1441 and 1445 Andrea Mantegna was listed in the register of Paduan
painters as the “godson” of Francesco Squarcione. The fertile
humanistic environment in Padua, that had been vitalized by the many
Tuscan masters, Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno and
Donatello, who had passed through the city, was fundamental to his
development. In 1448, together with Niccolò Pizolo, he received the
commission from the Ovetari family to fresco the family chapel
dedicated to Saints Christopher and James in the church of the
Eremitani in Padua. His partner’s sudden death found him working by
himself to complete the vast project that took until 1457. Although the
frescoes were almost entirely destroyed in World War II, the fragments
that remain are sufficient to reveal the vigorous and incisive manner
in which he portrayed heroic figures whose gestures are set within a
clear perspective setting of Tuscan origin.
In 1449 Andrea was in Ferrara, working for Lionello d’Este. In 1453 he
married Nicolosia, Giovanni Bellini’s sister. Between 1457 and 1460 he
painted the triptych altarpiece for the church of San Zeno in Verona.
In the painting he unified the space in order to render the assembly of
saints gathered around the Virgin and Child beneath a classic frieze of
and a ridge of fruit garlands more realistic.
In 1460 he accepted the invitation of the marchese Ludovico Gonzaga and
moved to Mantua. He made but a few trips in his life: in 1467 to
Florence, the following year to Pisa and then from 1488 to 1490 he was
in Rome decorating the chapel of pope Innocent VIII in the Vatican
[these paintings have been lost].
At the Gonzaga court he worked on various projects: from religious
paintings to portraits, from huge decorations to engravings. His work
on the decorations of the marquis’ chapel in the castle is documented
as having been done in 1464. The chapel decorations have been
destroyed, but the Death of the Virgin and the Uffizi Triptych (1464-70) are related to them. Between 1465 and 1474 he decorated the Camera degli Sposi in the ducal palace. He alternated between the roles of skillful decorator and painter of deeply religious works such as The Dead Christ (1480 circa) that is now in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. The year 1486 found him working on nine canvases with The Triumphs of Julius Caesar that were inspired by classical literature and archeology. The altarpiece with the Madonna della Vittoria that he painted for Francesco II Gonzaga in 1496 is now in Paris. Then starting in 1497 he painted Parnassus, 1497 circa; Triumph of the Virtues, 1502 for the study of Isabella d’Este. His last documented painting is The Myth of the God Comus, it was still unfinished at the time of his death, so it was completed by Lorenzo Costa.
Presentation in the Temple
The use of the marble frame dates this painting around the fourteen fifties, and this, in turn, creates a link with Mantegna’s other works from this period. The Berlin canvas concentrates the action narrated in the foreground on a unitary dark background. The figures are portrayed head-and-shoulders as on some Roman tombstones and they are leaning on the false marble window. The two figures at the sides of the painting, who are looking to the left, not paying attention to the holy scene, have been identified as Mantegna and his wife, Nicolosia Bellini whom he married in 1452 or 1453 and who was the daughter of the painter Jacopo. The presence of the two portraits suggests that the painting, destined for a private collection, can be related to a specific event, probably the birth of the couple’s first child that occurred between 1454 and 1455.
San Zeno Altarpiece
This is the only mobile painting by Mantegna that is still in its original place, although the predellas are missing. In 1797 French commissars requisitioned the painting to take it to Paris where the panels were removed. The predellas were never returned and were divided between the Louvre (Crucifixion) and the Musée de Tours (TheAgony in the Garden and Resurrection), so the ones we see are nineteenth century copies by Paolo Caliari. Commissioned by the abbot Gregorio Correr, for the church of San Zeno in Verona, the altarpiece depicts the Virgin enthroned in the center, according to the Byzantine iconography of the Triumphant Virgin, and surrounded by singing angels. Eight saints are symmetrically arranged on the sides of the composition reflecting the patron’s devotional preferences and his predilection for reading holy scripture: on the left are Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and Zeno; on the right, Benedict, Lawrence, Gregory and John the Baptist. The entire composition is rich in references to antiquity starting with the frieze with the putti holding garlands, or the throne that is structured like a sarcophagus. The frame, that Mantegna himself probably designed, is still the original one and it is a fundamental chapter in the spatial development of the altarpiece since it allowed the artist to overcome the problems inherent in dividing the painting into sections.
