(National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019)
Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was not used to being refused. She was one of the most enlightened and demanding patrons of the Italian Renaissance, a well-educated woman who appreciated antique sculpture as much as the work of her brilliant contemporaries. However, in the years around 1500, Isabella found herself rebuffed by not one but two of the greatest painters of the day. The first was Leonardo, whom Isabella pursued in vain in the hope of getting a painted portrait (she eventually made do with a portrait drawing). And the second was Giovanni Bellini, whom Isabella approached via her Venetian agents. She invited him to contribute a picture to her famous studiolo – her private study, where she displayed a bevy of sophisticated allegories – and her instructions were that Bellini should paint an historia: a picture based on historical, mythological or allegorical themes. Bellini, very politely, declined. Isabella’s agent wrote to explain: it wasn’t that the elderly painter (Bellini was about sixty-five at the time) wanted to spite Her Ladyship, far from it. He just baulked at the thought of painting something so different from the devotional pictures and portraits which were his strength. Besides, the agent added, Bellini didn’t wish to set himself up against Andrea Mantegna, who had been the Gonzaga court artist for forty years.
You can understand Bellini’s wariness. Mantegna was an acknowledged master of the complex, esoteric allegories that Isabella and her courtiers so loved, and a difficult man to boot; but this was more than a case of professional discretion. Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law. For more than fifty years, they’d been aware of each other’s work, borrowing ideas and motifs, experimenting with the same themes while developing strikingly distinct styles. But their rivalry had so far been a friendly one, and Bellini had no desire to affront his famously irritable brother-in-law. It is this strange relationship – a little-known connection between two of the greatest Renaissance artists – which forms the topic of the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, and it’s one which is particularly close to my heart: I’m co-curating this show, alongside three wonderful colleagues, and we’ve been preparing it for two long years. Finally, the opening day is almost here, and I thought it was high time to give you a sneak peek. (Get a cup of tea first. It’s a long one.)
In 1506, five years after Bellini had gently rebuffed Isabella’s commission (and while he was still trying to wriggle out of it – ultimately unsuccessfully), Mantegna died. He left unfinished a painting for Francesco Cornaro, a Venetian patrician. With some artistic licence, Cornaro believed himself to be descended from the Roman family of the Cornelii, and he’d commissioned a cycle of classical histories celebrating their exploits. Mantegna was partway through a scene showing An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio. It might seem strange that Cornaro came to Bellini, asking him to finish it, since it was precisely the kind of historia that Bellini had refused to Isabella. But this time he said yes. We’ll never be sure exactly why, but it’s tempting to think that Bellini felt a sense of fraternal duty to his prickly, intellectual and temperamental brother-in-law. Bellini would also finish his brother Gentile’s final painting, when Gentile died the following year. Such acts were demonstrative of family piety.
And that’s the key thing. Bellini and Mantegna probably hadn’t seen each other very much for the past fifty years – Bellini rarely left Venice and Mantegna was kept busy by his Gonzaga patrons in Mantua – but they were still family. To his credit, Bellini tried to emulate Mantegna’s style when he finished off the painting, creating a monochrome procession that flowed across a canvas like a sculpted relief. It didn’t quite work, because Bellini’s soft and rounded forms are quite different from Mantegna’s lapidary figures, but the Episode from the Life of Scipio (National Gallery of Art, Washington) is a remarkable synthesis of the two artists’ styles and concerns. By completing it, Bellini paid a final tribute to a relationship that had started decades before, when both artists were very young men, in the first years of the 1450s, in Padua.
Back then, Padua was fizzing with creative power. The great Florentine sculptor Donatello was almost at the end of a ten-year residency, creating bronze reliefs for the altar in the Santo which galvanised the artistic community with their daring perspective, their crowded scenes and the intensity of emotion expressed by the figures therein. The university had created a vibrant circle of humanists and scholars, antiquaries, collectors, poets and theorists, whose fascination with the classical past filtered down into the artists’ studios. And no studio was more engaged with the ancient world than that of Francesco Squarcione, a middling artist but a shrewd entrepreneur, who ran an academy training up promising young painters (and adopting the most adept, which meant that he could benefit from their profits and didn’t have to pay them wages). Mantegna, born the son of a provincial cobbler, had been Squarcione’s student and, in due course, his adopted son. A few years later, Mantegna had managed to get that adoption annulled in the courts, displaying an early flair for litigation that would only develop as he matured – and he’d swiftly made his name as an independent master. By 1450 he was known and celebrated in Padua and beyond; moreover, he was one of the team working on the frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel, one of the city’s plum commissions. He wasn’t even twenty years old.
It isn’t clear exactly when Mantegna met Jacopo Bellini, then head of the leading family of painters in Venice, and a man always keen to expand the family brand. What is clear is that, in 1453, Mantegna married Jacopo’s daughter Nicolosia. However, if Jacopo hoped to add the brilliant young Paduan to the Bellini stable, he would be disappointed. For seven years Mantegna must have worked in close proximity to the Bellini, who were in and out of Padua working on various commissions, but in 1460 everything changed. Mantegna had received an invitation to become court artist to the Gonzaga in Mantua and, once he’d completed his promised works in Padua, he packed his bags, gathered his wife and household together and moved away. However, the link between him and the Bellini persisted. He was a family member, after all, and one of the most innovative and creative Italian painters of the age, blending Donatello’s perspective and emotional intensity with a deep passion for the ancient world. No wonder he was fascinating.
