Mantegna’s Revenge

Nicholas Penny

  • Mantegna by Ronald Lightbown
    Phaidon/Christie’s, 512 pp, £60.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 7148 8031 0
  • The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered edited by Massimo Giacometti, translated by Paul Holberton
    Muller, Blond and White, 271 pp, £40.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 584 11140 1

There never has been a great painter more inclined than Mantegna to lavish skill and thought on minute particulars, and even if this is less clear than it might be from the plates in Ronald Lightbown’s massive monograph, Lightbown himself has a very keen eye for the subordinate, often tiny things which the artist painted so well, and has industriously inquired into what exactly they were, and also into what they meant. There is, for instance, the glass oil-lamp, painted as if it was hanging above, and in front of, the throne of the Virgin in Mantegna’s great altarpiece in the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, which is of a type invented in Venice, with a gold mount decorated with ‘sunk rosettes and sex-foils’, set with sapphires, rubies and pearls. It also has an ostrich egg hanging above it – an arrangement to be observed in other paintings of the period.

These exotic marvels had long served as church ornaments. Presumably their translucency made them glow magically above the lamps. They could also be regarded as symbols. Lightbown cites the indefatigably over-ingenious Durandus, the author of a treatise on ecclesiastical symbolism in the 13th century, who suggested, among other interpretations, that the sight of these eggs, by reminding us of the proverbially forgetful ostrich, might help us to bear in mind how easy and dangerous it is to forget God. Lightbown then refers to the vast literature on the symbolism of lamps. (He might have continued with the sapphires, rubies and pearls.)

It is, however, still possible to doubt whether Mantegna or his patrons attached any more significance to this lamp and egg than they did to other luxury accessories, such as the Islamic carpet and pagan Greek reliefs with which the Madonna is in this case also – and no less conspicuously – supplied. A lamp or an egg given special prominence – for instance, serving as a device on the reverse of a medal or on the back or the lid of a small panel painting – would merit this sort of exegesis, but here they may not.

Lightbown is as keen to expand on the historical events, recorded in published and in manuscript sources, which provided the occasion for Mantegna’s paintings as he is to investigate the objects depicted in them, and this, also, is often of great interest. He describes, for example, how a narrow escape from death in battle put the Marquess of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, into the right frame of mind to be persuaded by his brother Sigismondo and his bigoted clerical advisers to force a Jewish banker, who had inadvertently excited popular hatred, into paying for a new votive painting by Mantegna. Then they got him to agree to let them knock the Jew’s house down to build a church and house the painting.

As with the lamp, so with this episode: having discovered so much about it, the temptation is to make it more significant than it is. Anti-semitism certainly does ‘lie behind’ Mantegna’s splendid Madonna della Vittoria (the altarpiece in question, today in the Louvre), but whether it is reflected in the content of the painting is another matter. Lightbown is convinced that the prominence of St Elizabeth and the infant Baptist beside the throne of the Virgin and opposite the kneeling Marquess is connected with the fact that they are associated with baptism, ‘the rite that above all others separates Christians from Jews’, and he notes that they appear in an altarpiece with an explicitly anti-semitic inscription in the same period (which he does not illustrate).

However, a simpler, more obvious and entirely adequate explanation has been advanced by other scholars. St Elizabeth was the patron saint of Isabella d’Este, Francesco’s wife. Isabella would have prayed to St Elizabeth to intercede for her husband’s safety, and intercession explains why the saint kneels in the painting. The saint was placed opposite Francesco in lieu of Isabella’s own portrait, which we know had been originally proposed for this part of the painting. For Isabella to have suggested that her patron saint should be in the painting in her own place seems entirely probable, but for Isabella to have been eliminated in the interest of including an anti-semitic allusion seems most unlikely.

