With paintings so similar their origins have been disputed for centuries, these giants of Italian art are now being exhibited together for the first time at Londons National Gallery
In a small room in a former palace in Venice there is a strange, compelling painting set on an easel at head height so the viewer looks straight into eyes first depicted more than 500 years ago. It is very like an earlier painting now in Berlin and art historians have been arguing about them both for years.
Both paintings ostensibly show the infant Jesus in the temple. The one at the Gemldegalerie in Berlin, is agreed to be the work of Andrea Mantegna. The Venetian painting, made 20 years later, was credited to Mantegna also. But it is now accepted as by Giovanni Bellini.
There is something unnerving about seeing it so close up on its easel; the black background, the heads packed together, the baby as tightly swaddled as a chrysalis apart from his poor little fingertips.
Recently, an experiment was carried out in the former palace in Venice a heart-stopping moment for Caroline Campbell. She is the curator of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London that will bring the two paintings together again in the first show to directly compare the work of both men. (The origins of the exhibition lie in the years she has spent puzzling over two more related works Mantegna and Bellinis versions of The Agony in the Garden, which have hung together in London since the 19th century.)
A tracing of the Berlin Jesus painting on an acetate sheet was overlaid on to the Venice version. The six central figures matched exactly. Anyone with eyes could see that there was a relationship between the two artists, said Campbell, but this was the first solid evidence of one man working directly from the other.