PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Andrea Mantegna

It was Andrea Mantegna who, with his frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani (executed when he was just 18-20 years old), emerged as the reference point for the rebirth of painting over much of Northern Italy and Central Europe. Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-September 13, 1506) has traditionally been known as an “archaeological” painter and scholar, author of pictorial statues and more or less classicist ornaments, instead of as a creator of “living” figures. However, Mantegna, like Melozzo da Forlì, was a transformer of the spatial sense in painting during the Renaissance, a painter who projected his figures and his architectural constructions on a plane of strong fantastic tension. Andrea persistently experimented with perspective in order to create a sense of greater monumentality in his works.

Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo, then part of the Venetian Republic, close to Padua. At the age of 11 he was put under the apprentice of the Paduan painter Francesco Squarcione, who managed a very important and popular school of painting. In consequence, many artists were attracted to Padua, between them Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Donatello. Squarcione greatly favored Mantegna, teaching him Latin as well as instructing him in the study of ancient Roman sculpture. At the age of 17, Andrea left Squarcione’s workshop.

Fresco cycle with the Stories of St. James, Cappella Ovetari in the Chiesa degli Eremitani (Padua), by Andrea Mantegna, 1448-1457. The picture above shows a reconstruction from colored black-and-white photos. Since most of the church was destroyed during the Second World War, today we can gain an impression of these frescoes only with the help of photographs and old descriptions. These group of frescoes are Mantegna’s earliest surviving paintings. The side walls of the Ovetari chapel were dedicated to scenes from the lives of St. James and St. Christopher, and the apse wall, with its window apertures depicted the Assumption of the Virgin (see picture below). Each lateral wall included 6 episodes developed in three tiers. Mantegna (then 18 years old) painted the left wall with the scenes from the life of St. James almost on its entirety. As usual at the time, the episodes depicted were inspired by The Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine. The northern (left) wall with the Stories of St. James (pictured above) was entirely painted by Mantegna and included (from top to bottom and from left to right):
Vocation of the Saints James and John, St. James Preaching, St. James Baptizes Hermogenes, Judgement of St. James, St. James Led to His Execution and Martyrdom of St. James. 

It is perhaps in his first works that the simultaneous heroic and museological appearance of his figures is most evident; his somewhat stony figures reflect his fundamentally sculptural approach to painting. This can be appreciated in his frescoes in Padua, begun when he was 18 years old, later interrupted by his trip to Ferrara, and finished until ca. 1456. These series of frescoes, illustrating the life of St. James, were commissioned for the Ovetari Chapel in the church of Sant’Agostino degli Eremitani and were mostly the work of Andrea. The frescoes were almost entirely destructed in 1944 during the Allied bombings of Padua and are now in a very poor state of conservation. The most dramatic depiction of this fresco cycle is the scene set in a worm’s-eye view perspective depicting St. James Led to His Execution.

St. James Led to His Execution, fresco from the cycle Scenes from the Life of St. James, by Andrea Mantegna, 1448-1457 (Cappella Ovetari, Chiesa degli Eremitani, Padua). Below, a colorized version of the same picture showing the original appearance of the fresco.

