"Bellini" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot cocktail bar! Today we’re mixing up some Bellinis and talking about the artist, the cocktail, and patronage!

The Bellini is a cocktail made from Prosecco sparkling wine and peach purée, invented in Venice by Giuseppe Cipriani, and the story of its name is one of patronage of all kinds. In the 1920s Cipriani had worked his way up through the restaurant business, eventually finding himself as bartender at the high-class Hotel Europa bar in Venice. In 1929 he got to know one of the bar’s regular patrons, Harry Pickering, a young rake with a drinking problem from a wealthy Bostonian family. Pickering had been sent to Venice with his aunt (along with her lover and a Pekinese) in an attempt to dry him out. Obviously the plan failed. Then one day Harry stopped showing up at the bar. He had had a falling out with his aunt, who then left with her lover, leaving Harry with no money, a large hotel and bar bill, and the Pekinese. Wanting to help his friend, Cipriani asked how much he needed, and Harry replied that he needed enough for one last drink at the bar, to pay his bills, and to buy his boat ticket home, about 10,000 lire, which was about $500 USD at the time or around $8000 today. Cipriani scrounged up the money, and Harry set off home. A few years later, in 1931, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, with not only the 10,000 lire to repay the loan, but with an additional 40,000 lire for Cipriani to open his own bar, saying “Let’s call it Harry’s Bar!” So Harry Pickering went from a bar patron to the wealthy patron of a bar—I’ll come back to the web of related meanings of the word ‘patron’ in a bit! Since then, Harry’s Bar has become an iconic Venetian landmark, with many famous patrons of its own, including Ernest Hemingway,  Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and even many crowned heads of Europe. Giuseppe even named his own son after the bar (and its patron), Arrigo (the Italian form of Harry), and he’s now the current proprietor of the much expanded family restaurant and hotel business. At the end of WWII, after the liberation of Venice, Harry’s Bar briefly became an unofficial officers’ mess for American and British soldiers, but soon after it returned to its usual clientele of celebrities which more recently included the likes of Kim Kardashian and George Clooney.

Well some time between 1934 and 1948, Giuseppe invented the cocktail Bellini by mixing puréed white peaches with the Italian sparkling wine Prosecco, with the original recipe also containing a little raspberry juice for colour. Prosecco and peach, by the way, are both toponyms, that is they come from place names. Prosecco is named after the Italian town near Triest and close to the border with Slovenia, where the grape varietal and wine come from, and in turn the town’s name actually comes from a Slovene word meaning “path cut through the woods”. Peach comes from the name Persia, as the fruit was called Persikon malon “Persian apple” in Greek. Giuseppe named the resulting drink Bellini after the Venetian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini, because the colour of the cocktail reminded him, so the story goes, of the colour of a saint’s robes in a Bellini painting. Bellini’s name, by the way, comes from Italian bello “beautiful” from Latin bellus “beautiful” ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *deu- “to do, show favour, revere”.  Cipriani was again inspired by Renaissance art in the naming of another signature recipe from Harry’s Bar, carpaccio, a dish of thinly sliced raw beef served with lemon juice, olive oil, and white truffle or Parmesan cheese. He named this dish after Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, again because the colour of the meat reminded him of the rich use of colour by the artist. Well, he wasn’t wrong. The Venetian school of painting is particularly known for emphasizing colour over line, as opposed to the Florentine school. The story goes that the beef dish was invented for the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo, as her doctors had recommended she only eat raw meat. Another well-known recipe to come out of Harry’s Bar is the Montgomery Martini, named after British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, so called because of its 15 to 1 ratio of gin to vermouth, as Montgomery was purported to have liked a 15 to 1 ratio of his troops to the enemy on the battlefield. During WWII, Montgomery was involved in the Invasion of Sicily, then continued to command the Eighth Army into mainland Italy, before being reassigned to northern Europe for the rest of the war. So he wasn’t in Venice in Harry’s Bar at the end of the war, but in north Germany. But let us return to Venice, in the Renaissance, to look more closely at those Venetian painters.

