The Art Of Mantegna
EUGÉNE MÜNTZ 'HISTOIRE DE L ART PENDANT LA RENAISSANCE'
AMONG the precursors of Raphael, Andrea Mantegna stands conspicuously in the foremost rank between Masaccio on the one side and Leonardo da Vinci on the other. No artist is more representative of one of the two chief factors of the new era—the study of antiquity; and when in addition we remember that his imagination was the most powerful, his style the most re-strained and the most finished, we may indeed ask if he were not the greatest painter of the early Renaissance. .
Besides the instruction Mantegna received from Squarcione and from Jacopo Bellini, Donatello's influence is noteworthy. The Florentine sculptor, as we know, lived in Padua from 1444 to 1453, and therefore it is probable that Mantegna knew him personally. At all events, the young Paduan painter modeled his style upon that of Donatello even more than upon that of either Squarcione or Bellini, borrowing from him the types of his children with their puffed-out cheeks and tiny mouths, as well as the type of Christ and of the Virgin. Finally, he learned from Donatello that quality of pathos which is found in his portrayals of the Crucifixion and the Entombment. Once in-deed, in one of his frescos in the Church of the Eremitani, Padua, he copied Donatello's `St. George;'
Instruction imparted more or less directly by a sculptor to a painter has its disadvantages. A too rigorous imitation of sculpture (I am speaking now not only of Donatello's bronzes but of antique statues as well) gave a cold quality to Mantegna's coloring, in which there is something hard and dry. Only at times, perhaps under the influence of his brothers-in-law Giovanni and Gen-tile Bellini, did he strike a warmer and more genial note, a richer and more golden tone.
Another Florentine, Paolo Uccello by name, was his exemplar in linear perspective and the art of foreshortening. This twofold preoccupation of Mantegna's plays so important a part in all his compositions that it sometimes interferes with the painter's poetic inspiration. In both branches, perspective and foreshortening, he acquired a skill so consummate that it has never been surpassed, perhaps not even equaled.
But the chief source of his indebtedness, that of all others from which he most freely drew, was antique art. To search with all the eagerness of an antiquary and all the scientific thoroughness of an archaeologist for the least fragment in the way of statues, bas-reliefs, coins, inscriptions, marbles, and bronzes, which could be useful to him in reconstructing an image of the Roman world; to study even to the most infinitesimal details the costume, the furniture, and the armor of the ancients; to consult the most learned scholars as to the shape of a sword, the bit of a horse, or the kind of boot used in the Roman armies, and then from this infinity of material and with inexhaustible patience to create a picture at once living and poetic, quickening with his imagination erudition which in another would have remained sterile;—such was the task which Mantegna accomplished with signal success.
His enthusiasm for the study of antiquity, however, did not lead him to neglect nature. Possibly if antiquity could have provided him with more numerous and more varied models, Mantegna would not have turned to nature for a guide; but much is lacking, especially for a painter, in the models offered by antique art. Types, it is true, it gave him, and costumes, armor, furniture, buildings—in short, a complete archæological outfit; but no color, no vegetation, no landscapes, and accordingly Mantegna, fortunately for us, was forced to turn his attention to the men and things of his own time; in a word, to complete his rôle of archæologist by that of realist. And so it was that, like Donatello, his immortal prototype, and like Raphael in later years, his art embraced two entire worlds—the world of antiquity, of paganism, and the world of Christianity—and he became the enthusiastic student of the one, the fervent interpreter of the other. .. .
Among the many high qualities of Mantegna's achievement, qualities which through him have become the common patrimony of Italian art, composition may be said to owe more to him than any other one branch of art. He was undoubtedly the first to give thought to the construction of a picture; that is to say, to substitute for a simple juxtaposition or a picturesque grouping of the figures an arrangement which had been thoroughly thought out as a whole, and of which the most insignificant parts should be placed as carefully as figures on a chessboard in the hands of a skilful player. Throughout his work we are conscious of a firm will and a brain ceaselessly alert. The arrangement of some of his pictures is as studied in its accuracy as a demonstration in geometry—too studied, indeed, for if this great artist can be reproached with a fault it is with over-conscientiousness. A little more freedom, a little more spontaneity, would sometimes be acceptable.