Assumption of the Virgin, fresco, mostly by Andrea Mantegna, 1454-1457 (Cappella Ovetari, Chiesa degli Eremitani, Padua). This fresco is located on the altar wall of the Ovetari Chapel. Surrounded by angels, Mary floats towards God the Father, who was originally sitting above her in an oval picture.
Presentation in the Temple, tempera on wood, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1455-1460, 67 x 86 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The scene is set within a marble frame. The Virgin Mary holds the Child while a bearded high priest is near her ready to receive Him. The foreshortened pose of Christ Child is seen at an angle in relation to the back of the ‘pictorial cube’: by placing the Christ Child on the marble frame Mantegna gives a measure of the space behind while at the same time projecting the Child into the viewer’s space. At the center, in penumbra, is Joseph with an areola. Also in the background, at the sides, two spectators without areola have been identified as possibly Mantegna’s self-portrait (right) and a portrait of his wife (left). This assumption has led to the conclusion that this painting was somehow connected with the marriage of the painter.
St. Sebastian, tempera on wood, by Andrea Mantegna, 1456-1459, 68 x 30 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Mantegna painted three different versions of St. Sebastian during different periods of his life. That was a period of frequent plagues, and Sebastian was considered protector against this disease as he was shot through by arrows, and it was thought that plague spread through the air. Also, for Italian artists of the 15th-century, paintings of St. Sebastian offered the opportunity of depicting an idealized nude figure in a classical setting. The St. Sebastian of Vienna (pictured above) has been suggested to be made after Mantegna had recovered from the plague while in Padua (1456–1457), and it was probably commissioned by the city’s podestà to celebrate the end of the pestilence. In this version of St. Sebastian, Mantegna, instead of the classical figuration of Sebastian being tied to a pole in Rome’s Campo Marzio (“Martial Field”), tied the saint to a column of a triumphal arch both to emphasize his heroism and at the same time to stress the precise historic setting. The triumphal arch stands in a courtyard closed off by a wall. Debris from statues and a fragment of bacchanalian relief lie around, indicating the fall of the pagans and the victory of Christianity. In the cloud at the top left of the painting, a bearded horseman can be discerned; images in clouds like this one were associated to the genius of nature, which could stimulate artists and inspire them to improve on nature with their creations. The vertical inscription at the right side of the saint is the signature of Mantegna in Greek. As typical of Mantegna’s work we can notice the clarity of the surface, the precision of an “archaeological” reproduction of the architectonical details, and the elegance of the martyr’s posture.

Andrea left Padua and never returned there. He spent the rest of his life in Verona, Mantua and Rome. Between 1457-1459, while in Verona, he painted his great altarpiece of St. Zeno, whose predella is now divided between the Louvre Museum (which has the Crucifixion) and the Tours Museum (with the Agony in the Garden and the Resurrection). This painting was probably the first good example of Renaissance art in Verona. This was a period in which a new chromatic taste for warm colors adds to Mantegna’s typical solemnity in his compositions.

San Zeno Polyptych, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, 1457-1460, 480 x 450 cm (Basilica of San Zeno, Verona). For the main altar of the church of San Zeno, Mantegna painted one of the finest and most influential altarpieces of the time. The design of the elaborate gilt wood frame is probably based upon Donatello’s high altar for the Church of St. Anthony in Padua. The predella panels (see pictures below) are copies, the originals were taken by Napoleonic troops and are now in French museums. The main scene takes place in an “open air” background. The garlands suspended from the proscenium* which appear to thread between the simulated columns of the painting and the actual wooden ones of the frame, give a wonderful sense of perspective and depth. The central part represents the Madonna and Child Enthroned and surrounded by music-making angels, seated on a marble throne decorated with Roman-inspired reliefs and covered with a decorative Oriental rug. The naturalistic trompe l’oeil garlands, seemingly affixed to the top of the picture, create a rapport with the garlands held by the putti in the marble relief painted at the top of the throne. The left part shows Saints Peter and Paul, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Zeno, while the right part has Saints Benedict, Lawrence, Gregory and Saint John the Baptist. Andrea filled the entire composition with details referring to classical antiquity, for example: the frieze with the angels which holds two garlands, or the throne which reminds the viewer of a ancient sarcophagus.
Crucifixion, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, 1457-1459, 67 x 93 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This is the central panel of the predella of the San Zeno Polyptych (see above). Here, Andrea sets the Golgotha on a cracked rocky plateau. The place of execution is marked by holes in the rock, that had already been used for other crosses. At the foot of Christ’s cross lies the skull of Adam, the first man. According to legend, Adam’s grave was at Calvary and was exposed by the earthquake when Christ died. Mantegna painted the surrounding landscape with precise attention to detail. Notice the vanishing lines of the ground: they appeared curved inwards and somehow contracted, making the floor looking almost spherical.
Agony in the Garden, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, 1457-1459, 72 x 94 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours). This panel is the left hand of the predella of the San Zeno Polyptych (see above). Andrea depicts Gethsemane more as an orchard than as a garden. An angel (top right corner) is floating on high carrying the cup that symbolizes the inexorable fate reserved for Christ. Beyond the dead tree off-center, Mantegna depicted Jerusalem with accurate detail. A winding road leads through a rural scene with unrepaired boundary walls, to the main gate. The central temple towering over the rest of the buildings was modelled on the Omar Mosque, which in the Middle Ages was often taken for Solomon’s Temple.
Resurrection, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, 1457-1459, 71 x 94 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours). This is the right hand panel of the predella of the San Zeno Polyptych (see above). The strongly luminous apparition of Christ, in the center, is emphasized by the darkness of the rocky grotto. The faces of the guards show a range of reactions to the miracle of the Resurrection, from a still sleepy figure gazing in front of him to a soldier rising to his feet in amazement (to the left).  The figure and posture of Christ looks very similar to the later Resurrection by Piero della Francesca.

