1902 Encyclopedia > Andrea Mantegna

Andrea Mantegna
Italian painter, engraver and student of Roman archeology
(c. 1431-1506)

MANTEGNA, ANDREA (1431-1506), one of the chief heroes in the advance of painting in Italy, was born in or near Padua, of very humble parentage. It is said that in his earliest boyhood Andrea was, like Giotto, put to shepherding or cattle-herding ; but this can have lasted only a very short while, as his natural genius for art developed with singular precocity, and excited the attention of Francesco Squarcione, who entered him in the guild of painters before he had completed his eleventh year.

Squarcione, whose original vocation was tailoring, appears to have had a remarkable enthusiasm for ancient art, and a proportionate faculty for acting, with profit to himself and others, as a sort of artistic middleman ; his own performances as a painter were merely mediocre. lie travelled in Italy, and perhaps in Greece also, collecting antique statues, reliefs, vases, &c., forming the largest collection then extant of such works, making drawings from them himself, and throwing open his stores for others to study from, and then undertaking works on commission for which his pupils no less than himself were made available. As many as one hundred and thirty-seven painters and pictorial students passed through his school, established towards 1440, which became famous all over Italy. Mantegna was, as he deserved to be, Squarcione's favourite pupil. Squarcione adopted him as his son, and purposed making him the heir of his fortune. Andrea was only seventeen when he painted, in the church of St Sophia in Padua, a Madonna picture of exceptional and recognized excellence. He was no doubt fully aware of havinr,e achieved no com- mon feat, as he marked the work with his name and the date, and the years of his age. This painting was destroyed in the 17th century.

The affectionate relation between Squarcione and Mantegna was not destined to continue long. As the youth progressed in his studies, he came under the influence of Jacopo Bellini, a painter considerably superior to Squarcione, father of the celebrated painters Giovanni and Gentile, and of a daughter Niccolosia ; and at some date, which may have been towards 1450, Jacopo gave Niccolosia to Andrea in marriage. This connexion of Andrea with the pictorial rival of Squarcione is generally assigned as the reason why the latter became alienated from the son of his adoption, and always afterwards hostile to him. Another suggestion, which rests, however, merely on its own internal probability, is that Squarcione had at the outset used his pupil Andrea as the unavowed executant of certain commissions, but that after a while Andrea began painting on his own account, thus injuring the professional interests of his chief, and incurring his animosity. The remarkably definite and original style formed by .Mantegna, may be traced out as founded on the study of the antique in Squarcione's atelier, followed by a diligent application of principles of work exemplified by Paolo Uccello and Donatello, with the practical guidance and example of Jacopo Bellini in the sequel.

Among the other early works of Mantegna are the fresco of two saints over the entrance-porch of the church of S.

Antonio in Padua, 1452, and an altarpiece of St Luke and other saints for the church of St Justina, now in the Brera Gallery in Milan, 1453. It is probable, however, that before this time some of the pupils of Squarcione, including Mantegna, had already begun that series of frescos in the chapel of St Christopher, in the church of S. Agostino degli Eremitani, by which the great painter's reputation was fully confirmed, and which remain to this day conspicuous among his finest achievements.2 The now censorious Squarcione found much to carp at in the earlier works of this series, illustrating the life of St James ; he said the figures were like men of stone, and had better have been coloured stone-colour at once. Andrea, conscious as he was of his great faculty and mastery, and of the transcendent display he had here made of these, seems nevertheless to have felt that there was something in his old preceptor's strictures ; and the later subjects, from the legend of St Christopher, combine with his other excellences more of natural character and vivacity. Trained as he had been in the study of marbles and the severity of the antique, and openly avowing that he considered the antique superior to nature as being more eclectic in form, he now and always affected precision of outline, dignity of idea and of figure, and he thus tended towards rigidity, and to an austere wholeness rather than gracious sensitiveness of expression. His draperies are tight and closely folded, being studied (as it is said) from models draped in paper and woven fabrics gummed. Figures slim, muscular, and bony, action impetuous but of arrested energy, tawny landscape, gritty with littering pebbles, mark the athletic hauteur of his style. He never changed, though lie developed and perfected, the manner which he had adopted in Padua ; his colouring, at first rather neutral and undecided, strengthened and matured. There is throughout his works more balancing of colour than fineness of tone. One of his great aims was optical illusion, which he carried out by a mastery of perspective that, though not always impeccably correct, nor absolutely superior in principle to the highest contemporary point of attainment, was worked out by 'himself with strenuous labour, and an effect of actuality astonishing in those times.

