“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” - Abraham Maslow
For Art Sunday, Andrea Mantegna (born 1431, Isola di Cartura, Republic of Venice; died Sept. 13, 1506, Mantua) painter and engraver, the first fully Renaissance artist of northern Italy. His best known surviving work is the Camera degli Sposi (“Room of the Bride and Groom”), or Camera Picta (“Painted Room”) (1474), in the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua, for which he developed a self-consistent illusion of a total environment. Mantegna’s other principal works include the Ovetari Chapel frescoes (1448–55) in the Eremitani Church in Padua and the Triumph of Caesar (begun c. 1486), the pinnacle of his late style.
Mantegna’s extraordinary talent was recognised while he was still a boy. He was the second son of a woodworker but was legally adopted by Francesco Squarcione by the time he was 10 years old. Squarcione was a teacher of painting and a collector of antiquities in Padua, and he drew the cream of young local talent to his studio. In 1448, at age 17, Mantegna disassociated himself from Squarcione’s guardianship to establish his own workshop in Padua, later claiming that Squarcione had taken advantage of his talent. The award to Mantegna of the important commission for an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia (1448), now lost, demonstrates his precocity, since it was unusual for so young an artist to receive such a commission. Mantegna himself proudly called attention to his youthful ability in the painting’s inscription: “Andrea Mantegna from Padua, aged 17, painted this with his own hand, 1448.”
In 1449, Mantegna worked on the fresco decoration of the Ovetari Chapel in the Eremitani Church in Padua. The figures of Saints Peter, Paul, and Christopher in the apse, his earliest frescoes in this chapel, show to what extent he had already absorbed the monumental figure style of Tuscany. The environment of the city of Padua, where Mantegna lived during the major formative years of his life (from about age 10 to about age 30), exerted a strong influence on his interests, ideas, painting style, and concept of himself. Padua was the first centre of humanism in northern Italy, the home of a great university (founded in 1222), and renowned as a centre for the study of medicine, philosophy, and mathematics. With the influx of scholars from all over Europe and Italy, an atmosphere of internationalism prevailed.
From the time of the 14th-century poet Petrarch, Padua had experienced a rapidly growing revival of interest in antiquity, and many eminent humanists and Latin scholars had resided there. Increasing interest in and imitation of the culture of ancient Rome produced a climate in which feverish collecting of antiquities and ancient inscriptions (even if only in fragmentary form) flourished. Mantegna’s friendly relations with several humanists, antiquarians, and university professors are a matter of record, and hence he may be seen as one of the earliest Renaissance artists to fraternise from a position of intellectual equality with such men. In this way, Mantegna's lifestyle contributed to the early 16th-century ideal of the artist as one so intimately familiar with antique history, mythology, and literature as to be able to draw easily from these sources.
Mantegna lent great impetus to the antique revival movement at mid-century. His starting point had been a still earlier form of antique revival, the monumental Tuscan figure style brought to Venice by the Florentine painter Andrea del Castagno in 1442. His Venetian connections were strengthened by his marriage in 1453 to Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini and sister of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, who became the leading family of painters in Venice during the following decade. Jacopo’s studies in perspective and drawings of fantastic architectural settings based on antique architecture would have interested his new son-in-law, who very likely had studied such drawings during his earlier visit to Venice.
Though Mantegna might have been expected to join the Bellini studio, he preferred to pursue his independent practice in Padua, where the overwhelming artistic influence on him for the preceding few years had come from the wealth of sculpture produced by the Florentine Donatello for the high altar of San Antonio (finished by 1450). Mantegna has been characterised as strongly jealous of his independence; yet by entering the service of the Marchese di Mantova, Ludovico Gonzaga, in 1459, he was forced to submit to limitations on his freedom of travel and acceptance of commissions from other patrons. Despite such restrictions, Mantegna journeyed to Florence and Pisa in 1466–67, where he renewed contact with works of art by Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno.
