MantegnaAndrea Mantegna was probably born in Isola di Cartura, a small village in the countryside between Padua and Vicenza. His father Biagio was a carpenter. An inscription recorded on a picture (now lost) stated that he was seventeen years old in 1448, implying that he was born in 1430-31. He was apprenticed when young to Francesco Squarcione, a mediocre painter and collector of works of art, who ran a large workshop in Padua. Mantegna had opportunity to study works of Florentine artists, particularly Donatello but also Filippo Lippi and Uccello, who visited Padua in the 1430s and 1440s. He was also doubtless influenced by Jacopo Bellini, whose daughter Nicolosia he married in 1453.
After six years of living with Squarcione, Mantegna freed himself in January 1448 after a legal battle. Precociously talented, he was already undertaking independent commissions, signing an altarpiece (destroyed in the seventeenth century, but described by Vasari as ‘a picture worthy of a mature and experienced craftsman’) for Santa Sofia in Padua. In the same year, 1448, he contracted with three other artists to decorate the Ovetari Chapel in the Eremitani church at Padua. In 1449 he was briefly in Ferrara, painting a double-sided portrait (now lost) of the Marchese Lionello d’Este and Falco da Villafora.
Work continued until early 1457 on the Eremitani frescoes (which were all but destroyed in 1944). Still in his twenties but already the most celebrated painter in Northern Italy, he was invited to come to Mantua as court painter by Ludovico Gonzaga, who offered him a salary of 180 ducats a year, a house, firewood, and enough grain to feed his family of six. His move was delayed for three years while he completed commissions, including the great altarpiece – an early example of a sacra conversazione – that is still in the church of San Zeno in nearby Verona. He finally took up the Gonzaga invitation in 1460, and remained in their service for the rest of his life. He visited Florence in 1466 and Rome in 1488-90, where he decorated for Innocent VIII a private chapel in the Villa Belvedere in the Vatican (destroyed in 1780). He died on 13 September 1506, and was buried in his own funerary chapel in the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua.
Little of his work for the Gonzaga has remained in Mantua. A small chapel in the Castello di San Giorgio, which he designed and decorated in about 1459-64, was destroyed in the sixteenth century; some panels in the Uffizi and the Prado are often thought to have formed part of the wall decoration. The Camera Picta (or degli Sposi), a small room in the castle decorated in 1465-74 with scenes of the Gonzaga Court and a famous illusionistic ceiling painting, remains intact and in reasonably good preservation. The series of the Triumphs of Caesar, started by 1486 but probably still uncompleted fifteen or twenty years later, was acquired by Charles I with the Gonzaga collection in 1629 and has been for centuries at Hampton Court; once Mantegna’s most famous works, the nine large canvases were repainted and damaged in early restorations. Other important late works – an altarpiece known as the Madonna della Vittoria because it was painted to celebrate Francesco Gonzaga’s victory over the French at Fornovo in 1495 and two allegorical pictures painted for Francesco’s wife Isabella d’Este in 1497-1502 – are in the Louvre. Unlike his prolific brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna painted remarkably few devotional pictures of the Virgin and Child or Holy Family, and barely a handful of panel portraits are securely attributed to him.
His paintings have a monumental sculptural quality, and display a passionate interest in classical antiquity and concern with problems of foreshortening and perspective. A superb draughtsman, he retained his linear style and minute tempera technique to the end, indifferent to the painterly oil technique being developed in Venice. (Unusually for an Italian painter, he often used distemper (that is, water-soluble paint made with animal glue) instead of true egg tempera; distemper paintings are especially fragile, and many of Mantegna’s have been damaged and their colours darkened.) Although works that can be precisely dated are preserved from all stages of his career, there is often disagreement about the dates of his undocumented pictures. He was the first important Italian artist to devote his attention to printmaking (although it is uncertain whether he cut his own plates or employed a professional engraver).
In his later years, when he had more commissions than he could handle, he must have had increasing help from assistants in his studio. Pictures ‘after Mantegna’ have often been ascribed to his son Francesco (though no documented work by Francesco survives). Other assistants and immediate followers included the Veronese painters Gianfrancesco Caroto (some of whose work Mantegna passed off as his own according to Vasari) and Francesco Bonsignori (who went to Mantua in about 1487 and worked there as court artist until his death in 1519).
Bergamo. Accademia Carrara.
Madonna and Child. Canvas, 43 x 31.
This small, portrait-like Madonna is often grouped with other small Mantegna Madonnas in Berlin and Milan (Poldi Pezzoli Museum), which share its realistic and tender treatment of the child and its poignant motif of the heads of the mother and child touching. The three Madonnas have sometimes been regarded as late works (eg. in Berenson’s Lists), but there is little recent support for this view or indeed agreement that the three pictures are all likely to be of the same period. The Bergamo picture has some stylistic similarities with portraits in the Camera Picta (completed in 1474). It was presented to the Accademia by Conte Carlo Morenzi in 1851. Painted in distemper on finely woven canvas; it is kept under glass and (despite some small paint losses and tears at the edges of the canvas caused by rusty nails) is unusually well preserved for a work by Mantegna of this type. Restored in 2009.
Resurrection. Wood, 48 x 37.
This small panel, bequeathed to the Accademia Carrara with the Lochis collection in 1866, was formerly attributed to Mantegna's workshop or to Francesco Mantegna. According to recent reports in the Italian press (May 2018), it has been identified as a fragment from the upper part of a painting, usually attributed to Mantegna himself, representing the Descent into Limbo. A tiny cross under the stone arch at the bottom edge of the Resurrection appears to belong to the staff held by Christ in the Descent into Limbo. The Descent into Limbo was formerly owned by Sir Stephen Courtauld of the wealthy English textile family. It was acquired in 1988 by Barbara Piasecka Johnson, widow of the New Jersey billionaire J. Seward Johnson, and sold at Sotheby's, New York, in January 2003 for $28.6 million.
Virgin and Sleeping Child (‘Madonna Simon’). Canvas, 43 x 32.
In this touchingly human small Madonna, the pensive Mary gently cradles her slumbering newborn Child, who is tightly swaddled and wrapped in her brocaded mantle. The foreshortening suggests that a low viewpoint was intended. Considered a later work by some critics (Berenson and Lightbown); but thought by others to date from Mantegna’s Paduan period or his early years in Mantua, and painted at a time when he was strongly influenced by Donatello’s reliefs. Once owned by the Conte della Ponte in Vicenza; acquired from an English art dealer by the German entrepreneur and philanthropist James Simon, who presented his huge collection of art works and archaeological finds to the Berlin museums in 1904. Painted in distemper on very fine linen, it is rather worn and the colours have darkened.
Ludovico Scarampi. Wood, 44 x 33.
The identity of the sitter (also known as Trevisan and Mezzarota) is established by a copy inscribed with his name (formerly in the Bromley Davenport collection). Ludovico Scarampi (1402-65), born in Venice and educated in Padua, was appointed Archbishop of Florence in 1437 and Cardinal Mezzarota in1440. He was a warrior prelate and, as commander of the papal forces, defeated the army of Francesco Sforza under Piccinino at Anghiari, and won another notable victory for the papacy against the Turks at Mytilene in 1457. The portrait was probably painted between May 1459 and February 1460, when Scarampi attended a congress at Mantua convened by Pope Pius II. It is one of the earliest Italian portraits to show the sitter three-quarter face rather than in profile. (Only the Portrait of a Man by Castagno or Pollaiuolo in Washington is generally considered earlier.) It entered the Berlin Museum in 1830 in an exchange with the English merchant and picture dealer Edward Solly.
Presentation in the Temple. Canvas, 69 x 86.
The scene is set in an illusionistic painted window frame. It has been traditionally supposed that the young man on the extreme right is a self-portrait and the young woman on the extreme left is Mantegna’s wife Nicolosia Bellini, and the picture may have been painted to commemorate the birth of one of their children (perhaps Francesco Mantegna). There is a replica, with the addition of two heads, in the Querini-Stampalia Gallery, Venice. Morelli (1893) considered the Berlin picture to be merely a copy. However it is now commonly regarded as the original, and the version in Venice as a copy by Giovanni Bellini. It is usually dated about 1455, when Mantegna was still based in Padua. It is believed to be the Circumcision seen in the early sixteenth century by Marcantonio Michiel in the house of Pietro Bembo at Padua. Acquired in 1821 with the Solly collection. In generally good condition (though the colours have darkened, the background has been repainted and the haloes are later additions). Unusually, the canvas retains its original supporting panel.
Boston. Gardner Museum.
