Mantegna 1431-1506

Mantegna 1431-1506 Paris, Musée du Louvre, 26 September 2008 to 5 January 2009

In 2006, various exhibitions and events were organized in Northern Italy to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Andrea Mantegna, in particular in the actual locations where the artist showed what his talent was capable of over the entire second half of the Quattrocento [1]. However, neither Padua nor Mantua dared to organize a monographic show covering all of the artist’s career and the most recent true retrospective was held in London and New York in 1992 [2]. It was also at the beginning of the 1990s that Dominique Thiébaut began a long term project which, from a dossier exhibition on Mantegna’s works in French collections, grew into a vast panorama that combines the artist’s unusual career progression and the evolution of the arts in northern Italy between about 1440 and 1510 [3]. This view, which is more contextual than purely monographic, compensates brilliantly for certain absences that in the eyes of specialists would have been impossible to omit : yet again providing proof that a successful exhibition does not boil down to an accumulation of masterpieces and that it is possible to have a very educational discourse that is also perfectly complete on Mantegna by exhibiting only one of the Triumphs of Caesar from the British Royal Collections and in doing without (rightly and wisely, given the painting’s extreme fragility) the iconic Dead Christ from the Brera. The academic intention moreover pleasantly emphasised by an exhibition design that is both sober and effective, created by Richard Peduzzi, former director of the Villa Medici : the vast red walls generally make a good match with Mantegna’s brightly coloured palette and the hang succeeds in giving a certain majesty to the most monumental compositions despite the low height of the ceilings. As for the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, it faithfully repeats the thematic progression of the rooms, with an introductory essay for each of the ten sections, followed by a short text on Mantegna’s artistic posterity in France in the 16th and 17th centuries as well as a plan of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and a genealogy of the ruling family in that city, which are more than welcome. This dense publication of almost 500 pages should become essential reading for students of Italian art of the Quattrocento, thanks to the remarkable quality both of the erudition and the analyses shown in the texts, in addition to the considerable number of images. There is only one disappointment : the paintings labels give the support without specifying the medium ; but it is known that, as well as traditional tempera, Mantegna used glue or casein (it’s the case for the large Louvre Saint Sebastian) as the binding agent for his paintings. Any reader who would like a simple introduction to Mantegna could content themselves with the two introductory texts by the exhibition curators, Dominique Thiébaut’s on the ins and outs of a Mantegna exhibition at the Louvre and Giovanni Agosti’s essay introducing the career and contemporary reception of the artist [4].

The choice of Paris for such an exhibition arose because France is, after Italy, the country that has the largest number of works by the artist including some of his most important works. The paintings from Isabella d’Este’s studiolo at the Louvre and the predella panels from the San Zeno altarpiece, divded between Tours and the capital constitute essential stages of Mantegna’s career. To these can be added an assembly of works close to Mantegna’s style that have long been underestimated by specialists, a group at the musée Jacquemart-André : in recent decades they have been re-evaluated and therefore fully deserve their place in an exhibition that is, a priori meant to concentrate on autograph works. This is what has renewed studies on Mantegna to a certain extent. With a vast gathering that repeats the most recent research while adding nuances and new avenues, especially from French public collections. Even if it means causing debates, comparisons show, on the whole, the specificity, even the genius of a painter that is not easy to grasp. Mantegna’s humanist culture, which he promoted himself in his images, shows through his creations where even the slightest detail captivates by the richness of details and meaning. While the background can be difficult, form is no easier to appreciate. The general public, more accustomed to seeing the grace of the likes of Botticelli in works of that period, will have to make an effort at concentrating before the demanding, but incredibly fascinating creations of Mantegna, an artist who overturns the generally accepted view of the Renaissance as a serene golden age.

