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Discussion of the interplay between the North Italian Renaissance painters Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna has been a staple of art historical literature, yet this exhibition—Mantegna & Bellini, on view at the National Gallery in London, October 1, 2018–January 27, 2019—was the first to put the two artists toe-to-toe, with their achievements in direct confrontation. It’s not an easy call. These two brilliant artists, joined by family ties and a shared geography, are often treated in violent contrast, one lauded at the expense of the other. Each has a chronology that is frequently disputed. The exact nature of their training is still far from clear. And to add to the scenario, the drawing style of each has never been satisfactorily defined.
The focused exhibition, curated by a team from the National Gallery in London and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, took on some of these problems by celebrating the career of each artist and showing how they interacted with each other—particularly in their early work—and arrived at very different places as their careers progressed. Thesis exhibitions are always a difficult affair; the theme must be clear enough to engage the general public and dense enough to speak to specialists. In this case, the theme of “confrontation” meant different things at various stages in the exhibition—from mutual borrowings to sharply divergent paths—engendering a certain amount of confusion. However one responded to the premise of the exhibition, though, what remained were first-rate works by each, drawn from the superb holdings of London, Berlin, the British Museum, and elsewhere, works rarely seen in this kind of proximity.
The first section of the exhibition was the most successful in terms of confrontation. The subject of Saint Jerome meditating and reading in the desert, a favorite of Veneto patrons, was taken up early by both artists, who both profited from pages in the Jacopo Bellini albums of drawings. Mantegna married into the Bellini family in 1453 and thus at this point presumably had free access to the albums. Mantegna’s Saint Jerome (Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, ca. 1448, if indeed the work is to be accepted as autograph) shows Mantegna still searching for his crystalline style. Bellini’s Saint Jerome (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, UK, dated probably 1453–55), perhaps his first independent work, is equally tentative, very much in a miniaturist mode. Neither is yet the artist we know and love.
As their careers developed, the two artists were responsive to many of the same sources, as well as to each other. Donatello, resident in Padua from about 1443 to 1453, was almost certainly irresistible for both. Mantegna’s early connection with the mysterious Squarcione—the exhibition made this point with works by the Squarcione disciple Marco Zoppo—was tempered by his association with the Bellini family. Giovanni Bellini in turn picked up tips from Mantegna. Both, as recent scholarship has pointed out, also responded to Flemish works. Entering into the assessment of their early relationship is the much-debated question of Giovanni’s birth date, opened up again by Daniel Wallace Maze (Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 3, Fall 2013); Maze makes a persuasive case for Giovanni and Jacopo being sons of the same father but different mothers, and he places Giovanni Bellini’s birth date between 1424 and 1428. This would put Mantegna, considered to have been born around 1431, almost a contemporary of Bellini. (Maze’s new dating proposal is not addressed in the exhibition.)
During the 1450s, Bellini and Mantegna come into full command of their powers. The point of the artists’ intimate contact combined with their absolute divergence comes less than halfway through the exhibition with the two Agony in the Garden paintings, both in the National Gallery in London: Mantegna’s is from ca. 1455–56, Bellini’s perhaps slightly later (dated here ca. 1458–60). Bellini, slow in his mastery of composition, absorbs Mantegna’s figure types and the idea of a broad vista but has already come into his exceptional handling of light and atmosphere. Mantegna has well in hand his personal style of a hard-edge, enveloping landscape of rocks and architecture while incorporating a whiff of the Bellini atmospheric magic. The two will never come this close again.
A very puzzling exception may be the two almost identical half-length paintings of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Mantegna, in tempera on canvas, from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is considered by some scholars (on slim evidence) to include portraits of Mantegna and his wife, possibly painted to celebrate the birth of their first child, and thus dated ca. 1454. The companion piece, in oil on wood, attributed to Bellini following a recent exhaustive examination, is in the Museo della Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice. It is dated some twenty years after the Mantegna by using information based on technique. The Venice painting incorporates a very exact cartoon taken from the completed Berlin canvas, expanded to include more onlookers. An argument is made for replication of the cartoon and underdrawing by Bellini, but numerous unresolved issues remain. (See Keith Christiansen’s review of the London exhibition in The Burlington Magazine 160, no. 1389, December 2018.)
The composition of the Presentation marks Mantegna’s invention of a type that has come to be known as the dramatic close-up, presaged in Flemish examples and by Mantegna’s own Saint Mark (ca. 1448). Mantegna’s invention was to have enormous success both in Italy and the North, leading to a wide assortment of replicas and variations. In Venice the type was eagerly taken up and reworked in the Bellini manner by Bellini pupils and a large group of followers. A number of these redactions were usefully on view in the exhibition.
The most challenging task facing the curators was dealing with drawings attributed to the two artists presented. There is not a single drawing that can be assigned unequivocally to Bellini, and those attributed to Mantegna display a bewildering diversity of technique. Almost every drawing included in the exhibition has a history of disputed attribution. Even what would seem to be clearly a Mantegna preparatory drawing, of St. James Led to Martyrdom (British Museum), may well be by another hand. The pen and wash drawing on blue paper of a turbaned man (Uffizi) is among the most beautiful objects in the exhibition. If it were by Bellini, as suggested in the exhibition, it would outdistance in expertise almost every other drawing attributed to him. The very interesting black chalk drawing of seated Saint Jerome is a typical example of these problems. Is it Mantegna’s preparatory drawing for the São Paulo Saint Jerome, is it a copy of a Mantegna drawing, or is it a Mantegnesque reprise with an early sixteenth-century date? These have all been proposed.
The final rooms of the exhibition regaled the viewer with a series of over-the-top masterpieces, related in quality and subject matter but absolutely different in conception. Contrast was the dominant note. Renaissance art presents few comparisons as dramatically opposed as the portraits of Mantegna’s Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, a figure of frightening power, and Bellini’s quasi-divine, aloof Doge Leonardo Loredan, embodying the elevated notion of the Venetian Republic, shown here side by side. For many viewers, the opportunity to see Bellini’s Feast of the Gods, Mantegna’s Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (from Isabella d’Este’s studiolo), and canvases from Mantegna’s The Triumphs of Caesar, placed just a few steps away from each other, was reason enough for the exhibition. One of the highlights was certainly the Triumph of Caesar canvases, three of the nine having traveled from Hampton Court to London. Rightly considered among the most influential works of the Renaissance, they display Mantegna’s staggering contact with classical antiquity. Everything Mantegna knew about figure style, the folds of classical drapery, the orchestration of figures, and the archaeology of the past is in these canvases. Standing out in a category all their own were Bellini’s newly cleaned late paintings, The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr in London and The Drunkenness of Noah from Besançon. By this point in the exhibition, the issue of interplay had entirely dropped away.
The catalogue, which amplifies ideas and themes of the exhibition, consists of two sections. The first features essays by the curators and other specialists dealing with aspects of the careers of the two painters and includes an overview of the historiography of the subject. The second so-called “Catalogue” section follows the thematic organization of the exhibition, from the artistic formation of the two through to their confrontation with antiquity and their final works. These thematic essays do an excellent job of placing the works shown within the larger picture of Renaissance art, but they are not catalogue entries. For the succession of works on display, one turns to the “List of Exhibited Works,” with supporting data, at the end of the volume. However, the division into separate sections for each of the artists on view—sections organized chronologically rather than in terms of display—seriously compromises its usefulness as an exhibition guide. In all, a challenging and provocative exhibition that will reverberate in the bibliography of both artists.