Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, 1431 – Mantua, September 13, 1506) was an Italian painter, engraver and miniaturist, citizen of the Republic of Venice.
He was trained in Squarcione”s workshop in Padua, where he developed a taste for archaeological citations; he came into contact with the innovations of the Tuscans who were passing through the city, such as Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno and, above all, Donatello, from whom he learned a precise application of perspective. In fact, Mantegna distinguished himself for his perfect spatial layout, his taste for clearly delineated drawings and the monumental form of his figures.
The contact with the works of Piero della Francesca, which took place in Ferrara, marked even more his results on the study of perspective so as to reach levels of “illusionism”, which will be typical of all northern Italian painting. Always in Ferrara, he could know the pathetism of the works of Rogier van der Weyden traceable in his devotional painting; through the knowledge of the works of Giovanni Bellini, of which he married the sister Nicolosia, the forms of his characters softened, without losing monumentality, and they were inserted in more airy scenographies. Constant throughout his production was the dialogue with the statuary, both contemporary and classical. Mantegna was the first great “classicist” of painting. His art can be defined as a relevant example of archaeological classicism.
Andrea Mantegna was born in 1431 to Biagio, a carpenter. Place of birth is Isola di Carturo (now called Isola Mantegna), a village near Padua, but at the time was under the county of Vicenza. The few news about his origins define them “d”umilissima lineage”. When he was very young it is known that Andrea was a livestock guardian in the countryside around his village.
Training in Padua
Very young, already in 1441 is cited in the documents of Padua as an apprentice and adopted son of Squarcione; around 1442 he enrolled in the Paduan fraglia of painters, with the appellative of “fiiulo” (son) of Squarcione. The transfer was certainly facilitated by the presence in the city of Tommaso Mantegna, Andrea”s elder brother, who had made a discreet fortune as a tailor, and lived in the contrada Santa Lucia, where Andrea also lived. Subsequently, the painter began to live in the workshop of Squarcione, working exclusively for his adoptive father, who with the expedient of “affiliation” was used to ensure a faithful and low-cost labor force.
According to the contracts stipulated by Squarcione with his pupils, in his workshop he undertook to teach: perspective construction, presentation of models, composition of characters and objects, proportioning of the human figure, and more. Probably his teaching method consisted in copying ancient fragments, drawings and paintings from various parts of Italy, especially from Tuscany and Rome, collected in his collection, as Vasari says in the life of Mantegna: “he exercised him a lot in things of plaster formed from ancient statues, and in paintings, which he made himself come from different places, and particularly from Tuscany and Rome”. Nothing is known about this collection, but it can be assumed that it included medals, statuettes, ancient inscriptions, plaster casts and a few pieces of statues perhaps directly from Greece (where the master had perhaps gone in person in the twenties), all fragmentary works that were taken individually for their strength, decontextualizing them and putting them together arbitrarily.
In Padua Mantegna also found a lively humanistic climate and was able to receive a classical education, which he enriched with the direct observation of classical works, the Paduan works of Donatello (in the city from 1443 to 1453) and the practice of drawing with Florentine influences (decisive and secure stroke) and German (tendency towards sculptural representation). The sensitivity to the classical world and the antiquarian taste soon became one of the fundamental components of his artistic language, which he carried with him throughout his career.
In 1447 he visited Venice with Squarcione.
Mantegna”s stay in Squarcione”s workshop lasted six years. In 1448 he definitively freed himself from the tutelage of his adoptive father, also filing a lawsuit against him, in order to have a monetary compensation for the works executed on behalf of the master.
In that same year he dedicated himself to a first independent work: the altarpiece, which was destroyed in the 17th century, destined for the high altar of the church of Santa Sofia. It was a Madonna and Child in sacred conversation between saints, probably inspired by the altar of the basilica of the Saint of Donatello. Of those first years there is a San Marco, signed and dated 1448, and a San Girolamo, of which there are also some studies on paper.
Ovetari Chapel, first phase
Also in 1448, his brother Tommaso Mantegna signed a contract as guardian of Andrea, who was still a “minor”, for the decoration of the Ovetari family chapel in the church of the Eremitani in Padua. The work, partly destroyed during the Second World War, was entrusted to a heterogeneous team of painters, in which Mantegna”s personality gradually stood out and he was also able to refine his technique.