Science in the disposition of drapery was also carried by Mantegna to a point of perfection unknown before his day. His inspiration in this direction was derived from both the precepts of Paolo Uccello and from the Greek and Roman sculptors. He was not satisfied to skilfully arrange his draperies upon the human body, to make them follow the lines caused by the slightest movement, and dispose them in accordance with the most complicated anatomical problems—all this he regarded as but a preliminary step, not an end. He wished in addition to grapple with those problems of harmony and of elegance which had been solved with such marvelous perfection by the sculptors of antiquity. Thus it was that the flow of the drapery became by turn in Mantegna's hands picturesque, bold, and, again, truly eloquent. . . .
Here, too, the artist, conscientious above all, sinned through excess. When studied carefully his draperies will often be found to be too hard, too stiff. Striving with implacable logic to reproduce even the smallest folds, the tiniest ripples, of those surfaces which in their very nature are pliable, he gives them a metallic appearance; no matter how softly flowing their folds, his materials are frequently so painted that they seem to be made of tin.
As was the case with Donatello, Mantegna's fame and influence were widely extended, and yet he cannot be said to have founded any school, properly so-called. But if he had no direct pupils (none of his three sons, Francesco, LodovIco, and Bernardino, nor his favorite scholar, Carlo del Mantegna, attained celebrity), his imitators were numerous. There were Cosimo Tura and Melozzo da Forli,who were indebted to him for what is best in their art; Raphael, who borrowed from him the motive for his `Entombment'; Sodoma, who in his decorations of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican derived his inspiration from Mantegna's circular ceiling fresco in the Castello at Mantua; Correggio, Paolo Veronese, Albrecht Dürer, Holbein, and countless others.
As is usually the case in this work of propagandism, the engraver eclipsed the painter. A print travels easily, and can be quickly multiplied and spread. For every ten artists who could see one of Mantegna's paintings, a hundred were able to study his engravings; and so it came to pass that his plates—studies to which Mantegna attached but a low value—did more towards establishing his fame than his most celebrated paintings.
Mantegna died at Mantua in 1506, and in losing him Italy lost that one of her painters who contributed more than did any other before Raphael towards the development of the art of composition. Who knows, indeed, if in losing him she did not lose the prince of draftsmen of all time ?-FROM THE FRENCH
E. H. AND E. W. BLASHFIELD 'ITALIAN CITIES'
MANTEGNA looked not only at nature, but looked with passion and devotion upon the art of others, the art of the men who had been his forerunners by a millennial and a half. From his own personality and the work of the Greeks and Romans he evolved grandeur of style, dignity, rhythm, measure; from his own personality and the observation of nature he acquired a robust naturalism to be used when needed, and the capacity for an untiring rendering of every kind of detail; and from his own personality and his loving study of Donatello, he gave to many of his figures a kind of feverishly vital movement, especially facial movement.
Taking Mantegna's figures, we may roughly divide them into the pseudo-Roman, the realistic contemporaneous, and the ideal types of saints, angels, and holy personages. It is most of all in his' Triumph of Cæsar,' next in certain of the Eremitani frescos, that Mantegna developed his Roman types; and perhaps, before saying more of them, it is well to note that in the frescos the very first impression is made by the architecture. In the cartoons of the 'Triumph of Cæsar,' the accessories, though less important than in the Eremitani pictures, are also very notable.
In the frescos Mantegna has fairly lavished his architecture, and has reveled in his stage-setting. This architectural framing dominates, and it may be said here that Mantegna's elaboration of perspective, even more than his elaboration of detail, interfered with the unity of impression produced by each fresco as a whole. The science is too apparent; he wishes to know all, and does n't mind your knowing that he knows; the architecture is too emphatic, and the emphasis is increased by the fact that this master of linear perspective was, like most of the other primitives, sadly hampered when he came to a matter of atmospheric perspective. He is, however, in like case with many an-other; for, save in the hands of a very few Venetians and Umbrians, the fifteenth-century background would no more "down" than would Banquo's ghost. Mantegna's buildings are, after all, only in the second plane, not the third or fourth; and, for all that atmospherically they do not "know their places," they are splendid and stately frames, more accountable perhaps than any other one thing for the effect of the frescos. If his architecture is all antique, his costumes are, in three of the rectangles of the Eremitani frescos, frankly fifteenth-century; in the others they are of that pseudo-Roman character which we may call Mantegnesque.
