Andrea Mantegna - Biography and Legacy
Isola di Carturo, Padua, Venice
Biography of Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo, near Padua in the Republic of Venice, in modern-day Italy. His father Biagio was a poor carpenter, and as a young boy Mantegna learned sheep-tending and other rural agricultural tasks. Biagio died when Andrea was young, and in 1442, at the age of seven, he became the apprentice and adoptive son of the Paduan painter Francesco Squarcione. Three years later, at the age of just ten, Mantegna was accepted into the Fraglia dei Pittori e Coffanari, the Paduan Artists' Guild.
Squarcione had adopted other young painters who went on to achieve fame, though he himself never enjoyed a stellar career. He was known primarily for his enormous collection of Greco-Roman antiquities and for his successful training establishment, which taught young artists to copy the antique style, and which earned him the title of 'Father of Painting.' Mantegna's enthusiasm for classical antiques and the classical style stayed with him all his life, but he became displeased by the shady legal status of Squarcione's practices, and ultimately brought charges of fraud and exploitation against the older artist, arguing that Squarcione had drawn profits from his work without providing promised compensation. A court ruled in his favor in 1448, releasing Mantegna from Squarcione's influence.
The culture of Renaissance Padua was very formative for Mantegna. On a par with Florence in its commitment to Renaissance Humanism and intellectual endeavor, it provided an environment devoted to the reproduction of classical ideals and civilization. Mantegna's classical interests were nurtured in this setting. He was also highly influenced in his early years by the great painter Jacopo Bellini, whose classical approach to form and anatomy is often likened to Mantegna's. Even more significant was the influence of Donatello, who forged a unique Greco-Roman-influenced style with pagan thematic overtones. The spiritual quality of Donatello's work, and its impression of harmony between the mind, soul, and body, moved Mantegna deeply, and he drew extensively from these traits in his own work.
Mantegna emerged as a more-or-less fully-fledged painter at the age of seventeen. He was already well-regarded enough in 1448 to start receiving commissions, the first recorded of which was for the altarpiece of Madonna at the Church of Santa Sofia in Padua. Now destroyed, the altarpiece was described by the sixteenth-century painter Giorgio Vasari as exhibiting the technical skill of "an experienced old man."
In 1449 Mantegna began creating several frescoes for the Ovetari Chapel in the Eremitani Church in Padua, working in collaboration with Niccolò Pizzolo, another student of Squarcione. This project, however, signaled the demise of the partnership between Mantegna and Pizzolo, who subsequently died in a brawl, leaving Mantegna in charge of the remaining decoration of the chapel during 1453-56. While working on the Ovetari Chapel Mantegna also grew closer to the Bellini family, marrying Nicolosia Bellini in 1453 at the request of her father Jacopo. The couple had four sons, two of whom, Lodovico and Francesco, survived into adulthood, and a daughter, Taddea. Through his marriage Mantegna also gained two influential brothers-in-law, the painters Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Of the two, Giovanni was a greater influence on Mantegna's work, teaching him to soften his color-palette and style.
The influence of Mantegna's father-in-law Bellini fostered a keen interest in conveying the personality of artistic figures. This is most evident in Mantegna's dynamic and powerful portraits. Foremost in this category is the self-portrait included in the Eremitani frescoes, recognizable for its sharply defined expression and deep facial lines, conveying an impression of great emotional intensity and gravitas. The frescoes also demonstrated Mantegna's mastery of landscape painting, characterized by painstaking attention to decoration and detail. The Eremitani frescoes won Mantegna fame and reverence throughout Padua. His combination of classical technique and rigor with the softer approach to characterization he had learned from Giovanni Bellini generated works of brilliant subtlety and beauty. Mantegna was appointed chief of the school of Padua, where he gained numerous disciples, and was employed to create portraits of scholars. He also worked on several prestigious commissions across Italy, burnishing his reputation.
Mantegna's finely honed skills and stellar reputation caught the attention of Ludovico III of the House of Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua and one of Italy's most powerful city-state rulers. In 1457 Ludovico sent an offer of patronage to Mantegna, but the artist was slow to respond, keen to remain in Padua, a city which catered to his educated tastes. Ludovico III sent numerous further offers, each increasing in compensation, and promised living quarters and food for Mantegna's family. The artist continued to demur to the Marquis's advances but eventually accepted, moving to Mantua in 1459.
While working for the Gonzaga family Mantegna was free to explore his classical interests. Ludovico III and his descendants were renowned humanists, hosting intellectuals and artists at their court such as Alberti and Brunelleschi, and also the Medici family of art patrons.