To bring up Mantegna’s youth is like a challenge. It is not that his beginnings are not documented, but works are rare and the most typical ones are a group of frescoes painted in the Paduan church of the Eremitani that are today ruined. Sadly, hidden a little behind a wall, the space given to the Ovetari chapel is likely to be overlooked by the ordinary visitor, who would then miss a brief view of Mantegna’s first pictorial exploit – perhaps even his first autonomous creation. The Ovetari chapel project, begun in 1448, had the young 17-year old man faced with a major wide-ranging enterprise which was rather remarkable for his age. This creation is worthy of having even more praise showered on it as, following circumstances that have been somewhat clarified, Mantegna found himself ultimately the principal author of the frescoes and even the only master to end the project in 1457. These frescoes, largely destroyed by a bombing in 1944 but known from old photographs, impose an artist sure of his means from the beginning, one who exploits the illusion of space as a dramatic effect in scenes of miracles and the martyr of saints James and Christopher [5]. The precocious provisions that are also resolutely innovative used by Mantegna can in part explain his departure from Squarcione’s workshop, which was still in under the influence of the international gothic style. The art of Squarcione, who dominated Paduan art of the first half of the Quattrocento is illustrated by a Virgin and Child (cat. 1), one of the rare paintings that can be attributed to him : this gold ground panel works with a curious mix between round forms inspired by Lippi (who made a trip to Padua in the 1440s, of which no evidence has survived except for these probable echoes in Squarcione’s work), and the decorative delicacy of Gentile da Fabriano. This rather eclectic style was not to Mantegna’s taste, and one can see in these aesthetic (if not generational) divergences one of the reasons for the separation between the teacher and his former protégé.
Actually, Mantegna had found himself another, indirect, master with the Donatello of his Paduan sojourn (1443-1453). In establishing the clear and severe forms of a reinvented ancient art in this city of the Veneto, the eminent Florentine sculptor had to change profoundly the morphology of Paduan art, as is seen in the rather awkward interpretations given of it by various students of Squarcione (Ansuino da Forlì (cat 15), one of the participants in the frescoes of the Ovetari chapel, Marco Zoppo (cat. 20), Giorgio Schiavone (cat. 21), while the Donatellian lesson is assimilated more successfully in Ferrara with Cosmè Tura and his majestic Sacra Conversazione of the Musée Fesch in Corsica (cat. 22) [6]. The period during which the altar of the Santo and the equestrian statue of the Gattamelata were created corresponds very well with the apprenticeship phase and beginnings of Mantegna, who must also have seen bronze reliefs by Donatello (cat. 2 and 3), which are true sculpted pictures – an aspect of the Florentine’s production which comes closest to the young Paduan’s painting. The St. Mark from Frankfurt (cat. 6) to date one of the earliest signed paintings by Mantegna, proves the extent to which the artist, from his beginnings, set the way for his art, which was to be recurrent throughout his career but continually renewed : great attention to physiognomy, a pronounced taste for veined stones and opulent fruit, and above all a perpetual search for immediate contact between the figure and the spectator, translated here by St. Mark’s arm brought forward outside the fictive frame of his niche (compare this with the Apostle’s head ready to be decapitated and about to fall into real space in the Martyrdom of St. James of the Ovetari chapel). Although these characteristics reflect a very personal assimilation of Donatello’s sculpture, the motif of the figure leaning on a window could draw from contemporary or slightly later Flemish inventions.

1. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Saint Jérôme in the Desert, c. 1449-1450
Panel – 48 x 36 cm
Saõ Paulo, Museu de Arte
Photo : Luis Hossaka

The links between Mantegna and Northern Europe are also obvious in the descriptive realism of the Portrait of an Old Man (cat. 8), whose composition in profile nevertheless shows an Italian origin, especially in the importance given to the landscape in the too little known St. Jerome in the Desert (ill. 1) of San Paolo. The Brazilian panel inaugurates the grand stony landscapes which too often are thought to begin with the predella panels of Saint Zeno. The jagged rocks, grandiose and mysterious in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings on the same theme made about thirty years later, surround and emphasise the father of the Church, whose face, described with hard and set features, seems to be made of the same material as those enormous rocks. Here again, the serious and dignified face of St. Jerome refers clearly to Donatello and more precisely to his John the Baptist sculpted for the Venetian church of the Frari. There is no doubt that Mantegna saw this wooden statue with its pathetic accents even if only through his relations with the Bellini.

The interest in sculpture is confirmed with the Saint Euphemia (cat 11) painted for a sanctuary in the Basilicata region in which Mantegna develops and amplifies the forms adopted for the St. Mark. Despite the retouchings and the darkening of the painted layer, the work is still striking in the impassive attitude of the saint, painted in full length, paying no attention to the bite of a lion or the stabbing of a dagger, with a dignity of form as much as of feeling that is found only in the contemporary works of Piero della Francesca [7], Immobile at the edge of her niche, St. Euphemia gives the impression of a sculpture in the round translated onto canvas, thanks to sophisticated perspective which reinforces the figure’s massiveness. Mantegna’s links with the art of sculpture seem so obvious that certain specialists have proposed suggested that the artist sometimes left aside his paintbrush to take up the chisel. This theory fits well with a corpus that is as subtle as it is controversial, of which a statue of St. Euphemia forms a part (cat 24). Its expression is quite close to the painted version. The exhibition curators, being cautious, have preferred to attribute it to Pietro Lombardo which seems much more acceptable to me. It can be added that not only does this choice lead to the reinforcement of the opinion that Mantegna was closely linked to Venice from the beginning, but also that the search for sculptures made by occasionally by Mantegna reflects the extent to which the pictorial art of this artist contributes, by imitating, even exceeding, sculpture, to the famous debate of the paragone which is omnipresent in artistic theory and practice in the Renaissance.

2. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Virgin and Child between St. Jerome and St. Louis of Toulouse, c. 1455
Panel - 69.4 x 44.5 cm
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André
Photo : Musée Jacquemart-André

