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Mantegna and Bellini Exhibition Review - National Gallery

1 October 2018 - 27 January 2019

Standard admission: £14 Monday - Friday, £16 Saturday - Sunday

Online booking: £12 Monday - Friday, £14 Saturday - Sunday


“Mounting an exhibition of this sort is reminiscent of the activity of a Renaissance artist shop”, says curator Dr Caroline Campbell in the first pages of the book dedicated to the new National Gallery exhibition, a first-time comparison between two giants of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna. Her statement rings true as soon as the viewer steps foot into the first room of the exhibition, ‘Beginnings’, started by Jacopo Bellini’s book of drawings gifted to his son Giovanni: looking around the room, paintings hang nearby brief introductory explanations of the artists’ lives, both in English and Italian. The choice to incorporate the Italian language into the exhibition seems, in line with Campbell’s statement, more like an homage to the Renaissance and the two protagonists of the exhibition than a real necessity for the viewers. Walking across the six rooms of the exhibition feels like a religious and somewhat mysterious immersion in the Renaissance age, rather than a didactic and explanatory viewing of Mantegna’s and Bellini’s masterpieces.

The connection between the two artists remains hard to penetrate and fully comprehend. At a superficial level, Mantegna and Bellini came to know each other thanks to Mantegna’s marriage with Bellini’s sister Nicolosia, but their connection runs deeper than that: continuously imitating each other styles and artistic signatures, the exhibition presents the relationship between the two artists as one of constant admiration and imitation, hanging their most similar works side by side to allow viewers to scratch the surface of their connection. Works such as The Agony in the Garden display the different strengths and weaknesses the two artists possessed, showing Bellini’s love for landscape and Mantegna’s signature use of the foreshortening technique. Despite the organisation of the paintings, however, viewers are left to interpret the reasons behind the differences between the two artists. The paintings are organised as indecipherable symbols of Bellini’s and Mantegna’s life views and the exchange between them, which remains mostly hidden behind the colours and the paint.

The Agony in The Garden, Andrea Mantegna, about 1455-6, Egg tempera on panel, National Gallery, London.

Perhaps the room where viewers come closer to comprehend Mantegna’s and Bellini’s artistic and personal ideologies is the one dedicated to theme of the Pietà, which comes third in the exhibition. Here, one can clearly see Bellini’s artistic process, moving from preliminary sketches to life-sized paintings.

Interestingly, Bellini’s drawing style seems different from his painting one. His drawings look frenetic, filled with nervous lines, and yet the bodies he portrays remain calm, muscles relaxed. When transposed in paintings, the multiplicity of the drawing lines is discarded in favor of soft lights and shadows, showing a tranquillity in body and spirit that transports Bellini’s realism into the realms of the divine.

By contrast, the theme of the Pietà was for Mantegna a primary source of inspiration for his studies of the human body, both in perspective and anatomy. His drawings portray Christ in different positions, mostly tensed, his body transformed by suffering. These studies will culminate in Mantegna’s best known masterpiece, The Dead Christ, sadly missing from the National Gallery exhibition. In this room, viewers can come closer to comprehend Mantegna’s anatomical interests and darker themes, as opposed to Bellini’s spiritual tranquillity. Responsible for this are, partly, the different hometowns of the two painters: Bellini’s Venice echoes in his use of light and depictions of soft skies and waters, whereas Mantua’s academic environment clearly influenced Mantegna's interests in anatomy and architecture.

Pietà, Andrea Mantegna, about 1431, Pen and brown ink, Galleria dell’Accademia Gabinetto dei disegni e stampe, Venice.

Adding to the newly provided insight, the general feeling this exhibition emanates is one of awe and stupor in front of these two masters of Renaissance art. Viewers leave with more of a mystical admiration than a deep understanding of these two artists. Perhaps intentionally, the National Gallery forgoes explanations and introductions in their exhibition, instead launching straight into the emotive and pictorial lives of Bellini and Mantegna, presented through the various themes of their art. The intense focus on religious subjects transport the viewers into a realm of heavenly bodies and divine landscapes, but where Mantegna’s precision somewhat still anchors viewers to reality, Bellini’s softness transports them into the divine, leaving viewers struggling to truly comprehend the immensity of such art, and yet awed and captured by such beauty.

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