Features December 2018
The family business
On “Mantegna and Bellini” at the National Gallery in London.
In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte takes Charles Ryder to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain, who interrogates the naif about his artistic proclivities:
“Charles is very keen on painting,” said Sebastian.
“Yes?” I noticed a hint of deep boredom which I knew so well in my own father. “Yes? Any particular Venetian painter?”
“Bellini,” I answered rather wildly.
“I’m afraid I didn’t know there were two of them.”
“Three to be precise. You will find that in the great ages, painting was very much a family business.”
Four in the family, to be even more precise, though three in the business. The three Bellinis that Lord Marchmain has in mind are Jacopo (ca. 1400–70), and his sons Gentile (ca. 1431–1507) and Giovanni (ca. 1435–1516). But his lordship forgets that a fourth painter joined the Bellini family. In 1453, the Paduan prodigy Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431–1506) married Gentile and Giovanni’s half-sister Nicolosia (ca. 1429–75/80).
Mantegna remained on terra firma in the humanist center of Padua, only twenty-five miles from the Bellini workshop in Venice—distant enough to sustain his career Padua, but close enough for his compositional innovations and classical austerities to influence Giovanni Bellini. In 1460, Mantegna moved to Mantua, a hundred miles from Venice, where he was to become the court painter to the Gonzagas. There, the influence of Giovanni Bellini’s landscapes emerged in Mantegna’s work. Finally, Bellini finished a commission that death had prevented Mantegna from completing. Its historical sources were pure Mantegna, but the commission, and the designation of the work, came from Bellini’s amphibian territory: a cycle for the palazzo of the Venetian nobleman Francesco Cornaro narrating the history of the gens Cornelia, the Roman patricians from whom Cornaro claimed descent.
Traditional art historians trace the stylistic influences of an individual artist from one image to another. More recent art historians prefer to trace the material exchanges of the family workshop through the account books and city records.
Traditional art historians trace the stylistic influences of an individual artist from one image to another. More recent art historians prefer to trace the material exchanges of the family workshop through the account books and city records. The broad antitheses of Giovanni Bellini’s and Andrea Mantegna’s styles—Bellini’s paint is sensuous and colorful like fabric, Mantegna’s forms are poised and flinty like stone—are ideal for a dialectical exercise in either historical style, especially as Vasari records that the young Titian studied first under Gentile and then Giovanni Bellini. It would be ideal if an exhibition that collated the dispersed visual dialogues of Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna managed also to relate these exchanges to the Bellini family business. “Mantegna and Bellini,” at the National Gallery in London, does exactly that.1
By the early 1440s, Jacopo Bellini’s family enterprise in the sestiere of Castello was Venice’s leading workshop. He might have conceived of the arranged marriage between Nicolosia Bellini and Andrea Mantegna as a takeover, augmenting Venetian color with the intellectual heft of Padua. The long-term result, however, was closer to an alliance. Though the documentary evidence is thin enough, and the stylistic exchanges thick enough, to complicate attribution and dating, it is clear that, though Mantegna profoundly influenced the young Giovanni Bellini, the traffic always went in both directions.
When Roberto Longhi summarized Giovanni’s development as “first Byzantine and Gothic, then Mantegnesque and Paduan,” it was in an argument for detecting Giovanni’s influence in the tenderness of Mantegna’s Saint Luke polyptych (1453–54), now in Milan’s Brera Gallery. The stylistic consanguinity is so marked that The Three Crosses, a pen-and-brown-ink drawing (ca. 1456–57) from the British Museum, was long attributed to Mantegna for its perspective and sculptural forms. Here, Dagmar Korbacher attributes it to Giovanni on the basis of the delicacy of the modeling and the similarity between its faces and the faces in Giovanni’s later drawings. If this attribution is correct, it suggests that Giovanni was studying Mantegna closely while Mantegna painted the Crucifixion scene in the predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece. Between 1457 and 1459, the Bellini family were on Mantegna’s turf, working on the now-lost altarpiece commissioned for Padua’s Basilica del Santo by the mercenary Gattamelata. Meanwhile, Mantegna was painting the panels for his San Zeno Altarpiece.
