The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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