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Andrea Mantegna’s scholars and all the exhibitions, from the 1970s up until now, devoted to the groundbreaking star of the Italian Renaissance have taught us that the most important thing to encapsulate the essence of Mantegna’s art is to look at his cultural environment, intellectual elite and nevertheless at his temper and peculiarities.  

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Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was an Italian Renaissance painter, even architect and one of the first painters-engravers in the History of Art before the German Albrecht Dürer. Citizen of the Venetian Republic, Mantegna was born on the Island of Carturo (now Mantegna island) near Padua, at the time a lively and intellectually reactive Northern Italy’s city. As a painter, since 1441, he has been trained in the Francesco Squarcione’s atelier, in close contact with plaster casts of ancient statues and modern art drawings from his maestro’s formidable collection. But Mantegna’s training - marked by the reworking of Classicism, the planning routine of the design phases and the dramatic, intellectual and moral meaning behind figuration - depended more on the great sculptor Donatello, who had lived in Padua for a decade. 

 

           

From left to right: Andrea Mantegna, Sibyl and Prophet, ca. 1495 Grisaille distemper, 56.2 x 48.6 cm. Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, USA Bequest of Mary M. Emery/Bridgeman Images | Cosmè Tura, Saint George, 1460 - 1465, Oil on table, 21.6 x 13 cm. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Galleria di Palazzo Cini, Venice.

Mantegna, as we would say nowadays, is a self-made “pictor” and entrepreneur. From humble origins - to live he was said to sell sandwiches on the squares of Padua - until he moved to the Gonzaga Court in Mantua in 1460, becoming “The first (and the most acclaimed) painter in the world”, surpassing the mythical figure of the Ancient Greek Apelles. How was that possible? What allowed Mantegna to create such incredible masterpieces like the frescos of "The Bridal-Chamber" (1465-1474) and the series of "The Triumphs of Caesar" (1486–1505)? Many exhibitions have tried to answer this critical question, up to the most recent “Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini” - a tale of two artists, Masters of the Renaissance - at the National Gallery of London

 

Andrea Mantegna, Holy Family with St. John, ca. 1500 Canvas, 71.1 x 50 x 8 cm The National Gallery, London

 

The new show “Andrea Mantegna. Making Antiquity Modern”, just inaugurated (through 4th May 2020) in the Italian city of Turin, approaches the complex and elusive personality of the one who turns into the archetype of the artist of the Renaissance court in Northern Italy, trying to unravel it. First of all, through a study on his relationships with the Modern entourage of writers and humanists - Mantegna took part in the literary cenacles of the 16th Century - and on his lust for wide knowledge. From literary sources such as ”The Natural History” by Pliny The Elder, Mantegna reworked figurative repertoires, condensing the style of minerals, flowers and fruits (It is evident if we carefully inspect the rich symbolic nature of 1496 altarpiece Madonna of Victory). Then, the investigation around Mantegna is made possible by the analysis of the twenty-seven autograph letters still preserved that reveal his constant money anxiety and high self-esteem. Artist of extraordinary pictorial talent, intelligence and acumen, Mantegna became a superstar thanks to a rich social life and an effective network of contacts with Jacopo Bellini, the Early Renaissance Venetian painter, - of whom he married the daughter Nicolosia Bellini, the Marquise Isabella D’Este and the Lord of Florence Lorenzo De Medici. The exhibition’s distinguished international scientific committee has considered essential for the understanding of Mantegna’s oeuvre to put it in relation to numerous other artworks by his artistic peers: Donatello, Pisanello, Jacopo and Giovanni Bellini, Paolo Uccello, Antonello da Messina. Although, it must be said that Mantegna managed to gain fame, cultural authority and social position perhaps never achieved before by any other painter of the 14th and 15th Centuries, with the exclusion of Giotto. 

 

         

From left to right: Andrea Mantegna, Madonna and Child with a Choir of Cherubim (Madonna of Cherubim), 1485 ca, Tempera on cm 88 x 70 panel. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano | Andrea Mantegna, Ecce homo, 1500-1502 Tempera on linen cloth, 54 x 42 cm. Musée Jacquemart-André - Institut de France © Studio Sébert Photographes, Paris.

Just try to imagine what it could have meant to live at the very core of Renaissance splendour in one of the finest Italian Court, to revolve around the Gonzaga’s orbit - being welcomed as part of the family and able to use his emblem - to manage the marquis Ludovico Gonzaga’s image, as the official portrait painter. His privileged position allowed Mantegna to devote himself to the study of the ancient in a different and contrasting way, to approach architecture and perspective in the manner of the unequalled Art Theorist Leon Battista Alberti, to manage personal affairs and even travels (to Florence and Rome). The rediscovery of the art of Mantegna is a never-ending and amazing journey and the comprehension of his magnum opus "The Lamentation over the Dead Christ" (1483), for example, is tied in a double knot to the superb circumstances and cultural context into he was deeply immersed. 

Written by Petra Chiodi

Cover image: Andrea Mantegna, Ecce homo, 1500-1502 Tempera on linen cloth, 54 x 42 cm. Musée Jacquemart-André - Institut de France © Studio Sébert Photographes, Paris (work detail).

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