Mantegna’s artistic maturity began around 1460, when he was called to Mantua by Marquis Ludovico III Gonzaga, who appointed him as court artist in Mantua. Shortly afterwards (in 1461) he worked on the Death of the Virgin (Prado Museum), in whose background the acute perspective of an exquisitely painted landscape appears.

St. George, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, 66 x 32 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Mantegna’s St. George stands serenely impassive in the marble enclosed space; to the right we see a bird’s-eye view of the walled city from which leads the road George has just travelled to engage in his battle with the dragon. St. George carries the remains of the lance he just has used to kill the dragon, who lies at his feet with the lance’s point stuck in its jaw. The hanging garland at the top is a typical decorative motive Mantegna learned while at Squarcione’s school during his formative years. These lush garlands with leaves and fruits were a typical decorative element in ancient Rome monuments (see the Ara Pacis).
Death of the Virgin, oil on wood, by Andrea Mantegna, 1460-1464, 54 x 42 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). This painting was part of the chapel of the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua and was part of a commission from Ludovico Gonzaga to decorate that place in the first half of the 1460s. In a room framed by somber classical pilasters, but looking out on to a view of the lake of Mantua, the Apostles gather around the dying Virgin. Mantegna perfectly coordinated the skillfully constructed perspective with the precisely drawn and colored figures. In the background there’s a lake with a detailed reproduction of the bridge and the burgh of the Castle of St. George in Mantua.

One of Mantegna’s masterpieces was executed while his stay in Mantua, the decoration of the “Wedding Chamber” of the Ducal Palace. In these decorative frescoes, finished in 1474, in the “Camera degli Sposi”, Mantegna developed a continuous landscape, interrupted only by architectural elements, in which various scenes of the visit made, two years earlier, by the then young Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga to his father Ludovico, take place. In contrast to his old “statuesque” style, here appears a subtle concern for the relationships that are created between the individual characters and the landscape.

Frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua (view of the west and north walls), by Andrea Mantegna, (1465-1474). Mantegna decorated the walls of this “bridal chapel” with contemporary representations of the Gonzaga family (his patrons). The overall design and various details of the ceiling opened the way for the illusionistic painting of later artists like Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, and even went beyond to influence later 16th century perspective architectural wall and ceiling painting. Only two walls (the north and west walls, pictured above) have figurative narrations. The remaining two walls are painted with imitation gold brocade draperies that create the fiction that there were curtains covering all four walls and on two sides they had been opened up to reveal the events depicted. The Camera degli Sposi is widely known as a masterpiece in the use of both trompe-l’œil and di sotto in sù. The room decoration was to give the impression of a classical pavilion, thanks to the effect of Mantegna’s illusionistic painting* which included subtle shifts in vantage points that make each fictive element of the illusion seem real to the viewer.
Ceiling decoration of the Camera degli Sposi, walnut oil on plaster and fresco, by Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474 (Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). The ceiling of the Camera degli Sposi, painted resembling a tent, includes in the center the trompe-l’oeil oculus, within the diamond-shaped compartments eight busts of the first eight Roman emperors in medallions carried by winged putti, and in the side vaults scenes from the myths of Orpheus, Arion, and Hercules. The ceiling was painted first and it was executed in grisaille and imitating gold mosaics. The overall design of the ceiling painting makes it appear higher than it actually is. This implied connection between the glory of Italy’s Imperial Roman past and the Gonzaga family from Mantua through the classical references Andrea painted on the ceiling, ennobled the Gonzaga as both a military and learned might that was thus comparable to the ancient Roman Empire.
The Court of Gonzaga (scene on the North wall), walnut on oil plaster, by Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474, 805 x 807 cm (Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). The Camera degli Sposi is lit by two windows; that on the north wall throws a ray of light onto the west wall, which is also lit directly by the east window. Mantegna took the actual lighting of the room into account when planning light and shade for these frescoes. The presence of the fireplace (on the North wall) was a major factor in the composition of the paintings. We can see that Mantegna extended the painted scene by skillfully depicting a flight of steps leading up to the mantel of the fireplace. The identity of some of the portraits in this fresco has been clarified based on existing documents. The girls beside the marchesa (with the white headdress) are her two daughters Paola and Barbara, as well as her sons, a nurse, and a female dwarf in red looking straight and making contact with the viewer. Ludovico Gonzaga is seated on a chair by the left pilaster, the family’s pet dog rests below his chair. He turns to the side to speak with his secretary Marsilio Andreasi to discuss a document, and who has just entered from the left. Beneath the right arcade, which is closed by a brocade painted curtain that is drawn aside only slightly at the outside corner, stand a number of noblemen in elegant and colorful costumes. This procession of courtiers, identified by the colors of their leggings as adherents of the Gonzaga house, is led by a young blond man who stands in front of the painted pilaster. He is flanked by associates who are in part obscured by the same pilaster. This young man with a dagger at his waist has been identified as Rodolfo Gonzaga.
The Meeting (scene on the West wall), walnut oil on plaster, by Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474, (Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). The three picture panels of the west wall were are also conceived as imaginary views through a curtained loggia. The painted curtains have been drawn so far to the side that we can see a landscape beneath a blue sky dotted with clouds that extends across the entire width of the wall. This panorama, consisting of rolling hills and occasional bizarre outcropping of rock, is enlivened by thriving, well-fortified cities and country people hard at work in the fields. Adorning the countryside are stone walls, dwellings aqueducts, and marble statues. The main scene of this fresco develops in the right section: at the left stands Ludovico Gonzaga, at the right his older son and successor, Federico, and in the center his second son, Cardinal Francesco, who in 1472 was made titular head of the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, he holds two boys by the hand: Sigismondo and Ludovico Gonzaga, who would also later enter the Church. The background, possibly meant to be a symbol of Rome, with Roman ruins and statues outside its wall and a castle above. In the center three putti standing atop the cornice above the door support the painted artist’s dedication tablet. The scene beneath the left arcade shows a groom leading a saddled horse, a pair of hunting dogs, and a page holding one of the dogs on a leash. Two more men stand to the left of the door beneath the central arch, one of them holding a sealed letter in his hand. In front of them are two more leashed dogs partially obscured by the pilaster. This narrative content of the Meeting anticipates the event depicted on the north wall, for here the letter that Ludovico will later open in that fresco is being delivered.
Grotesque Self-Portrait (detail of the West wall), walnut oil on plaster, by Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474, (Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). In one of the painted pilasters of the West wall, Mantegna included a self-portrait disguised within the painted decorative reliefs.
Ceiling Oculus, fresco, by Andrea Mantegna, 1465-1474, diameter: 270 cm (Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). One the most remarkable portions of the decoration of the Camera degli Sposi is the fictive oculus, or opening to the sky, located on the room’s ceiling. Created with sharp foreshortenings, the oculus is ringed with figures looking down on the room below; a potted plant is precariously perched on its wooden support, seemingly ready to fall at any moment on the viewer. It is a brilliant tour de force that invariably engages the spectator, who must join in the game by standing directly beneath the circular trellis. This was the first time a rigorous sotto in sù perspective had been painted successfully. This provided a point of departure for the development of ceiling frescoes that was exploited to greatest effect during the Baroque. Mantegna, departing from the feeling of the wall scenes, shows us courtiers who playfully look down from over the balustrade directly aware of the viewer’s presence.
St. Sebastian, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1480, 255 x 140 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This large St. Sebastian was intended as an altarpiece and it seems it was originally part of the Altar of St. Zeno in Verona (see picture before), and later hung in the Sainte Chapelle at Aigueperse, a castle in the Auvergne in France. Mantegna depicted St. Sebastian standing like a piece of sculpture on a fragment of a building that looks like a pedestal, well above the archers whose heads are at the same level as that of the observer in its original setting. Our gaze is drawn upwards towards the saint, whose eyes are also looking upwards to higher things. Again, Mantegna ties the saint to a classical arch, represents ancient ruins and nature with accuracy, and describes Sebastian’s body with accurate anatomical features. In the background there are classical ruins of an antique city. The depiction of the cliffy and rocky path, the gravel and the caves are references to the difficulties of reaching the Celestial Jerusalem, the fortified city depicted on the top of the mountain.