Successful and admired though he was in Padua, Mantegna left his native city at an early age, and never afterwards resettled there ; the hostility of Sqnarcicne has been assigned as the cause. The rest of his life was passed in Verona, Mantua, and Rome - chiefly Mantua ; Venice and Florence have also been named, but without confirmation.

It may have been in 1459 that he went to Verona; and he painted, though not on the spot, a grand altarpiece for the church of S. Zenon, a Madonna and angels, with four saints on each side. The Marquis Lodovico Conzaga of Mantua had for some time been pressing Mantegna to enter his service ; and the following year, 1460, was perhaps the one in which he actually established himself at the Mantuan court, residing at first from time to time at Goito, but, from December 1466 onwards, with his family in Mantua itself. His engagement was for a salary of 75 lire (about £30) a month, a sum so large for that period as to mark conspicuously the high regard in which his art was held. He was in fact the first painter of any eminence ever domiciled in Mantua. He built a stately house in the city, and adorned it with a multitude of paintings. The house remains, but the pictures have perished. Some of his early Mantuan works are in that apartment of the Castello which is termed the Camera degli compositions in fresco, including' various portraits of the G inzaga family, and some figures of genii, &c. In 1488 lie went to Rome at the request of Pope Innocent VIII., to paint the frescos in the chapel of the Belvedere in the Vatican ; the duke of Mantua created him a cavaliere before his departure. This series of frescos, including a uated Baptism of Christ, was ruthlessly destroyed by Pius VI. in laying out the Museo Pio-Clementino. The pope treated Mantegna with less liberality than he had been used to at the Mantuan court ; but on the whole their connexion, which ceased in 1190, was not unsatisfactory to either party. Mantegna then returned to Mantua, and went on with a series of works - the nine tempera-pictures, each of them 9 feet square, of the Triumph of Caesar - which lie had probably begun before his leaving for Rome, and which are now in Hampton Court. These superbly invented and designed compositions, gorgeous with all splendour of subject-matter and accessory, and with the classical learning and enthusiasm of one of the master-spirits of the age, have always been accounted of the first r ink among Mantegna's works. They were sold in 1628 along with the bulk of the Mantuan art treasures, and were not, as is commonly said, plundered in the sack of Mantua in 1630. They are now greatly damaged by patchy repaintings. Another work of Mantegna's later years was the so-called Madonna della Vittoria, now in the Louvre. It was painted in tempera about 1495, in commemoration of the battle of Fornovo, which Gonzaga found it convenient to represent to his lieges as an Italian victory, though in fact it had been a French victory ; the church which originally housed the picture was built from Mantegna's own design. The Madonna is here depicted with various saints, the archangel Michael and St Maurice holding her mantle, which is extended over the kneeling Francesco Gonzaga, amid a profusion of rich festooning and other accessory. Though not in all respects of his highest order of execution, this counts among the most obviously beautiful and attractive of Mantegna's works, - from which it must be said that the qualities of beauty and attraction are often excluded, in the stringent pursuit of those other excellences more germane to his severe genius, tense energy passing into haggard passion.

Vasari eulogizes Mantegna for his courteous, distinguished, and praiseworthy deportment, although there are indications of his having been not a little litigious in disposition. With his fellow-pupils at Padua he had been affectionate; and for two of them, Dario da Trevigi and M irco Zoppo, he retained a steady friendship. That lie hid a high opinion of himself was natural, for no artist of his epoch could produce more manifest vouchers of high and progressive attainment. He became very expensive in his habits, fell at times into difficulties, and had to urge his valid claims upon the duke's attention. After his rAurn to Mantua from Rome his prosperity was at its height, until the death of his wife. He then formed some other connexion, and became at an advanced age the father of a natural son, Giovanni Andrea ; and at the last, although he continued launching out into various expenses and schemes, he had serious tribulations, such as the hanishment from Mantua of his son Francesco, who had incurred the duke's displeasure. Perhaps the aged master and connoisseur regarded as barely less trying the hard necessity of parting with a beloved antique bust of Faustina. Very soon after this transaction he died in Mantua., on 13th September 1506 In 1517 a handsome monument was set up to him by his sons in the church of S. Andrea, where be had painted the altarpiece of the mortuary chapel.

