Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) was an outstanding Italian Renaissance painter and engraver. He was also a student of Roman archeology, and the son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini.
Mantegna is best known for the Camera degli Sposi (“Room of the Bride and Groom”), or Camera Picta (“Painted Room”) (1474), in the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua. His other principal works include the Ovetari Chapel frescoes (1448–55) in the Eremitani Church in Padua and the Triumph of Caesar (begun c. 1486), the pinnacle of his late style. All of these works are discussed below or in later posts.
Born in Isola di Carturo, a part of the Venetian Republic and very close to Padua, Mantegna’s extraordinary native abilities were recognized early. He was the second son of a woodworker, but his artistic future was set in motion when he was legally adopted by Paduan artist, Francesco Squarcione, by the time he was 10 years old.
Squarcione was a teacher of painting and a collector of antiquities in Padua; the cream of young local talent were drawn to his studio. Some of Squarcione’s protégés, including Mantegna and another painter, Marco Zoppo, later had cause to regret being a part of the master’s studio.
Squarcione, whose original profession was tailoring, appears to have had a remarkable enthusiasm for ancient art, and a faculty for acting. Like his famous compatriot Petrarch, Squarcione was an ancient Rome enthusiast: he traveled in Italy, and perhaps also in Greece, collecting antique statues, reliefs, vases, etc., making drawings from them himself, then making available his collection for others to study. All the while, he continued undertaking works on commission, to which his pupils, no less than himself, contributed.
As many as 137 students passed through Squarcione’s school, which had been established around 1440 and which became famous all over Italy. Padua attracted artists not only from the Veneto but also from Tuscany, including such notables as Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Donatello.
Mantegna was said to be the favorite pupil of Squarcione, who taught him Latin and instructed him to study fragments of Roman sculpture. The master also preferred the used of a kind of forced pictorial perspective in his works, recollection of which may account for some of Mantegna’s later innovations.
In 1448, at age 17, Mantegna disassociated himself from Squarcione’s guardianship to establish his own workshop in Padua, later claiming that Squarcione had profited considerably from his services without giving due recompense.
Mantegna did not have to wait long for validation of his independence. The same year he was awarded a very important commission to create an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia in Padua.
Unfortunately, the altarpiece is now lost, but we know it demonstrated his precocity, for it was unusual for so young an artist to receive such a notable commission. Mantegna himself proudly called attention to his youthful ability in the painting’s inscription: “Andrea Mantegna from Padua, aged 17, painted this with his own hand, 1448.”
The same year, he was commissioned, together with Nicolò Pizzolo, to work with a large group of painters entrusted with the decoration of the Ovetari Chapel in the transept of another church in Padua, Sant’Agostino degli Eremitani (church of the Hermits of St. Augustine). Mantegna’s works in this church constitute his earliest surviving paintings.
The facade of the Eremitani church, the Cappella Ovetari is in the right arm of the church’s transept.
Antonio Ovetari was a Padua notary who, at his death, left a large sum for the decoration of the family funerary chapel in the Eremitani church. The initial contracts for a series of frescoes were drawn up by the heirs of the notary in 1448. Works were commissioned from Giovanni d’Alemagna, Antonio Vivarini, Niccolò Pizzolo, and Mantegna. There is some indication that Mantegna (young as he was–17) may have been the originator of both the overall formal composition. The stories portrayed were inspired by The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varazze.
According to the original agreement, the first two artists were to paint the arch with histories of the Passion of Christ (never executed), the cross vault and the right wall (Histories of St. Chrisopther) while the two Paduans would paint the rest, including the left wall (Histories of St. James, son of Zebedee) and the altar wall, with its windows, was to depict the Assumption of the Virgin.
Above, plan of the Eremitani Church in Padua.
The Cappella Ovetari fresco cycle:
- Left (north) wall of Cappella Ovetari, Life of St. James
Mantegna probably painted the left wall with the scenes from the life of St James, which have been almost totally lost. Here is a list of the scenes depicted:
Vocation of the Saints James and John
St. James Preaching
St. James Baptizes Hermogenes
Judgement of St. James
Miracle of St. James
Martyrdom of St. James
Fortunately, great restoration work continues in Italy and can be found here:
These pictures can only give us a sense of how the wall once looked.
Above, overview of scenes from the Life of St James (scenes 1-6)
Scenes from the Life of St James (scenes 1-2)
Scenes from the Life of St James (scene 3)
Scenes from the Life of St James (scene 4)
Scenes from the Life of St James (scene 5)
Scenes from the Life of St James (scene 6)
2. Left (south) wall of Cappella Ovetari, Life of St. Christopher. The two scenes at the bottom (scenes 5 and 6) are by Mantegna.