Between 1488 and 1490, Mantegna was in Rome at the request of Pope Innocent VIII to work in some frescoes for the Vatican (now destroyed). While in Rome, Mantegna took the opportunity to study Rome’s ancient monuments and sculptural masterpieces. In 1490 he returned to Mantua and he painted other of his major works, the canvases with the Triumph of Caesar, which he finished around 1492 and are now kept at the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace near London.

The “Triumphs of Caesar” series (between 1485-1495) by Andrea Mantegna was done for the young Francesco Gonzaga. This include nine large paintings, all of them square canvases of the same size, that were hung in a large hall in the Palazzo di San Sebastiano (now the Museo Civico) in Mantua, and that in 1627 passed to the British Royal collection. The sequence of paintings show a parade of followers bearing looted trophies of war past the viewers. In these paintings, Mantegna carefully displayed an assemblage of sophistical antique references, of musical instruments, vases, arms, and standards, with horses and elephants preceding the gilded chariot carrying the victorious Caesar after his victory in the Gallic Wars. Pictured above the Canvas 1 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Picture bearers, Trumpeters, Emblems and banners, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows trumpets, bearers of standards and banners. The soldiers are carrying boards with paintings of battles and views of conquered cities.
Canvas 2 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Standard bearers, Colossal statues on carts, Model of a city, plaques with inscriptions and statues, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows the triumphal chariot with a statue (left) and bearers of war machines, idols, shields and trophies. In the background a model of a conquered city is combined with the siege engines to make a bizarre structure. In addition, this section of the procession is mainly carrying idols and the figures of the gods of occupied countries. The scene at the center foreground shows an intense discussion between a soldier and an officer.
Canvas 3 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Bearers of trophies and bullion Trophies of captured weapons, Bearers of booty and coins, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows trophies and bearers of containers filled with coins. The containers filled with gold illustrate the material gains of conquest. The enormous vase on the chariot bears stylized oriental lettering, thus indicating Caesar’s conquests in the Near East. In the center of this painting stands a soldier sunk in melancholy reflection.
Canvas 4 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Vase bearers, Bearers of booty and crowns, White oxen, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows bearers of vases and containers filled with coins, youth leading oxen and trumpeters. The young man to the right, painted in brighter colors represents an ideal found in Mantegna’s later works. On the banners we can see the letters SPQR, the abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Populace of Rome).
Canvas 5 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Elephants, Trumpeters, white oxen Elephants with candelabras, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows trumpeters, youth leading oxen and elephants with attendants. Some of them are carrying enormous torches intended to illuminate the scene.
Canvas 6 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Corselet bearers, Bearers of booty and coins, trophies of arms, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows bearers of coins and plates, trophies of royal armor. Richly worked royal weapons and body armor (trophies) are energetically hoisted on poles by the bearers. The use of contrasting red-green coloring gives the scene a penetrating glow.
Canvas 7 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Captives, buffoons, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows prisoners and standard bearers, buffoons and soldiers. Even as prisoners the buffoons play the fool and entertain the procession. Mantegna included an anecdotical scene around the center with a small boy who turns to his mother in pain because he has a thorn in his foot.
Canvas 8 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Musicians, Signifiers, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows musicians and standard bearers. A colorful band of musicians pass by carrying a wide range of instruments, including the tambourine, trumpets, bagpipes, and the lyre.
Canvas 9 of the Triumphs of Caesar: Caesar in his chariot, egg and glue tempera on canvas, 1485-1495, 267 x 278 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). This scene shows Julius Caesar in his triumphal chariot. The triumph of the emperor, who sits like a god in his triumphal chariot, is heralded and lauded, as shown by the presence of putti, which appear only in this canvas, the laurel wreath with which Caesar is about to be crowned, the sculptures of conquered warriors on the triumphal arch, and the images of the gods.

