Painter of Mantua

THOSE who work with skill, and have received a part of their reward, 1 know what new vigour encouragement imparts to them, for when men expect honour and rewards they do not feel the toil and fatigue, while their talents become more remarkable every day. True skill does not always meet with such recognition and reward as Andrea Mantegna received. 2 He was born of very humble stock in the territory of Mantua, 3 and though as a child he used to tend the flocks, he rose by his merits and by good fortune to the rank of knight, as I shall presently relate. When he was a little grown he was taken to the city, where he studied painting under Jacopo 4 Squarcione, a painter of Padua, who took the boy to his house, and, discovering his great talents, subsequently adopted him, as M. Girolamo Campagnuola writes in a Latin letter to M. Leonieo Timeo, a Greek philosopher, where he notices some of the old painters who served the Carrara, lords of Padua. Squarcione, well aware that he was not the most skilful painter imaginable, in order that Andrea might learn more than his master knew, made him study from plaster casts of antique statues and from paintings on canvas, which he sent for from various places, but chiefly Tuscany and Rome. In these and other ways Andrea learned much in his youth. The rivalry also of Marco Zoppo of Bologna, Dario da Trevisi and Niccolo Pizzolo of Padua, pupils of his master and adoptive father, afforded him no little aid and stimulus. When no more than seventeen he did the picture of the high altar of S. Sofiaat Padua, which might well be the production of a skilled veteran and not of a mere boy. After this the chapel of St. Christopher, in the church of the Eremitani friars of St. Augustine in Padua, was allotted to Squarcione, who entrusted the work to Niceolo Pizzolo and Andrea. Niccolo did God the Father seated in majesty in the midst of the Doctors of the Church, a painting reputed to be no whit inferior to those of Andrea there. Indeed, though Niceolo did but few things, they were all good, and if he had been as fond of painting as of arms he would have become excellent, and possibly might have enjoyed a longer life, but he always went armed, and having many enemies, he was attacked one day as he was returning from work and treacherously killed. He left no other works, so far as I am aware, except another God the Father in the chapel of Urbano Perfetto. 5

Andrea, being thus left to himself, did the four Evangelists in the chapel, considered very fine. Great hopes were now conceived of Andrea, owing to this and other works, and as success brings success, he took to wife the daughter of Jacopo fidlini, 6 the Venetian painter and father of Gentile and Giovanni, and the rival of Squarcione. When Squarcione heard this, he was angry with Andrea, and they were enemies from that time. Whereas Squarcione had previously praised Andrea's works, he now blamed them publicly, especially those in the chapel of St. Christopher, saying they were bad because he had imitated marble antiques, from which it is impossible to learn painting properly, since stones always possess a certain harshness and never have that softness peculiar to flesh and natural objects, which fall in folds and exhibit various movements. He added that the figures would have been greatly improved if Andrea had made them of the colour of marble and not in so many hues, because his painted figures resembled ancient marble statues and other such things, and were not like living beings. These strictures wounded Andrea, but on the other hand they did him much good, because he recognised that there was a great deal of truth in them, and so he set himself to draw living persons. He made such progress in this that in the remaining scene in the chapel he showed himself quite as able to learn from Nature as from objects of art. But nevertheless Andrea always maintained that the good antique statues were more perfect and beautiful than anything in Nature. He believed that the masters of antiquity had combined in one figure the perfections which are rarely found together in one individual, and had thus produced single figures of surpassing beauty. He considered that statues displayed the muscles, veins and nerves in a more accentuated manner than is found in nature, where they are covered by the soft flesh which rounds them off, except in the ease of old or emaciated people such as are usually avoided by artists. He clung tenaciously to this opinion, a fact which renders his style somewhat sharp, more closely resembling stone than living flesh. However this may be in this last scene, which gave great satisfaction, Andrea drew Squarcione as a small, fat man holding a lance and a sword. He also introduced the portraits of Noferi di M. Palla Strozzi of Florence; M. Girolamo dalla Valle, an excellent physician; M. Bonifazio Fuzimeliga, doctor of laws; Niccolo, the goldsmith of Pope Innocent VIII., and Baldassarre da Leccio, his intimate friends, all clothed in shining white armour, in a very fine style. He also drew M. Bonramino, knight and a bishop of Hungary, a very foolish man, who wandered about Rome all day and at night slept like the beasts in the stables. Another portrait is that of Marsilio Pazzo, who is the executioner cutting off the head of St. James, and he also drew himself. In short, this work, by its excellence, greatly increased his reputation. 7 While engaged upon this chapel And repainted a picture which was placed in S. Justina, at the altar of St. Luke, 8 and then did in fresco the arch over the door of S. Antonio, where he wrote his name. In Verona he did a picture 9 for the altar of S. Cristofano and of S. Antonio and some figures at the corner of the Piazza della Paglia. He did the high-altar picture for the friars of Monte Oliveto 10 in S. Maria in Organo, a lovely work, and also that of S. Zeno. While at Verona 11 he sent pictures to various places, one of which was owned by his friend and relation the abbot of Fiesole. It represents a Madonna from the waist upwards, with the Child, and some heads of angels singing, done with admirable grace. This picture is now in the library of that place, and has always been highly valued.

