by Roderick Conway Morris

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Royal Collections Hampton Court
The Picture Bearers from Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar, c.1484-92

Exquisite Conundrum

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 February 1992


Andrea Mantegna received extravagant praise througout his life. After his death artists as diverse as Durer, Rembrandt, Burne-Jones and Degas drew direct inspiration from him. Yet, of all major Renaissance artists he is now the least understood, the least popularly esteemed. As to why this should be the Royal Academy's excellent exhibition, 'Andrea Mantegna: Painter, Draughtsman and Printmaker of the Italian Renaissance', the first international show of its kind for thirty years, suggests some answers, and offers, through the inclusion of numerous prints, drawings and monochrome works, a welcome opportunity to see Mantegna anew.

Mantegna was born in 1431 in the country near Padua. The son of a carpenter, he was apprenticed to the studio of Francesco Squarcione, a less talented painter who did, however, possess a large collection of drawings, fragments of sculpture and freizes, and objets d'art. Padua, with its ancient university and pre-eminence in legal, medical and literary studies, was one of the power-houses of the Renaissance, and whilst Mantegna never became a varsity man, his exceptional artistic flair, intelligence and wit opened to him the glades of Accademe. He also brought an artist's eye to Roman sculpture and architecture, plenty of which was still in evidence in and around Padua, gaining a reputation as a conoisseur and antiquarian. Before long Mantegna's intellectual friends were penning eulogies to their protege, and spreading wide his name. With their help he extracted himself following a court battle from Squarcione's studio, recording for posterity what he thought of his erstwhile mentor by depicting him as a pot-bellied executioner in a fresco.

Conventional wisdom would have it that a wide social and intellectual gulf existed between, often patrician, Renaissance scholars and bookmen and their, often humbly-born, paint and plaster-spattered artist-craftsmen contemporaries. This view is ripe for revision, and Mantegna is a good example of its fallacy. For, as the scholars knew, their ambitious enterprise of recovering and reviving, even surpassing, all that was best in the ancient world could not be achieved without artists and architects - indeed it was they, and only they, who could turn the dream into physical fact, and build a milieu, a world, as it were, fit for the brave new Renaissance men and women to live in.

Hence the almost immoderate joy with which Padua greeted Mantegna's appearance: here was an artist of wonderful abilities, perfectly in tune with the most advanced thinking of the times, and capable of making that thinking, which embraced such complex counter currents as adulation of the pagan world and sincere Christian piety, tangible reality. Hence, too, Raphael's father's judgement that Mantegna embodied everything that an artist could hope to be. And hence why, whereas a cultivated 15th-century observer seeing a Mantegna might have revelled in its up-to-date classical sculptural elements, been impressed by the sympathy, subtlety and accuracy of the human figure and face, whilst being exercised by the arcane decorative and symbolic touches, the modern viewer can feel himself in the presence of a beautiful, exquisitely-wrought, puzzle.

The second stumbling block is that many of his paintings do not even look the way Mantegna intended. Mantegna's favourite medium was distemper, which gave the sharpness, purity and clarity of colour and definition he sought, and made the picture observable from every angle without reflecting the light. He also used tempera, but resisted oil, as far too fuzzy and indistinct for, in the words of Keith Christiansen in the commendable catalogue, 'the almost terrifying precision of his brushwork'. Distemper is irreprably damaged if varnished over. Most of Mantegna's paintings have, alas, suffered this indignity at one time or another, and it is a revelation to see those few pictures that escaped. Some extremely delicate rescue operations have been carried out of late, and consequently some others are closer to what they once were than they have been for generations.

Mantegna was a tireless innovator: he took up engraving, then in its infancy and used primarily for printing playing cards and simple devotional pictures, not to mass produce, but to explore the artistic possibilities of the medium. Cutting the copper plates himself, through trial and error he raised engraving onto an entirely new plain. His grisailles, or monochrome pictures (sometimes with coloured, marbled backgrounds), achieved a never surpassed plasticity and tonality, that carry them way beyond the realms of simple trompe l'oeil. His penetrating portraits broke new ground, though his 'warts and all' approach did not please some of his subjects, notably his notoriouly vane teenage patroness Isabella d'Este.

The final room contains the nine vast panels of The Triumphs of Caesar, executed in Mantua where Mantegna spent most of his working life as court painter to the Gonzagas (the series was later bought by Charles I, and happily not sold off, like many other works, by Cromwell). Mantegna regarded these as his chef d'oeuvre, completing them on the eve of his death in 1506. They have suffered as much from the ravages of crude, ignorant and incompetent restoration as from time. More recent treatment has removed many of these accretions, allowing the original colours to glow forth again through a veil of faded grandeur, and bringing to life once more this trumpet-blowing, banner-waving, booty-bearing multitude of men and beasts - a whole city, empire, civilization, captured on canvas.

First published: Spectator