Most important north Italian painter outside Venice in the fifteenth century. His skill in perspective and draughtsmanship, and his eager study of classical antiquity ally him with the most progressive tendencies in Italian painting of his day. His style is thoroughly north Italian, but contains Florentine elements transmitted to Padua by the visits of Fra Filippo Lippi, Uccello and the sculptor Donatello. He was a friend of the Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti. At the same time Venetian influence is not lacking in his work, particularly that of Jacopo Bellini, whose daughter he married.
Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo between Vicenza and Padua. As a small child he was adopted by Francesco Squarcione, the head of a painting workshop who is known to have introduced many painters to the works of classical antiquity. The famous frescoes of the Eremitani church at Padua were executed during 1449-54. In 1454 he married Nicolosia, Jacopo Bellini’s daughter, and in 1456 dissolved a contract that had bound him to Squarcione. This disagreement was possibly precipitated by a commission of that year to paint the well-known altarpiece for San Zeno Maggiore in Verona, which was finished in 1459. The major triptych sections representing the Madonna and Saints are still in San Zeno, and the predella panels are in the Louvre and the museum at Tours. From 1458 on, Mantegna was in the service of Lodovico Gonzaga, whose ducal court was at Mantua, and earned a title of nobility. In the next decade he became known as a humanist and scholar of antique art. He was a frequent guest at the court, became a friend of Alberti, who designed the church of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua in 1472, and was sought out by collectors of antiquities for his opinions. Of the many fresco decorations he undertook for the Gonzaga only one remains, the bridal chamber of the Castello di Corte at Mantua (1468-74). Plans for the decoration of the theater in the same palace were not carried out, but the cartoons for them, nine scenes of the Triumph of Julius Caesar, are preserved in the British royal collection at Hampton Court. This work (1482-92) was interrupted by a trip to Rome at the request of Pope Innocent VIII to decorate a chapel (since destroyed) in 1488-90. Contact with antiquities in Rome affected Mantegna’s art, and the results are apparent in the Triumph scenes done after his return to Mantua. Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga had given Mantegna a family chapel in Sant’ Andrea, and in 1504 the painter made a testament in which he left funds for the decoration of this chapel; part of this plan he actually carried out himself (the Holy Family). He was buried in the chapel.
Mantegna’s most important works are the two great fresco decorations in Padua and Mantua. In World War II the entire apse containing Mantegna’s frescoes in the Paduan church of the Eremitani was destroyed, one of the greatest art losses suffered in Italy. Two sections that had been removed to Venice are preserved, the Martyrdom of St. Christopher (already in a damaged condition), and the Assumption, which was probably painted mostly by Niccolo Pizzolo, a joint contractor with Mantegna in this decoration. The frescoes represented scenes from the lives of St. James and St. Christopher. In these key works of his early style Mantegna carried out elaborate perspective schemes unifying the view of several sections on one wall. Perspective and foreshortening of figures created dramatic effects, and a knowledge of classical architecture, ornament and costume was used to advantage. An important and related early altarpiece (c.1464) is the Agony in the Garden (London). Characteristic of Mantegna’s mature style are the family pictures of the Gonzaga in the bridal chamber of the Castello di Corte in Mantua. Considered extremely important is the illusionistic painted cupola of the ceiling there, on which Mantegna concentrated all his knowledge of perspective to create an imaginary balustrade with cupids and women, all foreshortened, and beyond them an open sky. This was the starting point of a tradition of illusionistic ceiling decoraton that passed through Correggio and into High Renaissance and Baroque art. Related to this work is the canvas of the Lamentation (Brera), in which Christ’s body is seen from the feet, completely and convincingly foreshortened. His other important late works (in the 1490’s) are the Parnassus and the Triumph of Virtue over Vice (Louvre), painted for the study of Isabella d’Este in the Castello at Mantua. These classical subjects parallel Botticelli’s mythological works, but differ from them considerably in form. Color, movement, space and atmosphere are emphasized. Alse representative of Mantegna’s broad and colorful late style is the Madonna of Victory (Louvre), painted in 1495-96 after a Gonzaga victory over the French. Mantegna was one of the few fifteenth-century artists to work in the new medium of copper engraving, and his prints of mythological and religious subjects form a parallel with this art as practiced in Florence by Antonio Pollaiuolo. Mantegna’s influence was felt throughout north Italy. He had assistants in both Padua and Mantua, and many young artists who came to learn at the Squarcione shop in Padua learned more from Mantegna.