While in Mantua Andrea had served Ludovico Gonzaga the marquis, a lord who always valued him and favoured his talent. He painted for this lord a small panel in the chapel of the castle of Mantua containing some scenes with figures of no great size, but very beautiful. In the same place there are a number of figures foreshortened from below, which are much admired, because, although the drapery is crude and slight and the manner somewhat dry, the whole is executed with great skill and diligenee. 12

For the same marquis Andrea painted the Triumph of Caesar in the palace of S. Sebastiano at Mantua, and this is the best thing which he ever did. It shows in an excellent arrangement the beauty and decoration of the chariot, a man cursing the victor, the relations, perfumes, incense, sacrifices, priests, bulls crowned for sacrifice, prisoners, booty taken by the soldiers, the array of squadrons, elephants, spoils, victories, cities and fortresses represented in various cars, with a quantity of trophies on spears and arms for the head and back, coiffures, ornaments and vases without number. Among the spectators is a woman holding a child by the hand, who has run a thorn into his foot, and he is weeping and showing it to his mother very gracefully and naturally. Andrea, as I may have intimated elsewhere, had the admirable idea in this work of placing the plane on which the figures stood higher than the point of view, and while showing the feet of those in the foreground, he concealed those of the figures farther back, as the nature of the point of view demanded. The same method is applied to the spoils, vases and other implements and ornaments. The same idea was observed by Andrea degli Impiccati 13 in his Last Supper in the refectory of S. Maria Nuova. Thus we see that at that time men of genius were busily engaged in investigating and imitating the truths of Nature. And, in a word, the entire work could not be made more beautiful or improved, and if the marquis valued Andrea before, his affection and esteem were greatly increased. What is more, Andrea became so famous that his renown reached Pope Innocent VIII., who, having heard of his excellence in painting and his other good qualities with which he was marvellously endowed, sent for him and for several others to adorn with paintings the walls of the Belvedere, which was just finished. Arrived at Rome with much favour and honour from the marquis, who made him a knight, Andrea was kindly received by the Pope, and immediately employed to do a small chapel in the place mentioned. 14 He carried this out with great diligence and care, and so minutely that the vaulting and the walls look like an illumination rather than a painting. The largest figures there are over the altar, done in fresco like the rest, and representing St. John baptising Christ, while some others are undressing as if they would be baptised. 15 One among them, wishing to remove a stocking which clings to his leg owing to the sweat, pulls it off inside out across his other leg, while his expression clearly indicates the effort and inconvenience. This fancy excited great wonder in those who saw it at the time. It is said that the Pope, on account of his numerous engagements, did not pay Mantegna so often as the artist's needs required, and that the latter, in painting some of the Virtues in that work, introduced Equity. The Pope, going one day to see the work asked what the figure was, and on learning that she represented Equity, he replied, "You should have associated Patience with her." The painter understood what was meant and never uttered another word. On the completion of the work, the Pope sent Andrea back to the duke richly rewarded and highly favoured.

