by Roderick Conway Morris

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Casa del Mantegna, Mantua
The circular courtyard at Mantegna's house in Mantua, completed in the 1490s.

The House that Mantegna Built

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA, Italy 22 April 2006


Andrea Mantegna, more than most, put northern Italy on the map in the early days of the artistic and architectural revival that came to be known as the Renaissance.

Despite humble origins, he turned himself into an archaeological and antiquarian expert. He never formally attended the university in his hometown, Padua, yet he was admired and feted in academic circles.

His knowledge of the past, his exceptional talents as a draftsman and painter, and his mastery of the new method of mathematical perspective - a paradigm of the marriage of science and art - enabled him to realize his visions of the ancient world with extraordinary intensity.

After completing a series of stunning frescoes and paintings in Padua, the artist, not yet 30 years old, was invited on generous terms to enter the service of Ludovico Gonzaga, second marquis of Mantua, who was determined to elevate his city into a center of scholarship and art.

In 1460, Mantegna moved with his family to Mantua, where he died in September 1506. To mark the 500th anniversary of his death, a trio of exhibitions will be held - in Padua, where the display will include a reconstruction of frescoes blown apart by Allied bombing in World War II; in Verona, where Mantegna created the majestic high altar of San Zeno church; and in Mantua itself.

As a preface to the three shows, which will run from mid-September to mid-January, a charming exhibition is being held in Mantegna's house in Mantua until June 4. Comprising more than 150 paintings, sculptures, reliefs, medals, ceramics, letters and books, the show charts the transformation of Mantua in the second half of the 15th century and spotlights the unique home that Mantegna built for himself as a residence, studio, library and museum.

When Mantegna conceived the house, the principles of classical architecture and their application to modern building were a subject of passionate study and debate. The polymath Leon Battista Alberti at about that time provided Ludovico Gonzaga with designs for two churches in Mantua, San Sebastiano and the basilica of Sant'Andrea, thatdrew on classical forms, with facadesborrowing elements from Roman temple fronts and triumphal arches.

Palace architecture was also beginning to be influenced by classical models. But the idea of building private houses in Roman style was still in its infancy. Moreover, Mantegna lacked the means to finance his project.

Between 1465 and 1475 he devoted his energies to painting frescoes at the Ducal Palace, immortalizing Ludovico, his family, retainers, dwarves, dogs and horses in an illusionistic gilded pavilion with landscape views, in what is now called the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal room.

The effort paid off. Within a couple of years of completing that masterpiece, Mantegna was granted land amid orchards and gardens to the south of the city. In October 1476 he laid the house's foundation stone.

The design was revolutionary, consisting of an external cube containing a circular atrium open to the sky and echoing a Roman amphitheater, set back slightly in the square to create larger frontal spaces to left and right. The overall proportions were calculated from complex mathematical, geometrical and probably musical harmonic principles.

Little was known at the time about Roman domestic architecture. Alberti had written about ancient houses with atriums and the Sienese artist- engineer-architect Francesco di Giorgio, then in Rome, sketched a building with a similar ground plan; but Mantegna was unquestionably in the vanguard in building such a house.

The project turned into an epic. In 1478 Mantegna appealed to Ludovico for funds, but Mantua was in economic crisis and the Marquis had nothing to spare. In 1483, when the Florentine ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent visited Mantua, Mantegna showed him the site and his collection of antiquities, later writing to him to request assistance. There is no record of a reply. Over a decade later, Mantegna wrote to Ludovico's grandson, Francesco II, then ruling Mantua, to denounce a neighbor for stealing his bricks. Twenty years after construction began, Mantegna and his family finally moved in.

Their idyll lasted just five years. In 1501, burdened with debt, he was obliged to sign over the property to Francesco, in exchange for another house. Soon after, the Marquis built Palazzo San Sebastiano nearby as a private retreat. The palace contained a gallery to display Mantegna's cycle of nine huge canvases, 'The Triumphs of Caesar' - now at Hampton Court, near London - and was linked by a stone path through gardens and labyrinths to Mantegna's house, which became an exotic annex.

Memories of its historic importance and associations gradually faded, and by the 18th century it had fallen into disrepair. It later became part of a technical school.

Yet, in the 1940s, when various accretions were stripped away, the original building emerged surprisingly intact. In 1944, an Allied bomb fell into the atrium but failed to detonate. Thus was this treasure spared the fate of the Paduan frescoes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023