‘Sacra Conversazione’. Wood, 54 x 43.
Six female saints, including Elizabeth and Mary Magdalene, are seated around the infant Christ and St John. In the background: St Christopher carries the infant Christ across the stream; St George slays the dragon; St Jerome chastises himself before the crucifix; St Peter Martyr is assassinated; and St Francis receives the stigmata. The picture, which was partly overpainted before restoration in 1951, is very worn. In spite of the signature (on the rock in the foreground), it has sometimes been ascribed to Mantegna’s school. Proposed datings span almost forty years – from as early as ‘about 1460’ to as late as ‘about 1497-1500’. Acquired from the Gonzagas by Charles I. It was valued at £15 in the ‘Commonwealth Sale’ and (together with the Prado Death of the Virgin, which was regarded as its pendant) passed into the collection of Philip IV of Spain. It remained in the Spanish royal collection until 1856, when Queen Christina gave it to her daughter, whose husband Prince Filippo del Drago sold it to Mrs Gardner (through the agency of the archaeologist Richard Norton) in 1899.
Cincinnati (Ohio). Art Museum.
A Sibyl and a Prophet(?). Canvas, 56 x 48.
A monochrome picture, simulating bronze, painted in distemper and gold on fine linen. A female, wearing a diadem and classical robes, and a turbaned elderly man discuss a scroll inscribed with a pseudo-Hebrew script. The subject is uncertain. Suggestions have included Esther and Mordecai (from the apocryphal Old Testament Book of Esther), the Cumaean Sibyl offering the books of prophecies to King Tarquin (from mythic Roman history) and the Jewish priest Hilkiah consulting the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22: 13-16). A late work, perhaps of the mid-1490s. The picture appears to be a fragment, and there may originally have been other figures to the right. The low viewpoint suggests that it was intended to be placed high on a wall (perhaps over a door). The subject seems to have been forgotten as early as 1603, when the picture appears in an inventory of the Aldobrandini collection, Rome, simply as ‘a panel with two figures coloured in bronze by the hand of Andrea Mantegna’. Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini inherited the collection of Lucrezia d’Este, which included several pictures by Mantegna. By about 1770 the Cincinnati picture had entered the Buccleuch collection at Montagu House, London, where it remained until 1921. Almost perfectly preserved.
Copenhagen. Statens Museum.
Dead Christ with Two Angels. Wood, 78 x 48.
Christ is seated on the end of a classical sarcophagus, resembling an altar. The angel in red is presumably a seraph and the one in blue a cherub. The background is painted in microscopic detail. To Christ's right, the sun rises on a pastoral landscape. Shepherds tend their flock, two holy women walk to the tomb, and the walled city of Jerusalem is seen in the distance. To Christ's left, a group of stonecutters are at work at the mouth of a huge deep cave, with the three crosses of Golgotha on the hill above. The first of these contrasting views is probably intended to evoke Christ's Resurrection and the second his death. The exact significance of the stonecutters – who are fashioning a marble slab, column, statue and basin – has been much discussed, but remains uncertain. Signed on the base of the sarcophagus. A late work (probably 1490s). Painted in tempera on panel, it has an unusually polished finish and is exceptionally well preserved. (It was restored in 2007, when old discoloured varnish and repaint were removed.) First recorded in Florence in 1753, when it was acquired by Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, Secretary of State under Benedict XIV at Rome. Acquired in Amsterdam by King Frederick VII of Denmark when the cardinal’s collection was dispersed in 1763.
Correggio. Museo Civico (on loan from the Congregazione di Carità).
Head of Christ. Canvas, 53 x 43.
The inscription along the bottom reads: ‘Andrea Mantegna painted this out of charity and gave it as offering on 5 January 1493’. Thinly painted in distemper, very worn, heavily retouched and darkened. The earliest recorded owner was Don Giovanni Siro, Prince of Correggio. When his palazzo was sacked by Imperial troops in 1630, the picture was saved by the Contarelli family of Correggio. The last of the Contarelli’s descendants bequeathed it in 1851 to the town’s Congregazione di Carità. It remained unknown to the wider world until it was acquired, under dubious circumstances and for a mere trifle, by Marchese Matteo Campori of Modena. It was then harshly cleaned and ‘published’ by Gustavo Frizzoni in 1916 in an article in L’Arte. The Congregazione reclaimed the picture in 1917 after a lawsuit.
Holy Family with St Elizabeth and St John. Canvas, 76 x 62.
The simple, classical composition may have been inspired by Roman funerary reliefs. Possibly the ‘Madonna with some other figures’ known to have been painted around 1485 for the Duchess Leonora d’Este of Ferrara (Crowe and Cavalcaselle), or the ‘Madonna and Child with two saints at the sides, with St John, half-length’ seen by Ridolfi (1648) in the possession of Bernardo Giunta at Venice (Lightbown). Bought in Venice by Sir Charles Eastlake in 1854 from the painter Natale Schiavoni, and sold by his widow to the Dresden Gallery in 1876 for 40,000 marks. Painted in egg tempera and oil, rather than distemper, and unusually well preserved for a picture by Mantegna. Old repaint (particularly on the Virgin’s blue cloak) and accumulated layers of yellow varnish were removed in 2001, when the picture was restored at the Getty Museum, Los Angles.
Dublin. National Gallery of Ireland.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Canvas, 46 x 37.
The Jewish heroine Judith has decapitated the Assyrian general Holofernes, and puts his head in the food bag held by her maid Abra (Book of Judith 13: 6-10). Painted in warm greenish-grey grisaille, simulating marble. Probably a pendant to the Samson and Delilah in London, which is similar in size and technique. The execution has occasionally been ascribed to an assistant, but the picture is more usually accepted as a late work of Mantegna himself (about 1495-1500). It formerly belonged to Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch, and was purchased by the gallery in 1896. Other treatments of this subject by (or attributed to) Mantegna include small paintings at Montreal and Washington, a drawing of 1491 at the Uffizi, and several engravings after his designs. Mantegna seems to have been the first of many Italian painters (including Correggio, Titian and Veronese) to depict Judith's servant, Abra, as a black African.
Christ with the Soul of the Virgin. Wood, 28 x 22.
A damaged fragment. Previously given to Carpaccio, it was attributed to Mantegna in 1920 by Roberto Longhi, who in 1934 identified it as the missing top part of the Death of the Virgin at Madrid. Formerly in the collections of the Barbacinti, Vendeghini and Baldi families at Ferrara.
Triptych. Central panel, 77 x 75; wings, 86 x 43.
The concave central panel represents the Adoration of the Kings. The rock formations and winding road derive from Jacopo Bellini’s drawings. The panel is said to include the first representation of a black Magus in Italian art. The left wing shows the Ascension. Christ, rising to heaven in a mandorla of seraphim, holds the red cross banner of the Resurrection and makes the sign of blessing to the awestruck Virgin and Apostles surrounding the empty sarcophagus. The right wing shows the Circumcision. The sumptuous Renaissance architecture includes reliefs of the Sacrifice of Isaac and Moses with the Tablets of Stone in the two lunettes. The Christ Child, held by the Virgin, shies away from the High Priest's scalpel. The boy attendant holds up a silver dish with scissors and a bandage, and Joseph waits with the doves required for ritual purification. The old woman in the right background is presumably the eighty-four year old prophetess Anna mentioned in Luke's Gospel, but the young mother and her little boy (sucking his finger and holding a bread ring) are Mantegna's own invention.
The three beautifully coloured, meticulously detailed and well-preserved panels were only framed together at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are usually thought to have been painted during Mantegna’s first years in Mantua (about 1460-64) for the chapel of the Castello di San Giorgio, and would originally have been set into gilded wooden panelling. Vasari describes a small altarpiece there ‘with stories in which the figures were not very large but very beautiful’. The Death of the Virgin (Prado, Madrid) may have belonged to the same series. First recorded in 1588 in the collection of Don Antonio de’ Medici at the Casino di San Marco; the panels were then separate, and the Adoration was attributed to Botticelli and only the wings to Mantegna. The panels could have passed to the Medici in 1584 during the negotiations over the marriage of Vincenzo Gonzaga and Eleonora de’ Medici.
Madonna of the Stonecutters. Wood, 32 x 30.
Described by Vasari in 1568: ‘Andrea painted a small picture showing Our Lady with her Son sleeping in her arms. The background is formed by a mountain in which some stonecutters are quarrying … Today the picture is in the possession of the most illustrious lord, Don Francesco Medici, prince of Florence, who keeps it among his most treasured belongings’. According to Vasari, it was painted during Mantegna’s period in Rome (1488-90). The tiny stonecutters are working on a column and stone slab – symbols of Christ's future suffering and death. Similar figures also appear in the background of the Man of Sorrows at Copenhagen.
