Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery

Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery

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The Bellini family were arguably the most important and influential of Italian painters in the second half of the 15th century, the head of which was Jacopo, who had a thriving studio in Venice and two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, both of whom excelled in the the art of painting, but it was Giovanni who became one of the greatest artist of the Renaissance. All three worked on a number of altarpieces in Venice, while Gentile was sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople to paint the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II. Giovanni was continually experimenting with techniques in applying paint in the manner of artists from the Netherlands and the Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca, making innovative use of perspective, landscape, colour and observed light. Into this exalted artistic dynasty steps Andrea Mantegna, a prodigious talent from a humble background, who met, fell for and married Jacopo Bellini’s daughter Nicolasa. The two men worked closely together at first, with Mantegna leading the way with his astonishing skills, then he was offered the prestigious position of Court Artist to Lodovico Gonzaga II, the Marquis of Mantua. After much deliberation and hesitation, Mantegna accepted and, except for a brief stay in Rome to work for Pope Innocent VIII, remained in the service of the Mantuan Court for the rest of his life. Not much is made of either of the brothers-in-laws’ intertwined lives, other than through painting, and one yearned for more detail on a personal level.

Each artist portrayed Presentation of Christ in the Temple, with remarkably similar compositions, although Mantegna painted his around 1454, and Bellini around twenty years later, possibly even tracing the figures. In his enlarged version Bellini has added a female figure to the left of the Madonna, who is believed to be a portrait of Nicolasa, and two young men to Simeon’s right who are said to be the Bellini brothers. In Bellini’s version, Joseph stares out like Anthony Hopkins from dead-centre, while Mantegna’s tempera painting has him as much older, and even more grave.

In 1504, a Venetian art dealer wrote to Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, Marchesa of Mantua, a powerful patron of the arts,‘Nobody can beat Andrea Mantegna for invention in which he is the height of excellence … but in colour Giovanni Bellini is excellent.’ Bellini turned down a commission from Isabella d’Este to contribute a mythological or allegorical historia to her famous studiolo, her private study, where she displayed her paintings, on the grounds that it was so different from the devotional pictures and portraits that he considered were his strength. He was in good company, as Leonardo da Vinci had already declined to paint her portrait, although he did a very fine drawing of her. Albrecht Dürer, who was still working at the age of ninety, wrote of Bellini, ‘still he is the best painter of them all’. Mantegna had already painted Pallas and the Vices (Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue) for her in 1502, and this gloriously irreverent and complicated painting is on loan from the Louvre. Minerva is seen marching in from the left, spear in hand, with her daughters Fortitude, while Temperance and Justice observing from a cloud, scattering grotesques, putti, owl-faced cupids, a hermaphrodite monkey, an armless woman representing idleness being led on a rope by another representing inertia, a monstrous satyr carrying off a wingless Cupid, a seductive Venus standing on the back of a centaur and three drunks labelled Ingratitude, Ignorance and Avarice. Virtue is locked away behind a stone wall, with a fluttering label reading ‘Gods, save me too, the Mother of the Virtues’, while above, the clouds have faces and are blowing away all traces of Vice. One could not see Bellini tackling such a subject. However, at the insistence of Isabella’s brother Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, he painted a large canvas entitled The Feast of the Gods for his camerino d’alabastro (chamber of alabaster) in the Castello Estense, Ferrara. It was his last great work and only just finished before he died in 1516, after which Titian and Dosso Dossi are said to have added some landscape elements. It shows the moment based on a narrative by Ovid, when Priapus attempts to rape the sleeping nymph Lotis, who is only  woken by Silenus’s ass braying, just in time.

Another pair of paintings that have common motifs, colouring, composition and treatment of the landscape, particularly the rock formation, are The Agony in the Garden, first painted by Mategna in 1455, and then by Bellini three years later. They have been hanging side-by-side in the National Gallery for many years. The Descent of Christ into Limbo was another subject tackled by both painters, with Mantegna’s the stronger composition, displaying more drama and contrast. Personally, I prefer the Agnolo Bronzino version in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence for sheer sumptuousness. If that is what Hell looks like, then bring it on. Bellini’s The Drunkenness of Noah is a curiosity, with the old man lying naked in a stupor, surrounded by his three sons, Shem, and Japhet each side of him, and Ham in the middle, giggling at the absurdity of it all. There are many fine paintings to see, including the National Gallery’s famous Doge Leonardo Loredan by Bellini and his Portrait of a Humanist, thought to be of Mantegna himself, but the finest are the three enormous paintings on loan from H M The Queen depicting The Triumphs of Caesar, including The Vase-Bearers, The Elephants and The Standard-Bearers and Siege Equipment, all painted with egg tempera on canvas, and each one measuring nine feet square. Visitors to the RA earlier in the year may recall seeing the monumental series of nine paintings in the Charles I: King and Collector exhibition, which was purchased as part of the Duke Gonzago’s collection in Mantua, and were hung in Hampton Court, where they remain today.

Allegedly, Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in post-war Venice, poured peach purée into a glass of prosecco and called it a Bellini, because the subtle pink color reminded him of the toga of a saint in a painting by Bellini ?. A Tintoretto is made with pomegranate juice, while other variations slithered into the world of music, with a Puccini, replacing the peach purée with an equal amount of mandarin juice, and a Rossini uses strawberry purée. No-one has yet come up with a cocktail called a Mantegna.

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