Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery review *****

Mantegna and Bellini

National Gallery, 11th November 2018

11th November was turning into a very busy day for the Tourist. Fresh from the heady Edward Burne-Jones phantasmagoria at Tate Britain and a proper Sunday lunch, it was off to the National, now solo, for these Old Masters, before rounding off at the Barbican for a bit of choral pleasure (I realise that sounds a little dubious).

Anyway this double header was everything the Burne-Jones wasn’t. Indisputably, vibrantly, thrillingly, alive. Now I know that endless bible extracts, with Jesus suffering and the Virgin Mary looking beatific might not strike you as the stuff of reality, any more than the silly romantic legends that make up the pre-Raphaelite world, but trust me they are. The religious settings, like the music of the time, were just the templates to tell more human stories as well as create work of astonishing beauty. If the Church is the only patron, or rather religious images are what wealthy patrons require, then that is what artists will provide. Can’t buck the market. For me this very restriction on subject is what creates the conditions for supreme innovation.

And in this exhibition we get the ultimate BOGOF. In 1453 Andrea Mantegna, already an established painter, trots in to Padua to marry Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of the venerable Jacopo, to become the brother in law of Gentile, and, our subject here, Giovanni. Giovanni, a relative novice, picks up on Andrea’s compositional experimentation and fascination with antiquity, and, in time, for me at least, overtakes him. Mantegna in turn harnesses Bellini’s facility with landscape to produce his greatest works when he moves in 1460 to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bellini stays in Venice, but even apart they tread similar paths, though with different results. Mantegna’s precise, flinty, sculptural, sharper, masculine, intellectual work contrasts with Giovanni Bellini’s lighter, softer, airier, more lyrical, enigmatic and emotional output. Same subjects and stories. Radically different ways of seeing and showing them

Guess which is which in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple above? 20 years separate top from bottom. I’ll leave it to you.

This is not the only direct comparison in this superb exhibition. It would be fascinating just to play that game over a few paintings but here they just keep on coming across the six rooms. Some may be familiar to you (from the National Gallery, British Museum or Berlin museums from which they are drawn)  but it doesn’t diminish the wow factor.  Saint Sebastian, The Agony in the Garden, Crucifixions. The curators walk you through how and why the brothers-in-law created their own interpretations, which, for the interested layman is insightful, though you have to make sure, post comparison, you take the time to examine each painting individually. However there are enough individual unique subjects to offset the comparisons and avoid being overwhelmed by the scholarship.

The exhibition opens with a book of drawings. Pretty much all that remains of Daddy Jacopo’s art. We have to assume, given the importance of family and patronage in making and selling art in the C15, that Jacopo will have had a big hand in the direction of the business. He certainly kick-started the expanded artistic ideas that would emerge from the extended family. Alas this is the last we hear of him. Still the eye is probably already alighting on the two Presentations and your first starter for ten. 

What did Mantegna bequeath the next generation of the Italian Renaissance? The rise of the classical theme. The big picture. Literally in his Triumphs (of Caesar) of which just three are shown here (check them out in Hampton Court Palace when they return). Maybe the birth of the individual in art. That he was a master of perspective following in the footsteps of Masaccio and Uccello, and, in a different way, Donatello, is made pretty clear here. 

And Bellini? Colour, back-stories, people you can identify with, even if they were in deserts or on crosses or generally undergoing some sort of taxing trial or trauma. Maybe Mantegna was the more obvious influencer in his day, but Bellini, “the best Venetian painter of the C15”, may have endured for longer. I reckon I can see in him a thread through to Courbet and, eventually, the modernists. 

Mantegna imposes his narrative from without. Bellini’s flows from within. Pretentious w*ank. Maybe but fast forward to the end and compare Bellini’s OMG portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan, the cerulean background, the gold and silver impasto cloak, the confident, steely gaze. Perfectly lit. A very formal, contemporary portrait, that also looks timeless. In oil. Which Mantegna never used. Look then at his Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, painted in his 70’s. A complex, symbolic, Classical allegory. Intellectual to a tee. Painted for private contemplation not public edification.