Male Portrait. Wood, 41 x 30.
The subject is usually identified as Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (about 1428-92), papal chief secretary and later Archbishop of Prato, whom Mantegna could have painted in 1466 when the artist visited Florence on a mission for Ludovico Gonzaga. Carlo was the illegitimate son of Cosimo de’ Medici by a Circassian slave, which is supposed to account for his swarthy complexion. However, the sitter bears little resemblance to another supposed portrait of Carlo in Filippo Lippi’s fresco cycle in Prato. The picture was in the Medici collection by 1589. It was transferred to the Uffizi in 1925 from the Pitti Palace.
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum.
Holy Family with St Elizabeth and St John. Canvas, 63 x 51.
This picture was unknown before it was auctioned at Sotheby’s, Monte Carlo, in 1986. It could be the ‘Madonna and Child and two saints, with St John, half-length’, recorded by Ridolfi (1648) in the possession of Bernardo Giunti at Venice, although this description applies equally well to the Holy Family at Dresden. Probably comparatively late (1485-95). Painted in distemper on fine canvas, the surface has suffered considerably, but the colours have remained remarkably fresh. The Virgin’s coral robe was originally embellished with a gold pattern.
Saint Mark. Canvas, 82 x 64.
This rather worn picture of the saint blessing through an arched window is now generally accepted as one of Mantegna’s earliest surviving works. The damaged four-line inscription on the cartellino refers to the greatness of Venice and St Mark and names Mantegna as the artist. Cleaning in 1991, which removed old varnish and revealed that the picture was less damaged than had been feared, helped to dispel doubts about the attribution and the authenticity of the inscription. X-ray analysis revealed that the saint, now shown full face, was originally designed to be seen from the viewer’s right – perhaps as part of a cycle. The picture formerly belonged to the Marques de Salamanca, and was bought by the Frankfurt Gallery in 1867.
Klagenfurt (Austria). Landesmuseum.
Justice of Trajan. Two reliefs, each 64 X 214.
According to the legend, a widow, whose child had been ridden over and killed by Trajan's son, petitioned the Emperor for justice. The Emperor responded by offering the widow his own son for adoption. The polychrome pastiglia (plaster) reliefs decorated a pair of cassoni (chests) made for the marriage in 1477/8 of Paola, youngest daughter of Ludovico II Gonzaga, to Count Leonardo di Gorizia. After Paola's death, her cassoni passed to the Order of the Knights of St George at Millstatt. One pair of cassoni came to Klagenfurt in 1852. Another pair are at Graz Cathedral, where they were used as reliquary chests. The authorship of the Klagenfurt reliefs is undocumented, but it has been suggested that Mantegna could have been involved in the conception or design of the scenes. (The reliefs are captioned in Mauro Lucco's 2015 monograph as 'su idea di Andrea Mantegna'.) Restored in 1996-2000.
London. National Gallery.
Agony in the Garden. Wood, 63 x 80.
Instead of the usual chalice brought to him by an angel, Christ contemplates five putti on a floating cloud holding instruments of the Passion (the column, cross, sponge and lance). The walled city, painted with miniaturist detail, is intended to be Roman Jerusalem, with imperial monuments (an amphitheatre, a column with carved reliefs and an equestrian statue) and (anachronistic) Islamic crescent moons on the towers. Judas leads a column of soldiers from the gate. An early work, which largely repeats (in reverse) the scene of one of the predella panels, now in Tours, of the San Zeno Altarpiece of 1456-59. The composition seems to have been derived from a drawing in one of Jacopo Bellini’s sketchbooks (now in the British Museum). Giovanni Bellini’s version of the composition hangs nearby in the National Gallery. Sometimes identified as the painting Mantegna was engaged on in March 1459 for Giacomo Antonio Marcello; but that small picture of an unspecified subject is perhaps more likely to have been the St Sebastian at Vienna. Another possibility is that the Agony in the Garden was painted for Borso d’Este (the large bird on the branch, sometimes identified as a vulture, could be intended to represent the Este eagle). By the early seventeenth century, it was in the collection of Prince Aldobrandini (who acquired many Este pictures after the annexation of Ferrara to the Papacy in 1598). Later in Cardinal Fesch’s vast collection at Rome, it then passed through the English collections of William Coningham and Thomas Baring, and was bought by the National Gallery from the Earl of Northbrook in 1894.
Madonna with St John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. Canvas, 136 x 114.
Signed on St John’s scroll (the ‘CP’ after the artist’s name probably standing for Comes Palatinus, the knighthood conferred on him in 1469). This well-preserved altarpiece may date from the 1490s. There is no evidence on its original location. It is said to have belonged to Cardinal Cesare Monti, Archbishop of Milan, who died in 1650. The Palazzo Monti later became the Palazzo Andreani, where the picture was described in a late eighteenth-century guidebook. Bought by the National Gallery in 1855 for 1072 gns. The fine tabernacle frame, though of the period, is not original.
Holy Family. Canvas, 71 x 51.
The composition is unusual. The Virgin seems to be sewing but may originally (as shown in an early nineteenth-century engraving) have been holding a plant, shaped like a cross, in her right hand. The infant Christ (holding an olive branch and globe) and St John stand on the parapet. Very damaged and retouched, and possibly cut down. Probably late (around 1497-1500). First recorded in 1856 in the collection of Cav. Andrea Monga at Verona; bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1924 by Ludwig Mond.
Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome. Canvas, 74 x 268.
A frieze of grisaille figures is set against a richly variegated marble background. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, chosen as the worthiest of the Roman senators, receives the sacred bust of Cybele. The bust, modelled on an actual piece of sculpture, is carried by her priests on a litter with her sacred stone (the goddess fell to earth as a meteorite) and an incense burner. The chimney-like constructions to the left are tombs bearing inscriptions to Scipio's father and uncle, who were killed in the Punic Wars. The steps at the right edge belong to Scipio's own residence, where the goddess's statue was once housed. The picture is one of Mantegna’s last works. It was commissioned (through a letter to Francesco Gonzaga) in March 1505 by the Venetian nobleman Francesco Cornaro, whose family claimed descent from Cornelius Scipio. It was intended to be one of a series of at least four canvases which, when hung around the walls of a room, would have resembled a continuous sculptural frieze. (It was presumably intended to be hung high, as the perspective is calculated for a low viewpoint.) A price of 150 ducats for the canvases was initially agreed, but Mantegna later demanded more. After his death in September 1506, the commission seems to have been transferred to his brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini, who painted a picture illustrating another episode from the life of Scipio (now in the National Gallery, Washington). Mantegna’s picture was initially appropriated after his death by Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga, Bishop of Mantua, but was later restored to its rightful owner. It remained in the Cornaro Palace at San Polo, Venice, until early in the nineteenth century, when it was bought by George Vivian. It was sold by his son to the National Gallery in 1873 for £1,500.
Samson and Delilah. Canvas, 47 x 37.
While Samson slept with his head in Delilah's lap, his hair was cut, taking away his strength (Judges 16: 17-19). One of the finest of Mantegna’s grisaille pictures – painted, in distemper, in tones of grey, with colour confined to the veined marble background. On the trunk of the olive tree is inscribed in Latin the proverb: ‘Woman is evil, a little worse than the devil’. A late work. Purchased from the Duke of Marlborough in 1883 for 2250 gns. The Judith and Holofernes at Dublin was probably a pendant.
Tucca and Sophonisba (or Artemesia). Two wooden panels, 73 x 23 each.
Grisailles, painted in tempera with gold highlights, simulating gilt bronze against a background of coloured marble. Previously called ‘Summer’ and ‘Autumn’, Kristeller (1901) was the first to suggest that the two figures represent the Vestal Virgin Tucca, carrying water in a sieve, and the Carthaginian Sophonisba, drinking a cup of poison. The latter has been alternatively identified as Artemesia, the devoted wife of King Mausolus of Caria, whose grief at his death was so great that she drank his ashes mixed with wine. Catalogued by Martin Davis (1961) as by a follower, but recent opinion accepts the two pictures as autograph. Purchased in 1882 for £1,785 at the sale of the Duke of Hamilton’s collection.
London. Hampton Court. Mantegna Gallery (Lower Orangery).
The Triumphs of Caesar. Nine canvases, each about 268 x 278.