Mantegna began to paint from the segments of the apsidal basin, where he left three figures of saints, inspired by those of Andrea del Castagno in the Venetian church of San Zaccaria. Later he probably devoted himself to the lunette of the left wall, with the Vocation of Saints James and John and the Preaching of Saint James, completed by 1450, and then moved on to the middle register. In the lunette the perspective still showed some uncertainty, while in the two scenes below it appears well dominated. The point of view, central in the upper register, is lower in the scenes below and unifies the space of the two episodes, with the vanishing point of both scenes set on the painted central pillar. In the following scenes the elements taken from antiquity increase, such as the majestic triumphal arch that occupies two thirds of the Judgement, to which are added medallions, pillars, figured reliefs and inscriptions in capital letters, probably derived from the example of the albums of drawings by Jacopo Bellini, the father of Gentile and Giovanni. The armors, the costumes and the classical architecture, unlike the “squarcioneschi” painters, were not simple decorations of erudite taste, but contributed to provide a real historical reconstruction of the events. The intention to recreate the monumentality of the ancient world comes to give the human figures a certain rigidity, which made them look like statues.
In 1449 the first disagreements arose between Mantegna and Nicolò Pizzolo, with the former being sued by the latter because of his continuous interference in the execution of the altarpiece of the chapel. This led to a redistribution by the commissioners of the work among the artists. Probably because of these contrasts Mantegna suspended his work and visited Ferrara. In any case, the building site was stopped in 1451 for lack of funds.
The commitment in the Ovetari chapel did not prevent the painter from accepting other assignments, so in May 1449, taking advantage of a phase of stalemate, he went to Ferrara, in the service of Leonello d”Este.
Here he realized a lost work consisting in a double portrait, maybe a diptych, representing on one side Leonello and on the other side his chamberlain Folco di Villafora. It is not certain how long the painter stayed at the court of Ferrara, however it is undisputed that here he had the opportunity to see the paintings of Piero della Francesca and of the Flemish that the duke collected. Perhaps he met Rogier van der Weyden, who in the same year was in Italy, stopping also in the Este court.
In 1450-1451 Mantegna returned to Ferrara, in the service of Borso d”Este, for whom he painted an Adoration of the Shepherds, where we can already see a greater attention to the naturalistic rendering of reality derived from the Flemish example.
Ovetari chapel, second phase
On July 21, 1452, Mantegna completed in Padua the lunette for the main portal of the Basilica del Santo with the Monogram of Christ between Saints Anthony of Padua and Bernardine, now preserved in the Museo Antoniano. In this work he experimented for the first time with the views from underneath that he later applied in the remaining frescoes in the Eremitani.
Work on the Ovetari chapel was resumed in November 1453 and completed in 1457. In this second phase only Mantegna was the protagonist, also because of the death of Nicolò Pizzolo (1453), who completed the Stories of Saint James, frescoed the central wall with the Assumption of the Virgin and finally dedicated himself to the completion of the lower register of the Stories of Saint Christopher, begun by Bono da Ferrara and Ansuino da Forlì, where he realized two unified scenes: the Martyrdom and the transport of the beheaded body of Saint Christopher, the most ambitious of the entire cycle. Discussed is the relationship with Ansuino, who, if for some would have been influenced by Mantegna, for others would have been rather a precursor.
In 1457 Empress Ovetari brought a lawsuit against Mantegna because in the fresco of the Assumption he had painted only eight apostles instead of twelve. The painters Pietro da Milano and Giovanni Storlato were called to give an opinion and they justified Mantegna”s choice because of the lack of space.
The episode of the Martyrdom of St. Christopher, immediately following the Stories of St. James, appears to be looser than the previous one, where the architecture has already acquired that illusionistic trait that was one of the basic characteristics of all Mantegna”s production. In fact, a loggia seems to open on the wall, where the martyrdom scene is set, with a more airy setting and buildings drawn not only from the classical world. The figures, also taken from everyday observation, are more loose and psychologically identified, with softer forms, suggesting the influence of Venetian painting, in particular of Giovanni Bellini, of whom after all Mantegna married his sister Nicolosia in 1454.
Polyptych of San Luca
During the nine years of work at the Ovetari Chapel, Mantegna”s unmistakable style took shape, making him immediately famous and making him one of the most appreciated artists of his time. In spite of his commitment to the Eremitani, in those years Mantegna also undertook other commissions, also of considerable commitment.