Whilst Andrea was working at Rome he painted, besides the chapel, a small picture of Our Lady and the Child sleeping. 16 The background is a mountain with men quarrying stones, executed with great labour and patience, so that it would seem all but impossible to do such delicate work with the brush. It is today in the hands of Don Francesco Medici, prince of Florence, who keeps it among his choicest possessions. In my book there is half a folio sheet with a drawing in grisaille by Andrea of Judith putting the head of Holofernes into a bag held by her Moorish slave. It is done in chiaroscuro in a style no longer in use, as he has left the lights unpainted, and so clearly marked that the hairs and other delicate things may be seen as carefully done as if they had been painted with the brush, so that this may in some sense be called a coloured work rather than a drawing.

Like Pollajuolo, Andrea delighted in copper engraving, and, among other things, reproduced his Triumphs. They were greatly valued, because better ones had not then been seen. Among his last works was a panel at S. Maria della Vittoria, a church built under his direction by the Marquis Francesco to celebrate his victory at the River Taro when he was general of the Venetians against the French. 17 It is painted in tempera, and was placed at the high altar. Our Lady with the Child is erected upon a pedestal; beneath her are St. Michael the Archangel, St. Anne and Joach in presenting the marquis, who is drawn from life most naturally, while the Madonna stretches out her hand to him. This world, which gives pleasure to everyone, so delighted the marquis that he rewarded the genius and the pains of Andrea most liberally, the painter retaining to the end his honourable rank of knight, his works being admired by princes everywhere. Lorenzo da Lendinara, a rival of Andrea, was considered an excellent painter at Padua, and did some things in clay in the church of S. Antonio, and others of no great value. He maintained a close friendship with Mario da Trevisi and Mario Zoppo of Bologna, because they had been fellow-pupils of Squarcione. Marco did a loggia for the Minorites at Padua, which serves as their chapter-house, and a picture at Pesaro, which is now in the new church of S. Giovanni Evangelista. In one picture he drew the portrait of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, 18 when he was captain of the Florentines. Another friend of Mantegna was Stefano, painter of Ferrara, whose works were few but meritorious. The ornamentation of the arch of S. Antonio at Padua is by him, as well as the Virgin Mary, called del Pilastro.

To return to Andrea. He built and painted a most beautiful house at Mantua for his own use, and lived there all his life. He died at the age of sixty-six in 1517, and was buried honourably in S. Andrea, the following epitaph being placed upon his tomb, over which is his portrait in bronze:

Esse parem hunc noris, si non praeponis, Apelli, Aenea Mantineasqui simulacra vides.

Andrea was so gentle and amiable in all his acts that he will always be remembered, not only in his own country, but throughout the world. Thus he deserves the reference of Ariosto as much for his courteous manners as for the excellence of his‚painting. I refer to the passage at the beginning of Canto XXXIII., where, in enumerating the most celebrated painters of the time, the poet says:

Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino

Andrea improved the foreshortening of figures as seen from below, and this was a difficult and fine invention. He was also fond, as I have said, of copper engraving, a very remarkable process, by means of which the world has been able to see the Bacchanalia, the battle of the sea-monsters, the Deposition from the Cross, the Burial of Christ and the Resurrection, with Longinus and St. Andrew, all works of Mantegna, as well as the styles of all the artists who have ever lived.

  • 1 1461 c. 1521.
  • 2 It is the work of Agostino di Duccio.
  • 3 He was born at Vicenza.
  • 4 Rectius Francesco.
  • 5 The urban prefect, not a proper name.
  • 6 Nicolosia, in 1454.
  • 7 He was at work in the chapel from 1448 to 1455.
  • 8 Now in the Brera, Milan, painted 1453.
  • 9 A Madonna enthroned, with saints.
  • 10 In 1496. (4)1457-9.
  • 11 The Triptych now in the Uffizzi, painted about 1464, and representing the Adoration of the Magi, with the Circumcision on one side and the Ascension on the other.
  • 12 Now at Hampton Court; painted about 1484-94.
  • 13 i.e. AIidrea del Castagno.
  • 14 In 1488.
  • 15 Destroyed in 1780 to erect the Museo Pio-Clementino.
  • 16 The Madonna of the Grotto, now in the Uffizi, dated 1491.
  • 17 To celebrate the battle of Fornovo, fought in 1495, and painted in the following year; now in the Louvre.
  • 18 Now at Berlin; dated 1471.

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