Morality, fantasy and self-promotion of a man who knew how to believe in himself and his innovations.

By Gaia Serena Simionati


«Iam inspired by narrating the change of forms into new bodies». From Ovidio, but certainly also before him, man has openly confronted creativity with making it a bulwark of life to avoid ugliness. In the visual field Andrea Mantegna was exactly a banner in this sense and the exhibition dedicated to him in Turin: reliving the ancient, building the modern, fully confirms it. Beyond the poetic message of Mantegna’s pictorial investigation, he proposed an elaborate image of himself, daring perspective experiments to say the least and an extraordinary realism in the rendering of the human figure.

His works are skinny, essential, severe yet rich, without color, but hyper real, endowed with immersive scenic elaborations, they are anciently modern and modernly ancient. In them classicism, greekness, latinism, love for history and epochal architectures, made of Roman bridges, inscriptions, tombs and sarcophagi prevail over everything. Non-visual, underground communication is just as profound to make us love an artist who was initially not adequately appreciated. The innate dedication to originality and imagination amazed all the contemporaries in its manifestations, as when he inserted a pictorial porthole in the Camera Picta in Mantua, a difficult and capricious invention, a tribute to the Roman Pantheon and to its opening in the vault, so loved by artists and writers, in which cherubs and madonnas appeared, looking down on us all. Understanding its value, the interest generated by his works, Mantegna adopted an innovative way of preparing a theme song, the first sort of fifteenth-century copyright on the engravings, which then Dürer, the history of art, from Warhol onwards, will resume in toto. He was a self-made-man, ambitious and tenacious, already famous at 13 years of age, then a star in the Gonzaga court. To his great virtue in embodying the perspective of the sixteenth century, was added the idea he had by forcing the sacred image of the dead body of Christ that no artist had ever done before. In the Paduan workshop of Squarcione, where he developed a taste for the archaeological citation, he came into contact with the news of the Tuscans passing through the city such as Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Andrea Del Castagno and, pervades his work, the esteem for the severity of the bronzes by Donatello, Leon Battista Alberti’s love of architecture and literature, knowledge of Flemish and Florentine innovations.

Last but not least, he knew the art of the Bellini to which he was related by kinship, he acquired, having taken, Nicolosia, Giovanni’s sister in marriage. From there its forms softened and illuminated, while the scenographies without losing their monumentality became more airy. This exhibition therefore testifies to the cultural melting pot on which Andrea was formed, the historical and literary inspirations, the taste for nature and beauty that determines each of his individual works, as well as the representation of contacts and relationships with classicist antique dealers. About twenty paintings are exhibited by Mantegna, as many drawings and graphic works, as well as some autographed letters. The exhibition itinerary is not only monographic, but it presents precisely masterpieces of the greatest protagonists of the Renaissance who were in relationship, including Donatello, Antonello da Messina, Pisanello, Paolo Uccello, Giovanni and Jacopo Bellini, Leon Battista Alberti, Cosmè Tura, Ercole de ‘ Roberti, Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi called the Antico and finally the young Correggio. Alongside paintings, drawings and prints, works of his contemporaries are exhibited, as well as ancient and modern sculptures, architectural details, bronze statues, medals, autograph letters and precious antique printed and illuminated volumes. Art is difficult. Mantegna had already understood this: study, try, redo. He had already understood this also in the wealth of artist who produced very little. As the curator Howard Burns explains, Mantegna was convinced of himself, so much so that on May 13, 1479 he wrote a letter to Gonzaga to say that: «he had painted more the greatest painter of the ancient world», to which Mantegna basically equates himself, being a funerary chapel and set up a bronze disc with self-portrait in the church in Mantua and in an inscription he said equal, if not superior. The exhibition was made possible thanks to Intesa Sanpaolo who together with Civita and the Turin Museums Foundation promoted it at Palazzo Madama, dedicating it to this great Renaissance artist, without equal.