Destinies intertwined

Rating: 5

Mantegna and Bellini

by Roderick Conway Morris 

In 1453, Andrea Mantegna married Nicosia Bellini, Giovanni Bellini’s half-sister. Mantegna was born near Padua (around 1430) and had already established himself as the city’s most brilliant young artist. Giovanni Bellini was probably a few years younger and already working in the family studio in Venice.

Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple was very likely painted to celebrate his marriage to Nicolosia or possibly, in the following year, to mark the birth of their first child (symbolised by the baby Jesus). He included a self-portrait on the far right of the picture and on the far left what has long been believed to be an image of Nicolosia.

Some 15 to 20 years later, Bellini made his own copy of this family picture, and the two versions (from Berlin and Venice respectively) are now on show, side by side, for the first time at The National Gallery, at the opening of Mantegna & Bellini, an unprecedented and sometimes dazzling account of how these two founding fathers of the Italian Renaissance worked in parallel, clearly influencing one another, before pursuing with passionate determination their distinct artistic interests and destinies.

The two versions The National Gallery has of these young artists’ Agony in the Garden, which we encounter in the next room, vividly indicate the direction their careers were to take: Mantegna already revealing his inventiveness and fascination with sculptural forms and antiquity, and Bellini manifesting his supreme ability in creating atmospheric landscapes embodying intimations of the divine and universal images of the pathos of the human condition.

In 1460, Mantegna went as the court painter to the gonzagas in Mantua, and there he remained until his death in 1506. His training in Padua, where his wit and intelligence had given him an entrée to the learned circles centered on the city’s ancient university, well prepared him for the no-less intellectual and humanist lifestyle of the Gonzaga court, with their thirst for works inspired by classical art and literature. Bellini, meanwhile, rose to become Venice’s most famous religious painter, the artist who, more than any other, established landscape as a central element in Western art and the creator of matchless studies of the Virgin and Child in numerous and entrancing variations.

The exhibition culminates in an impressive face-off between the artists, with masterpieces from the latter part of their careers. These include three panels from Mantegna’s The Triumphs of Caesar, his most complex, detailed and panoramic evocation of antiquity, and Bellini’s rare excursion into his brother-in-law’s territory, his sublime mythological scene, The Feast of the Gods, and his extraordinary drunkenness of Noah, which has been described as ‘the first work of modern painting’.

Mantegna & Bellini is at The National Gallery, London, until 27 January 2019: 020-7747 2885, www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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