Between the late 1480’s and during the 1490’s, Mantegna’s important works included his third St. Sebastian (ca. 1490), his famous Lamentation over the dead Christ (around 1480’s), the Madonna della Vittoria (1496) and the Virgin of the Cherubs (ca. 1485).

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. between 1480-1490, 68 x 81 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). One of the most famous paintings by the artist, its most remarkable feature is its perspective construction, in where the image of the Redeemer appears to “follow” the spectator around the room through the use of an illusionistic technique. It is thought that this painting remained in Mantegna’s studio for a long time, and was probably intended for his funeral. In fact it was shown at the head of his catafalque when he died. The scene takes place in a confined, small, and somber space, indicating to be a morgue. Mantegna depicted the death body of Christ as a heavy corpse, seemingly swollen by the exaggerated foreshortening, and resting on a marble slab. At the front are two enormous feet with holes in them; on the left, some tear-stained, staring faces: the Virgin Mary and Saint John and St. Mary Magdalene. The sharply drawn shroud which covers the corpse contributes to the overall dramatic effect. The composition places the central focus of the image on Christ’s genitals, an emphasis often found in figures of Jesus, especially as an infant, in this period, which according to scholars, has been related to a theological emphasis on the Humanity of Jesus.
Madonna of the Cherubim, tempera on wood, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1485, 88 x 70 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). This painting of the Virgin set against a sky filled with clouds and cherubs shows the influence of Giovanni Bellini’s (Mantegna’s father-in-law) palette. The intensely human face of the Madonna would be suitable in a work intended for private devotion.
Christ as the Suffering Redeemer, tempera on panel, by Andrea Mantegna, 1488-1500, 78 x 48 cm (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark). This devotional painting, intended for a private household, has been generally assigned to Mantegna’s Roman period. In it Christ, with open arms and hands, displays his wounds as a reminder that he died for us on the Cross. His body is wrapped in a metallic white shroud, and is supported by two kneeling angels (a seraphim and a cherubim). On the left part the sarcophagus’ cover is visible. The background is filled with an open landscape under the sunset light: on the right is the Calvary with the three crosses and a quarry in which two men are working a slab, a column and a statue. Two further workers can be seen in a grotto, illuminated by an internal source of light; on the left are fields with shepherds and cattle and a walled city, Jerusalem, at the feet of a rocky formation, two pious women run a path to reach Jesus’ tomb. The finely painted sarcophagus on which Christ is leaning is a clear demonstration of Mantegna’s skill. The painting is signed on the right edge corner of the marble base.
St. Sebastian, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna,  ca. 1490? or 1506?, 213 x 95 cm (Galleria Franchetti, Ca’ d’Oro, Venice). This extraordinarily dramatic work was painted for the bishop of Mantua Ludovico Gonzaga and was still in the artist’s studio when he died. Between 1490 and 1506, the year he died, Mantegna painted several devotional paintings in which the main figures were represented as reliefs standing out against a mostly dark background. At the beginning of 1506, the plague was rife in Mantua, and again this saint was called on for protection. In this painting, Mantegna surrounds the main subject with a painted stone frame. The imposing figure of the saint, with its almost sculptural outline, emerges with dramatic sharpness from the dark background. In a way to illustrate the saint’s return from death, Mantegna broke with tradition and portrayed a St. Sebastian who is not bound to a pillar or a tree. The banderole wrapped around the extinguishing candle at the right bottom corner carries the inscription: NIHIL NISI DIVINUM STABILE EST: CAETERA FUMUS (“Nothing is eternal but God: all else is smoke”). Thus the painting becomes a representation of vanitas and warns of the transitory nature of earthly values. The “M” letter formed by the crossing arrows over the saint’s legs could stand for Morte (“Death”) or Mantegna.
Madonna of Victory, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, 1496, 280 x 166 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This painting was commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga to celebrate his victory over the French at Fornovo on 6 July 1495. On the first anniversary of the battle the altarpiece was installed with great ceremony over the high altar in the chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Mantua. By the end of the 15th century, large single paintings were being used as altarpieces (contrary to the old Medieval custom of the polyptych), and this form would reached its apogee in the works of Titian and Veronese. Simultaneously, the stiffly hierarchical composition of the traditional Sacra Conversazione was also replaced. This altarpiece shows Francesco Gonzaga (to the left) paying homage to Mary, who sits on a high throne decorated with marbles intarsias and bas-reliefs. The base of the throne, with lion paws, has, within a medallion, an inscription; it lies on a circular basement with a bas-relief of the “Original Sin” and other stories from the Book of Genesis. The throne’s back has a large solar disc, decorated with weavings and vitreous pearls. The child Jesus, who holds two red flowers (symbols of the Passion) and Mary look at Francesco Gonzaga, who is kneeling and receives their blessing and protection symbolized by Mary’s mantle, which partially covers his head. Opposite to the donor are baby St. John the Baptist with a cross and his mother, St. Elizabeth, protector of Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gonzaga. At the sides are two couples of standing saints: in the foreground are two military saints, the archangel St. Michael with a sword and St. Longinus with a broken spear, both richly dressed with splendid armors; behind them are St. Andrew, patron saint of Mantua, with a long stick with the cross and St. George, another military saint, with a helmet and a long red lance. The scene is set in an apse formed by a pergola of leaves, flowers and fruits, with several birds; the pergola’s frame has at the top a shell (an attribute of the Virgin as new Venus), from which hang threads of coral pearls and rock crystal, as well as a large piece of red coral, another hint to the Passion of Jesus. The parrot is a comment on the birth of Jesus.

