On 21 March an incredible exhibition opened at the Querini Stampalia in Venice showing two works by two masters of the Renaissance, Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, which can now be seen together for the first time since they were painted over 500 years ago. Both paintings depict the Presentation at the Temple: Mantegna’s (c. 1455) precedes Bellini’s (c. 1459) by a few years, though the exact dates of the works are unknown. Art historians believe that Bellini copied the painting from a cartoon, using a technique known as dusting, as certain elements – such as the Madonna and Child – align perfectly with the original.
So how did this come about? Mantegna, originally from Padua, and the Venetian Bellini were brothers-in-law, Mantegna having married Giovanni’s sister. Critics believe that the two lateral figures in Mantegna’s work are the artist and his wife. Bellini adds two more figures to his painting, and these are almost certainly himself and his own wife. In Bellini’s work, the other couple represents his brother and sister-in-law. The central figure of Joseph is thought to be a portrait of Bellini’s father (and Mantegna’s father-in-law) Jacopo in both paintings. There is no doubt that both works are very much a family affair.
Mario Botta, the Swiss architect responsible for some of the Querini Stampalia’s recent restoration, is behind the exhibition design. Visitors are taken on a tour of the museum rooms, before approaching two antechambers in which the artists and their works are described. The information appears on cloth panels, a visual reference to the scrolls on which the story first appeared and also to the swaddling that the baby Jesus is wrapped in. The final room, which is in almost complete darkness, contains the two masterpieces and the sight of them together is breath-taking: facing each other at a slight angle, they are almost mirror images. The viewer is struck by their similarities, but also the differences: Bellini’s is more steeped in colour, while Mantegna’s fabrics seem gauzier and more delicate. Bellini’s has an openness and breadth, whilst Mantegna’s is more contained. Both are exceptional.
The exhibition opens after lengthy negotiations and intense preparation between the Querini, which has owned the Bellini work since the early 1800s, and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, where the Mantegna work is housed. Marigusta Lazzari, the director of the Querini Stampalia, states: “It is the result of one of those alchemies that happen every now and then in history”. The exhibition continues until 1 July before moving on to the National Gallery in London on 1 October 2018, as part of a larger exhibition, and then transferring to the Gemäldegalerie on 1 March 2019.