We have spoken as yet of Mantegna as a painter and architect ; he was no less eminent as an engraver, and is reported to have been a sculptor and poet as well, though we are not aware that any verses of his are extant, or that his sculptural practice extended beyond making a drawing for a statue of Virgil. As an engraver his history- is somewhat obscure, partly because he never signed or dated any of his plates, unless in one single disputed instance, 1472. The account which has come down to us is that Mantegna began engraving in Rome, prompted by the engravings produced by Baccio Baldint of Florence after Sandro Botticelli ; nor is there anything positive to invalidate this account, except the consideration that it would consign all the numerous and elaborate engravings made by Mantegna to the last sixteen or seventeen years of his life, which seems a scanty space for them. To get over this difficulty, it has been suggested, but without any evidence, that he began engraving while still in Padua, under the tuition of a distinguished goldsmith, Niccole.. Ile engraved about fifty plates, according to the usual reckoning ; some thirty of them are indispntable - often large, full of figures, and highly studied. Among the principal examples are Roman Triumphs (not the same compositions as the Hampton Court pictures), A Bacchanal Festival, Ilereules and Ant;ms, Marine Gods, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, the Deposition from the Cross, the Entombment, the Resnrrection, the Man of Sorrows, the Virgin in a Grotto. Mantegna has sometimes been credited with the important invention of engraving with the burin on copper. This claim cannot be sustained on a comparison of dates, but at any rate he introduced the art into upper Italy. Several of his engravings are supposed to be executed on some metal less hard than copper. The technique of himself and his followers is characterized by the strongly marked forms of the design, and by the oblique formal hatchings of the shadows. The prints are frequently to be found in two states, or editions. Iu the first state, the prints have been taken off with the roller, or even by hand-pressing, and they are weak in tint ; in the second state, the printing press has been used, and the ink is stronger.

The influence of Mantegna on the style and tendency of his age was very marked, and extended not only to his own flourishing Mantuan school, hut over Italian art generally. His vigorous perspectives and trenchant foreshortenings pioneered the way to other artists ; in solid antique taste, and the power of revising the aspect of a remote age with some approach to system and consistency, he distanced all contemporary competition. He did not, however, leave behind him many scholars of superior faculty. Ilis two legitimate sons were painters of only ordinary ability. his favourite pupil was known as Carlo del Mantegna ; Caroto of Verona was another pupil. P,onsiguori an imitator. Giovanni Bend, in his earlier works, obviously followed the lead of his brother-in-law Andrea.

The works painted by Mantegna, apart from his frescos, are not numerous ; thirty-three or thereabouts are regarded as frilly authenticated. We may name, besides those already specified - in the Naples museum, St Enpliemia, a fine early work ; in Casa Melzi, Milan, the Madonna and Child with Chanting Angels, 1461 ; in the Tribune of the Uffizi, Florence, three pictures remarkable for scrupulous finish ; in the Berlin Museum, the Dead Christ with tree Angels ; in the Louvre, the two celebrated pictures of mythic allegory - Parnassus, and Minerva Triumphing over the Vices ; in the London National Gallery, the Virgin and Child enthroned, with the Baptist and the Magdalen, a late example ; the monochrome of Vestals, lately bought from 1 Is mil ton Palace ; the Triumph of Scipio (or Phrygian Mother of the Gods received by the Roman Commonwealth), a tempera in chiaroscuro, painted only a few months before the master's death ; in the llrera, Milan, the Dead Christ, with the two Mari es weeping, a remarkable tox• de force in the way of foreshortening, which, though it has ft stunted appearance, is in correct technical perspective as seen from all points of view. With all its exceptional merit, this is an eminently ugly picture. It remained in Mantegna's studio unsold at Iris death, and was disposed of to liqnidate debts. (IV. M. R.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries