“A tale of two artists” is how the National Gallery’s autumn exhibition is being billed. This is putting it mildly, since these aren’t any old artists, but two giants of the Italian Renaissance: Andrea Mantegna, court painter to the powerful Gonzaga family of Mantua, and Giovanni Bellini, who revolutionised Venetian painting.
The two were linked by family: in 1453, Mantegna married Bellini’s sister, Nicolosia. As this scholarly, beautiful exhibition makes clear, they were also linked by art, engaged in a creative dialogue that lasted for half a century, even though, for most of that time, they lived far apart.
At the same time, this study in artistic exchange suggests that genius is somehow unyielding, for Mantegna and Bellini were fundamentally different artists (we need only use our eyes to recognise that), each blessed with an artistic personality or charisma distinctively his own.
The first gallery sets the scene. The son of a carpenter, Mantegna was born near Padua in about 1431. Despite his humble origins, he had an intellectual bent – influenced, no doubt, by the atmosphere of the university town, but also, perhaps, by the autodidactic zeal of a self-made man. By the end of his life, when he had won renown as the finest artist of his day, he was an authority on Classical antiquity, which palpably shaped his art.
Bellini, by contrast, had a luckier start in life: his father, Jacopo, was a famous Venetian artist. Much of Jacopo’s work has been lost, but one of his “Drawing Books”, from the British Museum, is on rare display in the opening gallery.
Most likely, Jacopo heard about Mantegna’s precocious talent and considered him a suitable match for his daughter. His stab at playing Cupid worked: Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple (c. 1454), which, for reasons that remain mysterious, Bellini traced in the 1470s, probably celebrated the birth of Andrea and Nicolosia’s first child. See how, at either edge, the artist includes portraits of himself and his wife.
For a general audience, there are several palatable biographical nuggets such as this. Sometimes, though, the hand-holding goes too far: the introductory wall-text to one gallery, in which Donatello (who worked in Padua) makes a welcome cameo, solemnly informs us that, during the Renaissance, “Christianity was the official religion of all Western European states.” You don’t say.
While Mantegna emerged almost fully formed, with a clearly recognisable style as crisp as an ancient marble relief, Bellini, who was (probably) born a few years after his future brother-in-law, was a slow-starter. By the 1450s, he was stylistically under Mantegna’s spell.
At this crucial point, the exhibition presents one of many juxtapositions of their work. In about 1455, Mantegna painted The Agony in the Garden, depicting Christ’s vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane. Bellini treated the same theme a couple of years later.
Mantegna’s painting is stamped with the hallmarks of his art: a fascination with rock formations (no wonder, his art has a hard, faceted vitreous quality with lots of angles and sharp edges) architectural detail, and the Roman past (see the soldiers coming for Christ in the background).
In his version, Bellini borrows various ideas and motifs from Mantegna, including the rocky outcrop, the sleeping apostles, Christ’s back-to-front “profil perdu” pose, the distant town. But he also imbues the scene with something else, prefiguring his mature achievements in the great altarpieces and small-scale devotional works that won him fame: a convincing sense of space, atmosphere, and light. See that glorious strip of pink on the horizon? It is the first evocation of dawn in Italian art – and a rosy-fingered harbinger of the sensuous colouristic tradition of Venetian painting.
Note, too, how Bellini’s faraway town has none of the meticulous yet fussy windows and battlements favoured by Mantegna, who was obsessed with cramming as much detail into his compositions as he could.
We find a similar story elsewhere. Mantegna’s Crucifixion (1456-59) is radiant with clarity and microscopically rendered detail. But Bellini’s Crucifixion, painted a decade later, is suffused with a greater understanding of the emotive effects of soft, gentle light. Revel in the gorgeous detail of those trees in the background, silhouetted against a shining sky.
At his best, there is a sweetness and grace to Bellini, a sense of gentle airiness and dignity, that is ravishingly beautiful, and which we rarely find in Mantegna. No wonder that the 17th-century Venetian painter and writer Marco Boschini once called Bellini’s art “a new springtime for the whole world”.
Inevitably, comparing Mantegna’s and Bellini’s work in such depth invites us to anoint a “winner”, though the exhibition is never so vulgar as to present things as a contest. As you can probably tell, I wouldn’t think twice before awarding the victor’s crown to the Venetian.
Admittedly, one of the surprises of the show is that it makes a much stronger case for Mantegna’s pre-eminence than I was expecting. His wildly strange vision of Minerva expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (c. 1500-02), for instance, full of monstrous, Bosch-like creatures, is all the weirder for the precision of his style.
Yet, Bellini’s great gift was his ability to take time-honoured artistic traditions, such as the rigid Byzantine icons that were so popular in Venice, and imbue them with a quivering, blushing, palpable sense of life.
Even when he paints death – see his Dead Christ supported by Two Angels (c. 1470-75), from Berlin – he does so with a melting sensitivity, as though the corpse were still warm. Compare Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian (c. 1459-60), from Vienna: his arrow-pricked musculature is as cool as the (immaculately painted) marble column to which he’s bound. His torso looks like a breastplate.
Mantegna, the “intellectual” artist, was peerless when it came to painting, say, armour or an intricate metal clasp, but his Gorgon-like, obsidian gaze risked making soft things, such as clouds, drapery and flesh, hard as stone.
Meanwhile, Bellini, the “emotional” painter, took much from Mantegna, but surpassed his brother-in-law in fundamental areas, including his treatment of flesh, blood, atmosphere, and light.
It was the triumph, you could say, of the heart over the head.
From Mon [Oct 1] until Jan 27; information: 020 7747 2885