Warm flesh. Cold marble. Head or heart. Fortunately in this exhibition you don’t have to choose. 

Venetian Baroque: Academy of Ancient Music at St Luke’s Old St review ****

venetia_-_porcacchi_tomaso_-_1620

Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (violin), Persephone Gibbs (violin), Sarah McMahon (cello), Alistair Ross (harpsichord), William Cater (theorbo)

LSO St Luke’s Old St, 15th June 2018

  • Dario Castello – Sonatas No 10 a 3 Book Two, No 1 a 2 Book One, Sonata No 1 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 2 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 12 a 3 (Book Two)
  • Tarquinio Merula – Ciaconna
  • Michelangelo Rossi – Toccata No 7 for harpsichord
  • Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger – Toccata and Ballo for theorbo
  • Francesco Tunrini – Sonata a 3 “il Corisino”

Venice in the early C17 was the hot place for music in the West. The Republic might have begun its long slow decline, having picked fights with the Ottoman Empire and the Vatican, amongst others, but there were plenty of punters who had made big bucks and were looking to spend it. It was certainly a big-time, sexy, funky, party town. Carnival was big business. Public opera, with that genius Claudio Monteverdi in the vanguard, was taking hold. New instrumental ensembles were being tried out. Exquisite brass was set alongside double and triple, or more, choirs in churches, following on from Gabrieli’s innovations in the previous century. (Even the guards telling the snaking hordes of tourists in St Mark’s Basilica to shut up sound musical thanks to the stunning acoustic). The best performers, composers and instrument makers gathered there.

This was the music members of the AAM sought to highlight in this BBC lunchtime concert, built around the sonatas of Dario Castello, which, to an extent, defined the form. He was born around 1590 and died around 1658, though his best known work comes from the 1620s. He was the leader of a wind ensemble, cornetts, sackbutts, shawns, bagpipes and so on, and might have had a job in St Mark’s. His two books of sonate concertate comprise 29 pieces, (five were played here), that alternate retro polyphonic sections with cutting edge, (by 1620s standards), expressive recitative, the stile concitato,  a la Monteverdi. Instruments are specified, including continuo, musicians are expected to be on their game. This simultaneous looking backwards and forwards is what makes this music fascinating if not entirely satisfying.

In addition to the Castello we had a chaconne, a simple bass riff with increasingly inventive variations, dead easy for the Baroque initiate to grasp, from one Tarquinio Merula, a harpsichord Toccata from Michelangelo Rossi, an unusual Toccata and Ballo for theorbo from Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and a concluding trio sonata from Francesco Turini.

Merula never worked in Venice, (he had positions in Cremona and Bergamo)  but he knew the drill. He was an argumentative chap by reputation but he helped set the tone for the dance vibes of the later Baroque. Rossi came from Genoa, worked in Rome, wrote madrigals and operas, and, despite being a violinist, a book of 20 toccatas, which embrace some dramatic chromaticism and choppy tonality as here. Now you don’t often see a theorbo solo even if you are a paid up member of the Baroque club. The theorbo is that giant-sized lute that the player rests, like a loving parent, on his/her knee. GG Kasperger came to Rome by way of Vienna and was, in terms of theorbo virtuosity, the Charlie Mingus of his day. Turini was also born outside of Italy and published madrigals including some early instrumental sonatas.

I probably don’t need to tell you how very fine the members of the AAM were in this very rarely performed repertoire. Their excitement in exploring the, shall we say, backwaters, of the Venetian School was palpable. Bojan Cicic, as leader of the AAM, has appeared a few times before on this blog, as has Alistair Ross on the harpsichord. William Cater was as eloquent in his explanation of the theorbo piece as he was in its playing, but I was particularly taken by Persephone Gibbs’s playing in the second solo violin sonata of Castello. Great first name. Even better surname. And she leads a Baroque orchestra based in Devon. No relation though. She has talent after all.