Works Of Mantegna

‘MADONNA WITH ST. JOHN AND MARY MAGDALENE’ PLATE I

TO the closing years of the fifteenth century may be assigned this picture in the National Gallery, London. The Madonna, wearing a rose-colored robe and a gray-blue mantle, is seated upon a low throne, beneath a red canopy, humbly inclining her head towards the Christ-child, who stands firmly poised upon her knee. On one side is St. John the Baptist with cross and scroll, his gaunt figure draped in a garment of bluish purple; on the other, Mary Magdalene, with fair hair and majestic mien, clad in robes of green and pale purple. Dark green orange and lemon trees and a silvery sky form the background.

“The tenderness and simplicity of the Virgin’s face,” writes Sir Edward J. Poynter, “the beauty of the heads of the two saints, the exquisite drawing and painting of the fruit-trees,the perfection of the execution, and the purity of the color, all combine to make this picture one of Mantegna’s masterpieces. The draperies especially are of extraordinary beauty. The rose-colored dress of the Virgin is delicately heightened with gold, and the garments of the two saints are of materials shot with colors of exquisite harmonies. The whole work is in perfect preservation.”

‘MEETING OF LODOVICO GONZAGA AND CARDINAL FRANCESCO’ PLATE II

TEN years after his removal to Mantua, Mantegna began to decorate a room in the Castello known as the “Camera degli Sposi” (the nuptial chamber), with frescos representing Lodovico, marquis of Mantua, surrounded by his family and court. Over the entrance door is a group of winged boys bearing a tablet, and on the ceiling are medallions and mythological subjects, with a simulated circular opening in the center through which figures in violent foreshortening look down over a balustrade.

In plate n, the principal portion of one of the best preserved of the wall-paintings of this famous room is reproduced. The marquis Lodovico, in short riding-coat and wearing long spurs, stands at the left with his two eldest grandsons, Francesco, afterwards marquis of Mantua, whose features even in this early picture are the same that we see in his portrait introduced into the `Madonna of Victory’ , and a younger brother, Sigismondo, afterwards a cardinal, who holds the hand of his uncle, Lodovico, the youthful bishop of Mantua. Lodovico’s hand in turn is clasped within that of his older brother, Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, whose meeting with his father, the marquis, upon his return from Rome and prior to his state entry into Mantua in 1472, forms the subject of this picture. At the extreme right, in a stiffly plaited gold mantle, stands Federico Gonzaga, father of the two children represented, and heir to the Mantuan principality. Nobles and attend-ants are grouped about, and in the landscape background with its deep blue sky is a walled city with monuments and ruins suggestive of Rome.

“Mantegna,” as Mr. Blashfield has said, “here shows himself a realist. The portrait figures are of a monumental ugliness which impresses at once by its sincerity, and a dignity that is half grotesque and half majestic.” The composition is stiff and the figures are posed without any attempt at ease or grace; but in spite of this, and notwithstanding the injured condition of the frescos, the Camera degli Sposi offers one of the most perfect existing examples of domestic decoration.

‘THE HOLY FAMILY’ PLATE III

IN this picture, belonging to Dr. Ludwig Mond, London, the Christ-child stands on the marble rim of a well, representing the hortus inclusus, or in-closed garden, the source, or fountain, of the Song of Solomon. In one hand he holds an olive-branch, in the other a crystal globe. Beside him is the infant St. John, pointing to the Lamb of God, and to the right St. Joseph, against whose garnet-colored cloak is outlined the delicate profile of the Virgin, inclined in prayer. The background is composed of the dark green branches of an orange-tree, gleaming with golden fruit.

“Whether we consider this canvas,” writes Mr. Berenson, “from the point of view of line or of color—a quality of which Mantegna is not often absolute master—whether from the point of view of modeling or of expression, we shall rarely find its rival among the other works of the great Paduan, and never its superior.”

Mr. Claude Phillips says that “apart from the originality of its composition the most unusual feature of this work is the strange and profound spirit of mysticism which pervades it. This is no usual `Holy Family,’ where the Virgin, while adoring, protects the divine Child, nor is it any mere portrayal of the Infant Jesus; it is rather the Christ, who, with all the appearance of a God, stands erect upon the margin of the well as upon a throne, while all present devoutly humble themselves before this radiant manifestation of divinity.”

‘THE CRUCIFIXION’ PLATE IV

IN 1457–59 Mantegna painted a large altar-piece in six parts for the Church of San Zeno, Verona. The enthroned Madonna and Child, surrounded by singing angels, occupy the main central division; on either side are four standing figures of saints, while the three lower panels forming the predella represent, in the center, `The Crucifixion,’ and in the side compartments `The Agony in the Garden’ and `The Resurrection.’ This picture was carried off to Paris by the French in 1797, but in 1815 the three panels composing the body of the altar-piece were restored to Italy, and are now in their original place in Verona. The predella, however, was not returned. Its two side di-visions are in the Tours Museum, while the finest of the three, `The Crucifixion,’ here reproduced, remained in Paris, and is now in the Louvre.