Mantegna’s chapel in the Belvedere in Rome was demolished in the 18th century to make way for the new Papal museum, and the Ovetari Chapel in Padua was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in the last war, with the consequence that only the room which Mantegna painted for Francesco Gonzaga’s grandfather, the Marquess Lodovico, in their palace in Mantua, survives as an example of his work as a decorator of walls. Lightbown meticulously reconstructs what has been lost and he also reconstructs the original character of this room, scrupulously employing the original name, the Camera Picta, in preference to the traditional one, the Camera degli sposi. The latter is, however, not inappropriate, the chief theme of the decoration being the way in which a husband and wife rule their ‘family’, in both the modern and the old Italian sense of that word (the second sense survives in the Mafia usage), and also rule the state which extends in a breathtaking panorama behind them. Plenty of other things are going on too: Lightbown is probably the first person to suggest that the servants grinning down into the room from above, with a huge potted plant precariously balanced beside them, are about to drop it on us as a practical joke. For him, however, this is essentially a group portrait of a ruling family.

In a marvellously rich chapter, he supplies copious information about saddles and spurs, the Marquess’s favourite dogs and the character of court livery, the proper reception of envoys and the status of children, all of which is both fascinating and relevant, and he resists the temptation to imagine that the biographical data he has discovered are directly reflected in the painting, arguing that accounts of other group portraits of the period and internal evidence suggest that specific historical episodes would not be depicted here. Historians may try to discover what is in the letter which the Marquess discusses with a messenger, but what Lightbown does is much more valuable. He emphasises the importance of correspondence generally in the management of the state. Daily, and continuously, the Marquess dealt not only with reports of troop movements but with personal petitions from his retainers or subjects.

He received quite a few complaints about his court painter. Simone Ardizzoni of Reggio, for instance, wrote to the Marquess on 15 September 1475, explaining that he was a painter and an engraver who had been working in Mantua. Mantegna had been friendly to him and offered him employment. However, for the previous four months he had worked for Zoan Andrea, remaking some prints for him, this Zoan Andrea being in a bad way since much of his property had been stolen. Mantegna, hearing of this, had become indemoniato, had sent a Florentine to threaten Simone, had organised a gang which had attacked Zoan Andrea and him and tried to murder them, and had then persuaded some crooks to accuse him of sodomy. Sodomy was a capital offence in Mantua, so Simone, as a foreigner, felt it was prudent to flee to Verona, where he was now completing work on the plates. The Marquess summoned Simone to give evidence in person, and having examined the matter carefully, seems to have settled it secretly.

This letter by Simone, the most puzzling of the numerous documents relating to Mantegna in the Mantuan archives, has long been familiar to Renaissance historians. It can be found in the appendix of documents which was such an admirable feature of Kristeller’s great monograph on Mantegna, published in the first years of this century. Every serious scholar of Renaissance painting is going to want to buy Lightbown’s new monograph, but they will be irritated (if they can afford to buy it) by the fact that they still have to go back to Kristeller for the documents. This one is quoted by Lightbown, but only in translation (and not a very good translation – Simone calls himself forastero, which is not a ‘stranger’ but a ‘foreigner’).

In his interpretation of the letter Lightbown points out that other documents suggest that Zoan Andrea had earlier been associated with Mantegna but had quarrelled with him. He then notes that since Zoan Andrea needed Simone to remake his prints it is unwise to identify him with the Zoan Andrea who, at a later date, signed engravings after Mantegna’s designs. But a signature is not always that of the person who does all, or even most, of the work. And certainly this Zoan Andrea had an interest in engravings. It is more likely than not that there is only one Zoan Andrea associated with Mantegna. Lightbown comes, eventually, to a rather lame conclusion: ‘What can legitimately be deduced ... is that Mantegna was anxious to recruit him’ – Simone, that is – ‘to engrave his own designs and that he was furious when an enemy succeeded in capturing his services.’ Even for someone of very vindictive and furious temper the actions reported by Simone seem to be an implausible response to the situation Lightbown describes. A bolder hypothesis is needed.

As it happens, one such was advanced by David Landau in the catalogue of the exhibition at the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, organised in 1979. It is almost impossible to get hold of a copy of this catalogue and I wonder whether Lightbown has done so (although he does list the publication in his catalogue). Landau proposed that the plates which Simone had been working on were not, as others had suggested, copies of Mantegna’s designs but Mantegna’s own plates – and that he was not ‘remaking’ in the sense of replacing, but in the sense of reworking them. These plates Andrea could have obtained from Mantegna, because Mantegna believed them to be exhausted and so only of value as copper. However, once meticulously reworked, which would take several months, the plates could have yielded numerous impressions at considerable profit.

