Sibling Rivalry in the Venetian Renaissance

Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple, ca. 1472

© Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice / cameraphoto arte snc
Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple, ca. 1472
Mantegna and Bellini's unique relationship pushed them to become innovative masters of their craft.

Mantegna and Bellini's unique relationship pushed them to become innovative masters of their craft.

© Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Picture Gallery

Andrea Mantegna, St Sebastian, about 1459-60

A spectacular exhibition organized jointly by London’s National Gallery and Berlin’s state museums, currently showing at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is the first to be devoted to these two stars of the Italian Renaissance.

It was more than the brotherhood of art that bound Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. The Renaissance masters became brothers-in-law in 1453, when Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia. As close friends and competitors, they each benefited from their sibling rivalry, intimacy, and mutual admiration.

Mantegna was an ambitious prodigy whose talent transported him from lowly origins as the son of a carpenter in the university town of Padua to fame and fortune in Mantua as court painter to the Gonzaga dukes. Bellini, a few years his junior (the date of his birth is a matter of debate), was born into a wealthy Venetian family and artistic dynasty. His father, Jacopo, was a painter recognized as one of the great artistic inventors of his generation.

The marriage of Mantegna to Nicolosia may have been engineered by Jacopo Bellini as a way of incorporating Mantegna’s ingenuity into the family business. If so, things didn’t quite work to plan, because after 10 years of collaboration with Bellini, Mantegna moved to Mantua to accept the post with the Gonzaga family. Nevertheless, his influence on Giovanni Bellini–and vice versa–was powerful and enduring.

A spectacular exhibition organized jointly by London’s National Gallery and Berlin’s state museums, currently showing at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is the first to be devoted to these two stars of the Italian Renaissance. The London and Berlin museums possess the best collections of Mantegna and Bellini outside Italy, so a collaboration made sense. Among the top-drawer loans are three Mantegna masterpieces from the British Royal Collection, The Triumphs of Caesar, which usually hang in Hampton Court.

The exhibition invites a contrast-and-compare approach, and both the similarities and the differences are striking. Perhaps the most concrete evidence of the influence Mantegna wielded over Bellini is in their paintings of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, here shown side-by-side. Mantegna’s egg tempera on canvas work dates from about 1454 and possibly marked his wedding or the birth of his first child. It is an intimate close-up of Mary passing the swaddled baby Jesus to a curly-bearded Simeon. Joseph looks on between them, while two peripheral characters in the background (thought to be likenesses of Nicolosia and Mantegna) look past the scene into the distance to the left of the viewer.

Recent research has revealed that Bellini traced Mantegna’s painting to produce his own oil-on-panel version as many as 20 years later. Yet it also has distinct differences. He added two more peripheral characters, removed the haloes and changed Mary’s robe. The colors are warmer, the skin-tones softer, and both Joseph and Simeon look less grizzled and more kindly.

Why Bellini chose to copy, then change the work of his brother-in-law is a riddle that has occupied scholars for many years, as have the unknown identities of the two additional figures. But if imitation is the highest form of flattery, his painting can only be viewed as a touching fraternal tribute to Mantegna’s brilliance–in an era that predates copyright law.

The years before and after Mantegna’s marriage into the Bellini family, between about 1450 and 1460, were the period when the artistic exchange between the two artists was at its most intense. Both created versions of The Agony in the Garden during this time, and they are among the first painted works portraying Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, the apostles sleeping as he prays. Though the compositions are different, Bellini borrowed some of Mantegna’s techniques, such as the use of powdered gold in drapery and haloes. But the power of Mantegna’s work lies in its sculpted precision and solemnity, while Bellini’s poetic landscape of gentle hills and a bubbling river is suffused with the pink light of dusk.