In Mantegna’s Crucifixion (ca. 1456–59), lent from the Louvre, Calvary is an epic and harsh theater. The broken rock of the pavement secures the base of the crucifix, with a skull in the rubble. Jesus’s agonized verticality is silhouetted against a large and empty sky. His body is emaciated, and the physical torment exposes his ribs and extends his tendons. The perspective is deep physically, but not metaphysically. A Roman soldier, as if dismissing the historical implications, has already turned his back on the scene. The viewer is sotto in su—seeing from below. But the vanishing point, the horizon, is low, as though the Son has been forsaken by the Father.
Giovanni’s Crucifixion (1457–59), on loan from Venice’s Museo Correr, extracts Jesus’s body and emphasizes the proximity of heaven, on earth as above it. The narrowing of the visual field pushes the crucifix upwards, but now Jesus is not silhouetted against an empty sky. He is waist deep in a well-watered, hilly landscape, a Veneto of the soul. A squadron of angels beat their wings around his less-emaciated, less-strained torso. The viewer is up in the air too, with a bird’s-eye view. The crucifix’s base is slotted into an empty spot in the pavement, then fixed with wedges of stone and wood. The slab that must have been removed for this procedure has been tidied out of view. The drama is even more internalized, and the interaction of figure and landscape even more harmonious, in Bellini’s next Crucifixion (ca. 1465), from the Louvre. Mantegna’s influence is visible in the contours of the figures and their drapery, but Bellini has now mastered his brother-in-law’s vocabulary.
Bellini has pulled his interpretation towards the Venetian present, and Mantegna towards the Roman past.
In the Crucifixion of 1457–59, Giovanni smoothes the transition from rubbled foreground to lush background with a layer of splintered rocks. Between 1458 and 1460, he uses the same device in the foreground of the Museo Correr’s Transfiguration of Christ. Around 1468, Mantegna adopts it for the foreground of the pen-and-brown-ink drawing The Descent of Christ into Limbo (ca. 1468), lent here from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Between 1475 and 1480, Giovanni paints oil over a pen drawing of Mantegna’s Descent. The drawing may have been executed by one of Mantegna’s assistants, probably for it to be copied by Bellini in Venice. In Bellini’s oil, lent by the Bristol City Museum, the blue of the sky, the silver-bound book that replaces a paving slab in Mantegna’s drawing, and the softer physicality of the nudes are pure Bellini. The dialogue continues around 1492, when Mantegna executes a Descent in egg tempera and gold, lent here from a private collection. The figures of the saved invoke the formal language of antiquity. Bellini has pulled his interpretation towards the Venetian present, and Mantegna towards the Roman past.
“Sebastian and his friends are more interested in Bellinis than heiresses,” says Lord Marchmain. With Mantegna, it was the other way around. He was more interested securing the patronage of a Renaissance heiress, Isabella d’Este. As their professional paths diverged, Giovanni Bellini continued to study Mantegna. Between 1470 and 1475, Bellini felt compelled to trace or be sent a tracing of Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple (ca. 1454). As in his oil variations on the ink copy of Mantegna’s Descent, Bellini works over the lines of Mantegna’s composition while changing its content. Bellini’s figures of the Virgin and Child align perfectly with Mantegna’s, but the woman on the left of Bellini’s panel is slightly out of kilter with her original on the left of Mantegna’s canvas—the supposition being that Bellini’s tracing slipped a little during the transfer process.
The male figure on the right of Mantegna’s Presentation is assumed to be a self-portrait. It closely resembles a grisaille head in the Ovetari Chapel at Padua, unanimously agreed to show Mantegna, and—albeit to a lesser degree—Giovanni’s Portrait of a Humanist (1475–80), lent from Milan’s Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, which is believed to depict Mantegna. For biographical as well as visual balance, the female figure on the left of Mantegna’s Presentation has been identified as a portrait of Nicolosia Bellini. The Julia Flyte of the Bellini–Mantegna alliance transitions from Mantegna to Bellini largely unchanged. But when Giovanni Bellini transcribes the male head, he rotates the tracing, then converts some of the features into a different face. He broadens the nose in the underdrawing and turns it up slightly. He softens the features into those of a younger man. It is not his own face that he paints over Mantegna’s, but we do not know whose it is. The identity of the other couple that Bellini adds to the scene is also unknown.