According to the inscription on the second canvas, the Standard Bearers, the series represents the Gallic Triumph of Julius Caesar. Mantegna’s chief literary sources appear to have been Plutarch’s Triumphs of Aemilius Paulus and Appian’s Triumph of Scipio Africanus (transcriptions from which were included in Flavio Biondo’s Roma Triumphans, published in Mantua around 1472). It is not known when the series was started, but Mantegna was working on it by August 1486. The work was interrupted in 1488-90 by a visit to Rome, and was still unfinished in 1492, and may not have been finally completed until shortly before Mantegna’s death in 1506. The original purpose and intended location of the canvases is uncertain. In 1501 six of them were incorporated as stage decorations into a temporary theatre, constructed in the Corte Vecchia of the old Gonzaga palace, where four comedies were performed. From about 1508, all nine were displayed in the new Gonzaga palace of San Sebastiano at Mantua. They were very soon copied and reproduced. Seven prints of three of the compositions were already in circulation by the late 1490s or early 1500s.
Bought as part of the Gonzaga collection by Charles I, the nine canvases probably arrived in England in 1630. They were not sold with the rest of Charles I’s collection after his execution and, apart from a few years when they were in the Mortlake factory being copied in tapestry, they have remained at Hampton Court. Already in poor condition by the end of the seventeenth century, they were repainted by Louis Laguerre in 1701-2 and badly restored on a number of subsequent occasions. Covered in paraffin wax in the early 1930s to prevent further flaking, they were virtually invisible by 1962, when they were cleaned over a period of twelve years (apart from one canvas, The Captives, which was considered too damaged to warrant restoration). They are now exhibited in a special gallery in the Lower Orangery.
Los Angeles. J. P. Getty Museum.
Adoration of the Magi. Canvas, 55 x 71.
The three Magi bear precious gifts: Gaspar a china bowl full of gold coins, Melchior a jasper censer, and Balthazar the Moor an agate vessel. This small devotional work, with its densely packed composition of half-length figures, was probably painted in about 1497-1500. It was evidently celebrated in its day, as at least half-dozen inferior copies are known. However, as with many of Mantegna’s late works, the attribution was once doubted (Venturi ascribed it to Mantegna’s son Francesco). Previously in the collection of the Marquess of Northampton at Castle Ashby, it was rather little known until 1981, when it was included in the Splendours of the Gonzaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was auctioned at Christie’s in 1985 for £8.1 million, then a world record price for any picture. It is unusually well preserved for a painting of its type (distemper on fine linen).
Death of the Virgin. Wood, 54 x 42.
The Virgin is attended on her deathbed by apostles holding candles. Through an arched opening in the background, there is a view from the Gonzaga castle of the lake at Mantua with the Ponte San Giorgio. The height of the panel has been reduced by a third; a damaged fragment of the upper part, showing Christ with the Virgin’s soul, is in the gallery at Ferrara. The panel probably dates from about 1460, and may have belonged to the same series as the panels forming the Uffizi Triptych. It may have been cut down in 1586-88, when it was one of more than twenty pictures (three by Mantegna) installed in the private chapel in Ferrara of Margherita Gonzaga, wife of Alfonso II d’Este. It was bought by Charles I of England with the Gonzaga pictures, and acquired during the Commonwealth by Philip IV of Spain. As well as being cut down, the panel has been abraded by old cleanings (the clouds are mostly underpaint).
Mantua. Palazzo Ducale.
Camera Picta (‘Camera degli Sposi’). Frescoes.
This small square tower room (8 metres by 8 metres) was originally an audience chamber (not a bedroom as its popular name might imply). The vaulted ceiling contains one of the earliest examples of illusionistic ceiling painting. It appears to have a central circular opening with laughing ladies of the court peering downwards over a marble balustrade. Winged putti play around the balustrade (one threatens a peacock with a stick, some have their heads stuck in the marble openings and three, daringly foreshortened, balance precariously inside the rim). The rest of the ceiling is painted to imitate stucco reliefs on a gold mosaic background. There are busts of the first eight Caesars in garlanded roundels and, in the triangular sections below, twelve scenes from the myths of Orpheus, Arion and Hercules.
On the right wall (over the fireplace) is the Court Scene. Ludovico II Gonzaga and his German wife, Barbara of Brandenburg, are seated among their children, courtiers and pet dwarf. Only the three youngest children (Paola leaning over her mother’s lap and seeming about to take a bite from an apple, Ludovico in profile behind her, and the older Barbarina on her mother’s right) can be identified with certainty. The Marquis turns to discuss a letter with a secretary (possibly Marsilio Andreasi). His dog Rubino crouches under his chair.
To the left of the entrance is the Meeting Scene, set out of doors in a landscape with classical monuments (derived from buildings in Rome and Verona). The Marquis (left) goes forward to greet his second son Cardinal Francesco, who holds hands with his youngest brother Ludovico (a future Bishop of Mantua). The Marquis’s eldest son and successor Federico stands in profile on the far right. The two small boys are Federico’s sons – the future cardinal Sigismondo (who grasps the hand of his young uncle Ludovico) and the future marquis Francesco (who stands with his grandfather, the current marquis). The figures in the background include Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Christian I, King of Denmark and brother-in-law of Barbara of Brandenburg. This scene was painted largely a secco (that is, on dry rather than wet plaster) and so is in poorer condition.
To the left of the entrance, servants in Gonzaga livery attend to Ludovico’s hounds and horses. On the window jamb is inscribed the date 1465, when the frescoes were started; Mantegna’s dedicatory inscription over the door is dated 1474, when they were finished. Among the foliage decoration on the pilaster on the right, Mantegna has introduced a tiny self-portrait.
The two remaining walls of the room were decorated to give the illusion of brocade wall hangings. Much of this decoration, which was lavishly gilded with arabesque motifs, has now disappeared.
Mantua’s damp climate is not kind to frescoes, and restoration (by Mantegna’s sons) was already needed by 1506. The frescoes were damaged by gunshots and graffiti during the Sack of Mantua in 1630, when Imperial troops occupied the castle, and they were vandalised again during the Napoleonic Wars, when French and Austrian troops quartered there scratched inscriptions on the walls. Badly restored under the Austrians in 1790, they were treated again in 1876-77. Much of the repaint was removed in 1938-41. The last major restoration was completed in 1991. The room was closed for almost three years after it was shaken by an earthquake in May 2012. An old crack, running through the figure of the secretary at the left edge of the Court Scene, was reopened by the shock, but the frescoes were otherwise undamaged.
Mantua. Sant’Andrea (first chapel left).
The Holy Family. Canvas, 40 x 169.
The Virgin and Child and St Elizabeth with the young Baptist, St Joseph (to the left) and St Zacharias (on the right). The picture was left in Mantegna’s studio at his death, destined for the altar of his funerary chapel, the rights to which he acquired in 1504. It is much abraded, and darkened by varnish. Some critics believe that it was executed at least in part by pupils after Mantegna’s death. Another painting in the chapel, the Baptism of Christ (228 x 175), is in ruinous condition, the canvas exposed in many areas. The frescoes in the chapel, probably planned by Mantegna, were executed entirely by pupils, including Francesco Mantegna and, according to tradition, the young Correggio. The bronze portrait bust, set on a disc of porphyry within a carved stone frame, was probably made by Mantegna himself.
St Luke Altarpiece. Wood, 177 x 230.
Mantegna’s earliest existing altarpiece. It retains a traditional Gothic form, with two tiers of arched panels of single figures on gold grounds. The gilded and painted frame, executed by Maestro Guglielmo, is said to have been destroyed by lightning in the seventeenth century. In the lower tier, St Luke, writing at a desk, is larger than the surrounding saints, Benedict and Giustina (right), Prosdocimus and Scolastica or Felicity of Padua (left). The upper tier has a Pietà in the middle between the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, and four other saints (Daniel of Padua holding a banner and model of the city, Jerome, Augustine or Maximus of Padua in a bishop’s vestments and Sebastian or Julian of Padua with a double-handed sword). Painted for the altar of St Luke in the Benedictine church of Santa Giustina at Padua. It was commissioned by the abbot, Mauro dei Folperti, on 10 August 1453 and completed by November 1454. The price was 50 Venetian gold ducats. Mantegna’s signature on the marble column supporting St Luke’s lectern was discovered during restoration in 1989. The light and delicate colouring (eg. St Giustina’s coral pink cloak and pale lilac dress) recalls Filippo Lippi, who painted several important works in Padua in the mid-1430s (though none survives today). The altarpiece was removed by the French from the abbot’s private rooms in 1797 and sent to Milan.
Madonna and Child with Cherubs. Wood, 88 x 70.
From the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Venice. It was requisitioned during the French occupation and moved to the Brera in 1808. Until 1885, when repaint was removed, it was ascribed to the school of Giovanni Bellini. It has sometimes been identified with a painting (‘containing a half-length Madonna and Child and the heads of some angels’) noted by Vasari as being in his day in the library of the Badia at Fiesole. However, Vasari says that this picture was painted when Mantegna was working on the San Zeno Altarpiece (1456-59), whereas the Brera picture is usually dated much later. It has also sometimes been identified with ‘the painting on panel of Our Lady and her Son with seraphim, by the hand of Mantegna’ recorded in an inventory, drawn up in 1493, of the pictures of Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara and mother of Isabella d’Este. It is known from letters that Mantegna was painting a ‘picture of the Madonna with other figures’ for the Duchess in November-December 1485. The panel may have been cut down at the bottom.
Dead Christ. Canvas, 66 x 81.
Only the heads of the three mourners (presumably the Virgin, St John and the Magdalen) are seen in the top left-hand corner. A commission is not known for this famous painting, with its virtuoso foreshortening of Christ’s body. One theory is that it was painted by Mantegna as part of the furnishings for his own funeral; another is that it was painted as a private exercise in perspective; yet another is that it was intended as a processional banner for some confraternity dedicated to Corpus Christi. However, it seems most likely that it was a devotional work, possibly commissioned by Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga (who claimed ‘un Cristo in scurto’ from Mantegna’s studio after the artist’s death in 1506) or by Ercole d’Este of Ferrara (another Dead Christ is recorded in 1603 in the collection of Pietro Aldobrandini in Rome and probably had an Este provenance). Once considered a very late work because of its assumed provenance from the artist’s estate, it is now more generally thought to date from Mantegna’s middle years (about 1470-85). It was purchased for the Brera in 1824 from the heirs of the painter Giuseppe Bossi, who had acquired it in Rome in 1806. Though under glass, the painting (probably distemper) has greyed and darkened. In December 2013, it was installed in a controversial new display designed by the film director Ermanno Olmi. It was removed from its frame and positioned only 67 cm from the floor in a large black display case. It has since been rehung, more conventionally, at eye level.
San Bernardino of Siena and Two Angels. Canvas, 385 x 220.
The Franciscan saint, hollow-cheeked and toothless, displays his famous monogram (the letters 'IHS' on a blazing sun), and the Latin inscription on the architrave above ('This word is the salvation of man') refers to the Holy Name the letters represent. A boy angel leans out over the architrave with a candle on a stick to take a light from the lamp burning above the saint's head. A rabbit crouches behind the base of the left-hand pillar and a jay perches by the right-hand one. Dated 1469(?) on the cartellino (bottom centre). From the church of San Francesco at Mantua. It was the altarpiece of the Gonzaga burial chapel (off the south side), dedicated to San Bernardino and known as the ‘Chapel of the Princes’ because of its tomb monuments (now destroyed). The altarpiece is not documented but was probably commissioned by Ludovico II Gonzaga, who was buried in the chapel in 1478. The church was closed in 1782 and the picture was taken to the Brera in 1811. It is in poor condition and the attribution has been disputed. While the design is often accepted as Mantegna’s, much at least of the execution (particularly of the upper parts) appears to be by an interior hand.
Milan. Castello Sforzesco.
Madonna in Glory (‘Pala Trivulzio’). Canvas, 287 x 214.
The Virgin is enthroned in a mandorla and framed by citrus trees; right is St Jerome holding a model of the church; left, John the Baptist; and behind St Benedict and Gregory the Great. At the foot of the throne, a group of angels is singing to a little organ (symbol of the church). While the other figures are foreshortened for a low viewpoint, the Madonna (perhaps for reasons of religious propriety) is viewed straight on. Painted for the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Organo at Verona. The accounts for the monastery for 1494-96 record payments for the frame, gold and ultramarine, and gifts of food (pheasants, partridges, thrushes and hares) to Mantegna. Signed and dated 15 August 1497 (the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin) on the underside of the sheet of music. The picture had left the church by 1714. It entered the museum in 1935 with the collection of Prince Trivulzio of Milan. Considerably abraded: the final paint layer is lost and the bare canvas is visible in places.
Milan. Museo Poldi Pezzoli.
Madonna and Child. Canvas, 45 x 35.
The Virgin bends protectively over the very small sleeping Child. As with his Madonnas in Berlin, Bergamo and New York, Mantegna appears to have drawn inspiration from Donatello’s sculptural reliefs. Sometimes considered a late work, but many conflicting datings have been proposed. Sold to Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli by Giovanni Morelli, the art historian, in about 1856. The colours have darkened as a result of restoration (by Giuseppe Molteni) and heavy varnishing in the nineteenth century, and the Virgin’s blue mantle has been repainted.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 32 x 29.
This rather damaged profile portrait (heavily repainted before cleaning in 1974) has also been ascribed to Cosimo Tura (or a follower) or to Francesco Bonsignori. The attribution to Mantegna, advanced by Roberto Longhi in 1962, was rejected in Lightbown’s 1986 monograph but accepted by Keith Christiansen, with a very early dating of about 1448-50, in the catalogue of the 1992 Mantegna exhibition in London and New York. In a review (January 2007 Burlington Magazine) of the Mantegna exhibition in Padua, Mantua and Verona, Nicholas Penny asked if the artist might not be Ercole de’ Roberti. Acquired by Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli by 1879.
Montreal. Museum of Fine Arts.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes; Dido. Canvas, each 65 x 31.
Two grisailles, painted in distemper and shell gold, feigning gilt bronze figures on backgrounds of veined green marble. The subject of Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes was a favourite with Mantegna, and the figures in the Montreal version are quite similar to those in the small grisaille painting at Dublin. Dido is a less familiar subject. The tragic Carthaginian Queen is shown standing in front of her funeral pyre, which she had built from the possessions left behind by her lover Aeneas when he departed for Rome. She holds Aeneas's sword, on which she threw herself before climbing onto the burning pyre (Virgil's Aeneid: Book IV). Sometimes dated about 1500-5 (that is, very late works). Not all critics have accepted the execution as by Mantegna himself. Possibly from a set of ‘four pictures done in chiaroscuro of a beautiful Judith and other figures by the hand of Mantegna’ recorded in 1709 in the collection of Ferdinand Carlo Gonzaga, the last Duke of Mantua. Formerly in the English collections of R. A Markham (by 1895) and John E. Taylor (by 1912), and acquired by the Montreal Museum by 1920. Well preserved, though the backgrounds have darkened.
Munich. Graphische Summlung.
Mucius Scaevola. Canvas, 41 x 34.
Grisaille figures, simulating a sculptural relief, against a reddish brown background. Scaevola, a Roman youth who was captured after a failed attempt to assassinate the Etruscan King Lars Porsena, demonstrated his courage by thrusting his hand into a fire lit for sacrifice. Sometimes identified with a small painting by Mantegna of this subject ('resembling a bronze relief') seen by Marcantonio Michiel in the house of Francesco Zio at Venice. Accepted as an authentic work of Mantegna by older critics (including Morelli, Berenson and Cruttwell), but clearly by an inferior hand. (Christiansen (1992) calls it 'a feeble attempt by a pupil or follower to capitalise on a type of painting created and perfected by Mantegna'.)
Saint Euphemia. Canvas, 174 x 79.
The saint stands in a marble niche, a sword in her heart and a lion at her feet, the lily of purity in one hand and the palm of martyrdom in the other. A cartellino is inscribed (in Roman majuscules) with Mantegna’s name and the date 1454. The picture was damaged in the eighteenth century by fire (and by the subsequent treatment of coating it with oil) and is much darkened. It was heavily restored in 1960 and treated again in 2004. It was probably intended as an altarpiece or (given its tall oblong shape) to be hung on a pier. Until recently, its original location was unknown. But in the 1980s, a Latin poem of 1592 came to light in the Vatican archives mentioning that Roberto de Mabilia, rector of a church in Padua, had made a number of gifts to the cathedral of Irsina, including a painting of St Euphemia ‘by the excellent hand of Andrea to whom has been given the honorary name of Mantegna’ and a bone reputedly belonging to the saint. The cathedral of Irsina (50 miles from Bari) contains a life-size statue of St Euphemia, carved from Paduan stone, which is closely related to Mantegna’s picture in style and composition. The statue was published as a work of Mantegna himself in 1996 (by Clara Gelao) but ascribed the following year by another critic (Matteo Ceriana) to Pietro Lombardo. The picture came to Naples in 1817 from the Museo Borgia at Velletri.
Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga. Wood, 25 x 18.
Francesco Gonzaga (1444-83) was the second son of Ludovico II. He was created a cardinal in December 1461, when he was only seventeen and still studying at the University of Pavia. It is often supposed that this small profile portrait was painted to commemorate the event (though the youth does not wear a cardinal’s hat or robe). There are no records of the portrait before 1760, when it is listed in a Farnese inventory as ‘a young cardinal, hand of Gio. Bellini’. Both the attribution of the portrait to Mantegna and the identification of the young sitter as Francesco Gonzaga were made by Gustavo Frizzoni in 1895. The identification of the sitter, while usually accepted, is not certain, as it is based only on comparisons with the portrait, painted perhaps a dozen years later, of Francesco in the Meeting Scene in the Camera Picta (which shows him almost full face) and with an even later portrait medal. The tempera panel is very rubbed and worn.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
Adoration of the Shepherds. Canvas (transferred from panel in 1924), 40 x 56.
This small painting, remarkable for its minute descriptive detail, may have been a predella panel or a separate work for private devotion. It is an early work, usually dated before 1460. There is circumstantial evidence that it was painted for the Este court at Ferrara (the wattle fence has been interpreted as an Este emblem), and the figures of the shepherds may have been influenced by the works of Rogier van der Weyden that Mantegna would have seen there. A ‘Prosepio de Andrea Mantegna’ is listed in an Este inventory of 1586. By 1603 the picture was in the Aldobrandini collection in Rome, where it remained until about 1800, when it was acquired by Alexander Day and brought to England. From 1808 to 1924 it was in the Knight collection at Downton Castle, Ludlow. It was then acquired by Clarence Mackay, a New York financier, who amassed a splendid collection of Renaissance art before losing his fortune in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Bequeathed anonymously to the Metropolitan Museum in 1932. In excellent condition for a transferred painting, though comparison with copies suggests that it has been cut down slightly on the right.
Holy Family with a Female Saint. Canvas, 57 x 46.
This badly worn picture has usually been accepted as an authentic late work (about 1495-1505), although some critics have ascribed it to Mantegna’s workshop or his son Francesco. It is possibly the ‘small picture of half-length figures, with the Madonna, Saints Joseph and Mary Magdalene’ seen by Boschini (1664) in the sacristy of the Spedale degli Incurabili in Venice. It is first certainly recorded only in the mid-1880s in the collection of Count Pietro d’Aiuti at Naples. Acquired by Eduard Weber in 1903 from a London dealer for £4,000, it was sold with his estate in Berlin in 1912 for the huge price of $160,000 and bequeathed the following year to the Metropolitan Museum by Benjamin Altman. Extensive overpaint and layers of varnish were removed in a 1991 restoration.
Madonna with Seraphim and Cherubim. Wood, 44 x 29.
Mantegna’s authorship of this small panel has sometimes been questioned, but allowance has to be made for its poor condition. Before cleaning in 1991, the severely damaged heads of the Virgin and Child were covered in repaint; the cherubim on the right are tolerably well preserved. Probably the earliest of Mantegna’s half-dozen paintings of the Virgin and Child (mid-1450s?). There are similarities of composition with a number of Donatello’s sculptural reliefs, including the bronze Chellini Tondo (Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Verona Madonna (known from several terracotta copies). Other versions at Berlin and Tulsa (Philbrook Center) were once ascribed to Mantegna but are now regarded as works of contemporaries or followers. The New York picture is sometimes called the ‘Butler Madonna’ after Charles Butler of London, its owner in the early years of the twentieth century. Later in a collection in Basel, it was acquired in 1926 by Michael Friedsam of New York, who bequeathed it to the museum in 1931.
Oxford. Christ Church.
Christ carrying the Cross. Canvas, 63 x 78.
Usually dismissed as a studio work or copy, but regarded by Christiansen (1992) as an autograph ruined work. A version (also damaged) in the Castelvecchio Museum, Verona, omits the Roman soldier and includes Simon of Cyrene. A picture of this subject is listed in a 1627 Gonzaga inventory. Bequeathed to the college by General Guise in 1765.
Padua. Eremitani Church.
Frescoes in Ovetari Chapel.
The funerary chapel of Antonio degli Ovetari, in the right transept, was decorated by the youthful Mantegna and other artists between May 1448 and January 1457. The vault was frescoed with the Four Evangelists by the Venetian partnership of Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (who died in 1450). The tribune was painted with figures of God the Father and the Four Doctors of the Church (in the vault and roundels) and the Assumption (behind the high altar) by Mantegna and Niccolò Pizzolo (who was murdered in 1453). The walls were decorated with cycles of the Lives of St James and St Christopher by Mantegna, Ansuino da Forlì and Bona da Ferrara.
The chapel was struck by a stick of bombs in March 1944 during an American air raid on the adjacent railway and goods yard. Two frescoes – the Assumption and scenes of the Martyrdom of St Christopher and the Removal of the Body of St Christopher – had been removed to Venice for safety. Badly affected by damp, they had been detached from the walls in the late nineteenth century. The other frescoes were completely destroyed in the bombing, except for the Martyrdom of St James, which was pieced together from small fragments salvaged from the rubble.
There are three miniature early copies of scenes from the lower register in the Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris. A complete set of nineteenth-century watercolour copies, commissioned by the Arundel Society, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A complete set of black-and-white photographs was taken just days before the air raid.
Padua. Musei Civici (on loan from a private collection).
Virgin and Child ('Madonna della Tenerezza'). Miniature on parchment.
The Virgin, seated on the ground as the 'Madonna of Humility', tenderly cradles the infant Christ, resting her face against her baby's cheek. The figures, rendered in ink and tempera on parchment, resemble creamy marble. They replicate those in a famous engraving made (or at least designed) by Mantegna. The engraving ('arguably the most beautiful print of the Italian Renaissance' (David Landau)) is known in only two first-state impressions: one at the British Museum and the other at the Albertina. While the background of the engraving is left blank, the Virgin and Child are here given the painted setting of a ruined classical temple. The case for an attribution to Mantegna himself, rather than a skilled imitator, was argued in 2006 by the Paduan art historian Lionello Puppi (Un Mantegna da Scoprire: La Madonna della Tenerezza). The miniature was once in the Paris collection of Maria Brignole Sale, Duchess of Galliera, and later belonged to the French art collector and dealer Léonce Rosenberg. Placed on loan with the Padua museum by an anonymous collector in 2006.
Padua. Basilica of Sant’Antonio. Museo Antoniano.
SS. Anthony and Bernardino with the Sacred Monogram. Fresco, 163 x 321.
From the lunette of the main west door. An inscription cut into the stone below gives Mantegna’s name and the date 22 July 1452. Detached during the First World War and replaced by a copy. Much restored and repainted. The metal monogram was executed by the Paduan goldsmith Niccolò del Papa.
Crucifixion. Wood, 67 x 93.
On the left, St John and the Marys vent their anguish; on the right, Roman soldiers, with callous indifference, cast lots for Christ’s clothes. This meticulously detailed, intensely emotional and ingeniously composed small picture (just two feet high by three wide) gives an impression of great monumentality that makes it seem much larger in reproductions than it actually is. It was the central panel of the predella of the triptych painted in 1456-59 for the high altar of the church of San Zeno at Verona. The entire altarpiece was taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797. The predella panels remained in France when the chief parts were reclaimed in 1815; the two others are in the museum at Tours.
Saint Sebastian. Canvas, 257 x 142.
The martyred saint stands bound against the Corinthian column of a ruined triumphal arch. The ground is littered with broken marbles, including a sculptural fragment of a foot lying near the saint’s real feet. The head and shoulders of two archers are visible in the bottom right corner, their brutal ugliness contrasting with the saint’s heroic nobility. Mantegna painted St Sebastian – a saint invoked for protection from the plague – at least three times. There is a small early panel in Vienna and a late painting in the Ca d’Oro, Venice. The large altarpiece in the Louvre is from the little town of Aigueperse, in the Auvergne, where it hung in the chapel (Sainte-Chapelle) attached to the castle of Louis I de Bourbon. Its commission is not documented, but its presence in such an out-of-the-way location is almost certainly connected with the marriage in 1481 of Chiara Gonzaga, daughter of Federico, Marquis of Mantua, to Gilbert de Bourbon, Comte de Montepensier. Aigueperse was a fief of Gilbert, and the picture could have formed part of Chiara’s substantial dowry. By the seventeenth century, when the picture is first recorded, the name of the artist was already forgotten. After the French Revolution, the picture was moved to the church of Notre Dame in Aigueperse. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1910 and replaced by a copy. The colours have dulled and greyed somewhat.
‘Madonna of the Victory’. Canvas, 280 x 166.
Beneath a domed trellis of fruit trees, the Madonna blesses Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, kneeling in shining dark armour. At the sides, the warrior saints Michael and George hold up her mantle. Behind them appear the heads of Andrew and Longinus, patron saints of Mantua. The elderly woman with a rosary, kneeling by the right of the throne, was called St Anne by Vasari but is usually identified as St Elizabeth, the name saint of Francesco’s wife Isabella d’Este. (On the strength of a supposed resemblance with a portrait in an altarpiece by Francesco Bonsignori, she has been claimed to be a likeness of Beata Osanna Andreasi, a visionary Dominican nun and cult figure in Mantua, whom Isabella held in high and affectionate veneration.) The base of the throne is decorated with reliefs representing the Expulsion, Fall and Creation (God carving Adam from stone). The painting commemorates Francesco’s (alleged) victory over the French army of Charles VIII at Fornova in July 1495. It was painted between November 1495 and July 1496 for 110 ducats. The money was extracted in expiation from a Jew, Daniele de Norsa, who had destroyed a frescoed Madonna on his house. The Jew also paid for a new church to house the picture: Santa Maria della Vittoria in the Via San Simone (now Via Domenico Fernelli) at Mantua. On the first anniversary of the battle, 6 July 1496, the picture was carried in procession from Mantegna’s house near San Sebastiano to the new shrine on the other side of the town. Children were dressed as prophets, angels and apostles. The picture was taken to Paris in 1797. It was hung in the royal apartments in the Tuileries and not returned to Mantua after the fall of Napoleon because the Austrian government was loath to embarrass the French king. The church of Santa Maria della Vittoria was secularised and despoiled by military occupation. (Used in recent times as an infants school, car repair workshop and metal plating factory, it was restored in 2001-6 and has reopened as a museum.)
Parnassus. Canvas, 150 x 192.
The first of a series of allegorical pictures painted for Isabella d’Este’s first studiolo, a small room (just 5.25 by 2.25 metres) in a tower on the first floor of the Castello di San Giorgio at Mantua. It was completed by July 1497. The armoured Mars and naked Venus stand upon an earth bridge before a bed backed with myrtle. Below them, the Muses dance and sing to Apollo’s (or Orpheus’s) lyre. Cupid aims a blowpipe at Venus’s cuckolded husband Vulcan, who gestures furiously towards the triumphant lovers from his forge in a cavern in the left background. On the right, Mercury leans on Pegasus. The spring of Hippocrene, created by a stamp of Pegasus’s hoof, emerges under the rocks in the foreground. The exact allegorical meaning of the fantasy, which was probably done to Isabella’s own specifications, is still disputed. Contemporaries were perhaps equally in the dark, since the Mantuan poet Battista Fiera had to apologise for identifying Venus and Mars as Isabella and her martial husband Francesco Gonzaga presiding over a flourishing of the arts. (He had forgotten that the liaison between Venus and Mars was adulterous.) The idea, often repeated, that the Muse in the centre is an idealised portrait of the pregnant Isabella is not old: it seems to have originated with Bernard Berenson. According to an astrological interpretation proposed by Janet Cox-Rearick in 1984, the picture alludes to the date of Isabella’s wedding (11 February 1490, when the planets Mars, Venus and Mercury and the brightest star of the constellation Pegasus all stood within the sign of Aquarius). Parts of the tempera picture (including the landscape and the heads of Apollo and several of the Muses) were repainted in the early sixteenth century, possibly by Lorenzo Costa or Lorenzo Leonbruno.
Triumph of Wisdom over the Vices. Canvas, 160 x 192.
The helmeted Minerva, assisted by butterfly-winged putti, drives a herd of Vices out of the Garden of Virtue into swamp. The grotesque Vices include bloated Ignorance, carried by Avarice and Ingratitude, Lust (represented by Venus standing on the back of a centaur), Hatred, Fraud and Malice (represented by a monkey carrying bags containing the seeds of evil), and armless Idleness led by Sloth. In the sky to the right, the three Cardinal Virtues are framed by a cloud. Other clouds have the form of men’s heads. This was Mantegna’s second painting (probably completed by 1502) for Isabella d’Este’s first studiolo. The first was the Parnassus (1497), and Mantegna was working on a third (showing Comus, god of festive mirth) at the time of his death in 1506. The other paintings in the series are Perugino’s Battle of Love and Chastity (1505), and a pair by Lorenzo Costa, an Allegory (1505) and the Reign of Comus (about 1506). After the death in 1519 of her husband Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella moved her pictures to a new studiolo on the ground floor of the Ducal Palace, adding two allegories by Correggio. The main paintings from the studiolo were probably given by the last Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo II, to Cardinal Richelieu. By the 1630s they were hanging in the Château de Richelieu, near Poitiers, where they remained until the French Revolution. All seven paintings are now in the Louvre.
Judgement of Solomon. Canvas, 47 x 37.
The subject is from the Old Testament (Kings 3: 16-28). King Solomon, enthroned in judgement, orders the contested baby to be cut in half. The real mother attempts to stop the soldier carrying out the execution, while the lying woman, whose own baby lies dead on the ground, passively accepts the judgement. Painted in grisaille, with a wine-coloured marble background simulating veined marble. A remarkably well-preserved work of the late 1490s or early 1500s, which was probably designed by Mantegna but executed by his workshop. Until 1797 in the collection of the Duke of Modena (who was compelled to surrender works of art to Napoleon under the terms of an armistice treaty).
Paris. Musée Jacquemart-André.
Ecce Homo. Canvas, 54 x 42.
Christ, his body criss-crossed with the lash marks of the flagellation, is mocked by two grotesquely ugly accusers, whose demands for his crucifixion are inscribed on pieces of paper above their heads. This exceptionally well-preserved picture (unvarnished, unlined and kept under glass) has sometimes been considered only a high quality product of Mantegna’s workshop, but Christiansen (1992) rated it ‘one of the most sublime and personal masterpieces of Mantegna’s late career’. It was acquired by Edouard André in 1891 from the famous Florentine antiquary and dealer Stefano Bardini.
Virgin and Child and Three Saints. Canvas (possibly transferred), 57 x 42.
Only Joseph, the bearded saint on the right, can be identified. Sometimes judged a studio picture, but very damaged and darkened by old varnish. Probably relatively late, post-dating Mantegna’s trip to Rome in 1488-90. Acquired in 1890 from the Rumford collection, Paris.
Virgin and Child with SS. Jerome and Louis of Toulouse. Wood, 67 x 43.
Much repainted. Accepted as autograph by Berenson (1932-68), but often considered a workshop picture or copy. Roberto Longhi (1962) – followed by Lightbown (1986) and Christiansen (1992) – thought that it could have been executed by the young Giovanni Bellini. First recorded (with an attribution to Mantegna) in the Lechi collection at Brescia; acquired in Venice by Guggenheim in 1887.
São Paulo. Museo de Arte.
Saint Jerome. Wood, 48 x 36.
The saint sits in his monastic cave, a lion at his feet, praying with his rosary and balancing a book on his knee. This little panel, almost Flemish in its attention to light and detail, has sometimes been described as Mantegna’s earliest surviving work. Unrecorded before 1936, it belonged to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia from 1938 to 1953, and then entered the São Paulo Museum. The attribution to Mantegna, first made by Tancred Borenius in the 1938 Burlington Magazine, has had distinguished supporters (including Longhi, Berenson and more recently Keith Christiansen), but has often been disputed. The main alternative candidate has been Marco Zoppo, a fellow pupil with Mantegna of Squarcione, whose signed Saint Jerome in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (Madrid) contains a similar fantastical rock formation. There have also been attributions to Niccolò Pizzolo, Mantegna’s older partner on the decoration of the Ovetari Chapel. The tempera panel has suffered somewhat from abrasion.
Tours. Musée des Beaux Arts.
Agony in the Garden; Resurrection. Wood, 67 x 93.
The side panels from the predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece (1456-59). The middle panel, the Crucifixion, is in the Louvre. (The Tours museum possesses a copy painted in 1861 by Degas.) The three Passion subjects are evocatively staged at different times of day: the Agony at dusk; the Crucifixion at mid-day; and the Resurrection at dawn. The entire altarpiece was taken to Paris in 1797. The two predella panels were deposited in the Tours Museum in 1803, and remained there when the main parts of the altarpiece were returned to Italy in 1815. They have suffered from scaling and have been retouched in places. The Agony in the Garden was transferred to canvas (glued to a new panel) in about 1870. The composition of the Agony in the Garden was loosely repeated (in reverse and with the apostles differently arranged) in a panel painting now in the London National Gallery.
