Lines and Colors art blog

Andrea Mantegna

Andrea Mantegna - Basillica di San Zeno
Andrea Mantegna was an influential Itallian Renaissance painter and engraver who was noted for his monumental, almost sculptural, figures, his command of perspective and his unusual, often visceral, portrayals of Biblical events.

Mantegna was apprenticed at the age of 10 to Francesco Squarcione, who also legally adopted him. At the age of 17, he had advanced far enough to establish his own studio and declare his independence from Squarcione, who he accused of exploiting his abilities.

Roman sculpture was being collected in Padua during Mantegna’s time there, and the influence of those sculptors, as well as contemporary sculptors like Donatello, is evident in the sculptural (some would say stiff) qualities of his figures.

Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, one of the key figures in early Renaissance art, and brother of painters Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Mantegna had a working relationship with Giovanni, and you can see the influence of his masterful command of landsacpe in the rocky intricate detail of the landscapes in Mantegna’s Biblical scenes (see my post on Giovanni Bellini).

Mantegna worked on monumental sized works as well as smaller, more intimate works, and was fascinated with experimental perspective and elements of architecture.

One of his most renowned pieces is La Camera degli Sposi (The Wedding Chamber) of the Mantua Palazzo; a “camera picta” (painted room), covered with illusionistic frescoes. This included his famous example of “di sotto in sú”, or illusionistic ceiling painting, depicting a false oculus in the ceiling, through which cherubs, servants and a peacock lean over a balustrade, peering down at the viewer; rendered in trompe l’oeil realism and dramatically foreshortened perspective (image above, top); the first example of this kind of ceiling effect. I love the underside of the seemingly precariously placed urn and the cherubs poking their heads through the balustrade. The perspective rendering of the geometric elements of the balustrade is astonishing.

One of his other works that incorporated illusionistic perspective and his fascination with architectural elements is his striking grand altar-piece for the Basillica di San Zeno in Verona (supposedly the setting for the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play). Mantegna’s work for this featured a polyptych (multiple paneled painting) depicting Mary and Child in the central panel, flanked by scenes of disciples and saints, with scenes below of the prayer at the Mount of Olives, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (image above, middle and bottom).

The upper panels, in particular, break the paradigm of such altarpieces in that the top three scenes, though depicting separate events, are joined into one by a common background. The architectural elements are rendered in dramatic perspective and with great attention to realistic texture, an effect heightened by trompe l’oeil garlands of fruit seeming to hang between the actual carved pillars on the face of the altarpiece.

Mantegna has pulled out the stops here, and used the almost magical ability of the newly popular medium of oil paint to render his subjects with extraordinary detail.

He continued to render his paintings in this kind of canvas-wide pinpoint focus, even as Leonardo and Giovanni Bellini began to move Renaissance painting toward more atmospheric effects of tonal color and sfumato.

The Louvre in Paris, which has the largest collection of Mantegna’s works outside of Italy, has mounted a major retrospective of his work. Simply titled Mantegna (1431-1506), the show contains over 190 works and and runs until January 5, 2009.

[Exhibition link via Art Knowledge News]