by Roderick Conway Morris

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Mantegna's rise from teen prodigy to master


By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 20 October 2006

 

Andrea Mantegna never forgot his debt to Padua. For an artist of his unusual talents and temperament, he could not have come into the world in a better place at a better time.

Born here, probably in 1431, he went on to spend the greater part of his life in Mantua. But he remained proud of his hometown, which he clearly felt conferred on him, a boy from a very humble background, an aura of learning and intellectual respectability. It was also the scene of his early triumphs.

Mantegna's formative years coincided with the extended stay of the Florentine sculptor Donatello, the greatest long-term visual influence on this most sculptural of painters. The more enlightened scholars of this university town provided the young artist with an informal education in the classics and archaeology, helping him to establish himself as one of Italy's authorities on Antiquity. His aristocratic admirers were instrumental in assuring his involvement in a major fresco cycle here, and another commission for his first altarpiece, destined for Verona.

They also smoothed the way to his gaining, while he was still in his 20s, the prestigious and well-paid post as court painter to the Gonzagas in Mantua, an artistic center whose importance far exceeded its modest size and territory, guaranteeing the artist international recognition.

Mantegna died in September 1506. To mark this 500th anniversary, simultaneous exhibitions are being staged in Padua, Verona and Mantua in what isthe most ambitious celebration of Mantegna's life and works to be held since the 1992 shows at the Royal Academy in London and Metropolitan Museum in New York. Given the delicacy of his moveable surviving works, now scattered in collections around the world, this is an event unlikely to be repeated on this scale. The principal exhibitions focus on the artist, with several others devoted to the arts of his times. (All the shows continue until Jan. 14.)

Mantegna is its star, this cultural extravaganza also illuminates other contemporary and subsequent artists and offers a sweeping picture of the visual revolution that took place in art in northeast Italy from the mid-15th century onwards.

Among these artists is Donatello, who operated a studio in Padua between 1444 and 1453. His main task was to do the bronze reliefs and statuary for the new high altar of St. Anthony's basilica and an equestrian statue of the Paduan mercenary general Gattamelata to stand in the square in front of it.

Seven of Donatello's reliefs have been loaned by the basilica to Padua's Mantegna show. They are being shown at the Civic Museum next door to the Eremitani church. Those who have visited the basilica in the past, where the Donatellos can normally only be observed from some distance away, may feel they are seeing these masterpieces properly for the first time. Closer proximity also makes it possible to appreciate the enormous impact they had on Mantegna.

The Eremitani church was devastated by an Allied bomb in March 1944. The Ovetari chapel inside the church was frescoed by Mantegna with the stories of the martyrdoms of St. Christopher and St. James, and was almost completely destroyed. More than 80,000 fragments of painted plaster were lovingly gathered and put into storage. A heroic, even somewhat quixotic, project was launched five years ago to assemble this gigantic jigsaw puzzle. The preliminary results have made it possible to project a virtual version of the missing frescoes onto the chapel's blank walls. Moreover, three sections of fresco had in fact been detached before the bombing, and these, now back in situ and well lit, give a vivid impression of the artist's amazingly accomplished and distinctive early style.

Gregorio Correr, the Venetian humanist, emerges more than ever from the shadows as Mantegna's most influential intellectual mentor and tireless promoter. When in 1443 Correr was made abbot of San Zeno at Verona, that city's primary basilica, he hastened to commission the young Paduan to paint a new high altar for its church, and set about restructuring the interior to accommodate it. This Mantegna altar is now the only one that remains in its original location. It has been temporarily transferred to the Verona show at Palazzo della Gran Guardia, to allow for subsequent conservation work on it in laboratory conditions and to remove it from harm's way while repairs are undertaken at San Zeno. Meanwhile, it can be studied close up, and in clear natural light.

Mantegna was a meticulous artist and craftsman who refused to be hurried even by the high and mighty. In Correr he had a patient and understanding patron, as Sergio Marinelli, co-curator of the Verona show with Paola Marini, documents in his excellent and concise essay in the catalogue.

Evidence now suggests that Mantegna worked on the altarpiece over a longer period than hitherto realized. Thus, as Marinelli persuasively argues, although the final product looks remarkably coherent, if we examine it in detail, it unfolds before our eyes the process of a teenage prodigy developing into a fully fledged master. Mantegna gratefully acknowledged his patron in a fine portrait of Correr in the guise of San Gregorio Nazianzeno, apparently one of the last figures of the altarpiece to be painted. Nearly 40 years later, Mantegna was to send another altar to Verona, executed in Mantua, later to be called the Trivulzio altarpiece (which has been loaned by the Castello Sforzesco Museum in Milan).

By the time Mantegna arrived in Mantua in 1460, having agreed to go there three years before, the Marquis Ludovico had begun to search for a court painter elsewhere.

But Ludovico's patience was handsomely rewarded. He and his court were immortalized in the brilliant illusionistic frescoes of the Camera Picta (Painted Room), later also called the Camera degli Sposi (The Matrimonial Room) at the Ducal Palace. The realism and artfully "unposed" nature of these group portraits was unprecedented. No other Renaissance court has continued to receive visitors for over half a millennium, leaving them with the distinct impression that they have actually met the marquis, his wife, his children, grandchildren, dwarves, buffoons, favorite dogs and horses.

The Camera Picta was painted over a period of nine years. The artist's other great cycle, "The Triumphs of Caesar," on canvas, was to take him 20. The "Triumphs" are now at Hampton Court in England, but exist in virtual painted form in rather ghostly 16th-17th century copies that are now on display at the recently inaugurated City Museum at Palazzo San Sebastiano, beside the wonderful house, with its circular central courtyard, that the artist built for himself.

With the decline of the Gonzaga, most of the other works that Mantegna created in Mantua were dispersed or lost. Of the 60 autograph pieces distributed between the exhibitions in the three cities, a score of them have made the journey from various parts of world to Mantua. They include his "Dead Christ," now perhaps the most famous of all his images, and one of the very few pieces remaining in his own studio when he died.

For conservation reasons, entry to the "Andrea Mantegna and the Gonzaga" show at the Ducal Palace in Mantua, which includes access to the Camera degli Sposi, must be pre- booked: www.cameradeglisposi.it; or by telephone, 39 041 241 1897.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016