Turin. Galleria Sabauda.
Madonna and Child with Saints. Wood, 62 x 88.
The saints include the infant Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria (to the right with the wheel). The elderly woman and man behind St Catherine have no attributes but might be either Elizabeth and Zacharias or Anne and Joseph. The two saints on the left are also not clearly identifiable but are sometimes called John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. There are many similarities with the Dresden Holy Family. The panel was damaged by a fire in the nineteenth century and has suffered from cracking. It was previously coarsely repainted. Cleaning has exposed a large area of paint loss along the top left edge. Critical opinion has been divided over the picture, which has sometimes been ascribed to Mantegna's studio or school and sometimes accepted as a damaged but at least partly autograph late work (1490s). From the Palazzo Reale, Turin.
Saint George. Wood, 66 x 32.
The youthful saint stands both on and within a fictive marble casement. His right hand, holding his splintered lance, extends beyond the edge of the frame, as does the head of the dragon he has slain. A heavy swag of fruit (apples, quinces, cherries, peaches and hazelnuts) is slung above his head. The city in the distance is presumably intended to be Selene (where St George slew the dragon according to the Golden Legend). Nothing is known of the history of this precious panel before 1856, when it was acquired for the Accademia by the Emperor Franz Josef from the Palazzo Manfrin at Venice. Its original purpose is a matter of conjecture. (Its vertical shape suggests that it might have been a lateral panel of a polyptych or the left wing of a small triptych; but there is no other evidence for this, and it could have been painted simply as an object de luxe.) George was a patron saint of Mantua. Once considered an early work (about 1460), it has more recently (Christiansen) been dated about 1470-75. The tempera panel is in good condition, except for some flaking damage and consequent retouching (eg. on the saint’s right arm and armour and dragon’s body and snout).
Venice. Ca d’Oro. Galleria Franchetti.
Saint Sebastian. Canvas, 212 x 86.
On a scroll, around an almost extinguished candle, is inscribed in Latin: ‘Nothing but the Divine endures, all else is smoke’. Evidently a late work, it remained in Mantegna’s studio at his death and was claimed by Ludovico Gonzaga (youngest brother of Ludovico II and brother of Cardinal Francesco, whom he succeeded as Bishop of Mantua). It was seen by Marcantonio Michiel in the house of Cardinal Pietro Bembo at Padua, and remained in the possession of Bembo’s descendants until 1807, when it was bought by Professor Scarpa for his collection in Motta di Livenza. It was then acquired by Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who placed it in the chapel of the Ca d’Oro, where it remains. Some critics have thought that it was either completed or partly repainted by one of Mantegna’s sons. In good condition for a distemper painting, though the paint surface has shrivelled slightly. Restored in 2006-8.
Holy Family and Female Saint. Canvas, 72 x 55.
Sometimes identified with the ‘small picture of half-length figures with the Madonna, Saints Joseph and Mary Magdalene’ recorded between 1664 (Boschini) and 1797 (Zanetti) in the Spedale degli Incurabili in Venice. The picture is in a poor state, having lost most of its final layers of paint. For Lightbown (1986) it is a ‘clearly autograph late work’, but for Christiansen (1992) ‘a shop work of strikingly mediocre quality’. Acquired in 1869 with the collection of Cesare Bernasconi of Verona. One of seventeen works stolen from the museum in November 2015 and recovered some six months later in May 2016.
Christ carrying the Cross. Canvas, 52 x 65.
Darkened and abraded. Usually considered a studio or school picture, but possibly a very damaged original. Also from the Bernasconi collection.
Verona. San Zeno Maggiore.
Madonna enthroned with Saints. Whole structure: 480 x 460; main panels, each 220 x 115.
Mantegna’s only altarpiece still in its original location. The architectural setting of the three main panels is integrated into the sumptuously carved and gilded original frame, the four columns of which support an arched pediment and entablature and appear to form the front of a square loggia. The basic form seems to have been inspired by Donatello's Santo Altarpiece of bronze statues and reliefs (executed at Padua around 1447-50 and dismantled at the end of the sixteenth century). The centre panel shows the Madonna and Child enthroned with a choir of boy angels, and the two side panels depict groups of saints in conversation or contemplation. The saints on the left are Peter (with keys), Paul (with sword), John the Evangelist (reading his Gospel) and Zeno (an early Bishop of Verona and its patron saint). Those on the right are John the Baptist (reading), Gregory of Nazianzus (an early Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian), Lawrence (with martyr's palm and gridiron) and Benedict (in the black habit of the monastic order he founded). The magnificent garlands of fruit, nuts and vegetables, hung as swags across the tops of the three panels, include cherries, grapes, pomegranates, cucumbers, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts, peaches, apples, acorns, pine-cones and peas. The great altarpiece was commissioned, probably in late 1456, by the Venetian humanist protonotary Gregorio Correr, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of San Zeno. Painted in Padua, and probably delivered to Verona in late 1459. Taken to Paris in 1797 by Napoleon. Returned in 1815, but without the predella panels (one in the Louvre and two in Tours). They are replaced by early nineteenth-century copies by a local painter, Paolino Caliari. In 1973 the left panel was stolen and returned after a ransom of eight million lire. The altarpiece was dismantled and thoroughly restored, panels and frame, in 2007-9.
Vienna. Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Saint Sebastian. Wood, 68 x 30.
Signed vertically in Greek on the pillar of the ruined triumphal arch (based on the arch of Septimus Severus in Rome). The cloud in the sky appears to take the form of the horse and rider in the Hunt of Theodoric, a Romanesque relief on the porch of San Zeno at Verona. The smallest and earliest of Mantegna’s three Saint Sebastians (the others are in the Louvre and the Ca d’Oro, Venice). Probably painted in Padua in the late 1450s, and possibly the small work Mantegna had to finish in eight or ten days in March 1459 for the Venetian general Giacomo Antonio Marcello. From the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm.
Sacrifice of Abraham; David and Goliath. Canvas, each 49 x 36.
Two grisaille paintings, simulating scultural reliefs with backgrounds of veined marble. They were probably in the Ducal collection at Mantua (a small grisaille of David with the Head of Goliath is mentioned in a Gonzaga inventory of 1627), and were acquired by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm from the estate of Charles I of England. They are of lower quality than the London Samson and Delilah or the Dublin Judith, and were probably produced by Mantegna’s workshop in the late 1490s. The Judgement of Solomon at Paris is similar in size and technique and was possibly from the same series.
Washington. National Gallery of Art.
Infant Redeemer. Canvas, 70 x 34.
This small devotional picture, painted on very fine fabric, of the Christ Child standing blessing against a marble background is very worn and darkened. The attribution, often doubted at one time because of the poor condition, has been generally accepted since 1932, when Berenson included the picture in his Lists for the first time. Datings have ranged over a thirty-year period – from ‘the late 1450s’ to ‘about 1490’. Previously in the Cook collection at Richmond, it was sold in London in 1947 and was one of twenty-eight paintings acquired a year later by Samuel H. Kress from Contini Bonacossi.
Portrait of a Man. Hardboard (originally wood), 24 x 19.
This very damaged profile portrait (badly abraded, with the ground showing through in areas, and retouched) has usually been accepted as a work of Mantegna and dated in the 1450s or 1460s. The main alternative attribution has been to Giovanni Bellini. The picture, previously in Hungarian private collections, became better known when it was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was then owned by Jacques Seligmann; acquired by Kress in 1950.
Judith. Wood, 30 x 18.
There are quite different paintings by Mantegna of this subject at Dublin and Montreal. These are in grisaille, while the Washington picture is in brilliant colours. The little panel also differs from Mantegna's other versions of this subject (drawings and engravings as also well as paintings) in depicting Judith's maidservant, Abra, as a white woman rather than an African. Rejected by some of the older critics (eg. Cavalcaselle), the panel has since Berenson’s 1907 Lists usually been accepted as an authentic late work. However, Christiansen (in the catalogue of the 1992 Mantegna exhibition) calls it the work of a ‘miniaturist pasticheur’, and David Alan Brown (in the 2003 catalogue of fifteenth-century Italian pictures at Washington) also refers it to a miniaturist in Mantegna’s circle, tentatively proposing the name of Giulio Campagnola. Probably once in Charles I’s collection, it was by 1625 in the Pembroke collection at Wilton House, Salisbury, where it remained until 1917. Bequeathed to the National Gallery with the Widener collection in 1942.