As I said, Venetian painting was known for its vibrant use of colour, as well as its subtlety of light. And one reason was its geography. You see tempera paint, which was water soluble, didn’t stand up well in the damp conditions of canal-filled Venice. So the Venetians were quick to adopt the new oil paints developed in the north in Flanders. The knock-on advantage of oil paint is it allows for those deep colours that Venetian artists became known for through the application of many layers of paint. Oil painting may have been brought to Venice by Antonello da Messina, who was himself influenced by early Netherlandish painting, and along with Leonardo da Vinci was an important influence on the Venetian style. But we’ll get back to Leonardo in a minute. At the heart of the Venetian style of painting was the Bellini family. Giovanni’s father Jacopo and brother Gentile were also noted painters, as was his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. And from Giovanni Bellini’s workshop came the well-known Venetian artists Titian and Giorgione. Vittore Carpaccio, who as we saw was also a source of naming inspiration at Harry’s Bar, studied under Giovanni Bellini’s brother Gentile.
Now one really important thing to understand about Renaissance art is the role of patronage, to return to that topic. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the role of major patrons like the Medici family in Florence in driving Renaissance humanism by supporting the work of artists, writers, and philosophers. But Renaissance art patronage is a little different from today’s patron of the arts, who typically invests large sums of money in large institutions. In many ways, the creation of art during the Renaissance was a collaborative effort between patron and artist, with the patron requesting a certain content in, say, a painting, and the artist executing that request. This is rather different from the way art collecting tends to work today, in which the collector buys ready-made art, the content of which was solely up to the artist. Even back in the Renaissance, some bolder artists, as we’ll see, might quibble with the patron’s requests or even outright refuse the commission if it didn’t suit their personal style, but mostly that’s how it worked. And patrons would often commission works for public consumption such as a sculpture for the city or frescoes for the churches, with their private collections often serving as backdrop to their diplomatic and political work. The mutual relationship between patron and artist would benefit the status of both: as an artist, to have your work in the collection of a notable figure would raise your profile, and patrons would wish to collect works from all the big name artists. And presumably some element of this Renaissance practise is what the modern company Patreon wants to evoke with its name—though in a more grass-roots way—by allowing anyone to financially support artists and creative people, and to become participants in the creative process. Now while the usual model of patronage in Renaissance Italy was the single commission, sometimes a wealthy family would hire a salaried court artist, as the Gonzaga family who ruled Mantua did. Ludovico Gonzaga had appointed Andrea Mantegna, who you remember was the brother-in-law of Bellini, as court painter. Mantegna became quite close to the family and a good friend of Ludovico’s son Federico, and his connection continued as the dynasty was passed down to Federico’s son Francesco, being taken in particular under the wing of Francesco’s wife, Isabella d’Este. Appropriately, perhaps, the word dynasty may be related to Bellini’s name, through Greek dynasthai “to be able”, which possibly goes back to the same PIE root.
Isabella, whose name, by the way, is NOT, despite appearances, related to ‘Bellini’, being instead a version of the Hebrew name Elishebha (which comes into English as “Elizabeth”), was a remarkable woman, both as one of the premiere patrons and as a political figure. She seems to have gained much of her political acumen from her mother Eleonora of Aragon, who had governed Ferrara during the frequent absences of Isabella’s father Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and was by some accounts a superior administrator to her husband. In turn Isabella was able to govern Mantua in Francesco’s absence, and when he was taken captive in Venice, Isabella took charge of Mantua’s military and successfully defended the city. As she thus earned the reputation of being superior to her husband in administrative and political matters, he was humiliated and furious upon his release, and the two led mostly separate lives from that point. After his death, Isabella again took up the reins of power serving as regent until her son came of age, and achieved many notable political successes on behalf of Mantua. Isabella had received a good classical education as a child, which sparked her interest in antiquities, and she became an avid collector. In addition, her education and innate intelligence allowed her to take part in the humanist philosophy at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. She had court painter Mantegna produce large allegorical works based on classical mythological themes for her studiolo, basically her study where she got on with the business of all that Renaissance humanism. She also sought other major artists to paint for her studiolo, including Mantegna’s brother-in-law Bellini. The lengthy negotiations between Isabella and Bellini, sometimes direct and sometimes through intermediaries, have been preserved — Isabella was a prolific correspondent with many people and her remarkable letters have fortunately survived. In her negotiations with Bellini, she wanted another large mythological painting, but Bellini was initially reluctant and didn’t want to have to work with such a detailed outline. The negotiations continued for nearly a decade, with Isabella forwarding a downpayment, Bellini continually delaying working on the painting, renegotiations of the subject, and even Isabella attempting to retrieve her money from the artist and cancelling the commission. In the end, Bellini talked her into settling for a smaller nativity scene, though she continued to suggest adding other figures to the painting such as John the Baptist (which Bellini balked at), but finally Isabella was satisfied with the outcome, which she hung in her bedroom. The painting is sadly now lost, though some have argued that the composition of the painting may have influenced this Adoration of the Shepherds, usually attributed to Giorgione.