That he would have had them altogether Roman we do not doubt; but the great artist cannot forget himself wholly, for even in his most earnest admiration Mantegna's personality asserts itself, as it should; he is more violent than the Greek, and he refines upon the later Roman. His people sometimes move with a nervous brusqueness that is unsculptural and therefore un-pagan; more often they stand statuesquely, or march rhythmically, as in the `Triumph.' Their long, thin bodies are evolved directly from Mantegna's own personality. In the `Triumph of Caesar' they have much of antique grace; in the frescos, it is combined with a great deal of medieval meagerness. They are of that type which Mantegna preferred to all others, in which there is a mixture of ugliness and elegance and even beauty, leaning now to the beauty side, with the striplings and children of the Mantuan cartoons, now to the side of ultra-elongation, as in `The Crucifixion '—the type with a powerful, sharply muscled thorax, slender but elegantly graceful arms and legs, and small heads. . . .
In his purely sacred pictures Mantegna's type of the Madonna is akin to Bellini's, in that she is always the close-hooded descendant of the Byzantine Marys; there is no opportunity for the picturesque arrangement of hair and veil dear to the Tuscans; the limitation is trying and calls for greater feeling for facial beauty in women than Mantegna possessed. In the delightful army of Italian winged children Mantegna's hold honorable office; real babies hardly existed in antique art, so he could obtain no inspiration from his Romans, and it is rather the little angels of Giovanni Bellini who are the brothers to Mantegna's children, who, we suspect, try to look like the little bronze musicians of Donatello's famous Paduan altar; but they are not so forceful as Donatello's children, nor so winning as Bellini's. . . .
In immediate relation to his flying children is a purely decorative and altogether delightful element in Mantegna's pictures, of which he was, if not the inventor, at least the typical adapter to pictorial purpose. He brought to a fuller color-life the Della Robbia garlands of green and white, and swung them across his frescos. They are heavier and thicker than Luca's festoons—so heavy, indeed, that infant geniuses easily ride astride or climb them like trees. Flowers and fruits almost as solid-looking as the glazed earthern pears and apples of the Della Robbia are set in them with a perfect regularity which, like the formalizing of Italian gardens, makes them but more decorative.
Having glanced, if ever so hastily, at types, architecture, and ornament, the material from which Mantegna evolved his art, let us even more briefly consider his technique, his drawing, color, and composition. M. Müntz asks if we may not call him the prince of draftsmen of all time. The critic's question cannot be answered; for there are many ways of approaching the summit of Parnassus, and its upper slopes throne many who, as our mood changes, may sit in turn with Apollo. Raphael and Michelangelo, Leonardo and Titian, Correggio, Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto make up a charmed circle, and when the threshold of the sixteenth century is crossed the gates swing together, closing upon an older and a different order of things, where the masters whom we call primitive must still linger, deprived of the wholly rounded perfection that came to those of the High Renaissance. But though they may be without it, nearest to this circle, in our hearts at least, sit the earnest Giovanni Bellini and the lofty-minded Mantegna.
M. Mintz in his enthusiasm sounds the key-note, for Mantegna, in his challenge to posterity, stands firmly as one of his Romans upon design and style, those bases of pictorial art. No matter how harsh his figures may be, his out-line in most of his wall-pictures, all of his engravings, and nearly all of his distemper panels is delicate and sensitive, full of character, full also of grace in his Roman striplings of the `Triumph of Caesar.' His modeling is close and dry, and his draperies and architectural ornaments are sometimes almost painfully elaborated:
With his design must be reckoned his treatment of perspective, which he made an important, perhaps too important, part of that design. Nevertheless, he performed with it some very pretty feats, adding to the attractiveness of his work, especially in his placing of his foreground figures exactly upon the floor line of his composition in wall-panels to be seen from below (as in the `Triumph of Cæsar' and the Eremitani frescos), and then making the feet of his people of the second plane vanish behind his horizon; but he was still at a point where he cared more for the solution of the problem than for any enhancement afforded by it to his picture.
