Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery

Whether you like Renaissance art, are fond of all things Venetian, or simply fancy playing a “Are-you-a-Mantegna-or-a-Bellini?” game, this exhibition at the National Gallery has got so much for you. Among many merits, its best feature is perhaps its gentle, but clear storytelling, interweaving the lives of the two painters. It tells the story of their friendship and mutual challenging, leading them to mature their very own stance in the context of Italian Renaissance art.

It all starts in 1453. Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna marries Nicolosia Bellini, Giovanni’s sister, and thus enters the Bellini bottega of artists, established by Giovanni’s father Jacopo. This is how the two artists, both from the Veneto region and both incredibly talented, got to know each other. Curated by Caroline Campbell, the exhibition explores precisely this encounter and its consequences, in a delightful, well-researched and eye-opening way.

At the very core of Mantegna and Bellini is a fascination with the peculiar features of the two artists and a keen interest in showcasing their individual qualities. In spite of being relatively familiar with the art of both, the exhibition is able to uncover a wealth of small, overlooked aspects about the two painters. For example, have you ever noticed that the light in Bellini’s paintings is so similar to the one you experience in Venice, when the sun is shimmering on the water surface and you feel like you’re walking inside a painting? Or have you ever stopped before a Mantegna to pay attention to all the details he painstakingly inserts in the background?

The “confrontation” between the two artists begins with the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, in the first room. Mantegna (humbly…) inserts himself and his wife next to Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus presented to old Simeon. Bellini sees the painting, likes it, and reproduces it. Bu much like in Classical antiquity, in the Renaissance the concept of imitatio involves emulation with a twist. Bellini expands the scene by adding two more figures on the edges, and in so doing he gives the painting a whole new life. A couple of soft female faces on the left and the stern look of a young man on the right, and the painting tells a brand new story. Bellini adds a soul to what in Mantegna’s an exhibition of (admittedly incredible) craft. We are being introduced to a head-to-head between impressive technical capabilities and the ability of conjuring up intimacy in art.

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Andrea Mantegna, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1454)

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Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (1470)

Indeed, as the exhibition proceeds, the two artists couldn’t seem more different. Born in the surroundings of Padua, Andrea Mantegna was essentially a self-made man, who moved to the intellectually vibracy of Padua to become an apprentice of Francesco Squarcione. He was influenced by Squarcione’s own enthusiasm for antiquity and Padua’s academic and scholarly atmosphere. His incredible talent, his wild imagination and creativity, and his craftsmanship in the rendering of details and perspective are among this unique selling points.

Giovanni Bellini, on the other hand, had an easier way into the art-world. His father Jacopo had founded a successful workshop in Venice, so he didn’t have to go very far to find work for himself. What Giovanni does achieve, however, is the development a rather distinctive style, giving a totally unique “feel” to his paintings. Curator Campell puts his uniqueness down to the light of his paintings, but to me there’s also something to be said about his softer shapes (definitely more gentle than Mantegna’s) and the focus on the interiority of his characters.

Another illuminating comparison is the The Agony in the Garden, completed in 1450-2 by Mantegna and 1458-60 by Bellini. In a word, this is intellect vs. impression. Mantegna is all about bold foreshortening, abundance of mind-blowing details, and erudite references (including embellishing his Jerusalem with Trajan’s Column, the Colosseum and a towering Islamic building). Bellini can’t quite compete with Mantegna’s compelling technique, but does play a card his opponent doesn’t have: emotion. His excellent handling of skylight and landscape provides his painting with a soul, diluting the amount of details and focusing on the sentiment of the scene. In his painting, we sense Christ’s anticipation before the cross that is missing in Mantegna.

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Andrea Mantegna, The Agony in the Garden (1450-2)

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Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden (1458-60)

As I made my way through the following rooms, I tried to jot down as many adjectives as I could to describe the two artists. Mantegna is bold, in-your-face, dynamic, sensational, rocky. Bellini is a” less-is-more” kind of guy, intimate, assorted, snug, meditative. Technique-wise, Mantegna is your man. If you’re looking for contemplation and intimate devotion, that’s Bellini’s realm. Mantegna is bombastically precise, Bellini is all about gentleness and tenderness.

At the beginning, it is Mantegna that wins you over, mainly because his art looks more impressive and accomplished. The room ‘La Pietà’, however, with works meditating on Christ’s suffering, is where Bellini really shines. His Lamentation over Dead Christ (1490) is intense, warm, heart-hitting. It is a drawing, but hammers home the point more than a painting would do. It’s atmospheric, contemplative, filled with profound devotion. I also loved The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1470-5), where the intimate contact between the heads of Christ and the angels speak more than a thousand exaggerated expressions of grief.

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Giovanni Bellini, The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1470-5)

Mantegna catches up in the ‘Antiquity’ room, with his arresting The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome (1505-6), commissioned by Venetian nobleman Francesco Cornaro. Bellini then redeems himself once again in ‘Landscape’ – in his paintings, landscape becomes integral to the narrative, as in The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr (1505-7).

Towards the end, the boundaries between the two artists get blurry. In part, this is due to the collaborative nature of the Renaissance studio: after all, the two did work in the same bottega, seeing each other’s works and being influenced by each other’s features. Indeed, between the two there was “deep mutual respect and honour”, as Campell explains in the brilliant video accompanying the exhibition.

In ‘Devotional Paintings and Portraits’ Bellini can be seen as taking up Mantegna’s technical tricks. In The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalen (1490), one has almost the impression of standing in front of a Caravaggio, 100 years before Caravaggio was even born. Mantegna, on the other hand, loses sheen as he gets caught up in his intricate details and his colours turn slighly more acidic.

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Giovanni Bellini, The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalen (1490)

With works coming from all over the world, including Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, this exhibition is bound to leave a mark in the UK and beyond. It is a pleasure to get out of the National Gallery with the feeling of having learnt something, and having thoroughly enjoyed the journey. In a nutshell, the exhibition furthers our understanding of Mantegna, Bellini, the Italian Renaissance and yes, even beauty itself.

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