ANDREA MANTEGNA (pronounced Man-tane’yah) was born at Vicenza, in the neighborhood of Padua, in the year 1431. Nothing is known of his parentage except that his father’s name was Biagio. The story told by Vasari, that, like Giotto, Mantegna was “occupied during his child-hood in the tending of flocks,” is without foundation, and all that is actually known of his early years is that he went to Padua when very young, was there adopted by the painter Squarcione, and at the age of ten was admitted to the gild of painters in Padua, being registered in the books of the fraternity as “Andrea, the son of Messer Francesco Squarcione, painter.”
Although Squarcione’s title to fame rests to-day largely upon the fact that he was Mantegna’s earliest master, he occupies a not unimportant position in the history of the development of art in northern Italy. Originally a tailor and embroiderer by profession, he won a reputation as a connoisseur of antique art, his taste for which he indulged during travels in Italy, and some say in Greece, where he collected specimens of sculpture, bas-reliefs, architectural remains, and drawings made from inscriptions and decorative work. Upon his return to Padua he established an art school, where no less than one hundred and thirty-seven students from all parts of Italy were assembled.
In this school the young Mantegna received his first instruction, and thus from his earliest years a love for antique art was formed, a love which remained throughout his life the dominant feature in his art, though other influences contributed towards making him the finished master he became.
Whether Jacopo Bellini, the Venetian painter, was one of the teachers employed in Squarcione’s school, or whether, during the residence in Padua which he is known to have made, he set up a separate and rival studio, can-not be determined, but in Mantegna’s work, as well as in that of other Squarcionesques, his influence is clearly perceptible. From the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello, who was at work in Padua in Mantegna’s boyhood, the young student probably acquired an interest in the art of perspective and foreshortening in which Paolo excelled; but by a far greater master, the famous sculptor Donatello, who with a crowd of assistants went from Florence to Padua and there lived and worked for a period of about ten years, he was still more powerfully influenced. Donatello’s classic ideals and types, his forceful interpretation of the spirit of the Renaissance, to say nothing of his marvelous technical skill, all made a deep impression upon Mantegna’s mind.
Bred up among such influences, and imbibing from his earliest youth the intellectual atmosphere of the old university town of Padua, the home of scholars, poets, artists, and philosophers, Mantegna grew to manhood. At seventeen he had painted his first recorded picture, a `Madonna in Glory,’ no longer in existence, for the Church of Santa Sofia in Padua. Four years later he painted a fresco over the portal of the Church of Sant’ Antonio, and in 1454 he executed for the Church of Santa Giustina a large altar-piece of St. Luke with eight saints and a Pietà, now in the Brera Gallery, Milan. At the age of twenty-three he had, therefore, been employed in work for the three principal churches of Padua, from which it may be inferred that even at that early stage of his career he had acquired a reputation and was highly esteemed by his fellow-citizens.
Before finishing the St. Luke altar-piece Mantegna was engaged upon a work which was to make his name famous. With others of Squarcione’s pupils he was employed in decorating in fresco (or, more properly speaking, in tempera on the dry plaster, the method employed by Mantegna for all his wall-paintings) the Chapel of St. James and St. Christopher in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua, and in the six celebrated wall-paintings which re-main of his work there we have a priceless record of his early art.
Before the completion of these paintings Mantegna’s marriage with Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, took place. Two years later he broke off all connection with Squarcione, from whom he demanded and obtained his freedom on the ground that when he had signed an agreement to work for him he was but a minor, and, moreover, that he had been deceived by his master.
According to Vasari, the rupture between Squarcione and his pupil was caused by the latter’s marriage with the daughter of Squarcione’s “rival,” Jacopo Bellini, which so displeased Mantegna’s master that, whereas he had previously much extolled his pupil’s works, he from that time censured them with violence, finding fault with Mantegna’s frescos in the Church of the Eremitani because the figures therein resembled antique marbles. “Andrea,” adds Vasari, “was deeply wounded by his disparaging remarks, but they were, nevertheless, of great service to him; for, knowing that there was truth in what Squarcione said, he forthwith began to draw from the life.”