The last years of Andrea’s life (between 1497 to 1506) were full of personal problems and tribulation. He died in Mantua, on September 13, 1506.

Mantegna was also an eminent engraver*, though the chronology of these works is hard to determine since he never signed or dated any of his plates. It is believed that Andrea probably begun to engrave while still living in Padua, under the tuition of a distinguished goldsmith. Among the remarkable examples of Mantegna’s engravings are: Battle of the Sea MonstersVirgin and Child, Bacchanal Festival, Hercules and Antaeus, Marine Gods, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, the Deposition from the Cross, the Entombment, the Resurrection, the Man of Sorrows, the Virgin in a Grotto, and several scenes taken from his paintings of the Triumph of Julius Caesar.

Mantegna was the first major painter in Italy to involve himself in printing techniques. The copperplate, which was developed in southern Germany around 1430, made it possible to produce finer reproductions than woodcuts, which had been used until then. Printing enabled Mantegna to earn extra money, and to disseminate his creative inventions. The Battle of the Sea Gods, engraving and drypoint*, from the 1470s, 283 x 826 mm (Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth), represents an allegory on the theme of Invidia (Envy) who is standing top left as an old woman riding a sea monster. Neptune, holding his trident, is turning away from the scene: he does not want to see the bitter struggle between the sea monsters, not even as a reflection in the mirror next to him. This print is made from two plates, printed on separate sheets of paper and joined at the center. The whole composition is an exercise in wit, the powerful, classical sea gods do battle with bones and knots of fish, hardly capable of defending them. Free from existing conventions and the limitations imposed by patrons, Mantegna was able here to give free rein to his imagination, creating Bacchic processions and furious battles between sea monsters, in the hope of attracting buyers.
Virgin and Child, engraving, by Andrea Mantegna, 1490-1491, 217 x 189 mm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg). Some art scholars still differ today on whether Mantegna did engravings himself or supplied drawings to professional printmakers.
Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat, copperplate engraving, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1470, 335 x 455 mm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Drunkenness, sloth, and depravity are the consequences of the bacchanalia. Even the idealized figure of Bacchus (to the left), which may have been copied from the figure of the God Mars on a Roman sarcophagus, raises doubts about his dignity. He is leaning on a large horn of plenty and reaching for grape.

