The biography of Alvise Vivarini (1445 - 1505)

Alvise or Luigi Vivarini, (1446 – 1502), was an Italian painter in the late Gothic style, the leading Venetian artist before Giovanni Bellini. Like Bellini, he was part of a dynasty of painters.

Vivarini was born in 1446 or 1447. His father was Antonio Vivarini and his uncle, with whom he may have trained, was Bartolomeo Vivarini. Another uncle, on his mother’s side, was the artist known as Giovanni d'Alemagna, who worked with his brother-in-law Antonio. He died in 1502 poor and in debt.

It has sometimes been supposed that, besides the Luigi who was the latest of this pictorial family, there had also been another Luigi who was the earliest (i.e. Antonio’s father), this supposition being founded on the fact that one picture is signed with the name, with the date 1414.

Of his early history very little is known. He was an original workman, highly thought of in his own time, a great figure amongst the Venetian masters of the fifteenth century, by no means an unimportant member of the Vivarini family, and not a follower of Bellini.

His first dated work is the polyptych of 1475, painted for Montefiorentino, and still to be seen in that Franciscan monastery. His independent works date from the 1460s onwards. He continued to paint polyptychs, but he modernized his style to a certain extent by imitating Mantegna.

He emerged as an independent artist in 1476 when he was enrolled in the Scuola della Carita, Venice, and signed a polyptych (Urbino, Palazzo Ducale) for the Franciscans of Montefiorentino in the Marches. In 1488, conscious of the family prestige, he petitioned to work alongside the Bellini in the Sala del Gran Consiglio of the Doge’s Palace.

The works of Vivarini show an advance on those of his predecessors, and some of them are productions of high attainment; one of the best was executed for the Scuola di San Girolamo in Venice, representing the saint caressing his lion, and some monks decamping in terror. The architecture and perspective in this work are superior.

His Madonna of 1480 is in the Venice Academy. Between 1483 and 1485 he was at work in southern Italy. There is a picture dated 1483 at Barletta, one at Naples of 1485, a Madonna at Vienna, 1489, a head of the Saviour in Venice (1493), a Resurrection at Venice also of 1498. His last great work is that of “St. Ambrose Enthroned”, for Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice, commenced in 1501, left incomplete at his death, and finished by Marco Basaiti. Other works by Vivarini are in Treviso, Milan and the National Gallery, London. He painted some remarkable portraits.

Vivarini was somewhat traditional and conventional in his approach, ignoring, for the most part, the trend away from the forms of Gothic painting. His few late works, however, have a stamp of individuality that distinguishes them from the mainstream of the Venetian style at the time — e.g., his psychologically complex portrait of an unknown Venetian gentleman, signed and dated 1497, now in the National Gallery, London.