A Fascinating Experience for the Layman
In one of my favorite literary works – Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – when the two young men arrive in Venice to visit Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain asks them what they want to do while they are in Venice. Charles, a budding artist, says he would like to see some paintings.
“Oh,” Lord Marchmain says, “Which artists?”
Charles responds that he would like to see Bellini, and Lord Marchmain asks, “Which one?”
“I didn’t know there were two,” Charles says.
“There are three,” Lord Marchmain says. “Painting was very much a family business in those days.”
Indeed it was. Jacopo Bellini and his two sons, Giovanni and Gentile, are all closely associated with the Venetian Renaissance. Recently I had a truly fascinating experience of seeing two great paintings of the Renaissance – one by Giovanni – in an exhibition at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, two paintings of the same subject by two different artists. The subject was The Presentation at the Temple, and the artists were Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini (his brother-in-law). So painting really was a family affair in those days.
Since “fascinating” was the term used in a reference in the public relations notes from the Querini Stampalia, where the exhibition took place from March 21 through June of this year, I’ll use it as well. It’s the best word for describing the experience of seeing these two works together. They go next to the National Gallery in London (October 1st) and then to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (March 1, 2019). For any friends and colleagues living in London or Berlin (or thinking of visiting those two very special cities), I can’t do better than to encourage a look at this fascinating exhibition.
As a true amateur when it comes to viewing works of art, I have a good time but I would never consider myself any sort of scholar or professional. I tend to think of myself as an interested viewer, perhaps in the earlier sense of “amateur,” i.e., I enjoy looking at pictures. I am only what might be referred to as a person described with the 17th- or 18th-century French usage of the term amateur – “one who loves, a lover of….” But don’t worry, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying myself when I see something I like, and my visit to the Querini Stampalia was one such experience.
I will probably never forget this display of the two works, put together for the first time. And it was an experience perhaps a little enhanced by my recent reading of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, possibly one of the most fascinating (using the word intentionally) books I’ve ever read. I loved it, I learned a lot, and it was a splendid introduction to Renaissance painting for an amateur like myself. It was specially fun to think about – when viewing the two paintings – how Leonardo, coming a little later (born about 1452), knew about and might even have been influenced by both Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna.
One of the more interesting elements of the visit to the Querini Stampalia was learning about the site, the Palazzo Querini Stampalia, commissioned in the 16th century by the descendants of the old Querini family. One item on display by the foundation is the family’s written art inventory, including these pages from 1809. It listed the ownership of Bellini’s painting, at the time attributed to Andrea Mantegna.
Giovanni – sometimes referred to as “Giambellino” – was born about 1430 and Mantegna about a year later. Certainly the two artists knew one another, for they were brothers-in-law, with Mantegna marrying Giovanni’s sister Nicolosia and becoming part of the Bellini family in 1453, the family that according to some sources was running “one of the most important painting workshops in Venice.”
The workshop had been organized by Jacopo Bellini, the father of the great Bellini family often spoken of as the being largely responsible for introducing the Renaissance style into Venetian painting. And, since Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna obviously knew each other and, indeed, are purported to have shared their different expertise with one another (as well as studying classical antiquity together), it’s not a surprise that each artist depicted the same story in a painting. What is surprising is that they did it at different times, about a decade apart, according to one of the curators of this exhibition. That, too, brings up a fascinating question: Why, do we wonder, did Giovanni take up a subject that had already been dealt with so well by his brother-in-law? We don’t know, but with Mantega being from the Padua region and primarily focused on large religious paintings and Giovanni Bellini – a Venetian – seemingly best known for the excellence of his portraits, there’s much to think about.
The exhibition is curated by Brigit Blass-Simmen, Neville Rowley, and Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa. A quotation from exhibition co-curator Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa helps explain: “…it would be wrong to think of them standing next to each other as they painted the same subject. Undoubtedly the cartoon, whose creation required great artistic virtuosity, ‘bewitched both of them, but a considerable arc of time – about a decade – separates the two masterpieces’.” And his note is followed by a delightful query in the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibition: “At first glance they look completely alike, and yet you understand that the two mirror-works have ‘completely different personalities’. But who came up with the marvellous composition?”
Wouldn’t we all love to know the answer to that question? As for me, I can only respond by describing some of what I saw. I had a very good first impression of the exhibition (installed by architect Mario Bottra) as I walked through the three rooms of the brilliantly prepared display – including two rooms of floor-to-ceiling large-type legends describing the history of the two paintings. These included as well what must have been of very special interest to art professionals and technology specialists, a long and very well-written (and well-illustrated) description of the restoration process for the paintings and the reflectography and x-radiography analyses that enhanced our understanding of their history.
Other things I noticed were what only a true amateur would pay attention to. For one thing, to my eye the Mantegna appears to be a darker painting, and I can’t help but be curious about whether that was intentional, on either artist’s part, but in particular with Bellini at the later date, perhaps deciding that he wanted a lighter, less ponderous depiction of this critical event in the New Testament story. Another observation I had fun with was that Mantegna – well known for his religious works – shows the holy people with halos and the precious Infant with an aureole, a symbol of divinity. These are lacking in Bellini’s work. And in both paintings (and in many others of course) I’m always a little nervous about seeing an infant in swaddling clothes. Isn’t that too uncomfortable for the child? As for the older people in the picture, having read Isaacson on Leonardo, the quality and thickness of the elderly Simon’s beard is noticeable in both paintings, but in a different way. Mantegna uses an established style in which – if I may be permitted an anachronism – it looks a curling iron was used on the beard. Bellini, however, has presented an equally long but more natural-looking beard. And one of the more striking details is very obvious in the Bellini but less so in the Mantega, the tradition (so I’ve been told) of the artist in a self portrait looking out at the viewer. If that is the case with Bellini’s painting, the figure seems about right, as it depicts a man who could have been about 39 years old. We don’t see such an image in the Mantegna, although the man on the far right of the painting could have been in his mid- to late-twenties or even a few years older, which would have been Mantegna’s approximate age at the time he did the painting. But he is not looking directly at the viewer, so the artist-looking-at-the-viewer construct might not work in this case.
As for the success of the exhibition, Marigusta Lazzari, the director of the Querini Stampalia, tells a little of the story, noting that the exhibition is “the result of one of those alchemies that happen every now then in history.” In this case, “the impossible has become possible after our complex negotiations came to a happy conclusion, leading us to loan our Bellini for the major Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini exhibition, which opens at the National Gallery in London on 1 October 2018 before transferring to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin on 1 March 2019. The comparison between the two Presentation at the Temple paintings is one of the cardinal points of these exhibitions. The Berlin institute has reciprocated our loan with one of its own and thus we are thrilled to finally present the two masterpieces side by side at the Querini to an Italian and international public before the London exhibition.”
[Photographs by Andrew Berner.]