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19 September 2018

The family business: how brothers-in-law Mantegna and Bellini became two of the greatest artists of the Renaissance

The history of art is filled with family relationships: but perhaps the most distinguished is that between brothers-in-law Andrea Mantegna (c1430-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (c1435-1516).

By Michael Prodger

The history of art is filled with family relationships: father and son, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Younger; father and daughter – Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi; husband and wife – Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; uncle and nephew – Canaletto and Bernardo Bellotto; brothers – Paul and John Nash; and brother and sister, such as Augustus and Gwen John. Perhaps the most distinguished familial link, however, is that between Andrea Mantegna (c1430-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (c1435-1516), the brothers-in-law who happened to be among the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

The two men came from very different backgrounds. Mantegna was the son of a carpenter who, according to the chronicler of artists Giorgio Vasari, spent his boyhood “occupied in grazing herds”. His skills as a draughtsman, though, quickly brought him to the attention of a Paduan painter named Squarcione who adopted him as his son and apprentice. In 1448, in the first of several court cases that were to punctuate his career (one saw him taken to court by a patron for painting only eight cherubim on an altarpiece rather than the stipulated 12), the 18-year-old Mantegna had the adoption annulled after alleging he had been exploited. From that point the single-minded young painter was an independent practitioner whose merit was quickly recognised.

Bellini, on the other hand, was born into an artistic family belonging to the citizen class of Venice – that immediately next in rank to the nobles. His father Jacopo was already the Republic’s leading painter and although Giovanni was born illegitimate (there is no knowledge as to the identity of his real mother) he was brought up and trained alongside his gifted brother Gentile. The Bellini dynasty was the ideal 15th-century artistic unit – working collaboratively for the greater good of the family. Initially, however, it was Gentile who was seen as the most talented of the half-brothers and Giovanni’s career was slow to start.

Mantegna and Bellini became brothers-in-law when in 1453 Jacopo, aware of Mantegna’s rising reputation in Padua, in Vasari’s words “contrived to get him to marry his daughter” Nicolosia, and so brought him into the family firm. Jacopo’s plan to dominate the artistic life of the Veneto foundered in 1460 when Mantegna was appointed court artist to the Gonzaga family and left the Venetian Republic for the independent dukedom of Mantua, where he remained to the end of his life.

With Mantegna in Mantua and Bellini rarely leaving Venice (although later in life he had a villa on the mainland) the brothers-in-law did not often meet. Their art, though, is full of references, borrowings and influences, and it is this cross-pollination that is the subject of the National Gallery’s major new exhibition, “Mantegna and Bellini”.

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Although both men largely painted religious subjects, their individual importance lies in slightly different areas. Mantegna grew up in Padua, a city rich in Roman remains, the birthplace of Livy and home to Italy’s second-oldest university: from 1443 Venetians were forbidden to study anywhere else. The painter was affected early on by the city’s spirit of intellectual inquiry and the classical sculpture and architecture that he used to practise his drawing skills. His immersion into antiquity was such that in 1464, he and a friend, the humanist scholar Felice Feliciano, dressed up as Romans to go boating on Lake Garda. His interest in the antique and the example of Donatello’s bronzes in Padua’s Basilica of St Anthony were why, as Vasari noted, his early paintings are “seen to be somewhat hard and sometimes suggesting stone rather than living flesh”.

The Agony in the Garden, as interpreted by Andrea Mantegna, c 1455-56. Credit: National Gallery

Mantegna himself recognised and corrected this and went on to develop a style of radical foreshortening when figures are seen from below that represented the most audacious use of perspective since its in-vention in art at the beginning of the 15th century. His standing figures remain carefully delineated and outlined but surge upwards with the viewer’s eyeline at the level of their feet, while those seated or lying recede dramatically as if concertinaed.

His backgrounds are filled with elements of classical architecture – immaculately rendered pilasters and columns, coffered ceilings that draw the eye in and arches that lead it across the picture space. His was an extraordinary optical facility that makes each painting a study in composition, organisation and technical legerdemain and clearly the product of intense thought.

Bellini’s approach was more emotional than intellectual. Because of Venice’s role as Europe’s leading entrepôt it had access to the best pigments coming from the east, and he made full use of them. He developed into one of art’s great colourists, his tonal harmonies and softened edges – sfumato – giving a musical feel to his work. He made his name as a painter of “sacred conversations”, where the Virgin and child enthroned are surrounded by saints, and in them he blurred the distinction between illusion and reality. The actual light in a church would be mimicked in the altarpiece, the carved patterns and columns of the frame would reappear in the painting itself, glimpses of pearly landscape, meanwhile, would suggest a world continuing beyond the surface of the picture. Stateliness, tenderness, grace and atmosphere are the defining characteristics of his art. Where Mantegna carved his figures with paint, Bellini caressed.

For years Bellini was thought to be the senior of the two painters because many held that the poetry of his work made him the more significant. In fact Bellini was not just the younger man but also slightly in awe of his brother-in-law and the one who learned most from the other. Although they never worked on a shared commission they did paint similar themes: St Jerome in the wilderness, the presentation at the Temple, the Agony in the Garden, sacra conversazione, and scenes from Roman history. In many of them it is evident that each knew the other’s work and incorporated the lessons learned into their own.

Around 1454, Mantegna painted a small devotional piece showing Mary presenting the infant Christ to the Temple elder
Simeon. It is a dark work (made more so by the ageing that has turned the originally dark-blue background black) in which the figures are pushed up towards the viewer and cropped by a parapet so that this intense and enigmatic scene is seen as if through a window. Some scholars have identified Mantegna’s wife Nicolosia as the Virgin and one of the standing witnesses as a
self-portrait, thus making the painting not just a biblical scene but a memento of the joining of Mantegna to the Bellini family.

