He was born at Isola di Cartura, near Padua, thirteen years before Botticelli; we must here retrace our steps in time if we are to appreciate Mantegna’s achievement. He was enrolled in the painters’ guild in Padua when he was but ten years old. Francesco Squarcione was then the most famous teacher of painting not only in Padua but in Italy. Andrea entered his school, and progressed so rapidly that Squarcione took him into his home and adopted him as a son. Inspired by the humanists, Squarcione collected into his studio all the significant remains of classic sculpture and architecture that he could appropriate and transport, and bade his students copy them over and over again as models of strong, restrained, and harmonious design. Mantegna obeyed with enthusiasm; he fell in love with Roman antiquity, idealized its heroes, and so admired its art that half his pictures have Roman architectural backgrounds, and half his figures, of whatever nation or time, bear a Roman stamp and garb. His art profited and suffered through this youthful infatuation; he learned from these exemplars a majestic dignity and a stern purity of design, but he never fully emancipated his painting from the petrified calm of sculptural forms. When Donatello came to Padua Mantegna, still a lad of twelve, felt again the influence of sculpture, together with a powerful impulse toward realism. At the same time he was fascinated by the new science of perspective, so recently developed in Florence by Masolino, Uccello, and Masaccio; Andrea studied all its rules, and shocked his contemporaries with fore-shortenings ungracious in their truth.
In 1448 Squarcione received a commission to paint frescoes in the church of the Eremitani friars at Padua. He assigned the work to two favorite pupils: Niccolò Pizzolo and Mantegna. Niccolò finished one panel in excellent style, then lost his life in a brawl. Andrea, now seventeen, continued the work, and the eight panels that he painted in the next seven years made him a name from one end of Italy to the other. The themes were medieval, the treatment was revolutionary: the backgrounds of classical architecture were carefully detailed, the virile physique and gleaming armor of Roman soldiers were mingled with the somber features of Christian saints; paganism and Christianity were more vividly integrated in these frescoes than in all the pages of the humanists. Drawing reached here a new accuracy and grace; perspective appeared in painstaking perfection. Rarely had painting seen a figure as splendid in form and bearing as that of the soldier guarding the saint before the Roman judge; or anything so grimly realistic as the executioner raising his club to beat out the martyr’s brains. Artists came from distant cities to study the technique of the amazing Paduan youth.—All but two of these frescoes were destroyed in the Second World War.
Iacopo Bellini, himself a painter of renown, and already (in 1454) father of painters fated to eclipse his fame, saw these panels in the making, took a fancy to Andrea, and offered him his daughter in marriage. Mantegna accepted. Squarcione opposed the union, and punished Mantegna’s flight from his adoptive home by condemning the Eremitani frescoes as stiff and pallid imitations of marble antiques. More remarkable, the Bellinis succeeded in conveying to Andrea a hint that there was some truth in the charge.2 Most remarkable, the hot-tempered artist accepted the criticism, and profited from it by turning from the study of statuary to the intent observation of life in all its actuality and details. In the last two panels of the Eremitani series he included ten portraits of contemporaries; and one, squat and fat, was Squarcione.
Canceling his contract with his teacher, Mantegna was now free to accept some of the invitations that besieged him. Lodovico Gonzaga offered him a commission in Mantua (1456); Andrea held him off for four years, and meanwhile, in Verona, he painted for the church of San Zeno a polyptych that to this day makes that noble edifice a goal of pilgrimage. In the central panel, amid a stately framework of Roman columns, cornice, and pediment, the Virgin holds her Child, while angel musicians and choristers envelop them; beneath this a powerful Crucifixion shows Roman soldiers throwing dice for the garments of Christ; and at the left the Garden of Olives presents a rugged landscape that Leonardo may have studied for his Virgin of the Rocks. This polyptych is one of the great paintings of the Renaissance.*
After three years in Verona Mantegna finally agreed to go to Mantua (1460); and there, except for brief stays in Florence and Bologna, and two years in Rome, he remained till his death. Lodovico gave him a home, fuel, corn, and fifteen ducats ($375) a month. Andrea adorned the palaces, chapels, and villas of three successive marquises. The sole survivors in Mantua of his labors there are the famous frescoes in the Ducal Palace, specifically in the Sala degli Sposi—the Hall of the Betrothed—named and decorated for the engagement of Lodovico’s son Federigo to Margaret of Bavaria. The subject was simply the ruling family—the Marquis, his wife, his children, some courtiers, and Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga welcomed by his father Lodovico on the young prelate’s return from Rome. Here was a gallery of remarkably realistic portraits, among them Mantegna himself, looking older than his forty-three years, with lines in his face and pouches under his eyes.
Lodovico too was aging rapidly, and his last years were dark with troubles. Two of his daughters were deformed; wars consumed his revenues; in 1478 plague so devastated Mantua that economic life almost stopped, state revenues fell, and Mantegna’s salary was one of many that went for a time unpaid. The artist wrote Lodovico a letter of reproach; the Marquis answered with a gentle plea for patience. The plague passed; Lodovico did not survive it. Under his son Federigo (1478–84) Mantegna began, and under Federigo’s son Gianfrancesco (1484–1519) he completed, his finest work, The Triumph of Caesar. These nine pictures, painted in tempera on canvas, were designed for the Corte Vecchia of the Ducal Palace; they were sold to Charles I of England by a needy duke of Mantua, and are now in Hampton Court. The enormous frieze, eighty-eight feet long, depicts a procession of soldiers, priests, captives, slaves, musicians, beggars, elephants, bulls, standards, trophies, and spoils, all escorting Caesar riding on a chariot and crowned by the Goddess of Victory. Here Mantegna returns to his first love, classic Rome; again he paints like a sculptor; nevertheless his figures move with life and action; the eye is drawn along, despite a hundred picturesque details, to the culminating coronation; all the painter’s artistry of composition, drawing, perspective, and meticulous observation enters into the work, and makes it the master’s masterpiece.
During the seven years that elapsed between the undertaking and the completion of The Triumph of Caesar, Mantegna accepted a call from Innocent VIII, and painted (1488–9) several frescoes that vanished in the later vicissitudes of Rome. Complaining of the Pope’s parsimony—while the Pope complained of his impatience—Mantegna returned to Mantua, and rounded out his prolific career with a hundred pictures on religious themes; he was forgetting Caesar and returning to Christ. The most famous and disagreeable of these paintings is the Cristo morto (Brera), the dead Christ lying on His back with His vast foreshortened feet toward the spectator, and looking more like a sleeping condottiere than like an exhausted god.
A final pagan picture came from Mantegna’s old age. In the Parnassus of the Louvre he put aside his usual resolve to capture reality rather than picture beauty; he surrendered himself for a moment to an unmoral mythology, and portrayed a nude Venus throned on Parnassus beside her soldier lover Mars, while at the mountain’s base Apollo and the Muses celebrate her loveliness in dance and song. One of the Muses was probably the Marquis Gianfrancesco’s wife, the peerless Isabella d’Este, now the leading lady in the land.
It was Mantegna’s last great painting. His final years were saddened by ill health, bad temper, and mounting debts. He resented Isabella’s presumption to lay down the precise details of the pictures she asked of him; he retired into an angry solitude, sold most of his art collection, finally sold his house. In 1505 Isabella described him as “tearful and agitated, and with so sunken a face that he seemed to me more dead than alive.”3 A year later he died, aged seventy-five. Over his tomb, in Sant’ Andrea, a bronze bust-perhaps by Mantegna himself—portrayed with angry realism the bitterness and exhaustion of a genius who had used himself up in his art for half a century. Those who desire “immortality” must pay for it with their lives.