Usually when you say an art show is ‘challenging’, you mean it’s got a stuff in it you don’t want to look at. And, yeah, ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ contains scenes of torture, execution, religious fanaticism, totalitarian regimes, disturbing hybrid animals and child nudity. That’s the Bible for you. But this survey of the work and relationship of two giants of the Italian Renaissance is challenging in another way. It’s a totally uncompromising academic show that requires a ton of concentration and it’s great.
Bellini Snr, Jacopo, arranged the marriage of his daughter to Mantegna, a self-made prodigy. He did this to consolidate his artistic dynasty: his own son Giovanni was no slouch at the painting game, and the relationship of the brothers-in-law is the core of this show. Across six themed rooms, you see the two artists evolve and innovate. Because they painted many of the same themes, you can track their development. So, Mantegna’s ‘Crucifixion’ has his trademark dramatic perspective, and a host of detail: Roman soldiers, knots of onlookers, Jerusalem as an Italian hilltop town. He takes a professional interest in the crosses (his dad was a carpenter). Bellini’s treatment of the same subject tightly focuses in: it’s all pitiable humanity. Mantegna literally sees the bigger picture.
There is a constant shift in both artists between the symbolic and the realistic, between religious subjects and the classical ideals of the Renaissance. Bellini paints Christ with a backdrop of Roman reliefs. Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian has an arrow that enters his lower jaw and exits through his forehead, suggesting a familiarity with all the horrible ways people can get killed. Bellini explores landscape for its own sake: his ‘Assassination of St Peter Martyr’ sets the murder against a dramatic stand of trees, whose darkness spreads across the panel like blood. Mantegna is always restless, looking for new angles. His gigantic Roman ‘Triumphs’ put the viewer under the feet of elephants and the wheels of chariots.
These are artists engaged in a cultural arms race. Individually brilliant, seen together they give a sense of the all-consuming ambition of the Renaissance, and it’s staggering.