Like for many Old Masters, little information is available on Mantegna’s life outside his artistic career. His marriage to Nicolosia Bellini, a daughter of Jacopo and sister of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, constitutes one of the rare biographical moments arising from the private sphere. However, this matrimonial episode is hardly without relation to artistic creation and must even have, to a certain extent, confirmed the connections made by the artist with the eminent Venetian family of painters. One can reasonably suppose, since this marriage cannot have come about ex nihilo, that Mantegna must have known the art of the principal artistes of the Laguna of the second half of the Quattrocento prior to his marriage. The coming together culminates in any case immediately after the marriage, since Mantegna developed strong affinities with his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini in the second half of the 1440s. The relationship of influences is not always easy to judge nor to date, even if the convergences are obvious over a given period – to the extent that an uninformed eye could easily confuse the works respectively of Andrea and Giovanni, as certain specialists had done for a long time with The Virgin and Child between St. Jerome and St. Louis of Toulouse (ill. 2), now generally given to Mantegna. It is true that this type of image appears disconcerting in its synthesis of elements specific to each artist during that period, requiring an examination of each detail of the painting using the Morellian method : while the placing of half-figures before a parapet and under a garland of vegetation can be found equally in the works of Andrea and Giovanni, the robust face of the Christ Child strongly foreshortened (and very different to the very round face, treated with light sfumato of the same figure, without mentioning the Madonna whose distant heritage is in Byzantine art, in the Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini in Pavia (cat 34)) and above all the treatment of the figures at a low angle are elements that can be seen in Mantegna’s first works. This attribution problem recalls the similar well known case, but moving from Mantegna to Bellini, of the Presentation in the Temple of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice. The respective corpuses of each artist for the middle of the 15th century are today founded on bases that are rather solid, but the question of these relations can only truly be dealt with properly by careful study of the youth of Giovanni Bellini, a painter who is the subject – lucky coincidence ! – of a monographic exhibition [8] at the same time the Louvre’s Mantegna show, which shall perhaps give some more coherence to his early works. Based mostly on the French national collections, the comparative choices made by the Louvre is far from lacking in relevance, although it does provoke more questions than answers. The analogy between the jagged rocks of the Descent into Limbo drawn by Jacopo Bellini (cat 26) and those of Mantegna proves to be among the easiest to recognize. The case of Giovanni Bellini remains by far the most problematic : in the little known panel of the Three stories of Drusiana and St. John the Evangelist (ill. 3), the effects of perspective and the series of figures could evoke the Ovetari chapel frescos (must one deduce a trip to Padua in the painter’s youth ?), although the view of a landscape bathed in a gentle light reveals the truly atmospheric sensitivity characteristic of the Venetian painter. Two panels from the church of Saint-Wandrille du Pecq (Yvelines) [9], a Bishop Saint (St. Augustine ?) and St. Anthony Abbot, are at the source of even greater difficulties, as their attribution to Bellini, supported by some pecialists including the exhibition’s curators, is very far from being unanimous [10]. Certain authors have proposed the name of Antonio Vivarini and although this is not the place to settle the debate, we can give them credit by the fact that these saints’ figures are close to certain compositions of the Ovetari chapel, on which Antonio collaborated briefly at the beginning of the project. Whether it is Bellini or Vivarini, the author of these panels in any case knew the most progressive Paduan woks of his time. All of these discussions, of style, of attribution, and of dating are in the end concentrated in the Polyptych of St. Vincent Ferrier, intended for the Venetian church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (where it hangs still), which represents to a certain extent, the stumbling block in understanding the relations between Giovanni Bellini and Mantegna during the third quarter of the Quattrocento.

3. Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)
Three stories of Drusiana and St.
John the Evangelist
, c. 1453-1455
Panel – 32 x 202 cm
Berchtesgaden, Schloss Museum
Photo : Max Köstler

The study of their graphic works reveals itself as easier : around the theme of the Passion, the two artists composed drawings that are similar in style, but distinct in their treatment. Mantegna’s sketches emphasise pain and death with a controlled vehemence, in a way that is later sublimated literally in subsequent prints. As for Bellini, his delicate approach to the Pieta establishes an atmosphere that is simultaneously both intimate and reserved and filled with a very profound humanity, comparable in painting to his Christ blessing (cat 35) of the Louvre and its sweet luminosity bathing this rather austere religious effigy. The two truly distinct directions followed by each artist for treating landscape appear moreover clearly at the brink of the 1460s : when Mantegna painted his Prayer in the Olive Garden (cat 48) around 1453-54, he developed one of his first “urban fantasies” in the background of the panel, while ten years later, Giovanni Bellini repeated the subject (and in a very similar composition, perhaps derived from a common model created by Jacopo Bellini ?) with the type of lyrical and contemplative sensitivity that can legitimately be called Venetian. The hanging of the two paintings on the same wall of the National Gallery in London shows this divergence perfectly, and one can almost regret that the Bellini isn’t exhibited at the Louvre.

4. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Resurrection (predella panels from the San Zeno altarpiece), 1457-1459
Panel - 71.1 x 94 cm
Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours

The Saint Zeno altarpiece (1456-59) returns to tragic inspiration, which had been moderated during Mantegna’s “Bellinian phase” and also gives his personal vision of the altarpiece. With this imposing pala commissioned by a Benedictine convent in Verona, he concluded his Paduan period brilliantly. In the absence of the principal panel, still to be found in the church of Saint Zeno, with its Sacra Conversazione placed in a doubly virtual architectural frame (both painted and sculpted), the three elements of the predella, dispersed since the beginning of the 19th century between Tours and Paris have been united for the occasion. Freed of their frames, and hung on a dark background, these very detailed compositions are presented at their best. In these small scale images, Mantegna displays a spectacular monumental force, transposing everything to a small scale while refining the dramatic procedures that had been mplemented in the Ovetari chapel. The use of foreshortening increases and transforms the soldiers or the apostles into human corridors leading the eye to the sacred mystery of the Passion. In the same order of ideas, Mantegna introduces two figures into the foreground of The Crucifixion, on the limits of the border, who serve as prototypes of the executioners of his future martyrs. But what crystallises truly the intensity of his scenes is in fact the new place give to landscape, a mineral décor of steep headlands in the distance, of Jerusalem whose roofs are grey and characterised by rugged stones. Landscape no longer forms a simple background but prolongs the dramatic intensity of the moment (in the same way as Bellini, but in an entirely different way) by emphasizing by its hard and dull forms the distress of the three afflicted Marys or the fear of the Roman soldiers in the Resurrection (ill. 4) – to the point that a modern spectator could see in it, as materialised on the canvas Baudelaire’s incantation : “I am beautiful, o Mortals, like a dream of stone”. This extremely detailed description of the environment can hardly be understood without the influence of Flemish art : the closest work in terms of spirit to Mantegna’s panels could well be a Crucifixion by Jan Van Eyck, the lost prototype of which was widely propagated and repeated in the Veneto in the second half o the 15th century (cat. 58). While Venetian landscape won acclaim with the Bellinis, Mantegna was probably the only other artist of the peninsula to attain a balance between the synthetic approach of Italian art and the Netherlandish descriptive side and so brilliantly giving an expressive role to nature.

5. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Death of
the Virgin
, c. 1460-1464
Panel – 54 x 42 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In the context of the Quattrocento courts, the Gonzaga of Mantua lacked an artist capable of exalting their political power in images. Mantegna’s notoriety in Northern Italy was already such that in 1460 the powerful family rocured his services from then on, and finally until the artist’s death. In this patronage one must also see the wish to favour a standard-bearer of the new al’antico style, contributing to turning Mantua into a new Rome. The monumental creations of the artist’s Mantuan beginnings having largely disappeared ; with the notable and happy exception of the Camera degli Sposi, we must above all be content with panels, which despite their small scale are full of the most delightful invention. The Circumcision (cat 63) should probably be linked to the decoration of the Chapel of the Castello di San Giorgio, amazing in the realism of its veined rocks and its bronze reliefs (which are called on to play a more and more important part in the artist’s work), as well as the Death of the Virgin (ill.5) from the Prado and the Christ with the Soul of the Virgin (cat 61) now in Ferrara. There is every place to believe that these two paintings were originally a single work : in the lower register, a magnificent view of Mantua, on which Proust showered praise, can be seen behind a loggia where the Apostles form two rows guiding towards the Virgin who has just passed away, her soul visible above, between the hands of her Son. Iconographic tradition usually placed emphasis on the representation of the Dormition in a square or truly horizontal format (such as Giotto’s panel now in Berlin), and we must believe that the composition adopted by Mantegna not only derives from the formal success of his Assumption of the Ovetari Chapel, but also responds to its integration into a woodwork décor, also conceived by the painter to the Gonzaga. While the drawings of the Descent into Limbo (cat 68) seems to reflect a Bellinian invention (by Jacopo ?), the well thought out placing of Judith and the servant Abra (cat 72), highlighting the heroic dignity of the Biblical widow, anticipates the series of trompe-l’oeil bronzes. The small Saint Sebastian from Vienna (cat 71) which can be dated to this period, inaugurates a well known series of captivating descriptions of the young martyr, oscillating between an archaeological evocation, exemplary Christian rigour and the exaltation of the body of a young man, ravaged but radiant. It is hardly possible to evoke this type of image without passionate fascination, so much has Mantegna included extraordinary elements that transform a pious image into an erudite puzzle. One thinks above all of the antique fragments (whose ruined character refers simultaneously to Mantegna’s passion for Roman works and the fall of the pagan world), to the signature of the artist in Greek lettering and to the cloud in the form of a horseman which must have been a delight to the well read humanists before modern commentators and more recently contemporary psychoanalysts…. the theme shall be repeated several years later in the large painting executed for Aigueperse (Auvergne) and today in the Louvre (cat. 76) – probably the first work by Mantegna to arrive in France, where the artist added two “bloated faces” of executioners (as agreeably ugly as Leonardo’s caricatures), serving both as moral repoussoirs and visual interfaces between the work and the spectator, and developing the background becomes from now on occupied by the fantastical reconstitution of an ancient city that verges on architectural capriccio.

6. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Christ of Pity held by a Seraphim and a Cherubim, c. 1485-1490
Panel – 78 x 48 cm
Copenhaguen, Statens Museum for Kunst
Photo : Statens Museum for Kunst

From this capacity to create a body that is as tormented as it is sublime in its suffering, Mantegna draws one of his masterpieces, the Christ of Pity held by aseraphim and a cherubim (ill. 6) today in Copenhagen. By its manner allying the precision of the material to the intensity of the representation, the work finds equivalents only in the two greatest Venetian painters in oil of the last quarter of the 15th century, Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina. The recent restoration of the panel has allowed the painter’s impressive illusionism to be given due honour, allowing all of the grains of the porphyry of the tomb to be restituted, each tree to be detailed and each fold of the shroud or again to indicate the teeth not only of the angel but also of Christ. The treatment of light is equally fine ; distinguishing the dull light on Christ’s left from the delicate dawn on his right which bathes the pastoral landscape : in a single space, the Passion and Resurrection are thus evoked. The few Sacra Conversazione that can be dated to this period are unfortunately in bad condition and/or of uncertain date. One can nevertheless identify a group that is quite homogenous stylistically, where square formats in the manner of Roman funerary stelae (cat. 82 and 83) cohabit with more drawn-out works (cat. 80) that can be compared with compositions adopted in the same period by Giovanni Bellini.

7. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
« horizontal »Entombment, c. 1470-1475
Burin and drypoint - 29.9 x 44.2 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

Mantegna’s graphic activity is today less well known from drawings than by the production of prints. The artist occupies a central position in the history of Renaissance printmaking, by the spreading of his motifs and the great care he gave to the transcription of his own inventions. However, Mantegna’s technical role continues to be tricky to evaluate. A blur has been maintained since Vasari attributed the origin of copper engraving in Italy to him : although the author of the Vite is not always reliable and created numerous legends (which is all the more plausible in the case of an artist whom he never knew), we have to admit that the known “mantegnesque” proofs were essentially executed with a burin and that some of them are of such a quality as to suggest the hand of the master himself. Within a practice that favours the multiple and in a context articulated around the workshop, it would be illusory to claim that Mantegna engraved each print systematically. The majority of these would have been made by a professional after an autograph drawing. This indirect reflection of the genius of Mantegna however does not lessen in any way the importance of these prints, with which only Durer could rival at the time. It is furthermore striking to see how the clear and hard line of the burin translates the anguish or the agitation of the figures perfectly. Distributed in Northern Italy and then in France, the “horizontal” Entombment (ill. 7) presents itself as a pathetic drama developed in a fries [11], a model for the balancing of groups and expression of emotions. The great nobility of the figures, with the bearers of the body of Christ solidly concentrated in their movements or the rythmic collapse of the group of the three Marys responding to the stiffness of a despairing St. John, must have impressed and influenced Raphael for his own Entombment. The same fluid articulation characterises the savage fray of the Combat of Sea Gods (cat. 108), often compared to the Battle of the Nudes) by the Florentine Antonio Pollaiuolo. However, in our print, the strong allegorical and symbolic remits evoke Mantegna’s moralistic aspirations, like the grotesque debauchery of Bacchanals (cat. 105 to 107). The Virgin of humility (ill. 8) brings some gentleness to this world of brutes, being inspired by the most tender creations of Donatello in his flirtation with the stil dolce, more precisely the Pazzi Madonna, in its equally close proximity of the faces of Mary and Jesus. Two states of the print are known, identical with one exception : the presence of haloes in the second print clearly identifying the group in its religious dimension and no longer solely in its intimate one…The boldness of the first state, playing on the different levels on which it can be read, is a precurser to the ambiguous maternities of the 17th century. One could dare to claim that the emotion issuing from the Virgin of Humility is comparable to that of the Newborn by Georges de La Tour. Rembrandt saw this image by Mantegna and retained its lesson for his engraving of the Virgin with a Cat, which is even more subtle with the circle surrounding the head of the Virgin, which can be interpreted as a halo or also as a reflection on the window pane behind the holy group.

8. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
The Virgin of Humility (without nimbers), c. 1490
Burin, first way - 27.7 x 23.1 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

9. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Judith and the Servant Abra, 1495-1500
Canvas - 65.3 x 31.4 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Christine Guest

In front of the Virgin of Victory, someone discovering Mantegna through this exhibition is at risk of being rather disconcerted. The sequence of large altarpieces, from the pala of St. Zeno to the Madonna Trivulzio, a work slightly later than the Louvre canvas, is missing. It would have allowed the visitor to understand the formal and conceptual originality of the Sacra Conversazione with political elements that is The Virgin of Victory. Destined to celebrate a battle between France and Mantua that had no true outcome, but of which Francesco Gonzaga obviously claimed to be the victor, the work marks a major step in Mantegna’s investigations. A distant echo of the Hortus conclusus dear to Medieval Marian iconography, the dais of vegetation serves as a quasi supernatural frame to the figures assembled around the Madonna [12]. This spatial placing of the protagonists, allied to the impeccable foreshortening of Mary’s hand blessing the Marchese, gives a truly three-dimensional effect to the Virgin and Child group. Mantegna asserts a truly statuesque approach in the motifs of the Virgin’s dress and cloak which echo the motifs of the veined rocks, but also in the small group of the Fall of Man represented on the Marian throne. The treatment of this scene, imitating bronze sculpture thanks to a limited palette whose lighting effects on the amber matter forms the beginning of a group of works dated around 1500. Indeed this quasi bichromatic colouring, in the two panels from Montreal showing the serious and determined figures of Judith and the servant Abra (ill. 9) and of Dido, which sometimes reduces the tonalities to grisaille as in the Judgment of Solomon (cat. 158) from the Louvre [13]. Mantegna’s virtuosity in rivalling sculpture in the two dimensional space of a painting proves how much the artist seeks to represent all the dimensions of reality in his own pictorial art – to the point that his painting could legitimately be considered as a source of inspiration for Andrea Riccio whose absence from the exhibition is justified by the thorough treatment given to him by some exhibitions in 1996, without counting the fact that there are currently two major monographic events around this Paduan sculptor [14] , but also for a large anonymous output exemplified by the Nude Man Attached to a Tree (cat. 131), largely derived from the master’s Saint Sebastian representations.