Of 1453-1454 is the Polyptych of St. Luke for the chapel of St. Luke in the basilica of Santa Giustina in Padua, now at the Brera Art Gallery. The polyptych is composed from twelve compartments organized on two registers.
In the altarpiece we find a fusion of archaic elements, such as the gold background and the different proportions between the figures, and innovative elements, such as the spatial unification of perspective in the polychrome marble step that serves as a base for the saints of the lower register and the foreshortened view from below of the characters of the upper register, extremely solid and monumental, which with the original frame (lost) must have given the idea of looking out from a loggia with arches, placed higher than the viewer”s point of view. The figures have sharp contours, highlighted by the almost metallic brilliance of the colors.
Also from 1454 is the panel with Saint Euphemia at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. The painting has a setting similar to the Assumption of the Virgin in the Ovetari chapel, with the monumental figure of the saint, given by the foreshortened view from below, and framed in an arch of firm perspective rigor, with festoons of derivation squarcionesca.
The Blessing Child of Washington is then dated to 1455-1460.
The Altarpiece of San Zeno
The San Zeno Altarpiece for the choir of the church of San Zeno in Verona was commissioned by Gregorio Correr, abbot of the church, in 1456 and completed between 1457 and 1459. It is the first fully Renaissance altarpiece painted in northern Italy, from where a fertile school of Veronese painters was born: one of the many fine examples was Girolamo dai Libri.
The frame only apparently divides the altarpiece into a triptych: in reality the real frame is in fact illusively continued by the portico, delimited by columns, in which the Sacred Conversation is enclosed; Mantegna also had a window opened in the church that illuminated the altarpiece from the right so that the real lighting coincided with the painted one. The architecture in fact acquired that illusionistic trait that was one of the basic characteristics of all Mantegna”s production. The lowered point of view intensifies the monumentality of the figures and increases the involvement of the spectator, who is also called into question by the direct gaze of Saint Peter. The figures, with poses also drawn from everyday observation, are looser and more psychologically identified, with softer forms that suggest the influence of Venetian painting, in particular Giovanni Bellini. In the perspective drawing of the sacred conversation, the vanishing point is at the base of the central panel, between the two musician angels.
From the predella are part of the three scenes with Oration in the Garden and Resurrection (kept in Tours) and Crucifixion (kept in the Louvre).
Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini
Since his beginnings in Squarcione”s workshop, Mantegna had repeated contacts with the Venetian workshop of Jacopo Bellini, one of the last exponents of the late Gothic culture that in those years was pursuing an update in the Renaissance sense by starting to use the perspective and that shared with Andrea the taste for archaeological citation.
Evaluating the great potential of the young Paduan, Bellini made the decision to give him his only daughter Nicolosia in marriage in 1453. From then on, relations between Mantegna and the Venetian painters became closer, especially with his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini. The dialogue between the two, particularly intense during the fifties, was expressed in the admiration and desire to emulate Bellini, who learned from his brother-in-law the lessons of Donatello and often reproduced works derived from his (such as the Oration in the Garden or the Presentation in the Temple). Mantegna himself borrowed from Bellini a greater fluency and psychological individualization for the characters, as well as a more fluid fusion of color and light.
When Giovanni reached full awareness of his artistic gifts, Mantegna”s influences gradually faded (as did those of his father and brother Gentile).
To 1456 dates the first letter from Ludovico Gonzaga requesting Andrea as court painter, after the departure of Pisanello, perhaps the previous appointee. The Gonzaga was the typical humanist prince and leader, educated in childhood by Vittorino da Feltre, who had approached the Roman history, poetry, mathematics and astrology. It is not surprising, therefore, the insistence of the Marquis in requesting the services of Mantegna, who at the time was the artist who sought to revive the classical world in his works. The program of renewal promoted by Gonzaga had a wider scope and involved in those years also other artists, such as Leon Battista Alberti and Luca Fancelli.
In 1457 the Marquis officially invited Andrea to move to Mantua and the painter declared his interest, even if the commitments he had already taken on in Padua (such as the Pala di San Zeno and other works) made him postpone his departure for another three years. There were probably also personal reasons for the delay: he must have known that by moving to the court his life as a man and as an artist would have changed radically, guaranteeing him economic tranquility and considerable stability, but also depriving him of his freedom and distancing him from that lively environment of nobles and humanists in Padua, in which he was so appreciated.
