During the last two years I have had the good fortune of visiting no fewer than four exhibitions devoted to the work of the great fifteenth-century painter Andrea Mantegna. Mantegna died in 1506, and to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of that event, three interrelated exhibitions were mounted in the three cities most closely associated with his name: Padua, the birthplace of the Roman historian Livy and the site of a renowned university, where Mantegna trained and established his position as the outstanding painter of north Italy; Verona, where in the great Romanesque church of San Zeno he left what must be reckoned as the defining painting of the early Renaissance; and Mantua, where for forty-six years Mantegna was employed by the ruling Gonzaga family.
Each exhibition contained wonderful works of art and had something to offer the serious viewer. Padua focused on the artist's formation in the shadow of Donatello, who moved there from Florence in 1443 and remained in Padua until 1453, leaving a series of works in bronze and marble that were crucial to Mantegna's development. Verona offered the possibility of viewing at close quarters the three main panels of the San Zeno altarpiece as well as getting re- acquainted with the charm--and the tedium--of late fifteenth-century Veronese painting. And Mantua provided the pleasure of revisiting the frescoed Camera degli Sposi in the Gonzagas' castle, which one illustrious visitor in the fifteenth century considered, quite simply, the most beautiful room in the world. (The exhibition itself was miserably installed and appallingly lit in ground-floor rooms of the ducal palace.) Yet the cumulative effect of these shows, which I saw on successive days, was curiously unsatisfying--like encountering one of those colossal marble statues of antiquity piecemeal, a fragment here and another there. It was impossible to get a full idea of the scale of Mantegna's achievement.
Now there is a remarkable show at the Louvre in Paris, and it is there that Mantegna emerges intact--and as the presiding genius of fifteenth-century painting. I suppose that some will find this assertion of Mantegna's importance hyperbolic. Some may even reject it out of hand. Surely, they will say, you must place Mantegna behind Masaccio and the great Piero della Francesca--and what about his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini? Well, I am not one to downplay the achievement of any of these artists, who have engaged the minds and the hearts of countless scholars and lovers of art (and who rank very high, certainly, on my own list of favorites). And yet I insist on the central and defining position of Mantegna not only because I believe it to be true, but because, for reasons of quite arbitrary aesthetic preferences, some critics have denied it to him.
Their point of departure is the misguided assumption that what gives importance to the art of the past is the way it prefigures the art of the present--a position that amounts to little more than aesthetic narcissism. Now, like Ernst Gombrich, I believe that there is never a wrong reason for admiring the work of an artist. But there are wrong reasons for dismissing it, and the problem with critics who have aesthetic misgivings about Mantegna's vision--a vision so exalted that even Federico da Montefeltro, the patron of Piero della Francesca, was left "stupefatto," or speechless, when he visited Mantua in 1482- -is that it results in a skewed image of the work and denies the art its moral authority, which, after all, is what really mattered to Mantegna. I would go so far as to posit that no other Renaissance artist asserts with such rigorous insistence a sense of moral rectitude.
Remarkably, both Bernard Berenson and Roberto Longhi--two of the most influential critics of the twentieth century--saw Mantegna as a genius gone astray, an artist who sacrificed his natural talent to the humanist's dream of resurrecting antiquity. "Too great devotion to the Antique thus hampered Mantegna in all his movements, checking in every direction his free development, and curbing the natural course of his genius," wrote Berenson in 1907 in his essay on the northern Italian painters. Longhi, a critic of unsurpassed brilliance whose writings continue to shape scholarship in Italy, was even harsher, accusing Mantegna of a "misticismo archeologico," a mystic belief in the classical past, and of practicing a stylistic "imperialism"--"a desperate and subtle dogmatics no less imaginary than that practiced three centuries later by the Venetian Piranesi." Nor was this enough. In a famous review of the landmark exhibition of Giovanni Bellini held in the Doge's Palace in Venice in 1949, Longhi sought to reverse the commonly acknowledged indebtedness of Bellini to his older brother-in-law, arguing that from this reversal "judgments of moral value can be made: today, for all of us, Giovanni Bellini stands higher as an example of independence of spirit than Mantegna and, a fortiori, than every other Venetian or Paduan contemporary." Independence of spirit: the very thing Mantegna fought for all his life--sometimes going so far as to hire thugs to beat up poachers of his intellectual property.
