Andrea Mantegna 17April 6, 1992, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 9July 12, 1992
In 1786, on his famous Italian journey, Goethe came to Padua and visited the church of the Eremitani, the Hermit Friars. There he saw the frescoes by Mantegna, of the lives of Saint James and Saint Christopher, in the funerary chapel of Antonio degli Ovetari. He stood before them “astounded” at their scrupulous detail, their imaginative power, their strength and subtlety, and as he recorded it, a cascade of epithets tumbled from his pen. Here he had found one of “the older painters” who stood behind and inspired the great masters of the High Renaissance, enabling them to take off from earth toward heaven. “Thus did art develop after the ages of barbarism”: Mantegna pointed to Titian.
Not everyone would agree. To many critics, even if they admire his work, Mantegna fits uncomfortably, if at all, into a continuing tradition. Bernard Berenson, a classical spirit, was uncompromising. To him Mantegna was admirable only where he had learned from the Florentine artists who had come to Padua in his early days. For the rest, though saved by “the vigour and incorruptibility of his genius,” he was an “archaist,” a fifteenth-century Burne-Jones, whose work was “choked with unconsumed illustrative matter” and who “left no direct heirs”: the Florentines took over from the Florentines.
The argument continues today. Whereas Berenson censured Mantegna for failing to catch the true spirit of Antiquity, and describes him as purely pagan, without religious sense, Ronald Lightbown commends him for moving away from antiquarian study to grasp the principles of classical sculpture, “the lucidity, grace and serenity of antique art,” and Sir Ernst Gombrich finds in him “very little pagan sensuality,” and much Christian “devotion.” When such experts so differ, what can we do but echo the words of Sir Lawrence Gowing in the catalog: that Mantegna “is, no doubt, a prime exponent of something essential in the tradition—one of the great archetypes. But an exponent and an archetype of what?”
His biography at least is simple. He grew up in Padua, and it was there, in the workshop of Francesco Squarcione, the first and best known private art school in northern Italy, that he learned his technique and formed his ideas; there also that he became known to the antiquaries and scribes who frequented the place, to the humanist scholars of the university, and to the patrons who would commission his early works. Then, in 1460, having married the sister of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, and emancipated himself (not without litigation) from the possessive Squarcione, who had become his adoptive father, he was lured away from Padua to Mantua. There, for the rest of his life—another forty-six years—he would be the court painter of three generations of the Gonzaga family, admired, indulged, but also effectively monopolized by them. It was only in 1466 that he was able, with their permission, to visit Florence, and only in 1488–1490 that he was allowed, as a special favor to the Pope, to travel to Rome and …