From the drawing to the painting and back
Artists in the Renaissance such as Mantegna and Bellini drew above all to study and to experiment. They made first sketches on paper in broad strokes to record ideas. Sometimes the position of a figure was tried out, so that the same figure appears several times on the same sheet. Ideas for a picture were subsequently further developed in complete compositions. These preparations were followed in the creative process by working drawings, which aided in bringing figures or landscapes onto the canvas, panel, or wall surface.
„Mantegna’s Triumphs make me very happy […]; how one was able to live without them until now is something that I do not really fathom.“
(from a letter to Meyer, 30 June 1820)
The Triumphs of Caesar
The series of the Triumphs of Caesar, a cycle of nine paintings, was painted by Mantegna between 1486 and 1506. All of the pictures measure approximately three by three metres and are thus relatively large. The painter merged various literary sources from antiquity on Caesar’s triumphal processions. The series has always been considered among Mantegna’s masterworks.
Mantegna’s idea for the picture
This small-format drawing was presumably used by Mantegna to present the picture’s conception to his patron or to experiment with the composition in a square format. Many drawings must have been made to prepare the series of nine paintings, but only a few have survived.
Prints such as engravings or woodcuts were often made to disseminate popular compositions. Mantegna’s Triumphs too were copied numerous times and circulated via prints. Their fame was thus greatly augmented, even years after they had been created
Drawing and relief
Archives frequently contain documents referring to paintings, such as contracts, inventory lists, or mentions in letters. In contrast, drawings served as drafts or working tools in the artist’s studio. The circumstances surrounding their creation were often not documented.
Mantegna and Bellini transformed their manners of working in reaction to one another. They each appropriated motives from one another. In many of Bellini’s paintings, such as Saint Jerome, the brushwork so resembles Mantegna’s that one could assume they had closely worked together. In particular the first signed works by Giovanni, in which he distanced himself from his father, are influenced by Mantegna’s style of painting.
Bellini’s earliest work
The small panel Saint Jerome in the Wilderness from the beginning of the 1450s is considered Giovanni Bellini’s earliest surviving work. Shortly before, probably around 1448–1451, Mantegna also took on the same subject. Jerome is shown here with the lion, from whose paw – according to legend – he extracted a thorn. The lion was thus tamed by Jerome and became his constant companion.
Depictions of Jerome
The drawing Saint Jerome with the Lion is a further link in the work of the two artists. Various hypotheses have been suggested in recent decades to explain how this drawing came about: it has been attributed to Bellini as well as to Mantegna and regarded as an alternative draft for Mantegna’s painting today in São Paolo. It was probably made by a member of Mantegna’s circle and modelled on Bellini’s paintings. The type of underdrawing is typical of Mantegna, yet the use of black chalk of Bellini.
Depictions of Jerome
Mantegna depicts Jerome surrounded by objects alluding to his life and work. Many of these details represent intellectual studies, anchoretic flight from the world, and solitary prayer, such as the rosary and the wooden board on the cave’s wall. The latter could represent a semantron, used in Orthodox monasteries to call the monks to prayer.
Christ in Limbo
A further example of the collaboration between the two artists is the picture Christ in Limbo in Bristol: it was presumably drawn in Mantegna’s studio and then reached Bellini in some manner unknown to us today. The colouring and the compositional additions of the landscape indicate that it was completed by Bellini.