By most modern critics the change which took place at about this period in Mantegna’s manner of painting is attributed not to any adverse criticism from Squarcione, but to the counsel of his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini (between whose early works and some of Mantegna’s a strong resemblance exists), who induced him to soften the rigor of his style and turn more to nature than to the cold and lifeless models of antique art.
The fame of the Eremitani frescos quickly spread, and before long Mantegna was regarded as the chief painter of Padua. His genius was extolled by scholars, and poems were written in his honor, while princes and church dignitaries sought to obtain examples of his art. While at work upon a large altar-piece in six parts for the Church of San Zeno in Verona; he received, in 1457, a pressing invitation from Lodovico Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, to enter his service and take up residence at the Mantuan court, then one of the most brilliant in Italy. But the painter, fully occupied with work, and loath to give up his home in Padua, a town to which he was so strongly attached that as long as he lived he frequently affixed to his signature the words “Civis Patavinus” (Citizen of Padua), hesitated to accede to Lodovico’s wish, and it was not until the end of two years, and after repeated appeals from the marquis, who courteously but persistently plied him with letters filled with liberal promises,a salary of fifteen ducats a month should be at his disposal, free lodging, corn and wood enough for six people, and all traveling expenses paid,that Mantegna, after many excuses,first, that he must be allowed to finish his altar-piece, then that he must go to Verona to place it in the Church of San Zeno, finally yielded, and in 14.59 removed with his family to Mantua. From that time on until his death he remained the special court painter and the devoted subject of the Gonzaga family, being privileged to make use with some slight change of the Gonzaga coat of arms, and being treated with the utmost regard by the successive rulers of the house, who were well aware that his presence added luster to their court and city.
Among the earliest works executed after his arrival in Mantua were a small triptych, or altar-piece in three parts, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, and a `Death of the Virgin’ in Madrid. His decorations of Goito, the favorite hunting-castle of the marquis, have perished, as have also his frescos in various neighboring palaces of the Gonzagas.
In the summer of 1466 Mantegna went to Florence on business of his master’s, but no account of his four months’ stay there has come down to us. In December of that year he was in Mantua again, executing a variety of tasks for the marquis, from drawing designs for tapestries to painting the walls of a room in the Castello, known as the `Camera degli Sposi.’
These famous frescos were finished in 1474, and as a reward the marquis presented Mantegna with an estate upon which the painter began to build for himself a stately house, where, however, he seems never to have actually lived, but where it was his hope that he would be free from the annoyances he suffered from his neighbors. Again and again Mantegna, who seems to have been of an irascible temper, quick to imagine slights and to resent fancied in-juries, appealed to his master, the marquis, to redress his wrongs. Now it was to beg him to punish a tailor who had spoiled a piece of his cloth; now to bitterly complain of a neighbor who, he declared, had robbed his garden of five hundred fine quinces; again, to beg for justice regarding the boundary-line between his estate and the next. To all appeals from his testy painter Lodovico turned a patient ear, adjusting matters to Mantegna’s satisfaction when-. ever possible, though sometimes forced to decide against the irritable artist, who on one occasion himself administered what he felt to be justice, and soundly thrashed an engraver whom he suspected of having purloined his plates. This time a lawsuit followed in which Mantegna fared badly; for we find him again appealing to the marquis for help.
Lodovico, always ready to treat Mantegna with forbearance, was not, how-ever, so prompt to satisfy his frequent and more reasonable complaints that his salary was in arrears. In 1478 the painter wrote to remind his patron that the promises made to induce him to leave Padua had never been fulfilled, but that now, after laboring in the Gonzagas’ service for nineteen years, he was still poor and in need. Lodovico replied kindly and with apologies, assuring Mantegna that he should be paid, even if his own possessions had to be sold, but that money was scarce in the Mantuan treasury, and even then his own jewels were in pawn. Three weeks after this Lodovico died, after ruling for thirty-four years, and to his son, Federico, were left his dukedom and his debts.