Sad to say, many well-intentioned and fervently dedicated scholars have inadvertently contributed to this devastating image by making Mantegna's work a proving ground of their own erudition, with the result that, as in the case of Poussin two centuries later, its quality of moral urgency is lost. What these critics missed is that antiquity did not merely provide Mantegna with an outward form by which he might give his pictures a classical pedigree: the rich cultures of Greece and Rome were the lens through which he viewed the world. Nor was this interest purely visual. We know, from an inventory drawn up after his son's death in 1510, that Mantegna owned Cicero's De officiis, a translation of the Aeneid, treatises on rhetoric, Ovid's The Art of Love, and works by Terence, Martial, and Juvenal. But there was also Saint Jerome's translation of the Psalms as well as a book with psalms and prayers and another on the Passion of Christ. He was, in sum, a Christian stoic, keenly attuned to the foibles and weaknesses of character that lead to moral compromise and self- deception, and only too aware that genius is engaged in a perpetual battle with fate.
Consider, for a minute, what must be Mantegna's most famous image, of the dead Christ viewed in steep foreshortening, foot to head, laid out on a slab of marble with, crowded into the narrow space at the left, the mourning figures of his mother, Saint John (the beloved apostle), and a third figure, and, to the right, a view toward the back of a barren room--probably the tomb chamber--and the dark opening of a door. Painted in muted (and much faded) colors of tempera on canvas, the picture, which hangs in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, has an almost overwhelming impact. There are the feet of Christ, with their lovingly described nail wounds, projecting beyond the marble slab into the viewer's space; the hands, also marked by the nails that pierced them on the cross, gently posed on the folds of the linen sheet that covers the lower half of the corpse; the head, turned slightly to the side, hauntingly peaceful in the way it is propped against a rose-colored silk pillow with an elegant watermarked decoration. There is the audacious cropping of Saint John's head, turned inward toward Jesus, with the partial view of his tightly clasped hands; the grief- stricken face of the Virgin, who raises a cloth to wipe away the tears that course down her aged cheeks; and the open mouth of the third figure, forming an almost audible moan.
All this cannot help but move the susceptible viewer, who finds himself at Christ's feet--in the position of Mary Magdalene, who bathed those same feet with her tears. The picture is a tour de force of artistic ingenuity and accomplishment, and it is no wonder that it has had such a lasting effect on so many later artists, from Annibale Carracci to the nineteenth-century German "purist" Wilhelm Trübner. But what sets Mantegna's painting apart, I think, is the way we see, at the far edge of the marble slab on the right, a beautifully depicted ointment jar (for the preparation of Christ's body) poignantly silhouetted against the empty corner of the chamber with that bleak, dark opening. Emptiness, and silence, broken only by the sobbing of the claustrophobically grouped mourning figures.
I know of paintings that treat this theme in a more touching fashion, and of paintings that treat it in a more ostentatiously dramatic way--for example, the hard-edged Lamentation by Carlo Crivelli in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But I doubt that anyone has ever treated the theme of the dead Christ mourned by his followers with an equal sense of loss as they confront the frightening silence and emptiness of death. Certainly not Bellini, whose emotional world did not admit such dark, brooding feelings. Nor Piero, whose most memorable painting conveys the certainty of the Resurrection. Nor even Michelangelo, whose marvelous drawing of the Pietà in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with its inscription from Dante--"They think not how much blood it has cost"-- is too heroically and eloquently tragic to have this kind of shattering impact.
Like so many of the heroes of Renaissance art, Mantegna did not enjoy a privileged childhood. His father was a poor carpenter who died before Mantegna had reached the age of twenty. By that time, perhaps with the assistance of his older brother, he had already passed through the workshop of Francesco Squarcione. A true Renaissance entrepreneur, Squarcione had transformed himself from a tailor into the head of the most prestigious workshop in Padua. A clever artist of little natural talent but enormous ambition, he assembled an incomparable array of studio props that included plaster casts of classical and modern sculpture and drawings by the most famous artists of the day. With these he set up a sort of academy in which his pupils--he claimed to have had 137--drew from the casts and learned the basics of perspective (though one student claimed Squarcione did not know what he was talking about). The unifying trait of those who studied with him was a fascination with antiquarian details and minutely described fruits and vegetables arranged in elaborate swags.
