Sometimes Andrea Mantegna was just showing off. For the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, he painted a false ceiling above the Camera degli Sposi. Around a great trompe l’oeil oculus, apparently open to the sky, assorted gawpers and cherubs lean nosily over the parapet: ‘What’s going on down there, then?’ Only the Duke and Duchess of Gonzaga entertaining their friends from Ferrara. A terracotta pot is half off the edge, supported only by a thin rod. One nudge from a misbehaving putto and — whoops! — just missed the Duchess. Some of the putti stick their heads through the trellis. Another stands on a ledge, flashing us his bare, plump, crinkly bottom, brilliantly foreshortened by Mantegna.
Giovanni Bellini’s figures tend not to show us their bums. His pale Madonnas and sleeping Christ Childs possess a quiet decorum and holy composure that Mantegna, for all his tricks of perspective, never mastered. Compare, for instance, the angels that appear to Christ in the two versions of the ‘Agony in the Garden’, which have hung in the National Gallery for well over a century and which are the jumping-off point for the gallery’s stellar autumn exhibition Mantegna and Bellini.
In Mantegna’s ‘Agony’ (c.1455–6), the angels, holding the instruments of the Passion, zoom towards Christ on a cloud like a hoverboard. One angel has his foot tangled in a wisp of cumulus; another curls his soles over the cloud’s edge, in danger of tumbling over on to the Mount of Olives. Together the five angels make a gang of Bash Street Kids. Bellini’s angel (c.1458–60) is a solitary figure, fragile and transparent as Murano glass, a reminder that Christ shoulders the sins of mankind and suffers his crucifixion alone.
Compare, too, the swaddled infants in Mantegna and Bellini’s treatments of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple, c.1454 and c.1460. Mantegna’s Christ is about to howl; Bellini’s, to yawn or sigh. Their art is drama versus devotion, action versus contemplation. If Mantegna seeks to stir you, Bellini asks you to be still. Mantegna is the charismatic preacher in the pulpit; Bellini, the monk in silent prayer. Mantegna’s ‘Agony’ unspools like a film; Bellini’s is a freeze-frame. Mantegna’s Judas is three steps ahead of the Roman soldiers, arm outstretched, finger pointing: ‘He’s this way, come on, come on!’ Bellini’s Judas is in among the soldiers, his betrayal more intimate.
Mantegna was the younger, born around 1431, the son of a carpenter in Isola di Carturo, north of Padua. Bellini, the elder, born in Venice around 1430, son of the painter Jacopo Bellini, and younger brother of Gentile Bellini. Debate the dates if you wish. Team Mantegna will say he is the elder, that Bellini was the Giovanni-come-lately who learnt from the master. Team Bellini will tell you that their man was first, that Mantegna was a boy from the provinces who married into a painting dynasty. Padua, where Mantegna was apprenticed to Francesco Squarcione around 1441–48, may have had its university, but 15th-century Venice was La Serenissima, the Christian Constantinople, the New Jerusalem. Whoever was older or younger, the marriage of Mantegna to Giovanni’s sister Nicolosia in 1453 was an advantageous alliance. Mantegna went up in the world, the Bellinis adopted the hottest painter in northern Italy since Giotto finished the Scrovegni Chapel in around 1305.
If only Mantegna hadn’t had a mind of his own. In 1459, he took Nicolosia and their children to Mantua to be court artist to Duke Ludovico Gonzaga and later to his sons Federico and Francesco II. Mantegna, an admirer of all things antique, built, at ruinous expense, a ‘Roman’ house around an open courtyard. It was in Mantua that he painted the Triumphs of Caesar series (1484–1506), now in the Royal Collection.
The National Gallery’s exhibition asks what happened in the tantalising period between Mantegna’s marriage and his departure to Mantua. Was Mantegna leafing through Jacopo’s drawings, now in the Louvre and British Museum? Was Giovanni leaning over Mantegna’s shoulder, copying his figures, borrowing his Roman arches, pinching his rocks and high priests? Was Mantegna looking at Giovanni’s subtle skies and shining faces and thinking: how does he do it? At the National Gallery, curator Caroline Campbell has united the two Agonies and two Presentations in London for the first time. It is a coup and a rare chance to judge the brothers-in-law side by side.
Mantegna wielded his brush like a chisel. His saints and apostles might be sculpted from marble. His Padua years coincided with Donatello’s stay in the city to cast the Il Santo altarpiece and the ‘Gattamelata’, the first equestrian monument since antiquity. (Spot the tiny horseback emperor in the background of Mantegna’s ‘Agony’.) Mantegna’s naughty putti are the younger brothers of Donatello’s bronze choirboys, who loll in their niches at Il Santo peering round frames, blowing raspberries and holding their lyres like catapults. Mantegna must have looked, too, at Giotto’s Scrovegni frescoes, at the cycle’s sturdy bell-figures and their starched draperies. Art before Giotto had been frontal and foursquare. Giotto invented the expressive back, the suggestive shoulder. Never before such shrugging at the Last Supper. Mantegna joins Giotto in turning backs on his audience. In the Assumption altarpiece (c.1453) for the Church of the Eremitani, next to the Scrovegni chapel, Mantegna paints the disciples from behind, looking up, awestruck, at the Assumption of the Virgin. One has his hand on another’s shoulder in a gesture that says: ‘Can you believe it, mate?’
Bellini’s brush is like a kiss. His small devotional paintings are tender and luminous. The haloes in the ‘Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene’ (c.1490) are as fine as filament. Marvel at the Virgin’s veil and the pearls in Saint Catherine’s hair. Bellini also delighted in the subtleties of landscape. In the altarpiece he painted for the Frari in Venice, he finds room for a Twix’s width of landscape at either edge of the frame as if he couldn’t resist the pull of hills and sky. Bellini’s light has been likened to the reflections of sun on the canals: shifting, silvery, beautiful. There is a debate about whether it is dusk or dawn in Bellini’s ‘Agony’. Or some spiritual in-between time with a light of its own. The three disciples in Mantegna’s ‘Agony’ snore and sprawl; Bellini’s disciples dream. Bellini borrowed Mantegna’s composition, as he did for the ‘Presentation’, but he tells a different story. No comedy cherubs, no frolicsome rabbits, no distractions. Our sympathy and faith are with the kneeling redeemer. A young man against an endless sky, lost in the landscape, brave and alone.