Five hundred years ago the art scene in Italy was pretty thrilling. A concentration of fabulously talented artists flocked to the key cities – Venice, Florence, Padua, Mantua and others – in search of patronage, experience, studio space and the opportunity to really push their art. Part of the excitement of the period had been the recent development of oil paints which allowed works to be painted on canvas or linen rather than wooden panels or directly onto walls – frescoes.
Below is the astonishingly beautiful and tender Virgin and Child (Simon Madonna) by Mantegna which captures maternal love in such a simple and convincing way.
Into this world came Mantegna, the son of a carpenter whose prodigious talent spurred him on to the highest echelons of Italian society and he died a wealthy and highly respected man. Part of his success can be attributed to a very fortunate marriage. He married Nicolosia, the half-sister of Giovanni Bellini. We’ve no idea how the marriage came about but a happy result was that the two brothers-in-law became firm friends, great rivals and, despite ideological and stylistic differences share a fascinating with the logistics of art, the properties of the paint and pushed the exploration of relatively new concepts such as perspective, foreshortening and the use of colour to depict emotion to new levels. For eight years their studios were entwined and they worked closely together.
This show at the National Gallery has gathered together masterpieces by these two painters from museums, galleries and private collections from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see pictures by both painters side by side for the ultimate ‘compare and contrast’. Yes, it seems that they shared the same compositions and sketches -whether this is through a desire for artistic one-upmanship or a respectful nod to the other’s talents it’s hard to know. We all know that artists ‘steal’ from one another, but these two took that idea even more seriously. However, it is thrilling to stand in front of the two paintings depicting the Christ Child in the Temple, or the Agony in the Garden which are both telling the same story using very similar elements but oh, how they contrast. Where Mantegna’s version is tightly composed with a rocky mound as the centrepiece, Bellini’s version embraces a panorama of desert and hills and a sublime dawn sky representing resurrection.
Bellini was a master at capturing youthful faces – these are details of the angels surrounding the Dead Christ.
Likewise, he captured this proud, powerful yet vulnerable Doge Leonardo Loredan. Painted in around 1501. (below)
Both artists were highly skilled draftsmen, using drawing as a starting point for all their work, setting up models in the studio to compose pictures and incorporating the most astonishing detail of everyday life into the background and incidental scenes within epic pictures. Below are details from Mantegna’s The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (egg tempera on panel) which has the most astonishing activity going on in the back ground.
This show offers a rare opportunity to feel thoroughly immersed in the world of late 14th and early 15th century art and is an absolutely joy to explore.
Mantegna and Bellini is on show in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery from 1 October to 27 January 2019. Don’t miss it!