Bellini’s Pesaro Altarpiece, also known as the “Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro,” was crafted around the late 1470s or early 1480s. The scene presents the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, ensconced on a throne, while being venerated by saints. A luminous mandorla, reminiscent of a divine aura, engulfs the central figures, accentuating their celestial significance.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

The artwork graces the interiors of the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of Venice’s grandest churches and a notable example of Italian Gothic architecture. Known colloquially as the Frari, this church is a treasure trove of art, housing works by Titian, Donatello, and, of course, Bellini.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, commonly known as the Frari, is located in the San Polo district, its towering brick facade and the treasures within tell the tale of Venice’s rich religious, artistic, and cultural history.

Foundation and Early History: The Frari was entrusted to the Franciscan order of monks, who settled in Venice in the first half of the 13th century. Initially, a smaller church was built on the site, but as the order grew in importance and number, the need for a more spacious, grander structure became evident.

Construction and Architectural Evolution: The construction of the current church began in the mid-13th century and was completed in the 14th century, showcasing the Italian Gothic architectural style. Its distinctive brick facade, soaring campanile (bell tower) — one of the tallest in the city — and the spacious interiors are representative of the Franciscans’ commitment to simplicity, yet they convey a sense of grandeur befitting Venice’s stature.

Over the subsequent centuries, various additions and modifications were made, including the construction of chapels, the addition of artworks, and the expansion of the choir.

Artistic Heritage: The Frari is a veritable treasure trove of Renaissance art, housing masterpieces from some of the era’s most acclaimed artists:

  • Titian: One of his most famous works, the “Assumption of the Virgin,” adorns the main altar, capturing the moment of the Virgin Mary’s ascension to Heaven. His “Pesaro Madonna” is another standout piece in the church, displaying a dynamic and diagonal composition.
  • Giovanni Bellini: The sacristy holds his magnificent work, the “Madonna and Child with Saints,” often referred to as the Frari Triptych. The “Frari Triptych” (also known as the “Triptych of the Virgin”) by Giovanni Bellini is located in the sacristy of the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and is not to be confused with the Pesaro Altarpiece. This triptych features the Virgin and Child in the central panel, with St. Nicholas and Peter on the left and St. Mark and Benedict on the right. The choice of saints is indicative of a mix of universal Christian symbols and local Venetian devotion.
  • Donatello: His wooden statue of St. John the Baptist can be found in one of the church’s chapels.

Apart from these, the church contains numerous other artworks, funerary monuments, and sculptures that chronicle the evolution of Venetian art and honor many of its renowned figures.

Notable Burials: The Frari is the final resting place for several eminent individuals:

  • Titian: The celebrated Renaissance painter has an ornate tomb here.
  • Claudio Monteverdi: A groundbreaking composer of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
  • Doge Francesco Foscari: His funerary monument stands as a testament to his influential rule during the 15th century.

The Pesaro Altarpiece holds a special place within the Frari, as it was commissioned by the Pesaro family, one of the prominent Venetian families of the time. The altarpiece not only serves as an emblem of their piety but also as a lasting testament to their legacy and contribution to the city’s cultural and religious heritage.

The Saints pictured in the altarpiece are:

Saint Peter: Recognizable often by his traditional symbols of keys.

Saint Francis: Known for his stigmata and the Franciscan habit.

Saint John the Baptist: Often depicted with a reed cross, camel skin, and sometimes a lamb.

Saint John the Evangelist: Typically portrayed as a young man, sometimes with a chalice.

Relation to Other Altarpieces of the Era

  1. Sacred Conversations: Much like other Renaissance altarpieces, including Bellini’s own San Giobbe and San Zaccaria masterpieces, the Pesaro Altarpiece embodies the concept of “Sacra Conversazione.” This term describes the harmonious gathering of the Virgin and Child with various saints, marking a shift from the more segmented panels of previous eras.
  2. Fusion of the Earthly and the Divine: A distinctive feature of altarpieces from this period is the synthesis of earthly and divine realms. In the Pesaro Altarpiece, this is evident in the tangible realism of the architectural backdrop and the saintly figures, juxtaposed with the otherworldly luminescence surrounding the Virgin and Child.
  3. Patronage and Legacy: The Renaissance witnessed a surge in artworks commissioned by wealthy families and institutions to consolidate their religious, cultural, and societal status. The Pesaro Altarpiece is a prime example, where the artistic narrative seamlessly intertwines with the family’s aspirations and legacy.
  4. Artistic Innovations: Bellini’s nuanced use of color, light, and depth in this artwork aligns with the broader artistic movements of the time, where artists like Mantegna and Leonardo were exploring perspectives and human emotions with newfound intensity.