Gentile Bellini is important in many respects. He is crucial to the art historian in any telling of the story of Venetian painting, and is important also in the history of Italian drawing. But here, I am going to describe a drawing made by Bellini between the years of 1479 and 1481 to reflect a subject he witnessed not in Venice, but in Istanbul-Constantinople.
We have before us Bellini’s drawing of a sumptuously dressed man. Around his head is a large turban, on his earlobe glints a small gold earring, and clothing his body is a rich kaftan made from dark blue, plum, and scarlet cloth embroidered with gold and silver thread shaped into a variety of abstract floral and vegetal forms. He sits crouched in a position that allows him to rest a tablet on his knees, upon which he in turn has placed the end of a sharpened stylus. The man stares intently down at the blank space of the tablet before him, ignoring the foliage beneath him and the intrusion of us, his viewers, in front of him. Behind him is a blank space of the same color and tone as the tablet that he holds, and at first glance we may expect it be a wall – an expectation dashed by the appearance of a clump of flowers set in the distance on the upper-left of the composition. At the far upper-right of the drawing is a gold-lettered inscription, written in Ottoman cursive script, set within a cartouche that is filled with small flowers. The inscription itself is set into the corner of a thin red, blue, and gold frame that surrounds the entirety of the scene upon which we have been musing, which in turn breaks the spell that we are looking at a real person instead of a drawing.
What draws the eye, or at least my eye, in this work is the relationship between word and image, though maybe not in the way in which one might first expect. To be sure, the glittering inscription and the lines made up of beautiful gold and silver embroidery draw our attention due to the play of light that they enact over the space of the drawing, but even more than this, they draw our attention to the ways in which it is “line”, rather than color or shade, that undergirds the visual construction of this piece – the lines of words, the lines of embroidery within the visual field of the kaftan, the stark black outline of the kaftan, and finally the two strong frames that encircle both the inscription and the image overall.
Even more than this, however, the profusion of different types of line draws our attention – guided in part also by the invisible sightline of the man upon whom we have been gazing – to the tiny yet powerful point at which the tip of the stylus meets the blank “ground” of the tablet. All of the lines seem to lead up to that point, a point upon which rests the beginning of a new work – the work that the man before us is contemplating so carefully. And it reminds us that we do not know whether this man is an “artist” or a “scribe”, or whether such distinctions even matter in the context of this small but profound drawing.
What this leads to is a breakdown of our categories of writing and drawing, of the ambiguous role of the line as a creator of both visual and written language. Because both writing and drawing are kinds of language, they remind us that they each are not wholly understandable without curiosity, learning, and empathy. In the end, this drawing then becomes a meditation of the attempt at understanding between Bellini, the painter, and the unnamed, unknown Ottoman scribe-artist that he portrayed. In placing Ottoman script in juxtaposition to his own Italian-inflected form of visual language, one could argue that Bellini is showing his aim to learn about Ottoman culture as something worth learning about, as an entity that could offer just as much – if not more – than Bellini could offer back in return. In the end, this drawing to me seems to have been made in a spirit of cross-cultural friendship, a spirit which we could all try to inhabit more often.