Between 1457 and 1459 he executed the San Sebastiano, now preserved in Vienna, that Roberto Longhi, underlining the refined calligraphy, dated to about 1470.
In 1458 Mantegna and some aids were intent on frescoing the ducal residences of Cavriana and Goito, followed a few years later by a Homeric cycle in the palace of Revere (1463-1464). Of these cycles nothing remains. Some have seen an echo in the engravings of the master or of his circle, such as the two Bacchanals (Bacchanal with Silenus in Chatsworth, collections of the Duke of Devonshire and Chatsworth, and Bacchanal with a vat in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the Zuffa of marine gods, also in Chatsworth.
Court painter in Mantua
In 1460 Mantegna moved with his family to Mantua as official court painter, but also as artistic advisor and curator of art collections. Here he obtained a fixed salary, lodging and the honor of a heraldic coat of arms with the motto “par un désir”, living at the Gonzaga court until his death.
Among the first works to which the artist put his hand was a series of portraits, a typical production of court painters, commissioned both by the Marquis and by a series of nobles and powerful people in close relationship with the court. The Portrait of Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan (1459-1460) and the Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga (about 1461) stand out.
The chapel of the castle of San Giorgio
The first official commission that Ludovico III Gonzaga entrusted to Mantegna, even before his definitive move, was to decorate the chapel of the castle of San Giorgio. This was the private chapel in the fourteenth-century castle that the marquis had elected as his residence and that today is a wing of the Ducal Palace. Architectural work on the chapel had begun in 1459, as part of a self-celebratory project for the Council of Mantua (May 27, 1459-January 19, 1460), and had been carried out according to Mantegna”s advice, as is clear from a letter from the marquis to Mantegna, dated May 4, 1459. The small room, rebuilt and redecorated in the 16th century when its decorations were by then lost, was covered by a small dome with a lantern, where some windows opened.
As far as the pictorial decoration is concerned, Mantegna painted a large altarpiece, the Death of the Virgin, now at the Prado, which had an elongated shape, originally with an upper part, sawn off at an unspecified time, of which the tablet of Christ with the animula of the Madonna has been recognized as part of the cusp (Ferrara, Pinacoteca Nazionale). Of great illusionism is the presence of the painted view of the lake of the Mincio and the bridge of San Giorgio, which was really visible from the windows of the castle, and which Mantegna later inserted also in the Bridal Chamber.
Also of the same decoration are perhaps part of the three tables of the triptych of the Uffizi (Ascension, Adoration of the Magi and Circumcision), arbitrarily associated in a single work in the XIX century. But it could also be a work realized between 1466 and 1467 during two stays in Florence. Moreover, the three engravings with the Deposition from the Cross, the Deposition in the Sepulchre and the Descent into Limbo perhaps refer to that decorative project.
On September 23 and 24, 1464, Andrea Mantegna, the painter Samuele da Tradate, Felice Feliciano, a copyist and antiquarian, and Giovanni Marcanova, a hydraulic engineer, made a boat trip on Lake Garda. It was a real archaeological expedition in search of ancient epigraphs, which well documents Mantegna”s passion for collecting antiquities and that of the group of humanists close to him. They also tried to ritually emulate the classical world: crowned with garlands of myrtle and ivy, they sang accompanied by the lute and invoked the memory of Marcus Aurelius, who was represented by Emperor Samuel, while Andrea and Giovanni were the consules. At the end of the trip they visited the temple of the Blessed Virgin in Garda, to whom they gave thanks.
The Bridal Chamber
In 1465 Mantegna began one of his most complex decorative enterprises, to which his fame is linked. This is the so-called Camera degli Sposi (Room of the Spouses), called in the accounts of the time “Camera Picta”, that is, “painted room”, completed in 1474. The room of small-medium dimensions occupies the second floor of the north-eastern tower of the castle of San Giorgio and had the dual function of audience room (where the Marquis dealt with public affairs) and representative bedroom, where Ludovico met with his family.
Mantegna studied a fresco decoration that covered all the walls and the vaults of the ceiling, adapting to the architectural limits of the room, but at the same time illusionistically breaking through the walls with the painting, which creates a dilated space well beyond the physical limits of the room. A motif of connection between the scenes on the walls is the false marble plinth that runs all around the lower band, on which rest the pillars that divide the scenes. Some frescoed brocade curtains reveal the main scenes, which seem to take place beyond a loggia. The vault is frescoed as if it were spherical and has a central oculus, from which protrude maidens, putti, a peacock and a vase, silhouetted against the blue sky.