Among the artists greatly influenced by Mantegna were Albrecht Dürer, who studied his style during his two trips in Italy, and whom later reproduced several of Mantegna’s engravings, and Leonardo da Vinci who took from Mantegna the use of decorations with festoons and fruit. But Andrea Mantegna’s main legacy was the introduction of spatial illusionism in his paintings: his tradition of ceiling decoration was followed for almost three centuries. This trend started from his celebrated painted cupola of the Camera degli Sposi, which came to influence Correggio’s work in perspective constructions, and that eventually led to the production of his masterwork in the dome of the Cathedral of Parma.

Parnassus, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, 1497, 160 x 192 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Around 1495 Isabella d’Este planned to have the most famous painters of her time contribute pictures for her studiolo in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. For this purpose Mantegna completed two paintings. One of them, the Parnassus, is considered as one of his finest works, much discussed and admired, although the exact meaning of the allegory remains elusive. In the center of the painting the nine dancing Muses are easily identifiable. On the right besides Pgasus, the winged and bejeweled horse, is Mercury, whose presence is justified by the protection which he, and Apollo, afforded the adulteress in the love affair between Mars and Venus. These 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 (left), fulminating against the faithless pair. Apollo is seated lower down to the left, 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.
Parnassus (detail), tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, 1497, 160 x 192 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). In this detail, Mercury is engaged in conversation with Pegasus, the Muses’ winged horse who symbolizes Virtus or Purity. Pegasus has lifted his hoof which, when it struck the ground, created Hyppocrene, the spring of the Muses in the Helicon Mountains in Boeotia, this appears in the center foreground of the painting (in this detail next to the lower corner).
Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, 1499-1502, 160 x 192 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This is the second painting Mantegna executed for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo in the Ducal Palace of Mantua (the other was Parnassus, see picture before). The painting is full with anecdotal detail and communicate allegorically rather than historically. The theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) appear in the cloud in the upper right corner of the painting. Below, in a marsh enclosed by a tall fence, the Vices have taken over. They are portrayed as hideous figures and identified by scrolls. Idleness is chased by Minerva (holding shield and spear, see detail below), who is also rescuing Diana, goddess of chastity, from being raped by a Centaur, symbol of concupiscence (next to the center). To the left is a tree with human features.
Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (detail), tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, 1499-1502, 160 x 192 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Ecce Homo, tempera on canvas, by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1500, 54 x 42 cm (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris). Between 1490 and 1506, the year he died, Mantegna painted several devotional paintings. One of the most impressive of the paintings from Mantegna’s final years include this Ecce Homo. Here, Mantegna portrayed the typical iconography of the flagellated Christ combined with a historical reference to a real event. The figure of Christ is displayed covered in scars from the flagellation, and with the crown of thorns on his head. Of the two men holding him, two (one in penumbra) are wearing a paper headband with an inscription in pseudo-Hebrew and are supposed to be Jews. The person on the right in a turban, is an old woman. Three other figures are barely visible in the background. The unfolded sheet of paper in the top left corner bears the proclamation of the crucifixion.
Self-Portrait, bronze, after a clay model by Andrea Mantegna, 1504-1506, height 47 cm (Cappella di Giovanni Battista, Church of Sant’Andrea, Mantua). This bust-self-portrait in Mantegna’s funerary chapel is encircled by a laurel wreath, following the tradition of the portraits of Roman patricians. The bronze cast was created by a medallion maker after a clay model made by Mantegna himself.

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Drypoint: A printmaking technique in which an image is incised into a plate (or “matrix”) with a hard-pointed “needle” of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle, the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or Plexiglas are also commonly used.

Engraving: The practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide a printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called “engravings”. Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking.

Illusionistic ceiling painting: This painting technique includes the use of perspective in di sotto in sù and quadratura, and was traditional during the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo art in which trompe-l’œil, perspective tools such as foreshortening, and other spatial effects are used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on an otherwise two-dimensional or mostly flat ceiling surface above the viewer. Illusionistic ceiling painting belongs to the general class of illusionism in art, designed to create accurate representations of reality.

Proscenium: (From the Greek: proskḗnion). The metaphorical vertical plane of space in a theatre, usually surrounded on the top and sides by a physical proscenium arch and on the bottom by the stage floor itself, which serves as the frame into which the audience observes from a more or less unified angle the events taking place upon the stage during a theatrical performance.

9 thoughts on “PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Andrea Mantegna

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