Lightbown is certainly not obliged to accept this hypothesis, but he does not even discuss it – nor, more important, does he show himself to be aware of the technical observations on which it depends. The extreme rarity of early, richly-printed impressions of Mantegna’s prints has long been observed, but it was first pointed out – by Godfrey Evans, in an unpublished Courtauld Institute MA Report of 1977, which Landau properly credits – that early impressions, if examined under magnification, turn out to be ‘drypoints’, not engravings, and so were made with a sharp instrument handled not unlike the pen or stylus with which Mantegna would have made drawings. Very few impressions of such prints could be taken: mass production was out of the question, and the plates would quickly become redundant – unless, that is, they were reworked to become engravings, for which the skill of a specialist (such as Simone) who could handle a burin would have been required. And it is clear that such a reworking was exactly what Mantegna’s prints did receive.

This is hardly a small matter, for Mantegna, although he made some of the greatest altar-pieces and mural decorations of the 15th century, was also the first great European artist to make prints. He was also the first, or one of the first, to make highly-finished drawings as works of art in their own right. In other words (and this is a point which Landau has emphasised), we may say that he helped to initiate the revolution whereby two-dimensional monochrome imagery came to be accepted as a way of representing reality – an episode in European civilisation which may now be drawing to a close.

We can connect these innovations with another extraordinary innovation in Mantegna’s art: the monochrome paintings made on fine linen – feigned reliefs of marble or gilded bronze against a patterned alabaster ground. The device is equivalent to the way Poliziano at the same date describes, not the loves of the gods, but gems carved with the loves of the gods, and is no less sophisticated, and rather more original, in the field of painting. One may reasonably conjecture that one of the things which made Mantegna indemoniato with Simone Ardizzoni and Zoan Andrea was the cheapening of his inventions.

While artisans and neighbours were complaining about Mantegna’s behaviour, other artists and poets were competing to praise his achievements. One of the numerous surviving poems provides an extraordinary glimpse into the way in which his most sophisticated and courtly paintings were understood – and misunderstood. Battista Fiera wrote a subtle and complicated poem addressed to Isabella d’Este where he alluded to an earlier poem in which the poet (presumably Fiera himself) had described a painting of Venus with Mars as depicting her. It is almost certain that the painting is Mantegna’s so-called Parnassus, today in the Louvre, which was one of the greatest treasures in Isabella’s private collection. In the new poem Battista explains that he should have noticed the jealous Vulcan in the background, for his presence makes it clear that Venus is not portrayed in a very respectable light (as she could sometimes be, even when seen with Mars). But he insists that the error is understandable because the beauty of Venus as painted by the artist was taken from her, although the bed she shared with her Mars – Francesco Gonzaga – was chaste.

This very important poem was discussed with great subtlety by Roger Jones in a scholarly article in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes for 1981 – an article which Lightbown uses and then dismisses. According to Lightbown, it is important to interpret ‘the individual figures and symbols of a picture like the Parnassus in terms of its general meaning, which is plain enough from the action’. It may be plain to Lightbown, but it clearly was not to Fiera, who, after all, knew both the patron and the painter: and that was the whole point of Jones’s article.

Lightbown tells us that

according to a Platonic allegory much canvassed in the later 15th century ... there are two Venuses. One is a pure and celestial Venus who inspires man with pure and heavenly love, the other, an earthly Venus, is the goddess of the vulgar herd and inspires human lust. Cupid was born of this earthly Venus: accordingly the Venus of the picture, who has confiscated the arrow of lust, is the heavenly Venus, the adversary of lust. This is why she can be represented presiding over the chaste muses, and their celestial dance.

Why, in this case, is the arrow in question about five times as long as would be suitable for the bow of the boy beside her? Lightbown claims that the boy is in fact Cupid’s virtuous half-brother Anteros, but presumably his bow was a similar size.