After having dominated and even subjugated the Mantuan court for four decades, Mantegna suffered relative disgrace at the dawn of the Cinquecento. Although as powerful as ever, his style no longer corresponded to the taste of a period which from then on required the sweetness of sfumato and the seduction of courtly themes. This comment is without appeal with Isabelle d’Este’s second studiolo, reconstituted in a room where the canvases are more easily visible and associated with each other than in the incessant tumult of the Louvre’s Grande Galerie…compared with the painters who had been approached (Leonardo, Bellini, Francia) and those who actually participated in the programme for the glory of the new Marchesa takes on the character of ambassador of the formal and intellectual rigor of the Quattrocento. The slightly vapid delicacy of Perugino or Francia is not present in his work ; nor is the gentle sensual delight of the canvases made by Corregio in 1530. The Parnassus and Minerva chasing the Vices from the Garden of Virtue still swarm with miniature topographies, finely depicted chiselled cliffs and noble attitudes. But Mantegna is in no way a reactionary, especially as he responds brilliantly to the demands of his patroness and at the same time introduces some major features of the art of the 16th century : the elegantly rhythmical dance of the nymphs have a harmonious grace that was soon to be developed by Raphael, while the hideous personifications of the Vices are a prelude to the passion of Mannerist culture both for monstrosity and the erudite imagery of allegory.

The artist’s inventiveness in the autumn of his life in fact remains extremely fertile, but at the same time it is conditioned by a view of his own time that has become more acerbic and haughty. This vision is reflected in the drawing of the Calumny of Apelles (cat 148), a composition that is comparable to Botticelli’s painting of the same theme, whose interpretation should not be limited to a simple ekphrasis describing in images the ancient description of a lost work. As Apelles knew fame in his period with Alexander the Great, but also unfair diatribe, Mantegna henceforth was less and less accepted by the milieu that had celebrated him for so long. This serious pique culminates in a very eloquent engraving in two parts [15] (cat. 146-147) describing the degeneration of humanity under the reign of Ignorance : very close in terms of style and subject matter to the Minerva chasing the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, this relentless image nevertheless allows itself an optimistic note thanks to the saving figure of Mercury which, according to typical modalities of the Renaissance, plays the part in this pagan work that is normally given to Christ descending into Limbo. This liberty of invention, which mixes general erudition and personal considerations, is also at work in a Mythological Scene (cat 142) whose subject is still enigmatic. Whatever its meaning, the motif of the sleeping nymph unveiled by a satyr irresistibly recalls the print Panton Tokadi illustrating the 7th chapter of the Hypernotomachia Poliphili. To the extent that Francesco Colonna published his fascinating work in Venice in 1499 and that Mantegna’s sheet should be dated around 1500, we can wonder who drew on whom, unless both were independently inspired by common sources [16].

Confronted with all of these graphic masterpieces, the small painted panel from Boston (cat. 136) appears quite weak, and it should be attributed to a pupil rather than to the master himself. The refusal of its autographic nature is justified all the more when it is compared with the ambitious project that occupied Mantegna at the same time : the famous series of the Triumphs for which the exhibition and its catalogue provide less elements on the context of its creation than on its immediate and later critical fortune. Whatever the original location could have been and the timing of execution of the nine canvases now at Hampton Court, it appears clearly that the group was a commission from the Gonzaga linked to their desire to revive Roman prestige in their fiefdom. Although Mantegna could have relied on representations of Petrarque’s Triumphs or on antique relief, his Triumphs inaugurate clearly a genre that, from the exuberant decorum of his Mantuan “successor”, Giulio Romano to the grandiose emphasis of Hollywood’s epics set in antiquity, aims to reinstate the fantasized grandeur of a disappeared civilisation through the prism of material accumulation and political domination. Describing a military procession of victorious Caesar, the Triumphs should be read as a long frieze along which glorious soldiers march and where riches are added, the celebrating consul closing this procession. One can easily imagine that such an enterprise required a large number of preparatory drawings , sadly lost today : the plastic genesis of the group therefore remains difficult to evaluate, as what survive are above all prints reproducing the canvases after they were executed and some workshop drawings (unless the Louvre sheet corresponding to the first composition, Trumpet Playersm Standard Bearers and Banner Holders (cat 161), is by the master’s hand consequently constituting the only known autograph study). Nevertheless some extremely interesting prints do exist (cat 162-164, 166-167) as they most probably represent – like Antonio Fantuzzi’s prints or those of René Boyvin after Rosso’s projects for the François I Gallery at Fontainebleau – compositions that were not retained on canvas or actually present some differences with the painted works, bearing witness to preliminary stages. The fortune properly of the compositions could lead to very evocative readings depending on whether one lends oneself to a formal or conceptual discourse : while the David before the Ark of the Covenant (cat. 180) attributed to Corregio clearly repeats Mantegnesque elements in a vertical Biblical work, the comparison seems less evident between the Triumphs and the Poussin from the Galerie La Vrillière Camillus and the Schoolmaster of Falerii except in the alignment of the military insignia [17]. It is perhaps difficult to discuss this fortune of the Triumphs with the sole canvas presented in Paris, the Vase Bearers (ill. 10) but one cannot, however resist one’s own pleasure : it is one of the most “authentic” compositions of the Triumphs (which, generally, are in a condition that prevents their movement), very well highlighted in the exhibition design. By placing the work in a slightly elevated alcove, the hangingrespects the di sotto in su wanted by the painter, as if to mark how much Rome fascinates and dominates us [18]. And moreover, Mantegna did not choose a Pieta for his funerary chapel in the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, but a Baptism of Christ (cat. 187) (because his funerary chapel was dedicated to St. John the Baptist), a painting often scorned because of its very worn aspect. In this pictorial testament, in the grandeur of the figures – equally physical and moral – the torment of the sky and the hardness of the landscape, his pictorial verve are shown, perhaps they are too singular and rebellious compared with the new delicacy to was to be continued into the Cinquecento.

