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(c. 1431-1506)

See also: Renaissance Art


"Italian painter and engraver. He was the pupil and adopted son of Squarcione in Padua. Mantegna's life long passion for Classical antiquity was given ample early nourishment through the archaeological interests of his master, the abundance of Roman remains in northern Italy and the humanistic atmosphere generated by the local university of Padua. He terminated his apprenticeship with Squarcione at the age of 17 in a celebrated court case, apparently on the grounds of exploitation. Mantegna's earliest independent commission was for the fresco decorations of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua (1459, largely destroyed in the Second World War). These scenes, particularly the St. James Led to Execution, display a mastery of perspective and steep foreshortening (the scene adapted to the low viewpoint of the spectator standing in the chapel) unrivalled in any contemporary paintings. Furthermore, Mantegna's understanding of anatomy and his archaeological exactitude are fully in evidence. The influence of Donatello (note the quotation from Donatello's St. George in the figure of the Roman soldier) is even more apparent in Mantegna's next commission, the San Zeno Altarpiece (late 1450s, Verona, S. Zeno). The spatial construction of the painted all'antiqua hall in which the Madonna and Child and attendant saints stand coincides with the actual frame, such that the painted architectural setting relates to the actual entablature and four wooden columns of the altarpiece's frame; thus the frame itself simulates the front of a Classical temple. The figures do not have a sculptural solidity but, as it has been suggested, the composition probably derives from Donatello's dismembered altarpiece in the Santo at Padua.

"In 1453, Mantegna married Jacopo Bellini's daughter. Both he and his new brother in law, Giovanni Bellini, used a drawing of Jacopo's as a basis for an Agony in the Garden (c 1455, both London, National Gallery): a comparison of the two reveals the fundamental difference between Mantegna's sculptural conception and the new conception, that of forms modelled by colour and light, their edges softened by atmosphere, that Giovanni was to evolve for Venetian painting.

"From 1460 Mantegna was court painter to the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua, his most important work here being the decoration of the Camera degli Sposi (the Bridal Chamber, completed 1474) of the Palazzo Ducale. Again a mastery of perspective is displayed, but also, in the representations of the Gonzaga family and court, Mantegna's skill as a portraitist. Perhaps the most significant part of the scheme is the painting of the ceiling, the middle of which is illusionistically opened up to the sky for the first time since antiquity. From over the fictive balustrade of a circular balcony, figures appear to look down into the room below. Such convincing illusionism was not accomplished again until Raphael in the Vatican and Correggio at Parma before reaching its consummation in the stunning illusionism of l7th century Baroque ceilings in Rome. Also for the Gonzaga family was the series of nine monumental canvases of the Triumphs of Caesar (c 1486, London, Hampton Court) which, in addition to all his usual characteristics, reveal Mantegna's interest in antique bas reliefs. For Isabella d'Este, the wife of Francesco Gonzaga, Mantegna painted the Madonna della Vittoria (1495-6) and the Parnassus (both Paris, Louvre). Mantegna was also important as a graphic artist, his many engravings exerting a powerful influence on Durer."

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History

Further reading on Mantegna:


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c. 1450 The Agony in the Garden
c. 1450 The Agony in the Garden (detail)
c. 1450 The Agony in the Garden (detail)
c. 1451-53 Adoration of the Shepherds
1453-54 St. Luke Polyptych - Detail of St Scholastica
1453-54 St. Luke Polyptych - Detail of St Benedict
1453-54 St. Luke Polyptych - Detail of St Prosdecimus
c. 1455 St James on the way to his execution
1457-60 Calvary
1466 Portrait of Cardinal Carlo de' Medici
1473 Camera degli Sposi - The Oculus
c. 1474 Camera degli Sposi - Detail from North Wall
c. 1474 Camera degli Sposi - Detail from North Wall
c. 1474 Camera degli Sposi - Detail from East Wall (Servants with Horse and Dogs)
c. 1480 St. Sebastian
c. 1480 St. Sebastian (detail)
c. 1489-90 Madonna and Child ("Madonna of the Caves")
c. 1490 The Lamentation over the Dead Christ
c. 1495 Samson and Delilah
c. 1495 Judith and Holofernes
1496 Sacra Conversazione (Madonna della Vittoria)
c. 1500 Bird on a Branch

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