Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jennie Ellis Keysor

"Through Squarcione the scientific and humanistic movement of the fifteenth century was communicated to the art of northern Italy.

"The truth is that Mantegna's inspiration was derived from the antique. The beauty of classical bas-relief entered deep into his soul and ruled his imagination."


Andrea Mantegna


Thus far in the history of Italian painting, Siena, Florence and Rome had been the centers of greatest activity. Padua, which had felt the art impulse in Giotto, was now about to produce the greatest artist of his time—one who added element after element to the art of painting. Padua lives in our minds, if from nothing else but Shakespeare, as a city of learning in Mediæval and Renaissance times.

We have often spoken of its university, the foremost in Italy, and it is all the more important to remember now as we study the greatest of Paduan artists, Andrea Mantegna, for out of the very learning of the place this genius shaped his art, at least in its earliest stages.

In Padua, at the time of Mantegna's birth, there lived an eccentric art teacher, Francesco Squarcione, who, strange to say, had almost no ability to paint and yet who made one of the finest of teachers. He had traveled a great deal in Greece and Italy, and in the course of his wanderings he had gathered a large number of pictures and he had made many drawings and casts of the Greek sculptures.

On settling down in Padua, Squarcione soon gathered about him a large school of one hundred thirty-seven pupils. With him the love of ancient sculpture was a passion, and his pupils were thoroughly drilled in making copies of his casts. They were instructed in perspective, which their master had learned from Uccello, who was almost insane on the subject. Such training was certainly of the utmost value to painters at this stage in the development of their art, and in enforcing it, Squarcione did a far nobler work than had he left many mediocre pictures.

Among his pupils was Andrea Mantegna. It is told that Squarcione found him, a lad of ten, herding cattle and that he adopted him as a son and trained him in his studio.

Seven years after Mantegna entered Squarcione's school he undertook an elaborate series of frescoes in the Eremitani Church of Padua, illustrating the history of St. James and St. Christopher. It is said that his teacher and foster father criticised his figures declaring that they were mere copies of marble statues without life or feeling.

There certainly was some truth in this criticism, but an added reason for the testiness of Squarcione is to be found in the fact that Andrea had become acquainted with Jacopo Bellini and his two sons, the founders of Venetian painting, who had recently come to reside in Padua. Andrea, however, continued his intimacy with the new painters, cementing the bond by marrying old Jacopo's daughter.

To the strange mixing of the methods of these two schools of painting we owe added excellencies on both sides. On the one hand Mantegna added expression and grace where before he had accomplished only fine form and perfect perspective. To the Bellini, on the other hand, Andrea imparted the very element of correct outline which their blazing color-work so much needed.

The union of Mantegna and the Bellini was the last link in that art chain which reached from Naples to Milan, across to Venice and down through Siena and Florence to Rome.

But to return more definitely to Mantegna. His early years at Padua were spent much in the company of men who were filled with an interest in the old classical learning and the remains of classical art. Then he went to Verona for a time, and from there to the real scene of his life work, that is to Mantua, called thither by the famous Gonzaga family. For upwards of fifty years he served this family, three heads of which praised him; blamed him, when his irascible temper got the better of him, and yet all the time loved him for the glory of his work. The last of these patrons were Francesco Gonzaga and his gifted wife, Isabella d' Este.

Mantegna's first work for this family was the decoration of their principal palace, which he did largely with portraits of the family usually disposed in groups. Here, too, he was the first among Italian painters to decorate ceilings in the same manner as Correggio, who worked years later; that is, he painted them with figures executed with a view to their correct appearance when looked at from below.

In 1485, Mantegna began the greatest work of his life—a frieze for the palace of St. Sebastian which Francesco was then building in Mantua. The subject was the Triumph of Cæsar, which was to be painted in tempera on nine pieces of linen. The whole work was to be eighty feet long and nine feet high, a space which would be sufficient on which to represent that wonderful procession which wound its way up to the Capitol with the spoils that Cæsar could show after his conquest of Gaul. It is now in Hampton Court, having been purchased by Cromwell for one thousand pounds.

It was a subject exactly adapted to Mantegna's genius. There was great variety of theme on which the artist could exercise his skill. He was deeply pathetic in the part where he represents the captives, especially the maidens, new-made wives, and mothers leading or carrying little children. He was almost as detailed as a Dutch painter in representing the inanimate spoils which made up a large part of that sumptuous caravan moving up that classic steep.

The frieze remained for a hundred years in the palace for which it was made, although it was frequently moved to adorn other apartments on festive occasions. It was first bought by Charles I. of England in 1628. After that monarch's death it was sold again, and Cromwell repurchased it, as stated above.

This work had taken seven years to complete, and in that time Pope Innocent VIII. had invited the artist to Rome to help decorate his new chapel in the Vatican. Mantegna did not wish to tear himself away from his beloved work, but the invitation was made so imperative that he went. He found neither the Pope nor his stay in Rome pleasant, although he accomplished several works there.

A story is told of a visit made by the Pope while the artist was painting his figures of the Virtues. As the Pope examined the work in progress he asked the name of the last figure in the line. Mantegna answered rather shortly, for he was never good-natured over his detention in Rome, "That is Discretion." The Pope, not to be outdone in shrewdness and repartee, remarked, "Put her in good company and add Patience."

Mantegna learned the then new art of engraving and became an expert in its use, drawing from all sorts of subjects, sacred, legendary and pagan. It was merely the work of his leisure hours and yet he distinguished himself in it quite as much as in painting. "Judith with the Head of Holofernes,"  we reproduce as one of the best of Andrea's engravings.

Mantegna's art life had been successful. He had done better work in his line than any of his predecessors. He had never lacked patronage, but had been pressed with it rather, and he had enjoyed the companionship of great men.

Notwithstanding this there was sorrow in his life. A son, for some misdemeanor, had been exiled and no word of Andrea's could influence Gonzaga to remit or lighten the punishment. All his life long he had allowed a testy temper to control him more or less. He had cultivated extravagant tastes, and like Rembrandt, he had allowed debt to gain dominion over him, so that his last years were constantly harassed by impending poverty.

He loved the antiquities that he had gathered about him as if they were human beings and only slowly would he allow himself to be convinced that they must be sold. A bust of Faustina was his especial delight and when at last it was bought by Isabella it really seemed as though his heart was broken. Six weeks after he parted with this treasure he died, and was buried in his own chapel of Andrea.

Although Mantegna was one of the very greatest figures in Italian Art yet his fame is not of the popular sort. His name is seldom or never heard in the town which he glorified. His frescoes are largely in decay. The pathos even of his Faustina, in the museum of Mantua, is well-nigh forgotten. It is placed carelessly with other antiquities. A thousand weary travellers pass it by without a sigh, but you and I stop before it and our eyes fill with tears as we recall that about this shapely stained marble the heartstrings of the immortal Andrea twined as the tendrils of a vine about the tree that is its support.

Notwithstanding all this seeming forgetfulness, the student and the artist have arisen, and to-day, looking on what he has bequeathed to the art of painting in lasting, essential principles, they call him blessed.