More problems arise when we look at Venus. She appears simply as the Goddess of Beauty and Pleasure – and looks neither vulgarly lustful nor in the least spiritual. She has a hand on her hip and it is hard to detect the ‘feminine modesty of sentiment’ which Lightbown finds in her face. As for the chastity of the muses, Lightbown has nothing to say about the cheeky way one of them pokes a thumb through her neighbour’s hand to the evident merriment of her companions, although this has attracted much scholarly discussion. And then one comes back to Fiera. If an allegory of the celestial Venus was intended, why was he embarrassed to have compared Isabella with Venus? The painting is very likely to have an exalted programme which is compatible with (or just possibly ingeniously sabotaged by) much elegant and witty entertainment. But if the idea was to paint ‘the extinction of sensual lust’ it is impossible to believe that Mantegna could not have done a better job.

My discussion so far has been confined to the text, but Lightbown provides a catalogue of the artist’s work which can be praised for the vast amount of reliable information with which it is packed. In future editions, however, it would be good to have more consistent attention given to condition and to technique. The entry on the Virgin Embracing the Sleeping Christ Child, a painting which I saw recently in the Museo Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, includes a thoughtful discussion of the significance of the sleeping child, but the support is simply described as ‘canvas’, although it is exceptionally fine – as fine as that of the Adoration of the Magi now in the Getty Museum, which is described as ‘fine canvas’. Its condition is surely at least equal to that of the Adoration and yet it is described as ‘much abraded’, whereas the Adoration is ‘rather worn’. More seriously, it should have been observed that gold is employed for the watered silk pattern on the Virgin’s mantle in the Poldi-Pezzoli picture. Also, the question of whether the painting had been cut down ought to have been raised in this case, as in many others. In its present state neither the position of the Madonna’s knee, nor the rhythm of the drapery, nor the nature of the two strips behind her on either side, make sense.

The text of The Sistine Chapel is woven around a dazzling photographic survey of the Chapel’s frescoes, especially those by Michelangelo, and more especially those in the Lunettes – representing, often in a bizarre manner, the ancestors of Christ – which have now been cleaned; these latter plates are accompanied by Fabrizio Mancinelli’s lucid account of Michelangelo’s technique, from the way the scaffolding was made to the evidence of what pigments he used and how fast he worked. For the detailed illustrations alone – illustrations of the kind one would have liked so much to see in Lightbown’s monograph – this book is worth buying. Presumably there will be another volume with commentary on, and illustrations of, the frescoes on the vault itself which are now being cleaned with sensational results.

The additional material included here is of quite unexpected value in a book manufactured by ‘editorial professionals from Switzerland, Italy, the United Kingdom and Japan’ for simultaneous consumption in eight different countries. In particular, there is a very full and clear account by John Shearman of the complex building history of the chapel, its liturgical function, the programme of the 15th-century decorations, and of Raphael’s tapestries. There is also an article by Michael Hirst which subjects to scrutiny the fragile sheets from the little sketchbook by Michelangelo in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He finds more material there, and has made more sense of it, than any previous scholar. To move from these tiny doodles, often no larger than insects, to the colossal forms dashed down on wet plaster is an extraordinary experience. The drawings are not only the first ideas but may even represent the only rehearsals for those amazing and disturbing inventions in the Lunettes.

The ancestors of Christ had never, it seems, been painted before. They ‘were in one sense an ingenious solution to a problem of space that needed to be filled; in another sense they could serve as shorthand for the rest of the Old Testament for which there was no space on the ceiling,’ one of the captions informs us. It cannot be said that the learned contribution of Father O’Malley SJ gets us much further: ‘Though we know little enough about some of the ancestors named in that list, they were presumed to have been real persons, something that would have appealed to the special interest the Renaissance had in history and narrative,’ he writes, and then proceeds, tentatively, to speculate that these figures, ‘so haunting in their sober contemplation, perhaps suggest the unfulfilled condition of humanity as it awaited its redeemer’. ‘Sober’ is hardly the right word for the hopeless depression and lunatic excitement depicted here.