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Sacred, Earthy & Sublime

Mantegna, 1431–1506

an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, September 26, 2008– January 5, 2009.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Giovanni Agosti and Dominique Thiébaut
Paris: Hazan/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 480 pp., E42.00

Giovanni Bellini

an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, September 30, 2008– January 11, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mauro Lucco and Giovanni C.F. Villa
Milan: Silvana, 383 pp., E35.00 (paper)
Pinacoteca Civica di Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza
Giovanni Bellini: Baptism of Christ, 1500–1502

In the latter half of the fifteenth century, the artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini ruled over painting in northern Italy. Closely related—Mantegna was married to Bellini’s sister —the painters sometimes took great interest in each other’s work, and occasionally made pictures of the same subject matter. Yet they pursued almost wholly dissimilar visions of professional and artistic success. In nearly every aspect of their art, from their sources of inspiration to the media they painted in and the themes they explored, they made choices of a markedly different character.

The divergent nature of their artistry was a subject of comment even in their own day and it has continued to excite interest in the modern era, engaging the attention of Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, and many other historians and critics. Thanks to a pair of exhibitions currently on view in Europe—one about Mantegna at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and one about Giovanni Bellini at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome—we can now come closer than ever before to understanding the heart of their colossal, yet vastly differing, achievements. It is an opportunity not to be missed. Viewed together, the two exhibitions reveal much of what was possible in Italian painting at the end of the fifteenth century.


Andrea Mantegna was the older and more precocious of the two artists. Born in 1431 in a small village outside of Padua, he was a child prodigy, becoming an independent professional artist by the time he was seventeen. So rapid was his ascent that he won his first commission for a major fresco cycle the same year. Finished around 1457, the resulting pictures in the Ovetari chapel in the church of the Eremitani in Padua rank among the greatest fresco paintings in the history of Renaissance art. (They were largely destroyed by a bomb dropped on Padua in 1944.) To judge from old photographs and the surviving fragments, two qualities were especially prominent in these works. One was the clarity in the representation of space; the other was the breadth of antiquarian learning in the depiction of classical costume and architecture. By both measures, the paintings far surpassed any other fresco cycle of the early Renaissance, including the Brancacci chapel in Florence by Massaccio and the paintings of the Legends of the True Cross in Arezzo by Piero della Francesca.

Although there is no way for the exhibition to represent what Mantegna achieved in the Ovetari chapel, the opening rooms of the show nonetheless give a sense of the first stirrings of his impetuous genius. On view, for example, is one of his earliest surviving paintings, made when Mantegna was only about sixteen. This shows Saint Mark staring out from a window; he juts his right arm beyond the window ledge, bending it back at the elbow in order to support his head with his hand, and a book leans against the other side of the window frame. Both the arm and the book are drawn in perspective and although neither is perfect in its foreshortening, they seem to shoot out at the viewer.

Evident here, too, is the artist’s exquisite sensitivity in the depiction of light. Mantegna lovingly seeks to capture the subtlest gradations in radiance and tone; this is especially true of the underside of the arch of the window as the illumination shifts from cool shadow on one side to full sun on the other. The picture also displays Mantegna’s supreme gift for representing the characteristic texture and sheen of different objects, an endeavor that was to fascinate him all his life. In the relatively small space of the picture, he shows off his ability to portray an extraordinary variety of materials, such as marble, leather, brass, paper, and fruit; even the saint’s halo is seen to have its own distinctive luster.

The picture proclaims the magnitude of his intellectual ambition as well, for surely he wanted it to rival the legendary trompe l’oeil paintings recorded in classical literature, such as those by Zeuxis and Apelles. Padua was the site of one of the most important universities in Europe, and Mantegna’s intelligence, talent, and learning attracted the attention of humanists. About the time he painted this image, the first poem in his praise was written, celebrating his capacity to make figures appear “truly life-like and real.”

The interest and approval of humanists became a determining force in his career. Around 1456 he was hired by Gregorio Correr, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of San Zeno in Verona, to paint the high altarpiece for the church. In his youth Correr had been a student at the Casa Giocosa, a school funded by the Gonzaga family in Mantua and run by Vittorino da Feltre, the leader of the humanist reform of education. What makes this especially important is that Leon Battista Alberti seems to have written the original Latin edition of On Painting, the first postclassical treatise on art, specifically for Vittorino’s pupils to study. In the era before printing, when texts circulated only in manuscript, this means that Correr was likely among the earliest readers of the book.