The room devoted to Correggio [19] tries in vain to be an epilogue, but it is no more no less than the beginning of a new era. Certainly, the Barrymore Virgin (cat. 185) by the painter from Parma still shows a Mantegna-like typology ; however, the combined use of sfumato and a dark background show the equal or even greater influence of Giorgione and above all of Leonardo. This evolution towards a more modern manner, to repeat the title of this final section of the exhibition, is accentuated in the Crespi Nativity (cat. 198) stamped with an intimist candour foreign to Mantegna, while the Holy Family with the Child Saint John the Baptist (cat. 199) from Orleans, shines with a “cottony” tenderness establishing its author among the spearheads of what it is generally called the High Renaissance. And even if his beginnings remain to be discovered, the young Correggio follows a progression similar to that of Zenone from Verona and Veronese (cat. 191) as well as Giovan Francesco Caroto (cat. 190) and their serene Madonnas in front of a background of serene landscapes, durably relegating Mantegna’s art to a glorious but dated past, what Vasari was soon to describe by opposing the suavity of the beginning of the 16th century to the “rather brittle” style of the Mantuan painter. Never totally forgotten, Mantegna benefited from a true revival with the Pre-Raphaelites who were sensitive to his symbolic and graphic universe. And even if we are still not in a position to know how to interpret this art in all of its subtlety, Mantegna still gives us a world that, according to the expression of Baudelaire, is full of troubling “forests of symbols”.

Dominique Thiébaut and Giovanni Agostin (ed, Mantegna, Musée du Louvre/Hazan, 2008, 480 p., 45 €. ISBN : 2754103104.

Visitor Information : Paris, Musée du Louvre (hall Napoléon). Open daily, except tuesday 9 a.m to - p.m, nocturnes wednesday and friday until 9h 30 p.m ; more nocturnes until 8 p.m every saturday, the 27, 28, 29 decembre and the 3, 4, 5 janvier. Ratesf : only exhibition : 9,50 €/ exhibition + permanent collections : 13 €, 11 € after 6 p.m wedensdays and fridays.

Exhibition Website

The Louvre Museum and Hazan’s editions publish two books in opportuny of the exhibition : Giovanni Agosti, Récit de Mantegna, translation by Esther Moench, 152 p., ISBN : 9782754102933, 19 €, and Joséphine Le Foll, L’Atelier de Mantegna, 144 p., ISBN : 9782754103053, 25 €.

Version française

Benjamin Couilleaux, mardi 16 décembre 2008


[1] They were : Mantegna e Padova 1445-1460 (Padua, Musei civici agli Eremitani, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007) ; Un Mantegna da scoprire : La Madonna della tenerezza (Padua, Musei civici, Palazzo Zuckermann, 30 September 2006- 14 January 2007) ; Mantegna a Mantova 1460-1506 (Mantua, Palazzo Te, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007) ; A Casa di Andrea Mantegna cultura artistica a Mantova nel Quattrocento (Mantua, Casa del Mantegna, 26 February- 4 June 2006) ; Andrea Mantegna e i Gonzaga Rinascimento nel Castello di San Giorgio (Mantua, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007) ; Mantegna e le arti a Verona 1450-1500 (Verona, Palazzo del Gran Guardia, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007) ; Andrea Mantegna Sacra Famiglia con Sant’Elisabetta e San Giovannino (Milan, Museo Diocesano, 4 April- 2 July 2006) ; Andrea Mantegna die heilige Familie Kabinettausstellung anlässich der Restaurierung des Gemäldes (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, 12 May-23 July 2006) ; as well as two sculpture exhibitions connected to the painter’s creative context : La Scultura al tempo di Andrea Mantegna tra classicismo e naturalismo (Mantua, Castello di San Giorgio, Palazzo San Sebastiano, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007), and Placchette e rilievi di bronzo nell’età del Mantegna (Mantua, Museo della Città di Palazzo San Sebastiano, 16 September 2006- 14 January 2007). In addition to the catalogues accompanying these exhibitions, numerous publications relating to Mantegna appeared in 2006, in particular relating to restoration projects : Mariolina Olivari (ed.), Andrea Mantegna : la Madonna dei Cherubini, Milan, Electa, 2006 (about a painting at the Brera) ; Simone Facchinetti, I Mantegna di Brera, Milan, Electa, 2006 ; Alberta De Nicolò Salmazo, Anna Maria Spiazzi, Domenico Toniolo (ed.), Andrea Mantegna e i maestri della Capella Ovetari la ricomposizione virtuale e il restauro, Milan, Skira, 2006 ; Joseph Manca, Andrea Mantegna and the Italian Renaissance, New York Parkstone Press International, 2006 (translated into French in the same year with the same publisher, in Paris, with the title Andrea Mantegna et la Renaissance italienne).

[2] The Anglo-American exhibition (held at the Royal Academy of Arts from 17 January to 5 April 1992, then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 9 May to 12 July of the same year) The catalogue also appeared in a French edition (Andrea Mantegna peintre, dessinateur et graveur de la Renaissance italienne, Paris, Gallimard/Electa, 1992).

[3] This information on the origin of the Louvre exhibition was kindly provided by Dominique Thiébaut herself to whom I am grateful.

