In 1453, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, the sister of Giovanni Bellini, a member of a famous family of Venetian painters. Sometime in the following years, and before Mantegna’s departure for Mantua in 1460, he completed his tempera on canvas work, Presentation at the Temple. In this unique work, Mantegna has portrayed members of his own household, along with figures of Mary, Simeon and the child. To the left of Mary’s shoulder is what art historians believe to be a portrait of Nicolosia, and on the far right is what historians believe to be a self-portrait of the artist. Behind St. Simeon, and nearly lost in the background of the work, is believed to be a portrait of Mantegna’s father whose role in the work is that of St. Joseph: note the aureola, the artistic tradition of portraying an aura over the heads of holy figures.
After Andrea and Nicolosia’s departure, Mantegna’s brother in law, Giovanni, began work on a Presentation at the Temple, this one tempera on wood panel. Bellini’s work is even more autobiographical than that of his brother in law. Behind what is believed to be a portrait of Giovanni on the far right, is a portrait of Giovanni’s brother Gentile. (Some art historians believe it could also be a portrait of Mantenga. No evidence exists to this day to clarify those observations.) The father figure from Mantegna’s work is far darker, and has lost his saintly attribution. The face of the father, now dark, nearly fierce, portrays perhaps anger at his daughter’s departure and his changed role of leading a household of two immensely creative Venetian painters. The woman to the far left in Bellini’s work is believed to be Giovanni and Gentile’s mother, Anna.
Note, also, that in Mantegna’s work, there is a frame around the entire canvas. In Bellini’s there is only a parapet. The change in viewing the pieces seems to make Bellini’s work more personal and approachable, less distant and formal than that of Mantegna. One last touch by Bellini adds to the lack of formality in his work; there are no longer aureola. Bellini has moved the figures into the world of ‘us’ rather than of ‘them.’
When you see the two works together – hardly likely in physical fact as the Mantegna work is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the Bellini hangs in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice-there is no doubt that Bellini must surely have observed Andrea’s work as it progressed. Giovanni presented an even greater honor to Mantegna’s unique style by replicating, with little change, the location and posture of the figures in the earlier work.
Bellini created an entirely new way of painting, one that used a technique of darker, richer tones and colors. Both Giovanni and Gentile went on to further fame in Venice as remarkable painters. Giovanni, additionally, tutored both Giorgione and Titian, gigantic talents of their age as well.
An observation about this positioning of the face in self-portraits and portraits of artists by other masters is their similarity.
In the School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael in what were called the Stanza dall Segnatura in the Apostolic Chapel in the Vatican, there is a self-portrait of the artist. Though painted nearly fifty years after Mantegna’s and Bellini’s works, the position of Raphael’s head, the figure’s eye contact with the viewer of the work are strikingly similar to, particularly, Bellini’s self-portrait.
Further explorations in future posts!
IF YOU GO:
If you wish to view the Bellini masterpiece in Venice, here are details:
Fondazione Querini Stampalia
Santa Maria Formosa
Castello 5252, 30122 Venezia
Tel 041 2711411
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00AM to 6:00PM
Tickets: Euro 10 per person, available at the door ticket office