This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine
Given that my career as a film-maker has involved making journeys – around Italy or the Mediterranean – you might think that I’d have chosen a fellow traveller from Venice, Marco Polo, as my history hero. But extraordinary as Marco Polo’s life was, I’ve instead chosen another Venetian, Gentile Bellini.
I think that he represents something that, in our time as well as his, is of great importance – helping us to understand a little better other people who we would ordinarily see as enemies. That is because of a very important episode in Bellini’s life.
As far as we know, he was born in Venice around 1429, the son of the artist Jacopo Bellini, one of the early Renaissance painters of northern Italy. As was normal then, Gentile and his younger brother Giovanni (1430–1516), became painters, continuing the family business. Gentile was an accomplished artist, and by his mid-forties he had become the official portrait painter for the Doges – the men who headed the government of the city.
Then his life changed. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks had conquered Constantinople, defeating the last Byzantine Christian emperor. For Christian Europe this was seen as a terrible blow. For Venice, with historic trade links with Constantinople, it was doubly difficult. But while the pope in Rome was trying to ban trade with the Turks, the Venetians determined to try to preserve their contacts with the city and, as part of a peace treaty in 1479, Gentile was sent to work in the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II. If you like, he was what you would today call a cultural ambassador.
Gentile was fascinated by the Otttomans, and the Greeks, and stayed away from Venice for three years. Of course, these were difficult and violent times. There is the famous story that Gentile had painted a picture of the execution of John the Baptist, and Mehmed told him that the details of a beheading were wrong. To prove his point, Mehmed allegedly had a slave beheaded!
That is a story, of course. What is undoubted is that Gentile succeeded wonderfully in giving us a portrait of Mehmed (now in the National Gallery in London). He also gave his contemporaries a vision of the Ottoman world, describing them as human beings. This was important: Gentile was being a bridge between worlds. Then, as today, this is one of the most important things that an artist can do, whatever the field.
Of course, growing up in Venice, I was always surrounded by a sense of history. Even so, I found that history lessons in school were too often lists of names and dates. When I first discovered the paintings of Gentile Bellini – I think the first was his picture of St Mark, patron saint of Venice, preaching in Alexandria – it was the extraordinary details that excited me, and which brought history to life. From then on, I became ever more interested by the past, particularly studying the documents in the Venetian archives where my grandfather had been the director.
For me, studying history is not just important to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. It is also about understanding lives, and seeing ourselves as part of a tradition. I remember when I went to East Africa and talked to a tribesman who told me his ancestors had been able to recount previous generations of ancestors – something young people were losing. We, too, are increasingly living in a ‘permanent present’, a throwaway age, and that’s something that studying history can help resist.
Francesco Da Mosto was talking to Greg Neale. Francesco Da Mosto has produced a series of television films, books and DVDs on Italy and the Mediterranean. The BBC DVDs Francesco’s Italy and Francesco’s Mediterranean are due to be released this month.