A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.
It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.
Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.
Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.
After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.
Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.
The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.
In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.
Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.
To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”
The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Garden, which Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.
It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.
Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.
Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.
Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3
The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.
Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.
Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.
One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.
The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.
The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.
As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.
Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.
Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.
Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.
Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.
The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.
Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.
Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.
There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.
Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …
Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.
Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day.