This new marquis had all his father’s love of art and luxury, and towards the court painter he showed continued kindness and appreciation of his genius. He kept him, indeed, so constantly employed that Mantegna was forced to re-fuse many of the commissions he received from different parts of Italy. The painter was at the height of his powers and success when, in 1484, Federico died, and was in his turn succeeded by his son, Francesco, then but a boy; and Mantegna, seemingly uneasy as to his position at the Mantuan court, wrote to offer his services at that of Florence. What answer he received we do not know, only that he remained in Mantua and that his new patron, the young marquis, Francesco, proved as appreciative of the painter’s genius as his father and grandfather had been before him.
The first important work undertaken by Mantegna after the accession of Francesco was the execution of a series of nine large paintings representing `The Triumph of Cæsar,’ now at Hampton Court, England, but long used to decorate a palace of the Gonzagas. This great work was interrupted by a journey to Rome in 1488, made in compliance with a request to Francesco Gonzaga from Pope Innocent Vlll. that he would send his favorite painter to Rome to decorate a chapel in the Vatican. Such a request could not be re-fused, and accordingly Mantegna was allowed to depart, having first had conferred upon him by his master the honor of knighthood.
For two years he remained in Rome, but unfortunately the frescos with which in that time he decorated the pope’s chapel have perished, the entire chapel having been destroyed in 1780, when Pope Pius Vl. enlarged the Vatican. Several letters written by Mantegna to the marquis, Francesco Gonzaga, during his residence in the papal city, have been preserved, in which he tells of the honor and favor shown him by the pope, who, he says, though gracious, was not generous, for that he had been obliged to work for a year with nothing in return but his board a statement which would seem to be corroborated by the anecdote told by Ridolfi that the painter, having been bidden to portray the seven deadly sins, placed beside them an eighth figure, and that when the holy father asked him what that signified Mantegna replied, “In-gratitude,” which he held to be the worst of all. To which the pope, seeing the meaning of the painter’s words, replied, smiling, “On this side then paint the seven virtues, and for an eighth figure add Patience, which is not inferior to any of the rest.” After this, however, it is said that Mantegna’s money was promptly paid.
As time went on and the artist did not return, Francesco became impatient, and in December, 1489, when his marriage with the beautiful Isabella d’Este, daughter of the duke of Ferrara, was about to be celebrated, he wrote urgently to both the pope and the painter, stating that Mantegna’s services were needed in Mantua. But when the wedding took place, in the following February, Mantegna was still in Rome, detained by sickness, and not until the next autumn was he able to return to Mantua. All his attention was then de-voted to the completion of his `Triumph of Caesar,’ about which he had been so anxious while in Rome that in his letters to the marquis he had more than once given explicit directions as to the care to be taken of these precious works, of which he says himself, “Truly I am not ashamed of having made them, and hope to make more, if God and your Excellency please.”
Henceforth Mantegna’s life was passed without interruption in Mantua. His talents were in constant requisition by the marquis and by his accomplished wife, Isabella, who, during the frequent absence of Francesco on military service, governed the state ably and wisely. To commemorate a battle in which the marquis, although defeated, had borne himself bravely, Mantegna painted his famous `Madonna of Victory’ to adorn the private study of Isabella, he painted the two mythological scenes, `Parnassus’ and the `Triumph of Wisdom,’ both now in the Louvre, Paris. For the monks of Santa Maria degli Organi he painted the altar-piece of the `Madonna and Saints,’ now owned by Prince Trivulzio in Milan; and when his brush was not actively employed his creative powers found expression through his pencil or his burin, for Mantegna was famous not only as a painter but as a draftsman and an engraver.
