(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.)