Mantegna took up amateur archaeology in 1464, embarking on group excavations to look for Roman inscriptions. These events were part-historical reconstruction, the participants wearing costumes and assuming roles from the Roman period. Mantegna also collected numerous antiquities for his living quarters. His zeal for antiques and archiving filtered into the work he produced in Mantua, which incorporated numerous classical references and motifs.
Ludovico paid Mantegna 15 ducats a month, allowing him to travel regularly, though he was also employed on various ongoing commissions. The Marquis was patient of Mantegna's methodical working process, although the artist often complained of his working conditions and ongoing ailments, and his argumentative nature led to conflict with Ludovico's employers. This characteristic was exemplified by a dispute with the foreign engraver Simone di Ardizone. Mantegna had begun working with Ardizone on a printing plate but discovered that Ardizone was simultaneously working with another artist in Mantua. Infuriated, Mantegna had Ardizone and the other artist attacked, then had Ardizone banished from Mantua on charges of sodomy. In 1476, Mantegna claimed that the conditions of his employment had not been met, and that he and his family had been forced to live in hardship. In response Ludovico III constructed a house for Mantegna which he filled with antiquities.
In 1478 Ludovico fell victim to the plague, and Federico Gonzaga became the new head of the household. Six years later, Francesco II took over the family. Mantegna continued to work for the House of Gonzaga, producing various artworks for Francesco. He famously completed his Triumphs of Caesar (1484-92) for a room designed as a theatrical performance space. This work constitutes a stunning visual index of Mantegna's intellectual and creative interests, including his knowledge of humanism and archaeology; the references embedded in the work also bring together a plethora of significant biographical influences on Mantegna. He also completed a range of religious works during his mature period, including a commission for the Pope during 1488-90, as a result of which he returned to Mantua with the title of Count Palatine. At some point in the 1480s, Mantegna was knighted, and in 1492 he settled permanently in Mantua.
Mantegna's later works are characterized by a fascination with the elegance and optimism of youth. While he declined physically, and his financial fortunes declined - perhaps reflecting his tendency to fall out with his patrons and peers - he seemed to embrace life's joys all the more fervently, painting scenes of military victory and spiritual epiphany. These qualities can be sensed in Parnassus (1495-97), which portrays the virtues of pagan culture, and Madonna of Victory (1495), which immortalizes one of the successful battles of Francesco II. However, the Marchioness Isabella d'Este, princess and wife of Francesco, was not taken with Mantegna's portrait of her, which employed a more realistic approach than she was comfortable with, at odds with the tradition of physical idealization of monarchy.
The last years of Mantegna's life were not as comfortable as his paintings might suggest, partly due to financial concerns and partly due to the behavior of his eldest son, Francesco. Francesco was frequently in trouble with the Marquis, and was eventually banished from the Gonzaga Court, though Mantegna's other son Lodovico remained in high regard. After the death of his wife, Mantegna bore an illegitimate son named Gian-Andrea. In 1504 the ageing artist drew up a will, which unsurprisingly favored Lodovico, but more surprisingly favored Gian-Andrea over Francesco. In 1504, Mantegna requested that he be able to purchase a chapel in S. Andrea in which to be buried, a request which was granted. Although his health waned, his vigorous spirit remained, and he continued to work until the end of his life. He died on September 13th, 1506, at the age of 74, in his home in Via Unicorno, amongst his collection of antiquities.
The Legacy of Andrea Mantegna
Mantegna's enthusiasm for the classical style provided a framework for generations of later Italian Renaissance artists. The use of allusions to the style and themes of Classical Art became a prominent feature of other artists' work, and the idealized standard of beauty which he favored became dominant in painting and sculpture of the next 100 years. Leonardo da Vinci drew on Mantegna's realistic approach in his paintings, while the German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, a key figure in the Northern Renaissance, was also influenced by Mantegna's advances in naturalistic representation.
Even more influential was Mantegna's use of spatial illusionism, particularly in his frescoes. His interior frescoes were so accurate in their depiction of architectural interiors and landscapes that they created an enveloping illusion of three-dimensional space. These spaces often featured figures from myth or religion, allowing the viewer to feel as if they were crossing a threshold into the realm of the supernatural. Mantegna's ceiling oculus fresco in Camera degli Sposi (1465-74) is particularly notable for its depiction of the sky, as if the oculus truly led to the outside world, but a world populated by fantastical creatures. Spatial illusionism became an omnipresent feature of frescoes and ceiling-paintings in Renaissance and Baroque palaces. Examples of illusionism during these two epochs, preceded by Mantegna's work, include Antonio da Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin (1526-30), Giovanni Battista Gaulli's Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1678-79) and Andrea Pozzo's Glorification of Saint Ignatius (1691-1694).