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Art: A Genius Obsessed By Stone

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

Andrea Mantegna has never been easy to approach, alive or dead. The “rock- born giant,” as Bernard Berenson called him, with his dedication to archaeology and his obsession with empirical vision, was one of the quintessential artists of the early Italian Renaissance. He was innovative, flinty and tough-minded, without an iota of sentiment.

This son of a Paduan carpenter, who rose to become the cynosure of every humanist eye in northern Italy, once sent a gang of thugs to bash up a printer who fell foul of him, and then had the poor man denounced for sodomy — a crime that, in 15th century Venice, carried the death penalty. Mantegna could also be sardonic and disrespectful to tardy patrons, up to and including the Pope himself. When Innocent VIII hired him to decorate the chapel of the Villa Belvedere in the Vatican, he was puzzled to see, tacked onto allegorical roundels of the Seven Virtues, an eighth that held the sketched-in figure of an old woman. What did she signify? asked the Pontiff. “Ingratitude,” snapped Mantegna, who had not yet been paid.

You must go to his work; most of it cannot come to you — not the murals and not many of the paintings either, most of which are now considered too frail to travel. Neither the St. Luke Altarpiece nor The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, that unsurpassably bitter and poignant image of the corpse on the stone slab, can leave the Brera in Milan, and the Louvre will never lend the Madonna della Vittoria to another museum.

Consequently there is a lengthy list of major paintings that are not included in “Andrea Mantegna,” the show of more than 130 works by him and others that will be at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through early April before moving to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in May. But this should deter no one — any chance to see a number of Mantegnas together ought to be grabbed, and this show is more a scholarly one than a spectacle, with catalog essays that break new ground in Mantegna research.

The word classicist today suggests pedantry. To the best minds of the Italian Renaissance it meant discovery and impassioned curiosity. We are too hobbled by provincialism in time to be able to goad ourselves into the excitement with which Mantegna and other Italian artists, architects and writers of the 15th century confronted the Antique: a buried civilization, an Atlantis below the hills and vineyards. What did it mean when Mantegna, in the early autumn of 1464, took off with two friends on a boat decked with carpets and laurel branches, punting around Lake Garda, twangling on the lute and looking for Roman ruins? This search for “such delightful places and such venerable ancient monuments,” as one of them later wrote, was a serious idyll, a way back into the past.

To be esteemed as a painter was to be compared with lost and mythic artists: Parrhasios, Zeuxis and Apelles. Mantegna’s taste for emblems and learned allegory — the mark of superior imagination among Italian humanists — pervades the work he did at Isabella d’Este’s prompting, such as the fantastically elaborate scene of Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue.

The most visible and palpable form of the Antique was stone. Sculpture afforded the model for painting, and Mantegna took its implications much further. Time and again, his paintings look like renderings of actual stone bas-reliefs, trompe l’oeil records of a scene carved by some imaginary dead hand. The figures and tent of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, circa 1495-1500, are painted with matte gray gouache on fine linen, but they seem at first glimpse to be actual stone. So little in art is new: what Mantegna was doing with this play of illusion was not so far from the wood graining and stencils in Georges Braque’s Cubist paintings more than 400 years later.

As a result, the image hovers strangely between the inorganic, mineral fixity of stone and the fluid life of paint. The banner on its pole outside the tent and the whipping linear rhythms of Judith’s head ribbon seem blown by an actual wind. And the undercurrent of strangeness is increased by the way Mantegna reduces Holofernes to two anatomical fragments: his head, which the avenging Jewess is placing in a bag, and the sole of his foot, which sticks up above the horizon of the bed end. Mantegna had a liking for feet — the same dead soles confront your eye in the most famous of his images, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. His willingness to emphasize single parts of the body in this weirdly iconic way is a reminder that, like any other artist of the time, he experienced antiquity mainly in fragments: broken parts and details of the huge lost whole.

The nature of stone goes straight into Mantegna’s formal system. It is hard and precise, never atmospheric: he has none of the mellowness of his relative Giovanni Bellini. None of his shapes are fudged or merely alluded to. You see every pebble and crack in the rocks, and of course every line of expression on the human face; in his Portrait of a Man, circa 1470-75, the folds of the red costume have the density of marble, the eyes are gray agate, and the net of lines around them and on the brow is described down to the point where it merges with the craquelure of the paint itself.

Indeed, some of his greatest works were produced by the scribing of metal by metal — the engravings. For it was Mantegna who invented the print as a fine- art form. Up to about 1460 it had been treated mainly as a minor reproductive medium for the dissemination of images. But Mantegna made prints into a prime vehicle of his imagination. Impressions of his engravings in good condition are now extremely rare, but in the full richness of their tonal contrast they have the virile directness of Donatello’s sculpture.

It was through engravings, above all, that Mantegna was able to reimagine classical motifs in all their grief, exaltation and lust. The satyr clutching the drunken boy in his Bacchanal with a Wine Vat has to be the sharpest and least prudish image of homosexual desire in all Renaissance art. The mountainous folds of skirt in Mantegna’s engraving of the Virgin and Child, arguably the most beautiful print made by any Italian during the Renaissance and only to be rivaled by Durer, support a protective gesture of inexpressible tenderness, in which the Madonna seems to be drawing her son back into the cave of her own body.

Such prints are Mantegna undiluted, and it is worth keeping them in mind when one moves to the series of paintings that were considered his crowning achievement, of an importance comparable only to Raphael’s cartoons — the Triumphs of Caesar, made for the Marchese Francesco Gonzaga in the 1490s. Painted in tempera on linen, abused over the centuries by intrusive restorers, these are ghosts of their former selves; but tremendous ghosts they remain. Their story is a victory parade by Caesar through Rome, preceded by soldiers, trophies and bearers of loot. Into them Mantegna poured all his antiquarian passions. They became a visual encyclopedia of what the Renaissance knew about the rituals, costumes and artifacts of Rome.

Through the overpainting and damage, you can still glimpse Mantegna’s original intent in the better-preserved works, like The Vase Bearers, showing the Herculean man in the blue cloak striding forward with a giant vessel on his shoulder, as described by Plutarch, and the ethereal beauty of a blond youth who seems to be decking the white ox for sacrifice. As a tribute to the power of Roman civilization, this great frieze must have surpassed any painting that the ancient Romans themselves could do.

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