Brothers in art: the Renaissance rivalry of Mantegna and Bellini
Source:theguardian Author:Maev Kennedy Date: 2018-09-29 Size:
In a small room in a former palace in Venice there is a strange……

Jesus ‘as tightly swaddled as a chrysalis’ ... The Presentation of Christ in the Temple by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: Christoph Schmidt

In a small room in a former palace in Venice there is a strange, compelling painting set on an easel at head height so the viewer looks straight into eyes first depicted more than 500 years ago. It is very like an earlier painting now in Berlin and art historians have been arguing about them both for years.

Both paintings ostensibly show the infant Jesus in the temple. The one at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is agreed to be the work of Andrea Mantegna. The Venetian painting, made 20 years later, was credited to Mantegna also. But it is now accepted as by Giovanni Bellini.

There is something unnerving about seeing it so close up on its easel; the black background, the heads packed together, the baby as tightly swaddled as a chrysalis – apart from his poor little fingertips.

Recently, an experiment was carried out in the former palace in Venice – a heart-stopping moment for Caroline Campbell. She is the curator of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London that will bring the two paintings together again in the first show to directly compare the work of both men. (The origins of the exhibition lie in the years she has spent puzzling over two more related works – Mantegna and Bellini’s versions of The Agony in the Garden, which have hung together in London since the 19th century.)

A tracing of the Berlin Jesus painting on an acetate sheet was overlaid on to the Venice version. The six central figures matched exactly. “Anyone with eyes could see that there was a relationship between the two artists,” said Campbell, “but this was the first solid evidence of one man working directly from the other.”

Bellini’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple, a clear imitation of Mantegna’s earlier work Photograph: Fondazione Querini Stampalia

The relationship between the two men was well known. They were both giants of 15th-century Italian art: one, the stroppy son of a carpenter from a tiny village outside Padua; the other, a mild-mannered Venetian born into the city’s most acclaimed family of artists.

Bellini’s precise birth and death dates, where he lived and the exact site of his grave are not known, though he lived to the great age of 86 and died in Venice, rich and revered. A prodigy apprenticed as a child to a Paduan artist, Mantegna is less elusive because he was an argumentative soul and his life can be tracked in legal actions. He went to court to escape adoption by the master who trained him but wouldn’t pay him; against a wealthy patron who felt he’d cheated her on the number of angels in her altar piece; or, when he thought a studio assistant was stealing his ideas.

Mantegna married Bellini's sister Nicolosia. The match was probably made by her father Jacopo to bring the brilliant young man into his workshop without having to pay him

Furthermore, Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia – a beauty, if she was, as is presumed, the model for the Virgin. The match was probably made by her father Jacopo to bring the brilliant young man, already more famous than either of Jacopo’s artist sons Giovanni and Gentile, into his workshop without having to pay him. Although the two families remained in contact, Jacopo lost his prize when Mantegna accepted an invitation to become court painter to the Dukes of Mantua.

While the Bellinis prospered in Venice, in later years Mantegna’s extravagant lifestyle, and problems with actually getting paid his princely salary, meant that he died in poverty near the church where he is buried, long after the sale of the extraordinary house he designed and built. It is still standing, although now a shell in use as a contemporary art gallery.

His Jesus in the Temple painting may have been made to mark his marriage to Nicolosia and the hope of a child. Campbell believes that Bellini may have recreated it, incorporating more family portraits to mark the death of his father, Jacopo.

Another doppelgänger: Bellini’s Agony in the Garden, which has hung with Mantegna’s counterpart in London since the 19th century.

The exhibition studies the relationship between their work and the extent to which they inspired, borrowed from, or even directly imitated one another. Campbell attributes to Mantegna the dramatic black backgrounds, which bring out the sculptural qualities of the figures in many of the smaller works; the audacious experiments in perspective and foreshortening; and his fascination with the architecture of classical Rome and Greece. (Roman fragments burst through the soil of Padua at every street corner.) She gives Bellini the prize for suffusing his paintings with light and for creating emotional warmth even when he was borrowing the figures from his brother-in-law or his father’s notebooks.

As to which was the greater, visitors will be joining an argument now more than five centuries old. The 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari called Mantegna “praiseworthy in all his actions”, and predicted “his memory will ever live not only in his own country but in the whole world”.

In 1504, a Venetian art dealer wrote to Isabella d’Este, patron of both artists: “Nobody can beat Mr Andrea Mantegna for invention in which he is the height of excellence … but in colour Giovanni Bellini is excellent.” Albrecht Dürer, a jealous assessor of the genius of other artists, wrote of Bellini, who was then working aged about 90, “still he is the best painter of them all”.

Campbell keeps her counsel on the ancient debate, but there may be a clue in her intake of breath on a recent visit to the wondrous Bellini altarpiece in the Frari in Venice – the honeyed light in which the figures stand magnified by the golden rays of an autumn afternoon pouring in, as Bellini intended, from a tall window in the side wall. It is one of the masterpieces she never contemplated borrowing for the exhibition. “I don’t think this picture has ever left this space – and I hope it never will. It is just perfection.

“To admire one is not to take from the other,” Campbell says firmly. “Mantegna for invention, Bellini for light, both are wonderful.”

• Mantegna and Bellini is at the National Gallery, London, 1 October-27

[Editor] 张艳