The National Gallery’s major autumn exhibition this year is a once in a lifetime exhibition, bringing together the works of two of the great early Renaissance painters – Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna. One the son of a great painter, the other the son of a carpenter, these brothers-in-law worked closely together for seven years, shaping the work of the other. Bellini would become the quintessential landscape painter, staying in Venice his entire career, while Mantegna would become an intellectual painter renowned for his classical depictions while court painter to the Gonzagas of Mantua.
Mantegna and Bellini covers their work on traditional religious scenes, and subjects from classical history to landscape and depth perception to portraiture that would become the hallmark of later Renaissance artists, including the future superstars, Michelangelo and Leonardo. As you move through this collection of exquisite 15th century paintings and drawings, the scope of the work, how the pair influenced each other, and the shear scale of the complexity of staging the exhibition and its importance become clear. The second room lays bare just how much they influenced one another; setting side-by-side works each did of the same subject during their period of closest creative exchange. This is most starkly visible with their The Descent into Limbo, and Mantegna’s The Crucifixion and Bellini’s Le Calvaire, which are almost identical.
But this closeness did not last, at least in their work. As Bellini continued to develop his landscape paintings and portraits, setting the standards and developing techniques that were to drive and influence subsequent artists, Mantegna left Venice and headed to Mantua to become court painter to the Gonzagas. Here he was able to travel to Rome and experience the classical architecture and art, inspiring him for much of the rest of his career. It would lead to the creation of his most important and famous work, The Triumph of Caesar, that now forms a central part of the Royal Collection, thanks to Charles I’s acquisition of the Gonzagas’ immense and stunning collection when they fell on hard times.
The detail and quality of both Mantegna and Bellini’s brushwork and drawings is truly exquisite, to the point of being mesmerising. This is a rare, even once in a lifetime, exhibition given the fragility of the 15th century artworks, made all the more impressive by the wide range of leading museums from around the globe that have loaned works. The importance of the exhibition is even greater given the influence both artists had on later artists and the instrumental role they played in the development of the Renaissance.
Mantegna and Bellini at The National Gallery
1st October – 27th January 2019
Tickets for Mantegna and Bellini available here
Image – NG726
Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, about 1458-60
Egg tempera on panel, 80.4 × 127 cm
The National Gallery, London
© The National Gallery, London