Another artist Isabella actively pursued was Leonardo da Vinci. He did indeed draw a portrait of her, which seems to have been preliminary work for a painted portrait (mentioned in their correspondence), but if the painting was completed, it no longer survives. However, it has been suggested that the figure portrayed in Leonardo’s most famous painting may have in fact been Isabella. The most widely accepted opinion among art historians is that the Mona Lisa depicts Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, but argument over the possible subjects continues.

Speaking of Leonardo da Vinci, in addition to being one of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance, he was also an ahead-of-his-time inventor and engineer, coming up with plans for things like the helicopter, various war machines, and hydraulic systems. Indeed at times he was taken on by patrons not only for his painting but also for his architectural and engineering work. This was the case in 1502, when he was under the patronage of the notorious Cesare Borgia. At the direction of his equally notorious father Pope Alexander VI, Cesare went about Romagna in northern Italy conquering territory for himself, and he brought Leonardo along to design fortifications and weapons. Also with Cesare was Niccolo Machiavelli, a civic official in Florence, who had been sent to Cesare for diplomatic purposes and to spy on him to learn of any territorial ambitions he might have in Florence. One outcome of the contact between Leonardo and Machiavelli, both Florentines, was the daring scheme to steal the River Arno. Yes, steal a river. You see the River Arno runs through Florence and then on to their rival city Pisa, so the plan was to weaken Pisa by diverting the river away from the city. The plan was unsuccessful, but the conjunction of these two important Renaissance minds may not end there. Leonardo and Machiavelli seem to have been influential on each other, with one scholar suggesting that Leonardo’s scientific thinking inspired Machiavelli to essentially create modern political science in his most famous work The Prince (which by the way was read by Isabella d’Este). It’s because of this work that we use the term Machiavellian to describe underhanded political machinations. You see Machiavelli, who was also inspired by Cesare Borgia’s brutal tactics, took a very pragmatic approach to wielding power, suggesting that a ruler shouldn’t keep his word if doing so would undermine his best interest, and that it’s better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Another claim that is sometimes made of Machiavelli is that he saw patronage as an effective tool of political control as a kind of propaganda, and though I don’t think he’s quite that explicit, he does often write about how a ruler should seem to be good, seem to be generous, and so forth, making a distinction between seeming and reality. Furthermore, he wrote that “a prince should also show his esteem to talent, actively encouraging able men, and honouring those who excel in their profession.” It does indeed sound like an endorsement of carefully calculated patronage.