Scarcely a dozen genuine examples of his drawings have survived, but these show him to have been a master in that branch of art, and as an engraver he stands in the foremost rank. Of the twenty-three plates formerly ascribed to his hand only seven are now regarded as unquestionably his. All these are notable for the beauty and originality of the designs, powerful imagination displayed, and great technical skill.
Mantegna’s irascible disposition, which rendered him an almost impossible neighbor, does not seem to have prevented his being held by the distinguished scholars of his day to be a delightfully agreeable companion, whose varied accomplishments and cultivated tastes excited general respect and admiration. As a collector of antiquities he had acquired a reputation, and we are told that he took much pleasure in poetry, and even wrote verses himself. Upright, loyal, and proud, he was, as one of his biographers has said,” a man who took life earnestly, ardently, with no doubts of its worth, or of the value of his own labors therein, and with no half-heartedness in the fulfilling of them; he was fired by the true Renaissance zeal, enthusiastic and devoted.”
To the very last he applied himself with characteristic energy to his art, and in his later years produced some of his most vigorous works. To this period many critics assign the powerful but repellent `Dead Christ,’ now in the Brera Gallery, Milan. A `St. Sebastian’ in the collection of Baron Franchetti, Venice; belongs to this period, also the monochrome painting called the `Triumph of Scipio,’ in the National Gallery, London,
Mantegna’s last years were saddened by pecuniary losses and domestic troubles. Partly through his own too lavish expenditures, and partly because of the misdeeds of one of his three sons, Francesco, who was in constant disgrace at the Mantuan court and a sore trial to his father, he found himself deeply involved in debt. So urgent, indeed, was his need that, unable to work fast enough to satisfy his creditors, he was forced to part with the most precious of all his antiques, a Roman head of Faustina, his “dear Faustina,” as he called it. This he offered to the marchioness; Isabella, for the sum of one hundred ducats, but Isabella, away from home at the time, strangely enough delayed answering the pathetic appeal of the old painter, and when she did write it was to endeavor to acquire the bust at a lower price. Mantegna, deeply hurt by her long silence, angrily refused to part with his treasure for less than the sum named, and the marchioness finally acceded to his terms. Her agent, Jacopo Calandra, writing to her that he had at last obtained possession of the bust for her, tells how Mantegna put the precious marble into his hands with great reluctance, recommending it to his care with much solicitude and with such demonstrations of jealous affection that, adds Calandra, “if he were not to see it again for six days I feel convinced he would die.”
And, indeed, the end came soon after the parting from his dearest possession. Mantegna was ill at the time, and six weeks later, on Sunday, the thirteenth of September, 1506; he died, at the age of seventy-five. In accordance with his wish he was buried in the Church of Sant’ Andrea, Mantua, in a small chapel there which in his old age he had purchased for a last resting-place.
The marquis, Francesco Gonzaga, was absent from Mantua at the time of Mantegna’s death; and one of the painter’s sons, writing to apprise him of the event, tells him how, a few minutes before the end, Mantegna, loyal to the last to the family he had served so long and so honorably, had asked for his master, “and grieved much to think that he should never see his face again.” Isabella seems to have taken the news of the old painter’s death very casually, and in a letter written at the time to her husband, alludes to the event in merely passing terms. Others, however, felt the loss more keenly. Albrecht Durer, on his way from Venice to Mantua to visit the great Mantegna, to whose art he owed much and with whose genius his own was in deep sympathy, when he learned that the painter was no more, declared, and was often heard to repeat the words, that in all his life no sadder thing had ever be-fallen him; and Lorenzo da Pavia, the noted Venetian collector of antiquities, who had known and admired Mantegna, wrote to the marchioness, Isabella, “I grieve deeply over the loss of our Messer Andrea Mantegna, for in truth a most excellent painteranother Apelles, I may sayis gone from us. But I believe that God will employ him elsewhere on some great and beautiful work. For my part I know that I shall never again see so fine an artist.”