BELLINI, Giovanni
(b. ca. 1426, Venezia, d. 1516, Venezia)

Continence of Scipio (detail)

Oil on canvas, 74,8 x 35,6 cm (entire painting)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The picture shows the left part of the painting.

The Continence of Scipio was the last operative meeting-point of Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, who were by this time not only old men but exponents of entirely different figurative styles.

In fact, Bellini's frieze represents the continuation of Mantegna's, who painted Scipio Receiving the Image of Cybele. The canvas by Mantegna, which is now at the National Gallery in London, had been commissioned by the Mantuan Francesco Cornaro for the decoration of his house at San Polo in Venice. At the time of payment, however, there was some disagreement between the client and the artist, which we know about from a letter written by Bembo to Isabella Gonzaga in 1505. The monochrome painting was consequently not delivered to Cornaro, and his family received it only later. At the time of the painter's death in September 1506, the question was still a matter of controversy (to the extent that the painting was still in Mantegna's house) and the cycle thus remained completely interrupted.

In his own frieze, Mantegna had painted an episode from the Second Punic War: the introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, an event, according to the oracle of Delos, to which the victory of Rome was subordinated; kneeling in the presence of the goddess's likeness, the matron Claudia Quinta proves her chastity. The choice of the subject was fitting, since the client's family boasted descent from the Roman family of Cornelius, to which Scipio belonged; although for that matter it was no less fitting for the artist, whose love for classical antiquity and archeological studies was very well-known.

For Bellini, on the other hand, probably called to replace Mantegna after his death in 1506, both the subject and the technique (a false relief painted in monochrome) represented a "one off" in his artistic career. The episode depicted, narrated by Livy and Valerius Maximus, tells of how after the taking of Carthage in 209 BC Scipio had treated with respect a beautiful virgin, one of the hostages who had been consigned to him, and had sent her back to her intended husband and parents with the sole recommendation that her suitor strived for peace between Rome and Carthage. The parents present themselves before Scipio, enthroned after his victory, who refuses to accept the gold of the ransom they have brought, while the maiden's gallant, with sword and helmet, listens to the generous sentence. In the Mantegnesque painting, female virtue is represented by the episode of Claudia Quinta; in another two minor monochromes (both at the National Gallery in London) another two "virtuous" women are represented - the Vestal Virgin Tuccia and Queen Sofonisba - signifying that the cycle was intended to celebrate not only the nobility of the Cornelius family, through the triumphs of Scipio, but also their moral virtues.

In the works of Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini we may now contrast thematic continuity with profound stylistic and ideological differences: the grandiose, articulated and distinctly stony Mantegna, more than ever absorbed in his lucid, haughty archeological celebration; while Bellini, who has now fully assimilated the teaching of Giorgione, is musically chiaroscural, despite the presence of some drapery reminiscent of Dürer.

Although part of the composition is probably to be ascribed to the workshop, in the Triumph the "soft pictorial structure", which dissolves the Mantegnesque classicism into an animated and lively sequence, is Bellini's.