[4] The exhibition mini-site should also be mentioned as it repeats in a summary form the exhibition sections with high quality illustrations, and also describes all the activities organized by the Louvre in connection with Mantegna.

[5] For the chronology of the project and its characteristics, you can refer to my report (only in french) on the 2nd lecture of the Mantegna cycle organised in the Louvre’s auditorium, a lecture given by the person responsible for the restoration project of the frescoes in the Ovetari chapel, Alberta de Nicolò Salmazo (who is also the author of a monograph on Mantegna published by Mazenod (in French ) in 2004 ; see the article only in french).

[6] The work has been accessible on the walls of the Louvre since this summer, replacing the portrait of Sigismond Malatesta by Piero della Francesca (gone to the exhibition of Renaissance portraits organised in Madrid)

[7] One can think of the Mary Magdalene painted in fresco by Piero in 1460 in the Duomo at Arezzo.

[8] The exhibition (curated by Mauro Lucco) is being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 30 September 2008 to 11 January 2009 (see the article). Furthermore it presents two rather “mantegnesque” Madonnas by Giovanni Bellini, from, respectively, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (numbers 3 and 4 of the catalogue of that exhibition).

[9] In 1980, the works were transferred to the Louvre which, in exchange, deposited in the church of Pecq a large canvas after Bonifacio de’Pitati, Christ and the Adulteress.

[10] In addition, it should be noted that in the most recent catalogue raisonné of the Italian paintings in the Louvre, published in 2007 (see article only in french), Dominique Thiébaut herself catalogued these two paintings among the anonymous Italian artists of the 15th century.

[11] One could wonder if this arrangement does not draw its origin as much from ancient art as from sculpted groups of the Deploration, linked to popular piety or funerary devotions, such as those made by Guido Mazzoni or thefigures in polychromatic terracotta in the oratory of San Giovanni in Modena. Although statuary work is contemporary with the print, Mazzoni is clearly differentiated from Mantegna by the almost expressionist vehemence of his figures.

[12] The similarities of this composition with the layout of the Altarpiece of Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca (especially the figure of the Duke of Urbino) are sufficiently significant to see in this a convergence of investigations, if not of a more or less direct influence over Mantegna

[13] The recent publication that analyses this type of work should be mentioned : Sabine Blumenröder, Andrea Mantegna-die Grisaillen Malerei Geschichte und antike Kunst im Paragone des Quattrocento, Berlin, Gebr. Mann, 2008

[14] The first, Rinascimento e passione per l’antico Andrea Riccio e il suo tempo, au Museo Castello di Buonconsiglio in Trente (4 July – 2 November 2008), the second, Andrea Riccio : Renaissance Master of bronze at the Frick Collection (15 October- 18 January 2009), presented by the American museum as… the first monographic exhibition on the artist (sic) !

[15] The print was in fact engraved after a composition drawn by Mantegna, of which only the upper part is known (absent from the exhibition), conserved in the British Museum.

[16] The divergences are on the other hand clear at the level of the work’s meaning as, where Mantegna most likely created a work whose character is erotic ; the engraver of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents satyrs protecting the nymph’s sleep. Drawn from ancient art, this motif is the origin of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. The question of derivations and reinterpretations of this type of image has been thoroughly treated in two fundamental articles : Millard Meiss, « Sleep in Venice. Ancient myth and Renaissance proclivities », Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 110, n°5, October 1966, p. 348-382 ; et Seymour Howard, “The Dresden Venus and its kin : mutation and retrieval of types”, The Art Quartely, vol. II, n°1, Winter 1979, p. 90-111.

[17] Beginning with the Louvre’s collections there are more analogies with Romulus, victor of Acron, carrying the rich booty to the temple of Jupiter by Ingres. On this aspect of Mantegna’s fortune and others in European art of the 19th and 20th centuries, see my article on the lecture given on this subject by Alessandro del Puppo

[18] « The painter, I have possibly already said this, has ordered the scene with remarkable discernment : locacting the plan on which the figures are situated is placed abovve the eye of the spectator, he has represented the feet of the foreground figures, making the feet and legs of those behind disappear gradually, according to the requirements of the point of view. In the same way, he has shown he has only shown the undersides of the dépouilles, vases and other accessories or ornaments, making the upper part disappear according to the rules of perspective. ».

10. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
The Vase Bearers, before 1506, after 1490
Tempera on canvas - 266 x 278 cm
London, Royal Collection Hampton Court
Photo : The Royal Collection

The Mantegna of the end is in very point comparable to the final period of the great Italian painters of modern times, rather solitary and meditating with profound introspection on episodes of the Passion – one thinks of Titian or Caravaggio, among others.The ecce Homo of the Musée Jacquemart-André (cat. 183) which was underestimated for a long time falls within this movement, as does the Christ Carrying the Cross with Simon of Cyrene from Verona (cat 188). Although the autograph nature of the latter is sometimes questioned, its very close framing must be associated with the inventions on the same theme of the great European artists around 1500 : Leonardo, Giorgione or Bosch[[It is obviously essential to add to this “tragic series” the final St. Sebastian, found in Mantegna’s studio after his death and today in the Ca’d’Oro in Venice.

[19] Almost at the same time as the Mantegna exhibition at the Louvre and Bellini in Rome, there is a Correggio exhibition in Parma.

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