This panel was rejoined as part of a triptych comprising the Circumcision and the Adoration of the Magi, known as the Uffizi Triptych, only in 1827. The panels entered the Medici collection from the Gonzaga collection some time around 1588. It was probably Mantegna’s first major commission from Ludovico Gonzaga, that is, the decoration of the chapel in the Castle of St. George in Mantua, that included the panel of the Death of the Virgin (Madrid, Prado). In this panel Christ ascends to heaven on a cloud, surrounded by a host of cherubs, the Virgin Mary and the twelve apostles. The chapel in the Castle of St. George was dismantled in the second half of the XVI century when the new chapel was built in 1563.
Adorazione dei Magi
La tavola è stata riunita in un trittico, il cosiddetto Trittico degli Uffizi solo nel 1827, insieme all’Ascensione e alla Circoncisione. Le tavole giunsero nella collezione medicea solo intorno al 1588 dalla raccolta Gonzaga. Si tratta probabilmente della prima importante commissione di Mantegna per Ludovico Gonzaga, la decorazione della cappella del Castello di San Giorgio a Mantova, cui apparteneva anche la tavola raffigurante la Morte della Vergine (Madrid, Museo del Prado). Il pannello con l’Adorazione dei magi si differenzia dagli altri due per la forma concava del supporto e per le dimensioni, dato che ha fatto ipotizzare la sua presenza nell’abside della cappella. Il corteo dei magi si snoda lungo un sentiero che sembra tagliato nella roccia, e raffigura il riconoscimento della divinità di Cristo da parte dei re delle genti. Nella grotta, la Vergine appare circondata da una mandorla di cherubini, secondo un modello bizantino, che sottolinea l’interesse di Mantegna e dell’ambiente padano-veneto per la cultura greco-bizantina. La cappella del Castello di San Giorgio fu smantellata già nella seconda metà del XVI secolo, in occasione della costruzione della nuova cappella nel 1563.Iconography
Death of the Virgin
Mantegna portrayed the final moment of the Virgin Mary’s life in a space defined by classic-style architecture, with a perfectly foreshortened checkerboard floor that leads to the horizontal figure of the Virgin. Beyond the religious scene there is a lake landscape that shows the bridge and hamlet of the Castle of St. George in Mantua. This painting was probably part of the decorations in the castle chapel along with three other panels that are now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: the Adoration of the Magi, the Ascension of Christ, and the Circumcision. The fact that the pillars of the arch above the Virgin are incomplete has led to the hypothesis that the painting may have been much larger and cut to a smaller size at some time. The fragment depicting Christ with the Effigy of the Virgin’s Soul (Ferrara, Pinacoteca Nazionale), a scene that traditionally accompanies portrayals of the Death of the Virgin was probably part of the composition.Iconography
This panel was rejoined in a triptych comprising the Ascension and the Adoration of the Magi, known as the UffiziTriptych, only in 1827. The panels entered the Medici collection from the Gonzaga collection some time around 1588. It was probably Mantegna’s first major commission from Ludovico Gonzaga, that is, the decoration of the chapel in the Castle of St. George in Mantua, that included the panel of the Death of the Virgin (Madrid, Prado). The panel unites the themes of two events that took place at different times, the Circumcision and the Presentation in the Temple. The chapel in the Castle of St. George was dismantled in the second half of the XVI century when the new chapel was built in 1563.Iconography
The martyrdom of the saint is portrayed from below in order to make the figure of the nude saint tied to the stump of a highly detailed fluted column even more monumental. At the saint’s feet we see ancient fragments that include a marble foot, while in the background there are both modern and ancient buildings. The two archers at the lower right, cut at the edges of the canvas, like the mourners in the Dead Christ of Brera, are rendered with crude realism. Between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the painting is mentioned as having been in the Sainte Chapelle d’Aigueperse in Auvergne, that was founded by Louis I de Bourbon in 1475. Its presence in France dates from the marriage of Chiara Gonzaga to Gilbert de Bourbon, the dauphin of Auvergne, in 1481.Iconography
Samson and Delilah
This painting has been linked to the Judith in the National of Gallery of Dublin due to similarities in technique and the moralistic theme. This canvas would contrast the positive example of the biblical heroine in the Dublin painting. On the tree we see the inscription “FOEMINA/DIABOLO TRIBUS/ASSIBUS EST/MALA PEIOR”, that is a call to challenge the evil woman who is much worse than the devil. Delilah was the Philistine woman who allowed herself to be corrupted by her people to obtain the secret of Samson’s great strength that resided in his hair. She is portrayed cutting the Israelite’s locks. This painting is one of Mantegna’s later works.