In this little panel, measuring not much more than two feet high by three feet wide, many characteristics of Mantegna’s art are to be found—the composition, built up with geometrical precision, the carefully studied perspective, the figures unnaturally elongated, yet drawn with bold and severe realism, the sculpturesque draperies, the landscape, in which the rocky foreground has the appearance of being cut with a chisel; above all, the impressive dramatic effect, produced not so much by any violent movement as by contrast in the delineation of character and feeling.

In his later works Mantegna displays a greater freedom, a less uncompromising severity, a keener sense of abstract beauty; but in depth of pathos and in power of dramatic feeling this picture of the Crucifixion is unsurpassed.

‘THE TRIUMPH OF CAESAR’ [FOURTH SECTION] PLATE V

IN this great work, painted between 1484 and 1492 for Francesco Gonzaga, Mantegna has portrayed in a series of nine pictures a triumphal procession of a Roman conqueror. Probably intended to adorn a long gallery in the marquis’s palace of San Sebastiano, at Mantua, six of these canvases were at one time used as the stage decorations of a theater temporarily fitted up in the Castello for the performance of Latin plays. In 1627 the whole work was bought for King Charles I. by his agent in Italy, Daniel Nys, and taken to England, where it now forms the chief treasure of the Royal Gallery of Hampton Court. In the eighteenth century it was barbarously “restored” by Louis Laguerre, so that today but little remains of Mantegna’s splendid work save the composition and general forms; but even in its present state of ruined grandeur `The Triumph of Caesar’ ranks as one of the greatest achievements of the early Renaissance.

The painting is on canvas, in tempera, and is light in color and decorative in effect. Each of the nine sections measures nine feet square, so that the whole work extends for a distance of eighty-one feet. The first section shows the trumpeters and standard-bearers heading the procession; these are followed by warriors with battering-rams and the captured images of gods, armor, and other trophies of war; then come hearers of costly vessels, more trumpeters, and white oxen wreathed for sacrifice and led by beautiful youths (see plate v); next come elephants carrying flaming candelabra on their backs, then soldiers with more booty, and, following these, a line of captives, men, women, and children, mocked and taunted by jesters and clowns; then more soldiers and standard-bearers, and finally, in the last section of all, the magnificent triumphal car in which Julius Caesar himself is seated, while behind a winged figure of Victory crowns the conqueror with laurel.

`The Triumph of Caesar’ is, as has been said, “a superb exposition of what Mantegna loved best to study and express; it is the very quintessence of his genius.” “This rhythmic procession,” writes John Addington Symonds, “modulated to the sound of flutes and soft recorders, carries our imagination back to the best days and strength of Rome. . . . The life we vainly look for in the frescos of the Eremitani chapel may be found here—statuesque, indeed, in style and stately in movement, but glowing with the spirit of revived antiquity. The processional pomp of legionaries bowed beneath their trophied arms, the monumental majesty of robed citizens, the gravity of stoled and veiled priests, the beauty of young slaves, and all the paraphernalia of spoils and wreathes and elephants and ensigns, are massed together with the self-restraint of noble art subordinating pageantry to rules of lofty composition. What must the genius of the man have been who could move thus majestically beneath the weight of painfully accumulated erudition, converting an antiquarian motive into a theme for melodies of line composed in the grave Dorian mood ?”

‘THE MADONNA OF VICTORY’ PLATE VI

THIS picture, the most sumptuous of Mantegna’s altar-pieces, was painted to commemorate what was claimed to be a victory by Francesco Gonzaga, general of the Venetian troops, over the French army at Fornovo under Charles Vlll. Although Gonzaga acquited himself with bravery, the battle, as a matter of fact, terminated not in victory but in defeat for the young marquis, who had vowed, should success attend him, to dedicate a church to the Madonna; and exactly a year afterwards, on July 6, 1496, Mantegna’s great canvas of the `Madonna of Victory,’ painted by order of Francesco, was conveyed in solemn procession from the artist’s studio in Mantua to the new church built after Mantegna’s own designs for its reception. Three hundred years later, in 1797, the French carried off the picture as a trophy of war to Paris, where it has ever since been one of the treasures of the Louvre.

Under an arched bower of green foliage adorned with golden fruit and red coral, the Madonna, wearing a red robe interwoven with gold and a blue mantle lined with green, and holding on her knee the upright figure of the Child, is seated upon a richly decorated throne of colored marble. At her feet, his dark face turned upward to the holy group, kneels Francesco Gonzaga, clad from head to foot in armor. Opposite him is the kneeling figure of St. Elizabeth, in a green dress and orange-colored head-dress, and beside her the little St. John. The heads of St. Andrew and St. Longinus, the patron saints of Mantua, are seen in the background, while on either side of the Madonna, holding the hem of her outspread mantle, stand the warrior-saints, St. Michael and St. George.

“In the `Madonna of Victory,’ writes Herr Kristeller, “Mantegna goes far beyond the art methods of his day. The picture represents the freest and most mature form of religious composition which the art of the Renaissance was capable of attaining prior to Raphael, Titian, and Correggio, and was the prototype, or point of departure, of the creations of the great masters of the golden age.”

