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Mantegna and Bellini at the NG sparks debate in Italy

Stefano Pirovano

The dream-exhibition at the National Gallery opens a debate in Italy about the so called ‘blockbuster’ shows, which confuse entertainment with culture. But, does it make sense comparing Rome to London?

The wait is almost over. The dream exhibition which compares Bellini and Mantegna organised by the National Gallery will open to the public on the 1st of October, and there will be 16 weeks to visit it before it is moved, in March, to the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin, where it will be on show until August. Then the works, about a hundred between paintings and drawings, will go back to the collections they belong to and it’s hard to tell when they will be all together again. ‘Probably never’ says Gabriele Finaldi, who became the director of the National Gallery in summer 2015, when the museum had already been working on this project for three years. As they say, it’s now or never.

Besides their talent, what makes the relationship between the two masters unique is that they were brothers-in-law, and this has certainly marked their respective careers, especially at the beginning. Their relationship was thus human, before than being an artistic one, and this provides nowadays the perfect narrative frame for their story to become a paradigm accessible to everyone. Andrea Mantegna, the son of a humble carpenter, was a precocious talent, considering that, notwithstanding his young age, he was one of the executors of the Ovetari’s family chapel in the Church of the Eremitani in Pauda. In 1453 he marries the only daughter of Jacopo Bellini, Nicolosia, as a proof of the admiration the great Venetian painter had for the artist – who was only 22 years old at that time. From there the ascent, the important commissions and the increasing relationship with Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo’s son, himself an extraordinary artist, who was however more interested in landscape paintings, in the essential nature of the composition, and possibly slightly less experimental than his brother-in-law. The exhibition in London aims indeed at exploring this relationship by looking for similarities, cross references, differences, explorations, common interests like the one for ancient art, for instance, or the study on perspective.

The works on loan are obviously remarkable, and come from museums all over the world, starting from the British Museum, which lends to the exhibition 18 works, including Jacopo Bellini’s sketch album, where Giovanni and Andrea have possibly trained from, an album that in the past 100 years has been lent only on another occasion. There will be ‘The Death of the Virgin’, now at the Prado (Mantegna); ‘The Presentation of Christ to the Temple’ painted by Mantegna around 1455 (housed at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin) and the version executed by Bellini twenty years later using Mantegna’s one as model (which belongs to the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice). ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ from The Getty Museum (Mantegna) and the beautiful ‘The Transfiguration of Christ’ from Museo Correr in Venice (Bellini) will also be on show. Then there will be three of Mantegna’s ‘Triumphs of Caesar’, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, which will be contrasted with a huge sculptural monochromes by Bellini such as the ‘Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’, which was sold in 1949 by the collection Contini-Bonacossi to the Kress Foundation, and now is housed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This exhibition should hence be regarded as an epiphany, yet in Italy someone is complaining. Envy, jealousy or else? Maybe just a bad habit. Last Friday, on the weekly supplement of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (Il Venerdì), the art historian Tomaso Montanari took the opportunity to point the finger at the Italian ruling class, hence at the government, which doesn’t invest enough in culture, doesn’t hire archaeologists and art historians, doesn’t look after its heritage as it should, therefore it is not able to generate exhibitions like the one in London. Rather, it is attracted by many low-quality exhibitions principally made in order to sell tickets and give visibility to local politicians. On the same magazine, a few pages later, Montanari is echoed by another art historian, Giovanni Agosti, well-known to the international public for co-curating the exhibition dedicated to Mantegna by the Louvre in Paris in 2008 and curating early this year of a rather questionable show dedicated to Gaudenzio Ferrari. The ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions’ phenomenon in Italy is certainly a big issue, and the current Italian Minister of Culture doesn’t stand out, quite the contrary. However, it can’t all be reduced to the dichotomy between cultural industry and research, or between commercial shows which could take place anywhere (as Agosti claims) and shows which are the outcomes of serious researches and are thought for closely dialoguing with the environment and don’t mess with the market. The truth probably lies elsewhere, and it’s much more complex. After all, there is no difference between commercial music and non-commercial one: simply there is the good music, and the bad one. The UK has a strong aristocratic tradition, whose social structure is as vertical as ‘The Shard’ Renzo Piano designed in Southwark London. And this structure generates an art market which represents 20% of the global one, second only to United States (42%) and China (21%). The Italian share of this market is just 1%, the King is no longer ruling since 1946, and the skyscrapers are never as high. Nowadays is general consensus that that museums in London run better than in Rome. Yet, you will have to evaluate case by case, according to precise criterion, then this initial consensus could end up cracking, regardless of whether the exhibitions are good or bad. Also because, you know, the pleasure you feel by entering an osteria, and eating better than in a Michelin-restaurant is quite hard to explain – and in Italy this is easier than elsewhere (it’s a metaphor, of course). UK are Italy have different cultural structures, with different qualities and flaws. Problems are everywhere, but you won’t solve them by feeling sorry for yourself. Not even in Rome, or Milan.

November 25, 2020