few burnt fragments remain) for the Doge's Palace. Masolino tramped through on his way back from Hungary and gave a few lessons to Antonio Vivarini, who had a workshop in Murano with his brother, Bartolomeo. Diirer was in Venice twice and found the old Giovanni Bellini "still the best painter" on his second trip. In Giorgione's time, Leonardo came.
Giotto had been in Padua, doing the frescoes for the Capella Scrovegni. Donatello was there, doing the great equestrian statue of the Venetian condottiere, Gattamelata -- a Renaissance image of power that stood in the public square like a Trojan horse, from which would issue the mailed Mantegna and his followers, after the break with Squarcione. (This statue excited the envy of the Bergamask condottiere, Colleone, who left the Republic 100,000 sequins in his will if they would build him a monument in the Piazza San Marco. The Republic cheated the dead soldier and had the prideful statue put up in SS. Zanipolo, by the Scuola di San Marco.) To the Murano school of the Vivarini came a certain German, Giovanni d'Alemagna, who worked with Antonio for the nuns of San Zaccaria and the Carità, doing charming Gothic saints for gilded wooden settings. In Padua, this retarded pair engaged in a power struggle with the young Mantegna for the decoration of the Church of the Eremitani; they completed the four Evangelists in the vault and withdrew.