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During the second half of the 15th century, the Republic of Venice was one of Europe’s most important and populous centres. Venice’s merchants and navy controlled almost all Western trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. In competition with the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, Venice laid claim to the former territories of the Byzantine Empire.

Venetian paintings of this period reflect a taste that was shaped by the city’s international connections. Art in the Byzantine style, notably the mosaics that adorned the Basilica of San Marco, provided the bedrock of Venetian painting. Contemporary Northern European pictures, particularly by Jan van Eyck, Dirk Bouts and Hans Memling, were avidly collected by Venetians. They admired their mastery of painting in oil, and their precise rendering of naturalistic detail. In the mid-1470s, when the Southern Italian painter, Antonello da Messina, visited Venice, his Netherlandish-inspired art made a sensation.

For much of this period, the Bellini family ran the city’s most important painting workshop, supplying everything from manuscript illuminations to large-scale altarpieces. While Gentile Bellini was the official portraitist to successive Doges of Venice, his younger brother, Giovanni, was a more talented artist. His skill as a
painter of atmospheric, light-filled landscapes paved the way for an entire generation of artists, including Giorgione and Titian.