Brilliant Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna
The precocious son of a poor carpenter, Andrea Mantegna was just 17 when he painted a masterpiece that stunned his contemporaries of 570 years ago. Before he was 30, he was court painter to one of the great ruling families of Italy, the Gonzagas, in Mantua, Lombardy.
There, in his forties, he designed his own house, a geometric, three-storey brick-and-stone square with a huge circular atrium plunging through its core, open to the skies. Narrowly escaping a bomb in the Second World War, today Casa del Mantegna testifies to his genius.
This self-made man who rose to become the greatest painter of his day is buried in a chapel he designed in Mantua’s towering Basilica of Sant’Andrea.
Teenage Mantegna was so sure of himself that he signed his painting on a trompe-l’oeil of creased parchment pinned to the front. The picture shows Saint Mark preaching through a sculpted archway decorated with egg-and-dart moulding, all so realistic that it brings the distant past alive in the way the artist made his own.
Born in 1431, he grew up in a village seven miles from the university town of Padua. His talent was so obvious that aged 11 he was apprenticed to a Paduan painter who adopted him to exploit his genius: artists worked for relatives on the cheap, or free.
But at 17, Mantegna rebelled, annulled his adoption and embarked on a long career as an artist of vivid realism. Many paintings survive, gloriously coloured, displaying his pioneering gift for depicting realistic architecture, three-dimensional spaces and foreshortened figures.
In 1453, at 22, he married Nicolosia, the half-sister of brilliant painter Giovanni Bellini. Unlike Mantegna, Bellini came from an established artistic dynasty, the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance painting. His father, Jacopo, was famous, and Giovanni and his brother Gentile worked with him. The Bellinis were powerful, scooping important commissions for religious art from wealthy patrons.
Aware of Mantegna’s talent, Jacopo Bellini joined it to his Bellini studio. In some ways this second “adoption” seems like a repeat of Mantegna’s early life.
Nevertheless, he and Giovanni Bellini were probably friends. Some of their paintings are either close, or in one case, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, near identical, one traced from the other. Without doubt, these two geniuses, whose work influenced later masters Titian and Veronese, learned and borrowed from each other.
But in 1460, Mantegna agreed to be poached by the ruling Gonzaga family of elegant Mantua. He upped sticks and became court painter at the ducal palace — a huge leap for a carpenter’s son, but a blow to the Bellinis. He painted for the Gonzagas for the rest of his life. He got fairly regular pay and some land, and in 1476 he decided to build a house.
During the Renaissance, artists didn’t just paint, but created whatever their patrons wanted, including architecture and furniture.
Despite no previous architectural experience, Mantegna’s vision for his house was spectacular. It would be his home, showroom and studio. He based it on geometry; a circle within a square, using the Roman idea of a grand internal courtyard, invisible from the street. His symmetrical plan must have made visitors gasp. Not surprisingly the furnishings have gone and in the 19th century it was used as a garrison. It is amazing after more than 500 years it stands at all.
In a charming Italian street, the house’s brick front with its regular windows and double oak door is almost bland. Once inside, you go straight through one of four equal flanks to the vast circular courtyard. In Mantegna’s day this had an earth floor, and perhaps statues.
The perfect cylinder rises three floors up to the sky. A tall, arched door sits in the centre of each side, with evenly spaced windows all around. The curving roof of hand-made red pantiles is pretty, and the atrium walls are embellished with acanthus leaves. These walls would have been covered in murals.
Inside, rooms connect via doors only six feet high. Mantegna’s apprentices slept in the ground-floor studio rooms and lived as family. Mantegna bought paintings and furniture, which probably decorated a grand first-floor living area that enjoys light from five windows. A pretty painted frieze runs around the top, beneath giant exposed joists.
In the artist’s bedroom, another corner room, two doors allowed free movement, for bedrooms were not as private as today. He slept under a now-faded fresco showing the Gonzaga emblem of the rising sun. A coat of arms he designed for himself is seen elsewhere in a fresco.
But he overspent, and the Gonzagas were erratic payers. After 20 years building his dream and living in it for just five, Mantegna had to leave it. He died impoverished in 1506 in a small house on the town’s outskirts.