ST. JAMES BEFORE HEROD AGRIPPA’ PLATE VII

MANTEGNA’S earliest important works are his famous frescos in the Chapel of St. James and St. Christopher in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua. The commission to decorate this chapel with scenes from the lives of their patron saints was given by its owners, the Ovetari family, to Squarcione, who intrusted the work to his pupils, chief among whom were Niccolô Pizzolo and Mantegna, and so wide a reputation did these frescos attain that when completed the chapel became throughout the north of Italy a sort of school for the study of style.

A difference of opinion exists among critics as to the extent of Mantegna’s share in the decorations, but it is generally agreed that six of the principal wallpaintings—four from the life of St. James and two from that of St. Christopher—are attributable to his hand. Of these the one representing ‘St. James before Herod Agrippa’ is here reproduced. The scene, a Roman court-room, is imposing in its stately architectural setting. The saint, clad in a dark green mantle and surrounded by Roman soldiers, stands before the judgment-seat of Herod. We are conscious in this picture of the artist’s preoccupation with the problems of perspective, as well as of his “tendency to subordinate the human to the architectural interests.” A statuesque immobility marks many of the figures, notably that of Herod and of the isolated warrior to the left (said to be a portrait of the artist), but there are also perceptible—in the attitudes of some of the guards and in the natural pose of the officer within the marble paling—signs of the beginning of that gradual emancipation of Mantegna’s art from the lifeless rigidity of form which characterized his work at this early period to the broader, freer, and more natural treatment of his later productions.

‘MADONNA AND CHILD WITH CHERUBS’ PLATE VIII

WHEN, in 1885, this picture, now in the Brera Gallery, Milan, was subjected to a thorough cleaning it was found to be not a work of the school of Giovanni Bellini, as it had long been considered, but a veritable Mantegna, a fine example of the artist’s middle period. Signor Frizzoni, Signor Morelli, and others, believe it to be the identical picture painted by Mantegna in 1485 for the Duchess Eleonora of Ferrara, whose daughter, Isabella d’Este, was then betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua,—the “painting on wood of Our Lady and the Child with Seraphim,” concerning which many letters passed between the duchess and her future son-in-law, and which long remained in the possession of the Este family at Ferrara.

The Madonna, one of the most beautiful ever painted by Mantegna, wearing a red robe and a hooded mantle of blue lined with green, holds on her knee the standing figure of the Child, who, with arms clasped about his mother’s neck, is listening with rapt expression to the song of the encircling angels floating with outspread bright-colored wings among the clouds.

‘PORTRAIT OF CARDINAL SCARAMPI’ PLATE IX

AMBITIOUS, talented, passionate, and unscrupulous, Lodovico Scarampi was one of the most remarkable men of his day in Italy. Born in Padua in 1402, he became distinguished as a leader of the papal troops, and as a reward for his military services was invested with high ecclesiastical honors, being created archbishop of Florence, patriarch of Aquileia, bishop of Bologna, and finally given a cardinal’s hat. From his rich revenues he amassed enormous wealth, and lived with a lavish display of luxury, dying in 1465, from disappointment, it was said, that he never succeeded to the papal chair.

In Mantegna’s famous portrait in the Berlin Gallery, painted probably in Padua in 1459, Cardinal Scarampi is clad in a red silk cloak and a finely plaited white surplice. The powerful head with its crop of short gray hair has the appearance of being cast in bronze, and the stern features, sharply cut mouth, keen eyes, and contracted brows reveal in all its force the character which history has handed down to us of the arrogant, iron-willed priest.

‘PARNASSUS’ PLATE X

SOON after 1500, Mantegna, then seventy years of age, painted for the study of Isabella d’Este, in the Castello of Mantua, two pictures, representing, one `The Triumph of Wisdom,’ the other `Parnassus.’

For all paintings destined for her own special room Isabella gave exact directions as to subject, composition, distribution of light, and dimensions. It was her custom to provide any artist she employed, not only with a sketch, but to send him pieces of ribbon denoting the requisite height and width of the picture ordered. In carrying out her wishes in regard to the work here reproduced, “Mantegna,” writes Miss Cruttwell, “entered on a new phase of development, and showed himself already a sixteenth-century painter—the precursor, one might almost say, of Poussin and Watteau.”

The scene represents `Parnassus,’ the favorite haunt of Apollo and the Muses, where, upon a rocky archway crowned with orange-trees, stand Mars, god of war, and Venus, goddess of love and beauty. At their side is Cupid playfully casting darts at Vulcan, who is seen at his forge on the left. In a meadow below, the Muses, in light garments of varied tints, dance to the mu-sic of Apollo’s lyre, celebrating the triumph of love, and at the right is Mercury, messenger of the gods, and himself the god of eloquence, with the winged horse, Pegasus, beside him.

In this picture, conceived with the brightness of youth, “all the aged painter’s knowledge of classic lore,” writes Paul Mantz, “finds expression, but devoid of the archaism and austerity which characterize his early works. Such defects have disappeared, and only pure rhythm and harmony of line remain. It is the very flower, the essence, of the poetry of the Greeks.”

After the sack of Mantua in 163o, `Parnassus’ and its companion, `The Triumph of Wisdom,’ were taken to France, and are now in the Louvre, Paris.