Possibly with Correr acting as an adviser, in the San Zeno altarpiece Mantegna created one of the landmarks of Renaissance painting. The main field of the picture shows the Madonna and Child enthroned in an open portico with four saints standing to either side. The figures are life-size and have a solemn grandeur, made all the more impressive by the heavy mantles they wear. The heavenly portico is composed of classical piers and lintels, embellished with colored marble panels and white marble reliefs, and the space of the picture has a degree of depth greater than in any earlier Italian panel painting.

It was impossible to bring the main field of the San Zeno altarpiece to the Louvre for the exhibition, but the organizers have brought together the three predella panels, representing the Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, which are normally divided between the Louvre and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours. Reunited here for the first time since 1956, they form one of the unforgettable highlights of the show.

That Mantegna made these panels according to the precepts of Alberti’s theory of painting cannot be doubted, and they are among the first examples of an artist responding to On Painting. For example, in The Crucifixion (see illustration on page 16), the rocky ground is lined with a series of grooves between the stones, and these provide the rectilinear grid necessary for the depiction of space according to Alberti’s rules of single-point perspective. Even more tellingly, Mantegna has followed Alberti’s recommendations on how to construct an istoria, a narrative image that is both dignified and affecting. Alberti suggested that the composition of an istoria should have an ordered clarity, like a periodic sentence constructed according to the rules of classical rhetoric, in which each element is set in balance with another, and all contribute to the harmony of the whole.

Mantegna structured his composition as a series of contrasts. The most obvious of these is formed by the two groups flanking Christ’s cross. To the left, Mary is shown collapsing in grief, while three wailing women struggle to support her body and a fourth looks on with intense sympathy. To the right, soldiers gamble for Christ’s clothes, indifferent to the suffering they have caused, and intent solely on the outcome of their game. Similarly, near the right edge of the picture we see two centurions on horseback, one gazing up in awe at the crucified men, the other looking down in boredom at the gambling soldiers. There are many such antithetical details in the picture, and there are also contrasts of a more general kind: for example, the silence of the dead versus the sounds of the living; and the motion of the soldiers marching in and out of the scene as opposed to the fixity of the saints overcome at the foot of the cross.

Another explicitly Albertian element of the painting is the figure of Saint John, seen in profile in the left foreground, his hands raised in prayer, and calling out in torment as tears stream down his face. Surely Mantegna conceived of his placement and expression in relation to Alberti’s recommendation: “In an istoria I like to see someone who admonishes us and points out to us what is happening there…or invites us to weep or laugh with them.” The painting is remarkable for its vividness and emotional force: looking at it, you almost believe you can hear the dull rattle of the soldiers’ dice and the high-pitched wail of the saints.

While Mantegna was finishing the San Zeno altarpiece, Ludovico Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua, invited him to become his court artist. Ludovico, too, had studied at the Casa Giocosa with Vittorino da Feltre, and he was closely associated with Alberti. Indeed, Alberti had dedicated the Latin edition of On Painting to Ludovico’s father, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, who was also Vittorino’s patron. Moreover, about the same time that Ludovico employed Mantegna, he also hired Alberti as an architect and adviser.

Mantegna moved to Mantua in 1460 and served the Gonzaga family until his death in 1506. It is one of the longest continuous relationships between an artist and employer in the history of European art. To work almost exclusively for one family in one town for more than forty years proved to be both a stimulus and a limitation for Mantegna. As a salaried employee, he was required to do nearly whatever they asked, from designing decorations for their houses to keeping them company when they felt lonely or bored. Mantegna was intensely proud and easily angered; no doubt at times he found life in service to be infuriatingly dull and frustrating. Moreover, his artistic production was chiefly determined by the Gonzagas’ needs, not by his interests. In his youth, he had evolved at blazing speed; after moving to Mantua, his style of painting barely ever changed.

Nonetheless, in the course of working for three generations of the family, at times he was able to give noble expression to some of his deepest concerns. For example, he satisfied his love of antiquarian erudition by painting for Francesco Gonzaga nine gigantic canvases depicting the Triumph of Julius Caesar, the largest and most elaborate pictures of the subject made in the Renaissance, which since the seventeenth century have been in the Royal collections at Hampton Court near London. Similarly, for Francesco’s wife, Isabella d’Este, he painted two ravishingly beautiful mythological allegories as part of the suite of pictures by several artists for her studiolo, or private chamber. The paintings for Isabella are in the permanent collection of the Louvre, and can be seen on any regular visit to the museum. But to view them in the exhibition with one canvas from the Triumph series and prints made after them gives an acute sense of the peculiar mix of fantasy and learning that characterized the classicism of the Gonzaga court.

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