The general theme is an extraordinary political-dynastic celebration of the entire Gonzaga family, with the occasion of the celebration of the election of Francesco Gonzaga as cardinal. On the north wall is portrayed the moment in which Ludovico receives the news of the election: great attention is paid to details, to verisimilitude, to the exaltation of the luxury of the court. On the west wall is represented the meeting, which took place near the town of Bozzolo, between the marquis and his son, the cardinal; the scene has a certain fixity, determined by the static nature of the characters portrayed in profile or three-quarter view to emphasize the importance of the moment; in the background there is an idealized Rome, as a wish for the cardinal.
As a reward for the execution of the work, Ludovico Gonzaga in 1476 donated to the master the land on which he built his own house, still known today as Casa del Mantegna.
An important cycle of frescoes attributed to Mantegna was found during the restoration of the Market House.
Travel in Tuscany
During the long works on the Camera degli Sposi, carried out with particular slowness, as the 1984-1987 restoration has shown, Mantegna perhaps worked on other works, but their consistency and identification is particularly difficult due to the lack of documentation. It is known that in 1466 Mantegna was in Florence and Siena and that in 1467 he returned again to Tuscany. The only work related to these travels is perhaps the Portrait of Carlo de” Medici, which some, however, assume dates back to the Council of Mantua.
Under Federico I Gonzaga
In June 1478 the Marquis Ludovico passed away and was succeeded by his son Federico, who would reign for six years. Mantegna, although often distressed by financial straits, was well aware of the important rank he occupied at court and was eager for public recognition of his fame, stubbornly seeking a title. In 1469 the Emperor Frederick III was in Ferrara, where Mantegna went personally to be awarded the title of Count Palatine. It is not clear whether or not he got what he wanted, because he used that title only after his stay in Rome.
The major gratifications, however, he obtained from the marquises his benefactors. In 1484 he obtained the prestigious title of knight.
A few years after the Mantua enterprise, the decoration of the marquis residence of Bondanello may have taken place (perhaps in 1478), where two rooms were frescoed, but were completely lost when the building was destroyed in the 18th century. Archival evidence suggests that the engraving of the Zuffa di dei marini (Scuffle of Sea Gods) could be linked to this enterprise.
In this period, Mantegna”s activity was full of tasks deriving from the court service (miniatures, tapestries, goldsmith”s work and chests, which were often created on his design), to which must be added the decorations deriving from the Gonzaga”s building frenzy, where the master had to supervise numerous workers. Among the few paintings that have come down to us from this period, some place the famous Cristo morto (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera), whose proposed dates, however, oscillate on the whole between the end of the Paduan period and 1501 and after, therefore a very wide period. The perspective frame of the body of Christ seen in a steep foreshortening is famous, also for the illusion that the redeemer “follows” the viewer in every movement, according to an illusory criterion that is similar to that of the Oculus in the Bridal Chamber and that almost eclipses, with its astonishing character, the other expressive values of the work.
In about 1480 he realized the San Sebastiano, now preserved in the Louvre, probably on the occasion of the marriage, which took place the following year, between Chiara Gonzaga and Gilberto di Borbone-Montpensier and destined to the church of Aigueperse en Auvergne, where he arrived in 1481.
An example of how Mantegna was esteemed and requested by the greats of his time can be seen in his relationship with Lorenzo the Magnificent, de facto lord of Florence. In 1481 Andrea sent him a painting and in 1483 Lorenzo visited his studio, admiring his works, but also his personal collection of busts and ancient objects.
Under Francesco II Gonzaga
Federico Gonzaga”s marquisate was relatively short and he was succeeded by his 18-year-old son Francesco, who was in power until 1519. The young heir, unlike his predecessors, did not have among his primary interests art and literature, preferring rather to carry on the military tradition of the family, becoming a famous commander. Among his favorite pastimes were jousting and tournaments, as well as keeping stables famous for their horses.
Francesco was, however, anything but a stranger to patronage, continuing the work of his predecessors in terms of the creation of new architecture and the realization of large decorative cycles, even if the link between these commissions and his military exploits was greater, so much so that the Ferrarese poet Ercole Strozzi called him the “new Cesare”.
It was in this climate that Mantegna began the realization of the Trionfi, one of the most celebrated works of the time, which occupied the artist from about 1485 until his death.