Here is a list of the scenes depicted:
St. Christopher Leaving the King by Ansuino da Forlì (attributed)
St. Christopher and the King of the Devils by Ansuino da Forlì (attributed)
St. Christopher Ferrying the Child by Bono da Ferrara (signed)
St. Christopher Preaching by Ansuino da Forlì (signed)
Martyrdom of St. Christopher by Andrea Mantegna
Transportation of St. Christopher Beheaded Body by Andrea Mantegna.
Scenes from the Life of St Christopher (scenes 1-2)
Scenes from the Life of St Christopher (scene 3)
Scenes from the Life of St Christopher (scene 4)
Scenes from the Life of St Christopher (scene 5)
Scenes from the Life of St Christopher (scene 6)
3. The altar wall is for the most part the work by Mantegna: Assumption of the Virgin
4. The apse was divided into sections: Mantegna painted the saints Peter, Paul and Christopher within a stone frame decorated with festoons of fruit. These figures show similarities with the frescoes by Andrea del Castagno in the Venetian church of San Zaccaria (1442), both in the format and their sculptural firmness. Also similar is the cloud on which the figures are standing.
The remaining spaces were painted with images of the Eternal Father Blessing and the Doctors of the Church by Niccolò Pizzolo. The Doctors were depicted as majestic figures, and the saints were shown as Humanist scholars at work in their studios.
The arch was painted with two large heads, usually identified as self-portraits by Mantegna and Pizzolo.
5. The vault was decorated with Four Evangelists by Antonio Vivarini between festoons by Giovanni d’Alemagna.
6. A terra-cotta altarpiece completes the decoration of the chapel. It is covered with bronze by Pizzolo, and is extremely damaged. It shows a Sacra Conversazione in bas-relief.
Next, the history of the way the contract was executed by the painters.
Already in 1449, there were personal problems between Mantegna and Pizzolo, the latter accusing the former of continuous interference in the execution of the chapel’s altarpiece. This led to a redistribution of the works among the artists; perhaps due to this Mantegna halted his work and visited Ferrara.
In 1450, Giovanni d’Alemagna, who had executed only the decorative festoons of the vault, died; the following year Vivarini left the work after completing the depictions of the four Evangelists in the vault. Those 2 artists were replaced by Bono da Ferrara and Ansuino da Forlì, whose style was influenced by that of Piero della Francesca.
Mantegna began to work from the apse vault, where he placed images of three saints. Pizzolo painted images of the Doctors of the Church.
Next, Mantegna likely moved to the lunette on the left wall, with the Vocation of Saint James and St. John, and the Preaching of St. James, completed within 1450, and then moved to the middle sector.
At the end of 1451 work was suspended due to lack of funds. They were restarted in November 1453 and completed in 1457. This second phase saw Mantegna alone at work, as Pizzolo had also died in 1453. Mantegna completed the Stories of St. James, frescoed the central wall with the Assumption of the Virgin and then completed the lower sector of the Stories of St. Cristopher begun by Bono da Ferrara and Ansuino da Forlì. Here Mantegna painted two unified scenes dealing with the subject of the Martyrdom of St. Christopher.
In 1457. Imperatrice Ovetari sued Mantegna, accusing him of having painted, in the Assumption, only eight apostles instead of twelve. Two painters from Milan, Pietro da Milano and Giovanni Storlato, were called in to solve the matter. They justified Mantegna’s choice due to the lack of space.
Fortunately, sometime around 1880, two of the scenes, the Assumption and the Martyrdom of St. Christopher, were detached from the church walls to protect them from dampness. They were stored in a separate location and thus not destroyed during WWII.
During the war, those two frescoes were saved from the air bombardment that destroyed of all the rest of the cycle on 11 March 1944. Luckily, black-and-white photographs of the frescoes taken before the bombing allow us to visually reconstruct the cycle. First, let us look at images of the church taken after the bombings.
The 20th century bombing:
The restoration of the chapel’s frescoes:
The fresco cycle of the Ovetari chapel was, like almost all of the church’s interior, destroyed by an Allied bombing in March of 1944: today, only two scenes and a fragments survive. Painstaking work by talented art restorers have produced an almost unbelievable job of reconstituting the fragments into a whole, unveiled in 2006. The restorers had black-and-white photographs to guide their work.
Below are the photos I took on my recent visit to Padua.
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