And that fascination seems to have been strongest for Jacopo’s second son, Giovanni, who was in his teens in 1450 and was overawed by his fierce, forceful, dazzling brother-in-law. He even experimented with a Paduan style during those teenage years, although that faded as he moved into his twenties. He began his career as a key member of his father’s workshop, adopting a soft, poetic and luminous style that appealed to his wealthy Venetian patrons. But he never forgot and nor, it seems, did Mantegna, who remained well-informed about the progress of his in-laws. The National Gallery show brings together a few key juxtapositions which show the two artists directly responding to one another, experimenting, probing, improving, challenging, even as they both embarked on dramatically diverging paths. Yet those paths, as I’ve said, would come back together in 1506 when, on Mantegna’s death, Bellini stepped forward to pick up his paintbrush (metaphorically speaking) and complete his final work.
It’s rarely possible for us to say that Bellini (or Mantegna) was definitely influenced by such-and-such a work by Mantegna (or Bellini) when he painted a particular picture. The question of influence is knotty and problematic, because we have no documentary evidence to support it: how can we know what the artist was thinking? But there are some striking parallels. In the exhibition, we’ve brought together images of the same theme by the two artists, so that you can see how their interpretations tally – or differ. One of the first juxtapositions shows two images of St Jerome. The first was painted by Mantegna just before 1450, the other by Bellini a few years later (disclaimer: not everyone believes the Mantegna is in fact by Mantegna. This is an occupational hazard in this field. I’m just going to call it ‘Mantegna’ to avoid confusion).
Look at the way the two artists have approached the subject. The iconography of St Jerome was still in its infancy at this date: he was still sometimes represented as a scholar-saint in his study, rather than a hermit in the wilderness. But both Mantegna and Bellini have been attracted by the idea of a rocky hermitage. Mantegna’s picture shows the scene in immense detail, with the rocks and landscape background precisely delineated. Still-life details, such as the discarded sandals in the foreground, are strikingly naturalistic. The saint has done a spot of interior decorating: he has a little pile of books and two mallets with which to pound the wooden board as a call to prayer. He’s fully dressed, his cardinal’s hat propped nearby, and a rather bored-looking lion curled at his feet. (St Jerome, like Androcles, pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw and won its undying friendship. Unlike Androcles, St Jerome then preached to and converted the lion.)
Bellini’s saint lives more simply, dressed in a linen robe and with only one visible book, the Bible. He earnestly preaches to the lion, which seems less concerned by the sermon than by the thorn which is still in its paw. But here the light is softer and the landscape is gently hazy, to suggest distance. The ‘atmosphere’ of Bellini’s picture draws the whole scene together, unlike the stronger, sculptural light of Mantegna’s painting. Even Bellini, though, can’t resist fun little details. My favourite part of the whole picture is the angry rabbit in its burrow at lower left. This does actually have some meaning: Jerome is associated with a verse urging people to overcome anger and lust. Here anger is represented by the wounded lion; lust by the furtive, brooding rabbit.
Rabbits reappear in Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, painted shortly before he left Padua in 1460 and moved to Mantua (to work for the Gonzaga). Just a couple of years later, Bellini painted the same subject. We can’t prove anything, but it’s generally accepted that Bellini must have known, and been responding to, his brother-in-law’s work. He doesn’t copy it, but both pictures have that odd outcropping of rock with a built-in altar on the top; both show sleeping apostles rendered with dramatic foreshortening; and both experiment with the combination of the naturalistic and the divine. At this date, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that the brothers-in-law might have met regularly: Padua wasn’t so far from Venice. Is Bellini’s work a homage? A challenge? For me, he doesn’t quite capture the close-up, crowded drama of Mantegna’s picture, but he triumphs in the use of light. A distant sunrise tinges the sky pink and the angel holding a chalice is a creature of light, not physicality, a wisp of ethereal cloud.
As a final direct comparison (not by any means the last in the show, but I have to limit myself in some way), take a look at the two pictures of The Presentation in the Temple with which I opened this post. Mantegna painted the subject in 1454, the year after his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini. Some scholars think that the young woman on the left and the moon-faced youth on the right are portraits of the newlyweds. It’s a daring image, taking us up close to the divine event. Mantegna brings us right into the sacred space, separated only by a parapet, on which the Madonna rests a protruding elbow. Ten or fifteen years later, Bellini painted his own version of the subject, which was amazingly close to its prototype – and with good reason. Recent research has revealed that he actually traced Mantegna’s composition, not emulating it so much as actively copying it. Scholars have argued over whether the figure on the right, who looks coyly out at us, is a self-portrait of Bellini. It’s tempting. But why would he have done such a thing? Wouldn’t it be nice to think that Mantegna’s version was a present for the family Nicolosia left behind when she married? And could Bellini’s have been a riposte, a family in-joke, meant as a gift for Nicolosia to remind her of the siblings and mother she’d left behind? (A disclaimer: that is pure fantasy; there’s no evidence of such a thing.)