The Triumphs of Caesar
The ambitious project of the Triumphs of Caesar, nine monumental canvases that recreated the triumphal painting of Ancient Rome, now preserved in the Royal Palace of Hampton Court in London, was begun around 1485, still in work in 1492, made public in part in 1501 and completed by 1505. Of a tenth “Triumph” called the Senators only a print derived from the preparatory cartoon exists. Drawing inspiration from ancient and modern sources and from the rare depictions on sarcophagi and various reliefs, Mantegna recreated the triumphal procession, which was originally intended to appear, through special frames, as a single long scene that was seen as if through a loggia. The result was a heroic exaltation of a lost world, with a solemnity no less than that of the Camera degli Sposi (The Bridal Chamber), but more moving, compelling and topical.
After the death of the master, Francesco II destined the canvases to a long gallery in the San Sebastiano palace, which he had just had built, probably using a series of carved and gilded pillars to frame them, of which some examples remain in the Ducal Palace. The cycle immediately became one of the most admired treasures of the Gonzaga city, celebrated by ambassadors and passing visitors. In 1626 seven of the canvases had been moved to the Ducal Palace, with two by Lorenzo Costa. Vasari saw them and described them as “the best thing he ever worked on.”
The Roman sojourn
In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII wrote to Francesco Gonzaga begging him to send Mantegna to Rome, since he intended to entrust him with the decoration of the chapel of the new Belvedere building in the Vatican. The master left in 1488, with a presentation of the marquis dated June 10, 1488.
Shortly before leaving Mantua, Andrea may have provided the indications and drawings for four round frescoes (Ascension, Saints Andrew and Longinus – dated 1488 – Deposition and Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John) intended for the atrium of the church of Sant”Andrea, found in poor condition in 1915 under a plaster of neoclassical era that replicated them. After the restoration of 1961 the Ascension was attributed to Mantegna and the others to his circle or to Correggio. The most recent critics, however, have accepted only the sinopia of the Ascension as being by the master.
On January 31, 1489 Mantegna was in Rome and wrote to the Marquis of Mantua to recommend the conservation of the Triumphs of Caesar, while in another letter of the same year, dated June 15, the master described the work in progress, which concerned a lost chapel, adding, to amuse His Excellency, amusing news about the Roman court, with a cheerfulness that contrasts with the traditional image of the man wrapped in an aura of frowning classicism. Mantegna, accustomed to leading a wealthy life and receiving gifts and honors, resented the Spartan treatment he received at the Vatican, which over the course of two years only compensated him for the expenses incurred.
The old descriptions of the chapel, which contained the Stories of John the Baptist and the Infancy of Christ, recall the “amenissime” views of towns and villages, the fake marble and the fake architectural framework, with a small dome, festoons, putti, cherubs, allegories of Virtue, isolated figures of saints, a portrait of the commissioning pope and a dedicatory plaque dated 1490. Vasari wrote that those paintings “seem to be a thing illuminated”.
The attribution to the Roman period of the Madonna delle Cave, now in the Uffizi, also dates back to Vasari, where the passage between light and shadow, respectively in the passages to the right and left of the central figures, has been interpreted as an allegory of Redemption. Often associated with this panel is also the Christ in piety supported by two angels from Copenhagen for the presence also of quarrymen in the background; others attribute it to the period immediately following (1490-1500).
In 1490 the artist returned to Mantua. Mantegna”s relationship with the antiquities of the eternal city was controversial: despite the fact that he was the painter who, more than any other, had shown interest in the classical world, the ruins of ancient Rome seemed to leave him indifferent; he did not mention them in his letters and they did not appear in his later paintings.
On his return to Mantua, the artist dedicated himself above all to the continuation of the Trionfi series. In spite of the vastness and ambition of the work, Mantegna worked hard on many other commissions, and the numerous letters of solicitation he received from patrons and patrons are a testimony to the requests he obtained, far beyond his means.
Under his guidance, between 1491 and 1494, various painters frescoed in the Marquis residence of Marmirolo (also destroyed), some rooms, called “of the Horses”, “of the World Map”, “of the Cities” and “Greek”. In the latter there were views of Constantinople and other Levantine cities, with interiors of mosques, baths and other various turks. Also in Marmirolo was a lost series of other Triumphs, perhaps those of Petrarch or more likely Alexander the Great. These works, transported to Mantua in 1506 to serve as a backdrop for a show, have sometimes been confused with the Triumphs of Caesar, further complicating the tangled historical reconstruction of the paintings now in London.
