Born: c. 1431
Birthplace: Vicenza, Italy
Location of death: Mantua, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Basilica di St. Andrea, Mantova, Italy
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Painter, Engraver
Executive summary: Camera degli Sposi
Andrea Mantegna, one of the chief heroes in the advance of painting in Italy, was born in Vicenza, of very humble parentage. It is said that in his earliest boyhood Andrea was, like Giotto, put to shepherding or cattle-herding; this is not likely, and can at any rate 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. He travelled in Italy, and perhaps in Greece also, collecting antique statues, reliefs, vases, etc., 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 favorite 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 S. Sofia in Padua, a Madonna picture of exceptional and recognized excellence. He was no doubt fully aware of having achieved no common 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.
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 Nicolosia; and in 1454 Jacopo gave Nicolosia to Andrea in marriage. This connection 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. 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 S. Giustina, 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 frescoes in the chapel of S. Cristoforo, 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. 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 colored stone-color at once. Andrea, conscious as he was of his own great faculty and mastery, 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 to 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 he developed and perfected the manner which he had adopted in Padua; his coloring, at first rather neutral and undecided, strengthened and matured. There is throughout his works more balancing of color than fineness of tone. One of his great aims was optical illusion, carried out by a mastery of perspective which, though not always impeccably correct, nor absolutely superior in principle to the highest contemporary point of attainment, was worked out by himself with strenuous labor, 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 Squarcione 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. Zeno, a Madonna and angels, with four saints on each side. The Marquis Lodovico Gonzaga 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 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 Sposi -- full compositions in fresco, including various portraits of the Gonzaga family, and some figures of genii, etc. In 1488 he went to Rome at the request of Pope Innocent VIII, to paint the frescoes in the chapel of the Belvedere in the Vatican; the marquis of Mantua (Federigo) created him a cavaliere before his departure. This series of frescoes, including a noted Baptism of Christ, was ruthlessly destroyed by Pope 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 connection, which ceased in 1400, 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 he had probably begun before his leaving for Rome, and which are now in Hampton Court. These superbly invented and designed compositions, gorgeous with all splendor 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 rank 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 Ginfrancesco 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 Gianfrancesco 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 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.
Giorgio 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 Marco Zoppo, he retained a steady friendship. That he had a high opinion of himself was natural, for no artist of his epoch could produce more manifest vouchers of marked and progressive attainment. He became very expensive in his habits, fell at times into difficulties, and had to urge his valid claims upon the marquis's attention. After his return to Mantua from Rome his prosperity was at its height, until the death of his wife. He then formed some other connection, 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 banishment from Mantua of his son Francesco, who had incurred the marquis'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 the 13th of September 1506. In 1517 a handsome monument was set up to him by his sons in the church of S. Andrea, where he had painted the altarpiece of the mortuary chapel.
Mantegna was no less eminent as an engraver, though his history in that respect 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 Baldini 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, and besides the earlier engravings indicate an earlier period of his artistic style. It has been suggested that he began engraving while still in Padua, under the tuition of a distinguished goldsmith, Niccolò. He engraved about fifty plates, according to the usual reckoning; some thirty of them are mostly accounted indisputable -- often large, full of figures, and highly studied. Some recent connoisseurs, however, ask us to restrict to seven the number of his genuine extant engravings -- which appears unreasonable. Among the principal examples are "Roman Triumphs" (not the same compositions as the Hampton Court pictures), "A Bacchanal Festival", "Hercules and Antaeus", "Marine Gods", "Judith with the Head of Holophernes", the "Deposition from the Cross", the "Entombment", the "Resurrection", 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. In the first state the prints have been taken off with the roller, or even by handpressing, 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, but over Italian art generally. His vigorous perspectives and trenchant foreshortenings pioneered the way to other artists; in solid antique taste, and the power of reviving 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. His two legitimate sons were painters of only ordinary ability. His favorite pupil was known as Carlo del Mantegna; Caroto of Verona was another pupil, Bonsignori an imitator. Giovanni Bellini, in his earlier works, obviously followed the lead of his brother-in-law Andrea.
The works painted by Mantegna, apart from his frescoes, are not numerous; some thirty-five to forty are regarded as fully authenticated. We may name, besides those already specified -- in the Naples Museum, "St. Euphemia", a fine early work; in Casa Melii, 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 two Angels"; in the Louvre, the two celebrated pictures of mythic allegory "Parnassus" and "Minerva Triumphing over the Vices"; in the National Gallery, London, the "Agony in the Garden", the "Virgin and Child Enthroned, with the Baptist and the Magdalen", a late example; the monochrome of "Vestals", brought from Hamilton 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 Brera, Milan, the "Dead Christ, with the two Maries weeping", a remarkable tour de force in the way of foreshortening, which, though it has a 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 his death, and was disposed of to liquidate debts.
Father: (woodworker, biological)
Father: Francesco Squarcione (stepfather, adopted around 10 years old)
Wife: (dau. of Jacopo Bellini, m. 1453)
Is the subject of books:
Andrea Mantegna, 1901, BY: Paul Kristeller
Mantegna, 1955, BY: Erica Tietze-Conrat
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