Some 20 years later, c1470-75, Giovanni Bellini used a tracing of the picture as the basis for a work of his own. The central group is compositionally identical but he added an extra figure, again a possible self-portrait, increasing the family connection.

While he took his brother-in-law’s innovative composition he then adapted it: he softened Mantegna’s linearity (whose draperies always look as though the material is wet); removed some of the more fiddly detail such as by toning down the gold brocade worn by Simeon; he made the colours more harmonious and the expressions of the figures less fiercely concentrated. Here was Bellini’s method in microcosm: borrowing, learning, refining, perfecting. In another pair of paintings, The Agony in the Garden, Mantegna’s 1455-56 and Bellini’s c 1458-60, the same pattern is at work. Bellini clearly saw Mantegna’s picture as a way to learn something of his skill at foreshortening, and the complicated poses of the disciples, sleeping as Christ prays, would have been beyond him without his brother-in-law’s example. Other borrowings include some of the buildings in the city in the distance, motifs such as rock formations and the thrown-back head of a sleeping apostle – mouth open and nostrils presented to the viewer.

In the round: Mantegna’s ceiling oculus from the Camera Picta (c 1465-74) in Mantua’s Ducal Palace. Credit: National Gallery

In 1944 the painter Keith Vaughan recalled a discussion he had with Graham Sutherland about whether a painting could ever achieve perfection. The Mantegna and Bellini Agonies were their point of comparison. The artists were in agreement:

The Mantegna is obviously the more perfect. The articulation of the whole picture space is flawless: the transition from body to limb from limb to hand and hand to fingers is effortless and consummate. Bellini’s is altogether different. There is a tremendous sense of strain in bringing the objects into relationship. A feeling of anxiety that it may at any moment not quite succeed, and the whole picture fail. This feeling permeates the whole picture, it gives a vibrant tension to every relationship. The Bellini is the greater picture. The Mantegna the more perfect.

This sort of who-was-better comparison can be traced to Mantegna and Bellini’s own day. In 1504, Lorenzo da Pavia, a musical instrument maker who was also an art adviser to Isabella d’Este, one of the great patrons of the Renaissance, wrote to her: “In invention there are none to rival Messer Andrea Mantegna who excels in this and leads the field, but Giovan Belino is excellent in colouring.” Mantegna, though, was not too proud an innovator to eschew looking at his brother-in-law’s work and adopting some of its strengths, such as the harmonising of figures into landscape and infusing that landscape with light, and softening the transition between figures.

Yet, each man seems to have been well aware of his own abilities. In 1501, for example, Isabella was keen to add a work by Bellini to the collection she was building in Mantua. She asked him for a painting based on a historical narrative – the sort of thing at which Mantegna excelled but which Bellini avoided, preferring, in the words of the cardinal and scholar Pietro Bembo, “to do what was congenial to him”.

As Isabella’s agent in Venice wrote back: “He [Bellini] cannot say how unwillingly he would do it because he knows your ladyship’s discernment and also that [the picture] would be compared with those works by Messer Andrea [Mantegna],” therefore he would rather paint something in his own sphere – a Nativity, as it turned out – since with Isabella’s proposal “he cannot do something that will come out well or in which there will be something good”.

In fact Bellini did paint a series of narrative works, concerning the struggle between Frederick Barbarossa and the pope, for the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace but these were lost in a fire in 1577. So it seems it was the direct comparison with Mantegna that he feared, although it is impossible to say whether through modesty or professional anxiety. Status, though, was precarious. Mantegna designed and built a radical house for himself in Mantua, based on a Roman model, with a circular courtyard enclosed in a cube, and filled it with his own art collection. Payments from the court were irregular, however, and he found himself living above his means and had to sell both house and collection – although the Gonzaga made him a chevalier by way of recompense.

Mother and child: Madonna of the Meadow (c 1500-05) shows Giovanni Bellini’s skill with colour. Credit: National Gallery

His sudden impoverishment was part of the reason behind his innovative work as a printmaker: it was through the dissemination of his engravings that his work became known to a wider audience than simply the Mantuan court and its visitors, and why, in the 16th century, his Triumphs of Caesar cycle, now in the Royal Collection, became among the best-known works of art in the world. Even his printmaking, however, did not go altogether smoothly; in another Mantegna court case, an artist who had worked with him accused Mantegna of chasing him from Mantua and threatening to kill him in a dispute over intellectual copyright.

Bellini’s professional life was more orderly; appointed chief painter to the Republic, his payments were regular and his commissions highly visible, and he continued to learn from others, including his own pupil Giorgione and Antonello da Messina, when he stayed in Venice in the 1470s.

An even more important painter was in Venice a few decades later; Albrecht Dürer, who struck up a mutually admiring friendship with the elderly Bellini in 1506 and wrote back to a friend in Germany that: “Everyone tells me what an upright man he is, so that I am really fond of him. He is very old, and still he is the best painter of them all.”

The prickly amour propre of Mantegna, who died that same year, meant that he would have been unlikely to agree. He might though, on reflection, have taken some satisfaction that the role he played in the development of Bellini’s art was transmitted to the glittering array of painters his brother-in-law either taught or influenced, among them Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. It was Mantegna, the honorary Mantuan, who helped the Venetian school become one of the most notable and influential in art. 

“Mantegna and Bellini” runs at the National Gallery, London WC2  from 1 October 2018 to 27 January 2019

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This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war