To the 1490-1500 they go up again perhaps the monochromes to biblical subject, guarded to the Museum of Cincinnati, to the National Gallery of Ireland of Dublin, to Vienna, to the Louvre and to the National Gallery of London.
In these years, historians have grouped together a series of works united by technical affinities, such as the subtle drafting of tempera that lets the grain of the canvas show through. Among the Madonnas with Child, the oldest is perhaps the Madonna Poldi Pezzoli, similar to the Madonna Butler (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and to the Madonna of the Carrara Academy.
Our Lady of Victory
For the victory of Francesco II in the battle of Fornovo (1495), which temporarily drove the French out of Italy, Mantegna was commissioned to paint the great altarpiece known as the Madonna della Vittoria as an ex voto, completed in 1496 and destined for the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria erected for the purpose. The painting was made to pay a Mantuan Jew, Daniele da Norsa, who was guilty of having removed an image of the Virgin from the facade of his house to replace it with his coat of arms. The Marquis himself was represented kneeling at the foot of the throne of the Virgin, while smiling and receiving her blessing. The altarpiece, now in the Louvre, is characterized by a decorative exuberance that recalls the works of the Paduan and early Mantuan period, with a profusion of marble, frames, festoons of fruit, glass and coral threads, birds and false bas-reliefs.
The Madonna of Victory has affinities with some groups of Sacred Families, typical of the production of this period, such as the one at the Kimbell Art Museum and the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The other great work of this period is the Pala Trivulzio (1497), formerly destined for the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Organo in Verona and now in the Pinacoteca of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.
The Studiolo of Isabella d”Este
Isabella d”Este, unanimously considered one of the most cultured women of the Renaissance, arrived in Mantua as the bride of Francesco Gonzaga in 1490. She brought with her a retinue of Ferrarese artists from her hometown, and Mantegna immediately took care to win the favor of the young marquise, getting the recommendation of her tutor Battista Guarino.
Isabella, who in Mantua deepened her cultural interests and also ruled the State when her husband was at war, had a controversial relationship with Mantegna. Although she showed her appreciation for Mantegna”s gifts, she believed that he was not good enough at portraits, and tried to make use of other artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci.
Isabella”s tireless and unrelenting activity as a collector of works of art, gems, statues and precious objects, which through her agents she sought throughout Europe, culminated in the creation of a studiolo in the castle of San Giorgio, a private setting inspired by those of Urbino and Gubbio, which she had the opportunity to see in the company of her affectionate sister-in-law Elisabetta Gonzaga, married to Montefeltro. To embellish this environment, the only one of its kind belonging to a woman, he commissioned various works of art with mythological, allegorical and erudite themes, often availing himself of Mantegna himself. In the two canvases of Parnaso (1497) and the so-called Trionfo della Virtù (1499-1502) the artist experimented with compositions rich in characters, with complex allegorical readings. A third canvas Isabella d”Este nel regno di Armonia (Isabella of Este in the Kingdom of Harmony) was designed by Mantegna and completed, due to his death, by Lorenzo Costa.
In these works weighs the binding subject decided by the counselors of the marquise, as Paride da Ceresara, which put in difficulty other artists called by Isabella as Perugino, whose work was not considered satisfactory, and Giovanni Bellini, who came to decline the task.
To meet the tastes of the Marquise, Mantegna updated his style, adhering to a certain colorism that then dominated the artistic scene in Italy, and softening some features of his art, with more elaborate poses of the figures, dynamism and complicated landscape views.
From about 1495 Mantegna began a prolific production of paintings of biblical subjects in grisaille, that is, imitating monochrome sculpture. He probably also compared himself to the production of sculptors such as Lombardo or Antico.
Some have attributed to Mantegna a fresco of some coats of arms, surrounded by satyrs, dolphins and ram”s heads in grisaille, on a faux-marble background, showing the date in Roman letters 1504. Discovered in Feltre during restoration works in the ancient Bishop”s Palace in 2006, it was painted for the local saint and bishop Antonio Pizzamano.
