Art review: Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini at the National Gallery

30 November 2018

Nicholas Cranfield sees Bellini and Mantegna reunited in London

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie/Photo Christoph Schmidt

Andrea Mantegna, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, c.1454, on loan from Berlin. See gallery, and below, for more images

Andrea Mantegna, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, c.1454, on loan from Berlin. See gallery, and below, for more images

BY WAY of leavening this column, I wanted to tell you the one about the foster child and the father-in-law, but suspected that in today’s world of #MeToo and laws prohibiting much of the staple of comedic repertory, even the Thought Police at the Church Times would probably not see the sense in my humour. Instead, I will have to tell you a bit about Francesco Squarcione (c.1395-after 1468).

Not that there is much to say about him, as little of his work has been identified; I heard about him only in Padua on a wet February afternoon one year, when the Scrovegni chapel was closed, and, instead, the little art museum next door unfurled its great collection for me.

Only two works are signed by Squarcione: an indifferent Madonna that, to view, you will need to go to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin; and the De Lazara altarpiece painted for the Carmelites in Padua between 1449 and 1452, which is in the rarely visited museum.

But Squarcione, a former tailor and embroiderer, was a teacher who established one of the first known bottega, an artistic powerhouse that was the most successful on the mainland in the Veneto. In the early 15th century, he was acclaimed as having trained and taught no fewer than 137 artists, including Marco Zoppo and Carlo Crivelli. Whether Cosmè Tura, the shoemaker’s son from Ferrara, was among the social misfits who trained with Squarcione is now thought less likely.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie/Photo Jörg P. AndersAndrea Mantegna, The Virgin and Child (Simon Madonna), c.1455-60, on loan from Berlin  

But there, too, was Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a carpenter’s son from outside the city, whom Squarcione had legally adopted as his son by 1442. Relations between the foster parent and his protégé were often tense, based on jealousy and rivalry. Quite simply, Mantegna was brilliant, and rapidly outshone his master in inventiveness and an ability to capture classical form with a sense of colour. His first known altarpiece, for the Padovan church of Santa Sofia, was completed when he was just 17.

Over in Venice, the dominant progressive workshop was that of the Bellini family, citizen painters with connections to the Republic’s nobility. Mantegna’s route to independence, both financial and artistic, facilitated by Jacopo Bellini, was to jump ship. After he had quit Squarcione (1442), he moved to Venice and joined Gentile and Giovanni Bellini in their father’s workshop. In 1453, he married their half-sister Nicolossia, later using the dowry to pay off his bond to Squarcione (1456).

Squarcione never forgave him, and, having spent years copying his pupil’s inventions (all those classical niches and drooping garlands of fruit and veg), he vilified him, criticising his best-known work in the Ovetari chapel as so much stone-painting.

In the exhibition at the National Gallery, which will transfer to the Gemäldegalerie at the beginning of March, Caroline Campbell and her colleagues there and at the British Museum demonstrate how Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini worked together to shape the art of the Renaissance, and how they came to go their separate ways.

The last time it was conveniently possible to study the brothers-in-law came ten years ago with two concurrent exhibitions in Paris and Rome (Arts, 19 December 2008). This beautiful show makes a strong claim for both Bellini and Mantegna. Ludovico Ariosto, who was the most famous dramatist and lyric poet of 16th-century Italy, was in no doubt of their artistic importance.

In the 33rd canto of Orlando Furioso, he celebrated eight classical artists, including Apelles, “most famous of the these”, and Zeuxis. In parallel, he cited first Leonardo, and then Mantegna and Bellini, before the brothers Dossi, and “divine Michelangelo”, adding Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and Titian.

The rooms in the Sainsbury Wing are arranged broadly in chronological sequence, with Mantegna’s and Bellini’s versions of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and of St Jerome in the Wilderness side by side, the first of several such pairings.

For the scene in Luke 2.29-32, Mantegna (Berlin) used a half-length format, so that we see the Holy Family with Simeon and Anna in close-up, surrounded by a painted frame. On either side are two other figures, that of a woman far too young to be Anna the 80-year-old prophetess, and a young man in his twenties, who may be the artist himself. It has been suggested that the painting, dating to 1454 or 1455, may have celebrated the birth of Andrea and Nicolossia’s first child.

The swaddled boy stands on a cushion, possessively held by his mother, the Christ-bearer. He is having a tantrum and is yelping loudly. The Virgin looks warily at Simeon, as if uncertain about handing the precious package over to him, although he has already taken hold of the child’s ankles.

The central figure of the composition, however surprising it may be, is that of Joseph, who stares at Simeon with ill-concealed concern. His brow is furrowed as he looks on apprehensively. No doubt Simeon’s convictions of the coming of God’s Kingdom had rattled his own uncertainties.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content ProgramAndrea Mantegna, The Adoration of the Magi, c.1495-1505, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles  

The window motif, which Mantegna also used in his half-length The Evangelist St Mark Blessing in an earlier egg-tempera painting (1448, Frankfurt am Main) that hangs near by, may have been suggested to him by Donatello, but was dropped when Bellini came to copy the composition for his version alongside (Venezia, Fondazione Querini Stampalia).

This picture is an exact replica, and Bellini made a tracing of his brother-in-law’s work, but omitted the device of a frame to include two other figures, one on either side. A useful essay in the accompanying publication speculates on why Bellini copied the work some 15 years later, long after Mantegna had moved to Mantua and had left the family firm.

Towards the end of his life, around 1500, Mantegna returned to the format of half-length religious figures seen from as close as is indecent, for a famous painting of the coming of the Magi, which the nation failed to buy from the Marquess of Northampton in 1985 and which the Getty Museum bought.

Unlike the much-disputed Roman silver of the stolen “Sevso hoard” that Lord Northampton also sold at auction from Castle Ashby, some of which the Hungarian Government was finally able to repatriate in 2014, there is less doubt about the provenance of the Mantegna painting, although it was only the 1981 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of Gonzaga treasures which drew attention to it.

Mantegna, unlike Bellini, did not often paint the Virgin and Child; so the tenderness of the scene is the more remarkable, as it lyrically holds the viewer in intimate dialogue within the encounter of the King of Kings and the kings of this earth. The half-length brings each protagonist closer to us, as we are invited to bring our gifts to the Christ Child. Mind you, that might be a bit hard.

Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DCGiovanni Bellini, The Continence of Publius Cornelius Scipio, c.1506-08, on loan from National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection (1952.2.7)  

The gold coins are offered in a rare blue-and-white porcelain covered bowl, which is an early Ming wine cup, called a Yashiu bei, that is dated 1420-24, of which only four are known to survive. Balthasar presents frankincense in a jasper silver-topped container that looks like a thurible, and the myrrh comes in a chalcedony jar.

Something of Mantegna’s interest in precious stones can be appreciated from the Vase-bearers, one of the celebrated “Triumphs of Caesar” that are usually at Hampton Court. Three of the nine panels (after 1486) are presented here in a way that seems so much better lit than when they were shown earlier this year at the RA (Arts, 9 February) and are one of the highlights of this compelling show.

In the same last room, Mantegna’s last work, a faux relief in grisaille of The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome, hangs poignantly below Bellini’s The Continence of Scipio, which was commissioned by the Cornaro to complete the series that had stopped at the older man’s death.

Years after the arguments and rows, Bellini came to honour his former brother-in-law in death.


“Mantegna and Bellini” is in the Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 27 January 2019. Phone 020 7747 2885.

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