Sunday, 1 March 2015


“Happy is the man whom the Muses love: Sweet speech flows from his mouth.” - Hesiod

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was one of the foremost North Italian painters of the 15th century. He was a master of perspective and foreshortening, and he made important contributions to the compositional techniques of Renaissance painting. Born at Isola di Carturo, between Vicenza and Padua in 1431, Mantegna became the apprentice and adopted son of the painter Francesco Squarcione of Padua. He developed a passionate interest in classical antiquity.

The influence of both ancient Roman sculpture and the contemporary sculptor Donatello are clearly evident in Mantegna’s rendering of the human figure. His human forms were distinguished for their solidity, expressiveness, and anatomical correctness. Mantegna’s principal works in Padua were religious. His first great success was a series of frescoes on the lives of St. James and St. Christopher in the Ovetari Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani (1456; badly damaged in World War II).

In 1459 Mantegna went to Mantua to become court painter to the ruling Gonzaga family and accordingly turned from religious to secular and allegorical subjects. His masterpiece was a series of frescoes (1465-74) for the Camera degli Sposi (“bridal chamber”) of the Palazzo Ducale. In these works, he carried the art of illusionistic perspective to new limits. His figures depicting the court were not simply applied to the wall like flat portraits but appeared to be taking part in realistic scenes, as if the walls had disappeared. The illusion is carried over onto the ceiling, which appears to be open to the sky, with servants, a peacock, and cherubs leaning over a railing. This was the prototype of illusionistic ceiling painting and was to become an important element of baroque and rococo art.

Mantegna’s later works varied in quality. His largest undertaking, a fresco series on the Triumphs of Caesar (1489, Hampton Court Palace, England), displays a rather dry classicism, but Parnassus (1497, Louvre, Paris), an allegorical painting commissioned by Isabelle d’Este, is his freshest, most animated work. His work never ceased to be innovative. In Madonna of Victory (1495, Louvre), he introduced a new compositional arrangement, based on diagonals, which was later to be exploited by Correggio, while his Dead Christ (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) was a tour de force of foreshortening that pointed ahead to the style of 16th-century Mannerism.

One of the key artistic figures of the second half of the 15th century, Mantegna was the dominant influence on north Italian painting for 50 years. It was also through him that German artists, notably Albrecht Dürer, were made aware of the artistic discoveries of the Italian Renaissance. He died in Mantua on September 13, 1506.

“Parnassus” of 1497 is shown above. Around 1495 Isabella d’Este planned to have the most famous painters of her time contribute pictures for her studiolo; she was unsuccessful in obtaining pictures from Leonardo (although he drew her portrait) and Giovanni Bellini, but not for want of trying. Mantegna, her court painter, and Lorenzo Costa, Mantegna’s successor, each completed two canvases and Perugino one.

Mantegna’s so-called “Parnassus”, is one of his finest works, much discussed and admired, although the exact meaning of the allegory remains elusive. As a painter dedicated to the study of antiquity and ancient archaeology, it is fitting that Mantegna should have produced a masterpiece with a classical theme. In the centre of the painting representing a mythological scene the dancing Muses are easily identifiable, both on account of their number and the presence of the mountains in the top left of the picture.

There was a tradition that the song of the nine sisters caused volcanic eruptions and other cataclysms which could only be stopped by Pegasus stamping his hoof - and indeed we see, on the right, the winged and bejewelled horse engaged in his providential pawing of the ground. Beside him is Mercury, whose presence is justified by the protection, which he (together with Apollo) afforded the adulteress in the love affair between Mars and Venus. The two lovers hold sway over the scene from the top of Parnassus; a bed is beside them. The cuckolded husband, Vulcan, springs out from the entrance of his forge, fulminating against the faithless pair.

Apollo is seated lower down, his lyre in his hands. Mantegna has integrated the landscape elements with the figures, using rocky cliffs as foils, while the central arch permits a deep vista into the rolling landscape. In this late work Mantegna has maintained a monumental approach to human figures. Stocky and heavy-limbed, they plant their weight solidly in easy contrapposto.

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