Milan’s museums are filled with exceptional works of art. And yet, there is one in particular that has always fascinated me more than any other, for reasons I shall try to explain here. This work is Giovanni Bellini’s St Giustina, which was commissioned by the Borromeo family and is preserved in Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi.
One of the things that makes this painting so intriguing – to me, at least – is its location. To see the painting, you need to walk through the whole upper floor of the museum. Decorated in accordance with a late 19th-century fashion aimed to exalt the family’s noble origins, the rooms are packed with furniture, objects, sculptures and armor from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance: all works of unquestionable worth, but at the same time imposing and almost threatening. And so, as soon as one comes to the St Giustina, it is as if a ray of light were filling the otherwise dark room.
The rendering of the saint is, in all honesty, quite traditional: a static, standing figure enveloped in classicising drapery. The attributes required for identifying her (a book, the palm of martyrdom and a sword) are dutifully in plain view, but when your eye reaches her face, it is immediately clear that the artist was inspired by a real person. Just as the landscape, dotted with gentle summer clouds, is the result of observation from life, rather than convention. This is why I have always admired Bellini’s painting.
Far before Titian and Giorgione, who came a few decades later, the artist studied his surroundings, trying to describe a landscape or the face of a young girl for what they are and how they appear to us in everyday life. This was no small feat. Indeed, this was just before the middle of the 15th century, and the Renaissance, at least in northern Italy, was only just beginning to dawn.