And when one thinks of Italian rulers who were good at using artistic patronage for political ends, one figure who certainly comes to mind is Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, who is, by the way, probably the source of the term “Prince” to mean ruler, as in Machiavelli’s book title, because he styled himself “princeps civitatis”, “first man of the state”, and the term ‘princeps’, ‘first-taker’, from primus+capere, became the title of the Emperor for the first three hundred years or so of the Roman empire. Augustus came to power through a civil war, and presided over a major change in government, from republic to empire, so he had a lot of PR work to do. He famously enlisted the support of a number of poets, in particular Virgil and Horace, whose works praising him and supporting his policies, subtly or explicitly, were crucial in shaping his public image. And he did this via his friend Maecenas, whose patronage of these famous poets, memorialised in their works, led to his name becoming an actual term for “patron” in several languages. Some classical scholars, writing just before and after the second world war, went so far as to call Maecenas Augustus’s “Minister of Propaganda”, comparing him to Goebbels, who held that role in Hitler’s government (taking us back to WWII and Montgomery & Harry’s Bar). But Maecenas didn’t hold anything like an official role as ‘minister of propaganda’. Instead, he worked within the long-established Roman tradition of patronage, just focussing on poets and writers. Roman patronage was a system in which wealthier and more influential families helped out people from the lower rungs of Roman society with loans, dowries, gifts, and legal representation, in return for political and military support. The more powerful person was the patronus meaning “defender, protector, advocate” (presumably this led J K Rowling to use the Latin word in her famous spell, “expecto patronum”, literally “I await my protector”), which is derived from pater “father”, going back to the Proto-Indo-European root *pəter-, which through the Germanic branch also gives us father. There’s a complex web of meanings here that all have to do with the underlying relationship. As we saw before, a patron can not only refer to a wealthy benefactor, but also a customer of a bar or restaurant. And the verb form patronize can mean to be a customer, but also to act condescendingly towards someone, implying a power imbalance and pseudo parent-child relationship. The importance of this ‘father’ role to the way the Roman upper classes saw themselves is evident in a number of other terms derived from pater, like ‘patrician’ (noble), patres conscripti (another name for the Senators who made up the governing body of the Republic) and pater patriae, Father of the Fatherland, an honorific awarded for notable service to the state, to people such as Cicero & Augustus. The governing class of Rome saw themselves as ‘fathers’ to the rest of the citizens. And the patron, in return for his father-like protection expected loyalty from his client. The word client comes from Latin cliens either from the verb cluere “to listen, follow, obey”, from the same Proto-Indo-European root as English listen, or from clinare “to incline, bend” from the same root as English lean; and ironically the word clientele, “group of regular clients of a business”, now means much the same thing as patrons, in the sense of people who regularly patronise (visit) an establishment. But it wasn’t just poor Romans who had patrons—even members of the upper classes would exchange favours for support; however, they didn’t like being called ‘clients’, or to call someone their ‘patron’, because that made them seem too low status, so a whole euphemistic language of ‘friendship’, amicitia, was developed. Amicitia is derived from the Latin verb amare “to love”, from which we get the word amorous, and ultimately goes back to Proto-Indo-European *am- the base of various relationship words including English aunt—like that Pekinese-wielding relative of Harry Pickering. It was that language of ‘friendship’ that Virgil and Horace used to refer to their “greater friend” Maecenas, and his ‘greater friend’ Augustus, who was by this time the principal benefactor (another word related to Bellini’s name, meaning literally “a doer of good” from the Latin adverb bene “well”, ultimately from that same PIE root) of the entire Roman citizenry. And this connection between friendship and patronage brings us back to Harry’s Bar, a product of a friendship that turned one kind of patron into a different kind of patron!

And so, now that we’re back at the bar, it’s time to make one of those famous Bellinis! This is a very simple recipe: 1 part peach puree to 2 parts Italian prosecco. Pour the prosecco carefully into the puree, stir gently. We froze some local Ontario peaches back in the summer, so we’re using yellow peaches, not white, since that’s what’s available here, so the colour isn’t perfectly Venetian, but it’s still delicious!

Now, if you’d like to know more about Renaissance artists and how patronage was involved in kicking off the Italian Renaissance in Florence, head over to my friend AmorSciendi’s channel for his video on the contest for the commission for the doors of the Florentine Baptistry. It’s a fascinating story!

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