From what I’ve said so far, it might sound as though Bellini was always running behind Mantegna, trying to catch up. But we can look at it another way. Bellini is responding to Mantegna’s subjects but (apart from the Presentation), he makes them entirely his own. And there’s evidence that his luminosity of light and colour, and his sensitivity to landscape, had some impact on Mantegna too. Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden shows him trying to bind the scene into a plausible landscape, just as Bellini did. He might have been brilliant at architecture and foreshortening, but he would never match Bellini’s ability to suggest a golden haze of light, whether in a landscape at sunrise, or in the hallowed chapels of a church. And Mantegna must also have noticed Bellini’s ability to create emotion: that gentle serenity which can capture the viewer’s heart as well as their eyes. Look, for example, at Mantegna’s Dead Christ supported by Angels of around 1485 (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen): it’s a variation on a theme established by Bellini in a picture ten years earlier (which is now in the National Gallery). There are other excellent examples in the artists’ drawings, which I’ll talk about in another post.
It’s a mistake to think of Renaissance artists as isolated giants, producing masterpieces in their lonely studios. First of all, when you look at a painting by Bellini or Mantegna, be aware that it very probably isn’t all Bellini or Mantegna. The Renaissance studio was a collaborative place, more like an art factory than a lone artist feverishly working away in his garret. Bellini was a businessman, as his father was before him; Mantegna had assistants. They couldn’t have produced the number of works they did by working alone (even though Mantegna was a notoriously slow painter). So don’t be tricked into approaching these works with modern notions of ‘authenticity’. A Renaissance artist – not to mention a Renaissance patron – would have known perfectly well that several different hands were involved in preparing a painting. The modern language of attribution doesn’t allow for that kind of nuance.
Secondly, artists didn’t operate in a vacuum. They were aware of what was going on: even if Bellini and Mantegna didn’t meet in person, they must have been aware of each other’s commissions. We know that members of the Bellini family travelled to Mantua on other business, and surely Nicolosia kept in touch with her family. Letters would have been exchanged; perhaps sketches were sent back and forth. Bellini knew of Mantegna’s prints: he even worked up Mantegna’s Descent into Limbo, transforming it into a painting with his own fluid style of brushwork (now in Bristol Art Gallery). Half a millennium later, all but a handful of letters have disappeared, but the pictures tell their own stories.
So why do Mantegna and Bellini look so different, if they came from the same place and were aware of one another throughout their long lives? One answer is that they were both brilliant men, gifted with particular ways of seeing the world. Another is that they worked for very different audiences, who wanted different things from their painters. Mantegna spent most of his career as a court painter, answerable to two or three patrons who – especially as he grew older, and more of an institution in Mantua – allowed him considerable freedom. Mantua was a playful, intellectual, urbane place, full of poets and humanists, where his early fascination with the classical world could blossom into a unique, antique-infused style of art. Although he was demanding and difficult, his patrons loved him and proudly showed off the works he made for them. Bellini, too, was admired by his audience, but he worked in a competitive market, for a Venetian audience who could all too easily be distracted by the next big thing.
Some people suggest that Bellini was too ready to jump on whichever artistic bandwagon came along, implying that he didn’t have any strong personal style. But this looks at matters from completely the wrong angle, in my view. Bellini was an immensely flexible, adaptable artist. He absorbed new ideas and fashions, whether that was as a boy in 1450s Padua, or in Venice at the dawn of the 16th century, when softness and pastoral poetry were all the rage. And, using these ideas, he created a style which would form the foundation of the next generation. Without Bellini, you wouldn’t have Giorgione or Titian, Rubens, Tiepolo or Guardi. Mantegna may have been the most intellectual, the most uncompromising of the two, the perfect exemplar of the Renaissance artist who interacts with the classical world. But it’s Bellini who had the greatest impact on the future of art, embodying the Renaissance as a time of naturalism, grace and innovation. Both brilliant, both creative, both using the past to shape the present, these two artists were – each on their own – a force of nature. By bringing them together, we hope that you won’t just be stunned by the beauty on show (and trust me: there’s a lot), but that you’ll come away with a sense of their complex interaction – a rivalry, certainly, but one underlaid with a deep and abiding respect for each other and each other’s art.
The show opens on 1 October to the public and the catalogue is available from the National Gallery shop. I’ll be posting separately on the two artists and their drawings, a topic which is particularly close to my heart, so keep your eyes open for that. And, if anyone’s at a loose end at lunchtime on 15 October, come along to my free lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery, and learn even more about Mantegna, Bellini, and their works on paper. I hope you love the show as much as I’ve loved putting it together. It’s been enormous fun, and my fellow co-curators have been the most wonderful team to work with. I may just have been spoiled for life.