So are the motives for the soft, fluid exposition of Bellini’s oils. When the Mantegna, from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and the Bellini, from Venice’s Fondazione Querini Stampalia, are seen together, Bellini’s treatment might assume the quality of a criticism of Mantegna’s relentless crisp and uniform tempera. Yet this alteration of medium and execution rests upon an incorporation of Mantegna’s design. Similarly, when Mantegna paints The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (ca. 1485–1500), on loan from Copenhagen’s Statens Museum, he uses the composition of Bellini’s two paintings of the same subject (ca. 1465–70 and ca. 1470–75), from the National Gallery and the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, respectively. But the two artists are not merely exchanging palettes and settings.
The different purposes of Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, as well as their common use of the half-length models used by Jacopo Bellini and Donatello, can be seen more clearly in their drawings. Giovanni Bellini’s study of the Pietà (ca. 1465–70) on the recto of a sheet now in the British Museum, and his contemporaneous drawing of the same subject, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rennes, retain the half-figure representations that Giovanni had learned from his father, as well as the Virgin’s laying of her hand on her dead son’s chest, a gesture derived from Jacopo’s drawing book.
While Bellini’s compositional concept emphasizes emotional impact, Mantegna adopts the horizontal composition developed by Donatello and pursues the effects of perspective. In several drawings, Mantegna foreshortens and rotates the supine body of Christ as he works towards the extreme foreshortening of The Dead Christ with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist (ca. 1475), now in the Brera.
In Mantegna’s perspective, the ancient past towers over us like a cliff face. In Giovanni Bellini’s sfumato, the image is smoothed into an idyll. Venice had no classical history, but it had humanists and scholars. Still, few Venetian citizens and noblemen sought the elaborate classical allegories commissioned from Mantegna by the Gonzagas at Mantua. Venice shaped Bellini’s temperament, and Bellini remained a Venetian even as he incorporated classicizing monumentality from Mantua and Rome. Most of Bellini’s paintings are of Christian subjects, and he seems entirely to lack Mantegna’s monstrous streak. The Arcadia of Bellini’s Sacred Allegory (ca. 1490) is a stage for the Virgin and St. Sebastian. There is no trace of the pagan energies and mutilations of Mantegna’s Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (ca. 1500–02), now in the Louvre. Bellini’s surviving paintings on classical themes date from the last years of his life, after Mantegna’s death in 1506.
The paragone, the debate over the supremacy painting or sculpture, was a quintessential debate in Renaissance aesthetics, and also a running debate in the contrast between Bellini’s color and Mantegna’s line. The narrative closure of their familial and stylistic drama has the tightness of the workshop, in which the pressure of commissions and the jostling of talents leads to plural contributions to the same job. Bellini’s only surviving grisaille painting, The Continence of Publius Cornelius Scipio (1506–08), is a posthumous paragone to Mantegna’s last documented work, The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome (1506). The commission from the Venetian patrician Cornaro charged Mantegna with introducing the ancient dignity and sculptural grandeur of Rome to Venice. Its completion charged Bellini with making the visual equivalent of the reverse journey.
In Mantegna’s Introduction of the Cult of Cybele, from the National Gallery, London, the figures have the power of allegory and the density of stone. The rosso antico effect of the backdrop and the sharply delineated white highlights on the figures are crisp in the light. It is as if the past is, as the scholars of Padua had prescribed, willed back into physical life while maintaining the formality of supra-human power. The figures in Bellini’s Continence of Publius Cornelius Scipio, lent from the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., have the formal continence of the dance. The details of the rosso antico are misted, and the movement of the figures blurs the highlights so that the figures tend towards a ghostly whiteness. The past is brought to physical life, but the metaphysical dividend is not the distancing perspective of the pantheon, but an emotional intimacy.
Bellini cannot have relished the task of completing Mantegna’s commission, and on Mantegna’s ground. Yet Bellini’s gracious response, inflected with his long and mutual engagement with his dead brother-in-law, is a strange highlight of this marvelous exhibition. There are moments when the high-mindedness of Mantegna’s humanism, his search for past glory, distances us from the fleshy world, as though the living are “an original fount of the grossest disturbance,” as Charles Ryder says of the female undergraduates who spoil his student life with his sainted Sebastian. Bellini’s reconciliation of his modest sensuality with Mantegna’s intellectual ambition is a testament to aesthetic fraternity. If, like Ryder, you are very keen on painting, you must see “Mantegna and Bellini.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 24
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