The extreme production of Mantegna is that of 1505-1506, linked to works with a bitter and melancholic taste, united by a different style, linked to brown tones and an innovative use of light and movement. Are attributed to this phase the two paintings destined to his burial chapel in the basilica of Sant”Andrea, the Baptism of Christ and the Holy Family with the family of John the Baptist, and the bitter San Sebastiano, where a scroll reflects on the transience of life.
On September 13, 1506 Andrea Mantegna died at the age of 75. The last period of his life was ravaged by pressing economic difficulties and by an increasingly melancholic vision of his role as an artist, now ousted by the new generations that proposed a softer and more appealing classicism.
The death of the master generated many expressions of esteem and regret, among which is that of Albrecht Dürer, who declared that he had felt “the greatest pain of his life”. The German master was in fact in Venice and was planning a trip to Mantua to meet his esteemed colleague.
The admiration for his figure, however, did not translate, in general, into an artistic following, since his austere and vigorous art was by then considered outdated by the pressing innovations of the beginning of the century, considered more suitable to express the motions of the soul in that era. Perhaps the only great master who followed echoes of Mantegna in the powerful illusionism of the paintings was Correggio, who worked in his youth in Mantua, decorating the funeral chapel of the artist in Sant”Andrea.
Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of the famous painter Jacopo Bellini and sister of the painters Gentile and Giovanni. After the death of his first wife, he remarried a woman of the Nuvolosi family. Andrea Mantegna had numerous children:
He also had a natural son, Giovanni Andrea (?-1493), also a painter.
The heraldic coat of arms granted to Andrea Mantegna by the Marquis of Mantua Ludovico Gonzaga is emblazoned: Split: in the I silver to a meridian sun (placed in the head) radiated gold with cartouche (in the II banded gold and black four pieces. Or: Truncated semi-partite: in the first one azure to a golden five-pointed crown crossed by two green foliage, placed in a St. Andrew”s cross; in the second one silver to a red sun with a fluttering cartouche between the rays loaded with the motto “par un desir”; in the third one gold and black banded with four pieces. The band of gold and black that makes up the lower part of the coat of arms originates from the insignia that Luigi Gonzaga, raised in 1328 when he took power in Mantua driving out the Bonacolsi.
Some presumed self-portraits of Mantegna are known: the oldest are in the Ovetari chapel and consist of a figure in the Judgement of Saint James (the first on the left) and in a gigantic head in the archway, which was a pendant with that of his colleague Nicolò Pizzolo; a third is perhaps in the medallion to the right of the pulpit in the Sermon of Saint James. Another youthful self-portrait is indicated in the figure and right of the sacred group in the Presentation in the Temple; two are then found cleverly concealed in the Bridal Chamber, in a grisaille mask and in a vaporous cloud, where a male profile resembling the character in the Presentation is barely visible.
A lost portrait of an elderly Mantegna was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci during his stay in Mantua between 1499 and 1500. Some presumed derivations of the work are known, such as an engraving by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, preserved at the British Museum and depicting a man with a headdress.
The best-known portrait of Mantegna is, however, the one portrayed in the bronze bust placed at the entrance of his funeral chapel in the Basilica of Sant”Andrea in Mantua (attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli), where he still rests today, and which was used, for example, by the engraver who edited the 1558 edition of Giorgio Vasari”s Lives. It is an ideal portrait that takes up the Roman model of the intellectual crowned with laurel, but which also has a certain physiognomic depth, portraying the painter in his fifties and characterizing him with a noble and austere expression.
In the Bridal Chamber Mantegna probably also painted his self-portrait, hidden among the foliage of the decorations.
For this series of engravings, whose dating is estimated around the year 1475, that is, after the beginning of the decoration of the chapel of the castle of San Giorgio in Mantua from which they are inspired for some motifs, the scholar Suzanne Boorsch suggests Gian Marco Cavalli, as executor, according to the contract established on April 5, 1475 with Mantegna:
The constant references to sculpture in Mantegna”s work have given rise to many hypotheses about his possible parallel activity as a sculptor. It is not improbable that during his apprenticeship he dedicated himself to modeling with plaster, as was customary in the workshop of Squarcione. Unique example found is the Statue of sant”Eufemia present in the homonym church to Irsina, in province of Matera (Basilicata).
For a long time it was attributed to Mantegna the paternity of a series of 50 engravings, called “Tarocchi del Mantegna”, one of the first expressions of the Italian engraving art, that despite the name do not actually constitute a deck of real tarots, but were probably a didactic tool illustrating the conception of the medieval cosmos.