During the decade 1460–70, Mantegna produced his finest small-scale works. The Gonzaga patronage provided Mantegna a fixed income and the opportunity to create what became his best-known surviving work, the so-called “Camera degli Sposi” in the Palazzo Ducale at Mantua. Earlier practitioners of 15th-century perspective delimited a rectangular field as a transparent window onto the world and constructed an imaginary space behind its front plane. In the “Camera degli Sposi”, however, Mantegna constructed a system of homogeneous decoration on all four walls of the room, mainly by means of highly realistic painted architectural elements on walls and ceilings, which from ground level convincingly imitate three-dimensionally extended shapes. Though the ceiling is flat, it appears concave. Mantegna transformed the small interior room into an elegant open-air pavilion, to which the room’s real and fictitious occupants were transported from deep within an essentially medieval urban castle. Directly above the centre of the room is a painted oculus, or circular opening to the sky, with putti (nude, chubby child figures) and women around a balustrade in dramatically foreshortened perspective (shown above). The strong vertical axis created by the oculus locates the spectator at a single point in the centre of the room, the point from which the observer's space blends with that of the frescoed figures.
The realism of the perspective handling of the oculus made it the most influential illusionistic di sotto in su ceiling decoration of the early Renaissance. Its implications for the future of ceiling decoration were largely unrealised, however, until the time of Correggio, a major northern Italian painter of the early 16th century, who employed the same type of illusionism in a series of domes in Parma (Italy).
While at the Gonzaga court, Mantegna attained a position of great respect. His close relations with his patron Ludovico were a unique phenomenon at such an early date. As one might expect, the signatures of Mantegna’s paintings reveal intense pride in his accomplishments as a painter. Other than that there are only a few legal records of disputes with his neighbours (from which Ludovico had to rescue him) to provide tentative evidence for the painter’s irascible and contentious personality during his later years. Ludovico died in 1478, followed soon after by Mantegna’s son Bernardino, who had been expected to carry on his father’s studio. Mantegna’s financial situation was so bad that, in 1484, he was forced to ask for help from the powerful Florentine merchant prince Lorenzo de’ Medici and even contemplated moving to Florence. But Ludovico’s son Federico outlived his father by only a few years, and, with the accession of young Francesco II in 1484, the financial conditions of patronage improved.
Though many of Mantegna’s works for the Gonzaga family were subsequently lost, the remains of nine canvases depicting a Roman triumphal procession, the “Triumph of Caesar”, begun about 1486 and worked on for several years, still exist. In these paintings, reflecting the classical tastes of his new patron, Francesco, Mantegna reached the peak of his late style. Perhaps it was this new imaginative synthesis of the colour, splendour, and ritualistic power of ancient Rome that brought about Pope Innocent VIII’s commission to decorate his private chapel in the Belvedere Palace in Rome (destroyed 1780), which Mantegna carried out in 1488–90.
Notwithstanding ill health and advanced age, Mantegna worked intensively during the remaining years of his life. In 1495 Francesco ordered the “Madonna of the Victory” (1496) to commemorate his supposed victory at the Battle of Fornovo. In the last years of his life, Mantegna painted the Parnassus (1497), a picture celebrating the marriage of Isabella d’Este to Francesco Gonzaga in 1490, and Wisdom Overcoming the Vices (1502) for Isabella’s studiolo (a small room in the Gonzaga palace at Mantua embellished with fine paintings and carvings of mythological subjects intended to display the erudition and advanced taste of its patron). A third canvas intended for this program, with the legend of the god Comus, was unfinished when Mantegna died and was completed by his successor at the Gonzaga court, Lorenzo Costa.
A funerary chapel in the church of S. Andrea at Mantua was dedicated to Mantegna’s memory. Decorated with frescoes, including a dome painted (possibly by Correggio) with paradise symbols related to Mantegna’s Madonna of the Victory, it was finished in 1516. No other 15th-century artist was dignified by having a funerary chapel dedicated to him in the major church of the city where he worked, which attests to the high stature Mantegna came to enjoy in his adopted city.