A History of the Bellini: Italy in a Drink – by AHA alum Helena Roy

As summer fast approaches, (even in Britain it’s getting warmer!) and flocks of tourists depart to Italy for sun, sights and…the food, there is one drink that epitomises that Italian spirit: the Bellini.

A classic cocktail known the world over, it is one of Italy’s most popular drinks. Venetian through and through, it was invented between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani – founder of the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice (which welcomed guests such as Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart). The story goes that its unique, sunset-pink colour reminded Cipriani of the shades in his favourite paintings by 15th-century Venetian artist… Giovanni Bellini. And so the drink was christened.

A Bellini

The creation went from a seasonal delight to a year-round favourite; from a secret of Venice to a globally-known cocktail. It first found its way to Harry’s Bar in New York, and eventually its popularity spread.

The concotion is a mix of prosecco and puréed white peaches. The original recipe has a small amount of raspberry or cherry juice added, to give it that subtle rose glow. The drink is the embodiment of Italian summers – fresh, sweet, sun-ripened peaches with dry, crisp prosecco.

Looking for evidence of Cipriani’s inspiration is not difficult. A colourful example might be the Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice; or perhaps The Agony in the Garden (1465), which hangs in our own National Gallery. Bellini shaped Venetian artistic tradition with his innovative use of rich colours – using sumptuous shades and jewel-like tones. The altarpiece of San Zaccaria robes the Madonna in deep pink and sapphire tones, and The Agony in the Garden shows the very sunset/sunrise tint that inspired the celebrated cocktail.

Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice
The Agony in the Garden (1465)

Nowadays there are several variations, designed to make best use of the available ingredients. Multitudes of fruit, and prosecco or champagne are used to create new mélanges. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to use prosecco, not champagne. The latter is stronger and overpowers the delicate peach taste. You risk falling victim to adding more and more peach to find the flavour, resulting in an alcoholic fruit smoothie.

On many a menu will you find different bellinis: raspberry, passion fruit, pear, apple – even rhubarb was a recent find! But it is peach and prosecco that is the classic combination. True DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) prosecco is made in the regions that surround Venice – Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia – and is the best base.

My own memory of the best bellini wasn’t at Harry’s Bar, but on the Punta della Dogana on a humid Venetian evening, having a picnic dinner with the AHA Northern Italy trip. At the risk of making this blog post redundant, it isn’t actually the drink that matters, but the company. The Bellini: best enjoyed at sunset, in summer, and in Italy.

AHA Northern Italy Trip - Bellinis at Sunset
AHA Northern Italy Trip - The View from the Punta della Dogana
AHA Northern Italy Trip - Evening on the Punta della Dogana

With thanks to artrenewal.org, nationalgallery.org.uk and redbookmag.com for pictures.

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