Mantegna loved to compose, and liked to handle a great deal of material at a time; the Madonna and Child quite by themselves by no means tempted him as a subject, as they did his brother-in-law Bellini, for instance. He liked a procession much better, or a whole scene elaborately set, with architecture and landscape. His draperies, though dignified in general disposition, were in de-tail what the French would call tormented, full of little crinkly folds that seemed to suggest the copperplates of Nuremberg, and to emphasize the fact that Mantegna was engraver as well as painter. For a fifteenth-century artist he composed well with light. He knew the effect of light falling upon objects in the round; yet it cannot be said that he enveloped his figures, for he seemed to see everything in nature circumscribed by a pure line. In his expression through design he exhibited a dual artistic personality; pushed a little further in one direction, his drawing of` Judith,' in the Uffizi, might form part of a Greek vase painting; pushed a little further in the opposite direction, his Gonzaga nobles of the Mantuan Castello would become caricatures. Though an earnest student of the antique marbles, he was a keen observer of contemporary life as well. Moving in this wide gamut of elevated realism and noble idealism, he always preserved a loftiness of feeling which made him at times a peer of Michelangelo, while he possessed a terribilità of his own a quarter of a century before the great Tuscan began to work. His love of sculptural repose and dignity did not prevent him from being intensely dramatic in his predella of the San Zeno Madonna, and although his figures often grimace and distort their features, yet the contortion which became pathos with Bellini deepened into tragedy with Mantegna.
As might have been predicted, this lover of sculpture was lacking in feeling for color, a deficiency which few critics have noted, and which the late Paul Mantz has characterized admirably, remarking that Mantegna was a "brilliant but rather venturesome colorist," and that, "tones which are fine, if considered by themselves, are heard above the general harmony of the music, and are rather autonomous than disciplined."
In his earlier works, the frescos of the Eremitani of Padua, Mantegna is in his coloring like a child with a toy paint-box, spotting out impartially here a yellow mantle and there a green tunic, without reference to any general scheme of color. He learned later from Bellini to use rich, strong tones in the Ma-donnas of San Zeno, at Verona, and of Victory in the Louvre. Whether the unevenness, the lack of composition of color in those works, was wholly Mantegna's fault we cannot tell; for in considering the color of these, as of many old pictures, we are unable to speak with confidence, since time has so altered the relations that we can no longer in anywise verify the master's original arrangement, and alterations would be peculiarly apt to occur in the heavy gar-lands of Mantegna, with their coral and fruits, where the strong reds may have remained brilliant, while the greens have fallen into warm, deep browns. Nevertheless, when all allowance is made, it must be confessed that this mighty master of style and of composition of lines was almost wholly lacking in the sense of color-composition. Indeed, it could hardly be expected that the same temperament which could so keenly perceive and so adequately render the grave music of noble and exquisite line could be equally susceptible to the deep-chorded harmonies of rich and subdued color.
Considering his whole product, his cartoons and his wall-pictures, his tempera work and his engraving, we find that immediately after the five or six greatest names in the history of Italian art comes that of Andrea Mantegna; he stands at the head of the group of secondary painters which counted Ghirlandajo, Botticelli, and Filippino Lippi, Bellini, Signorelli, and Perugino among its members. His name brings with it the memory of a lofty and in-tensely characterized style, of figures of legionaries, long and lean as North American Indians, Roman in their costume, medieval in their sharp, dry silhouette; of saints, hard and meager, but statuesquely meager; of figures stern almost to fierceness, yet exquisitely refined in the delicacy of their outline; of realistic Mantuan nobles impressive in their ugliness; of stately Madonnas; of charming boy angels, flying or holding up festoons of flowers and fruits; of delicate, youthful figures with long curling hair and crinkled drapery, where every tiny fold is finished as if in a miniature; of canvases filled with long files of captives, with chariots loaded with treasure, with sky-lines broken by standards and trophies, with armored legionaries, curveting horses, elephants with jeweled frontlets, and with statues towering above the crowd; of processions where the magnificent vulgarity of ancient Rome and the confused lavishness of an antique triumph are subdued to measured harmonies and sculptural lines.
Mantegna's is essentially a virile genius; he does not charm by suggestiveness, nor please by morbidezza; he lacks facile grace and feeling for facial beauty; he is often cold, sometimes even harsh and crude, and in his disdain for prettiness and his somewhat haughty distinction he occasionally impresses us with a rather painful sense of superiority. Something of the antique statues that he loved and studied and collected entered into his own nature and his work. As Fra Angelico was the Saint, and Leonardo da Vinci the Magician, Mantegna was the Ancient Roman of art. His were the Roman virtues,—sobriety, dignity, self-restraint, discipline, and a certain masterliness, as in-describable as it is impressive,—and to those who appreciate austere beauty and the pure harmonies of exquisite lines Mantegna's art will always appeal.
( Originally Published 1905 )
The Art Of Mantegna
The Works Of Mantegna
A List Of The Principal Paintings By Mantegna With Their Present Locations