Paris: Hazan/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 480 pp., E42.00
Milan: Silvana, 383 pp., E35.00 (paper)
In the latter half of the fifteenth century, the artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini ruled over painting in northern Italy. Closely related—Mantegna was married to Bellini’s sister —the painters sometimes took great interest in each other’s work, and occasionally made pictures of the same subject matter. Yet they pursued almost wholly dissimilar visions of professional and artistic success. In nearly every aspect of their art, from their sources of inspiration to the media they painted in and the themes they explored, they made choices of a markedly different character.
The divergent nature of their artistry was a subject of comment even in their own day and it has continued to excite interest in the modern era, engaging the attention of Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, and many other historians and critics. Thanks to a pair of exhibitions currently on view in Europe—one about Mantegna at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and one about Giovanni Bellini at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome—we can now come closer than ever before to understanding the heart of their colossal, yet vastly differing, achievements. It is an opportunity not to be missed. Viewed together, the two exhibitions reveal much of what was possible in Italian painting at the end of the fifteenth century.
Andrea Mantegna was the older and more precocious of the two artists. Born in 1431 in a small village outside of Padua, he was a child prodigy, becoming an independent professional artist by the time he was seventeen. So rapid was his ascent that he won his first commission for a major fresco cycle the same year. Finished around 1457, the resulting pictures in the Ovetari chapel in the church of the Eremitani in Padua rank among the greatest fresco paintings in the history of Renaissance art. (They were largely destroyed by a bomb dropped on Padua in 1944.) To judge from old photographs and the surviving fragments, two qualities were especially prominent in these works. One was the clarity in the representation of space; the other was the breadth of antiquarian learning in the depiction of classical costume and architecture. By both measures, the paintings far surpassed any other fresco cycle of the early Renaissance, including the Brancacci chapel in Florence by Massaccio and the paintings of the Legends of the True Cross in Arezzo by Piero della Francesca.
Although there is no way for the exhibition to represent what Mantegna achieved in the Ovetari chapel, the opening rooms of the show nonetheless give a sense of the first stirrings of his impetuous genius. On view, for example, is one of his earliest surviving paintings, made when Mantegna was only about sixteen. This shows Saint Mark staring out from a window; he juts his right arm beyond the window ledge, bending it back at the elbow in order to support his head with his hand, and a book leans against the …