Madonna della Vittoria
It was Francesco Gonzaga who commissioned this painting to commemorate the victory in the battle of Fornivo. In 1797 French commissars took it from the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Mantua and sent it to Paris where it has been ever since. In the middle of the canvas we see the Virgin enthroned, on the base of the throne are scenes from Genesis in false gilded bronze. Mary’s gesture of blessing Francesco Gonzaga who is dressed in the armor he wore when he won the battle recalls Antonello da Messina’s San Cassiano Altarpiece. To the left of the throne, rather than a portrait of Francesco’s wife Isabella, we see her patron saint, Elizabeth with her son John the Baptist. On either side of the throne, the warrior saints, Michael and George, hold the Virgin’s robe, an allusion to the iconography of the Madonna della Misericordia, while, in the background saints Andrew and Longinus of whom we see only the faces, open the composition. The semi-circular, apse-shaped pergola permits a glimpse of the sky enhanced with coral and citrus fruits that will reappear in Correggio’s decorations of the Camera di san Paolo in Parma.
Upon his return to Mantua from Rome where he had been working for pope Innocent VII for two years, Mantegna worked on the decorations of the studio that Francesco Gonzaga’s young wife, Isabella d’Este had been designing in the castle of St. George since 1491. Mantegna’s painting, that was completed in 1497, was the first to be placed in the studio to be later joined by the Triumph of the Virtues, by Mantegna, the Combat Between Love and Chastity by Perugino, the Allegory of Isabella d’Este by Lorenzo Costa and The Myth of the God Comus, that was ordered from Mantegna, but completed by Costa after Mantegna’s death. Mantegna’s two paintings were given to cardinal Richelieu some time between 1627 and 1629 for his chateau at Poitou, they were removed from the castle and taken to the Musée Napoléon in Paris in 1800. The Parnassus, which is open to several interpretations, shows Mars and Venus embracing in front of a bed on a rocky arch while Cupid aims a weapon at her legitimate husband, Vulcan who is working at his forge. On the right we see Mercury with Pegasus, the winged horse, while the nine Muses dance to the music Apollo’s lyre. This painting is a clear exaltation of Isabella’s ideals that aimed at cultivating and promoting the liberal arts.
The mandorla with cherubs surrounding Virgin and Child alludes to the iconography of the Assumption, a miraculous event witnessed by saints John the Baptist and Jerome, Gregory the Great and Benedict arranged in such a way as to form a theatrical backdrop along with the two citrus trees. The two figures in the foreground are rendered with a perspective that makes them seen as if from below. In the bottom center are three busts of singing angels near an organ which may allude to the Olivetan church of Santa Maria in Organo in Verona for which the painting was done. The altarpiece, however, got its current name when it became part of the Milanese Trivulzio collection where it remained from 1791 to 1935 when it was acquired by the Milanese museum
Triumph of the Virtues
This is the second painting that Mantegna did for Isabella d’Este’s studio after the Parnassus of 1497. Inside a hortus conclusus there is a swamp where the Vices thrive, they are deformed beings who are clearly identified by scrolls according to Medieval custom. Among them we see Sloth, an armless, monkey-life figure dragged by Minerva and defined on the scroll as “Odio immortale, frode e malizia” [Immortal hate, fraud and malice], Avarice and Ingratitude who carry crowned Ignorance. In the middle is Diana, goddess of chastity portrayed according to a classic model, who is about to be ravaged by a centaur, symbol of lust. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom flanked by a female-looking tree comes to her aid. In a cloud in the sky we seen the cardinal Virtues: Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.