Presentation at the Temple by Andrea Mantegna.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Andrea Mantegna, Presentation at the Temple, ca. 1453

Presentation at the Temple by Giovanni Bellini.
© Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice / cameraphoto arte snc

Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple, ca. 1472

The Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna.
© The National Gallery, London

Andrea Mantegna, The Agony in the Garden, about 1458-60

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini.
© The National Gallery, London

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, about 1465

The Flagellation with Pavement by Andrea Mantegna (and unknown engraver).
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Andrea Mantegna (and unknown engraver), The Flagellation with Pavement, ca. 1460-1468

Studies for Christ at the Column (recto / verso) by Andrea Mantegna.
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Andrea Mantegna, Studies for Christ at the Column (recto / verso), early to mid 1640´s

Saint Mark heals Anianus by Giovanni Bellini (attributed).
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Dietmar Katz

Giovanni Bellini (attributed), Saint Mark heals Anianus, 1485

Andrea Mantegna, St Sebastian, about 1459-60
© Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Picture Gallery

Andrea Mantegna, St Sebastian (and detail), about 1459-60

The Blood of the Redeemer by Giovanni Bellini.
© The National Gallery, London

Giovanni Bellini, The Blood of the Redeemer, probably 1460-65

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Giovanni Bellini.
Galleria degli Uffizi © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino

Giovanni Bellini, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, about 1460

Pietà by Andrea Mantegna.
© Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell‘Accademia di Venezia

Andrea Mantegna, Pietà, 1456-59

Deposition by Andrea Mantegna.
© Brescia, Musei Civici di Arte e Storia, Archivio Fotografico

Andrea Mantegna, Deposition

Dead Christ supported by angels by Giovanni Bellini.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ supported by angels, about 1475

The Man of Sorrows by Andrea Mantegna.
© Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Andrea Mantegna, The Man of Sorrows, ca. 1495-1500 

Madonna with Sleeping Child by Andrea Mantegna.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Jörg P. Anders

Andrea Mantegna, Madonna with Sleeping Child, about 1455

Madonna with child by Giovanni Bellini.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna with child, ca. 1475

Cardinal Lodovico Trevisan by Andrea Mantegna.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Andrea Mantegna, Cardinal Lodovico Trevisan, 1401-1465

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini.
© The National Gallery, London

Giovanni Bellini, Doge Leonardo Loredan, 1501-2

Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome by Andrea Mantegna.
© The National Gallery, London

Andrea Mantegna, Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome (and detail), 1505-06

An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio by Giovanni Bellini.
© Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Giovanni Bellini, An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio (and detail), after 1506

Dancing Muse by Andrea Mantegna.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Andrea Mantegna, Dancing Muse, about 1497

Two men in antique dress by Giovanni Bellini.
© Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

Giovanni Bellini, Two men in antique dress, ca. 1506-1508

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance, Exhibition view.

The exchange worked both ways. Mantegna’s The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (circa 1485 to 1500), a major late work, is clearly inspired by Bellini’s earlier painting of the same name. But Mantegna experimented in ways Bellini did not with foreshortening and perspective–his Dead Christ with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist is a powerful example of his virtuosity.

Bellini’s inventiveness focussed on his early use (for Italy) of oil painting to create light and color, psychology and texture. His 1501 oil portrait of Leonardo Loredan, among the later works in the exhibition, shows the doge’s sternness in the set of his features and his humanity in the hint of a smile. The translucence of his skin and shine of his robe create a quiet radiance that leaps from the canvas.

And it was Bellini who first discovered landscape as a means of conveying the central message of his work, setting the stage for a Venetian tradition that would continue for centuries. His sunlit 1514 Feast of the Gods features a blazing blue sky, cottony clouds, diverse trees rich with foliage and a towering outcrop of craggy rock.

In the Carta del navegar pitoresco, the first comprehensive study of Venetian painting, published in 1660, Marco Boschini wrote: "Giovanni Bellini could be called the spring of the whole world in the art of painting, because from him derives all greenery and without him, art would be an icy winter.” Bellini’s ingenious innovations in landscape may never have been if not for the caring and competitive push of his older brother-in-law, Mantegna.

Mantegna and Bellini. Masters of the Renaissance is on show at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin until June 30.

About the Author

Catherine Hickley

Catherine Hickley is a Berlin-based arts journalist and the author of The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler's Dealer and his Secret Legacy (Thames & Hudson, 2015).

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