Mantegna, Andrea

Mantegna, Andrea
(c. 1431-1506)
   The leading painter of the Early Renaissance in Northern Italy; a master of perspective and foreshortening. Mantegna was born near Padua where he was trained by the painter Francesco Squarcione, who was also an art collector and dealer. From Squarcione Mantegna developed a keen interest in antiquity and learned to read Latin. His interest in the ancient world peaked when he became a member of a group in Verona who engaged in archaeological studies and often took boat rides on Lake Garda to read the classics. In 1453, Mantegna married Nicolosia, the daughter of Jacopo Bellini, becoming a member of the Bellini dynasty of painters. His earliest commission is the Ovetari Chapel in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua (1454-1457). The contract for the work had to be signed by his brother, as Mantegna was considered too young to do so himself. The patron was Imperatrice Capodilista, wife of Antonio di Biagio degli Ovetari, who left funds in his will for the project. The scenes chosen were from the life of St. James. Unfortunately, these were lost to Allied bombing during World War II and are only known through the few remaining fragments and photographs taken before their destruction. The photos reveal Mantegna's understanding of the Florentine vocabulary and technical advancements in perspective. They also disclose the influence of Donatello, as Mantegna's figures are as solid as the sculptor's. In Mantegna's St. James Led to His Execution, one of the soldiers is in fact based on Donatello's St. George from Orsanmichele, Florence (1415-1417).
   In 1456-1459, Mantegna painted the San Zeno Altarpiece for the Church of San Zeno in Verona. Here the elaborate architectural framework, created in a classical vocabulary, interacts with the painted image in that its columns are made to match precisely the painted piers in the foreground. Mantegna carried the classical idiom into the image itself by placing the enthroned Virgin and Child, musical angels, and saints in a chamber with piers that support a continuous all' antica frieze with garlands and putti. Here again, Donatello's influence is noted in the overall composition. The architectural and figural arrangements depend on Donatello's altar in the Church of San Antonio (il Santo) in Padua. Mantegna's Agony in the Garden (mid-1450s; London, National Gallery) is based on one of the drawings Jacopo Bellini created for teaching purposes. The work reveals Mantegna's mastery at rendering fore-shortened figures, specifically the sleeping apostles in the fore-ground. In the middle ground, Judas leads the Romans to Christ and, in the background, the city of Jerusalem is shown as an ancient Roman city. To this period also belongs Mantegna's St. Sebastian (1457-1458; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), which shows the saint amidst Roman ruins. A foot fragment from an ancient statue is juxtaposed to the saint's foot to denote that Mantegna learned well his lessons from the ancient masters.
   In 1459, Mantegna moved to Mantua where he became court painter to Duke Ludovico Gonzaga. There he remained until his death, painting altarpieces and frescoes and designing pageants. The most significant work Mantegna carried out in these years is the decoration of the Camera Picta Painted Chamber in the Mantuan Ducal Palace (1465-1474). Also known as the Camera degli Sposi (Room of the Married Couple), the frescoes in this chamber record contemporary events in the Gonzaga's lives. The architecture in the scene continues that of the actual room and figures climb fictive steps to reach the real mantel above the fireplace. The most illusionistically successful scene is on the ceiling where a painted oculus (rounded opening) provides a view of the sky. On a balustrade around the oculus putti and servants in exaggerated foreshortening look down at the viewer and smile. Even more remarkable is Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1490; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera), also painted in Mantua. Here, the corpse lies on a slab that is perpendicular to the picture plane, permitting a clear view of Christ's wounds. At his side, Mary and St. John weep uncontrollably, inviting viewers to do the same. This work was inspired by Andrea del Castagno's Death of the Virgin in the Church of San Egidio, Florence (destroyed in the 17th century), which Mantegna saw when he traveled to that city in 1466 and again in 1467.
   The engravings Mantegna produced from the 1490s on disseminated his style in Northern Europe where Albrecht Dürer is known to have copied them to perfect his own skills. For Dürer, Mantegna represented an example of classicism. In Italy, however, Mantegna touched future masters mainly for his illusionistic devices. His fore-shortenings in the Camera Picta became the catalyst for the illusionistic ceilings of the next three centuries.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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