A short list of those who were at one time associated with Squarcione--Marco Zoppo, the Dalmatian Giorgio Schiavone, Cosimo Tura, Mantegna--reveals that he had a keen eye for talent. He adopted Mantegna--his way of getting around any obligation to pay him for his work--but during a stay in Venice the brash youth sued for his independence and won. That was in 1448. Later that year, Mantegna was contracted to join a team of artists in the decoration of a chapel in the Augustinian convent of the Eremitani in Padua. He worked on the frescoes for more than a decade, eventually edging out his collaborators and leaving what was, until the disastrous bombing of the church in World War II, one of the greatest fresco cycles of the Renaissance--worthy to stand alongside Masaccio's work in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence and Piero della Francesca's famous cycle in San Francesco in Arezzo. Fortunately, a photographic campaign was carried out before the destruction.
Mantegna was only twenty-six when he completed work in the Ovetari Chapel, but he was already the most famous artist in northern Italy--the favorite of the intellectual elite, and a thorn in the side of the mediocrities who were his competition. Moreover, in 1453 he had married into the most important workshop in Venice, that of Jacopo Bellini. It was thus that he and Giovanni Bellini were thrown together, to the great advantage of both.
Such was his fame that in 1456 Gregorio Correr, the man charged with governing the ancient Benedictine monastery of San Zeno in Verona, commissioned from Mantegna an altarpiece. Correr was a man of immense learning (alongside Ludovico Gonzaga and Federigo da Montefeltro, he had been educated by the greatest teacher of the age, Vittorino da Feltre), and the altarpiece that Mantegna produced is a landmark in the history of art. Almost simultaneously he was invited to move to Mantua to become the court artist to Ludovico Gonzaga. A postponement was obtained while he finished the altarpiece, but in 1460 he packed up his belongings and his family and moved to Mantua, where he spent the rest of his life, freed from the tedium of running a workshop and competing for commissions.
It was in Mantua that Mantegna was able to explore an array of subjects and themes that few other artists of the fifteenth century could hope to treat. He designed a chapel for which he painted a series of small paintings of the life of the Virgin; he decorated the famous Camera degli Sposi, in which the everyday doings of the Gonzaga court are brought to life in a setting combining classical dignity with wry humor (as in the courtiers who, as every visitor remembers, look down on the viewer, smiling, from a trompe l'oeil opening in the ceiling); he painted a pair of complex allegories for the private study of Isabella d'Este, the wife of Francesco Gonzaga (these are now in the Louvre in Paris); and he managed to complete the ambitious project for nine large canvases depicting the Triumphs of Caesar.
The Triumphs quickly became the most famous paintings of their time, and they secured for Mantegna lasting fame. Rubens studied them during his stay in Mantua, and Goethe knew the compositions from the set of woodcuts made by Andrea Andreani in the late sixteenth century. Taken from Mantua to England in 1629, the esteem in which these pictures were held was such that when Charles I was beheaded in 1649, they were exempted from the sale of royal possessions. It seems to have been Mantegna's intention that they be displayed as a continuous frieze, high up, separated by classical pilasters. The effect would have been like that of a tableau vivant: a triumphant moment in Roman history brought magically back to life. Details such as a stray dog peering around a figure's leg, a bald man bent over from the fatigue of carrying a suit of armor on a pole, or spectators viewing the scene from behind grilled windows bring the scenes to life, while the floppy-eared elephants and decorated chariot, elegantly drawn by a white horse and accompanied by frolicking children, endow the canvases with an exotic beauty. Even today, in their much compromised state in Hampton Court, they remain an impressive sight.
An incident well known to art historians gives us a rare glimpse of the way in which life and intellectual interests came together in the everyday world of Mantegna, as well as in his art. In September 1464, the artist set out with a group of friends for an excursion on Lago di Garda. There was the eccentric humanist scholar and scribe Felice Feliciano, and the painter Samuele da Tradate, and the Gonzaga architect-engineer Giovanni da Padova. Each assumed a role, as if they were Romans: Samuele played "emperor," Mantegna was the "consul." Felice wore a garland of myrtle and ivy, and Samuele sang and played the lute as they sailed around the lake in a boat decorated with carpets and laurel. They explored the islands for classical inscriptions and monuments, one of which they ingeniously identified as a shrine to Diana and her nymphs. An orchard seemed--inevitably, we might say--to have the appearance of the gardens of the Muses. And upon returning they entered a church to give thanks to the Virgin and her son, whom they--no less predictably--addressed as "the supreme Thunderer and his glorious mother." What we have here is a romantic antiquarianism: a charming masquerade that nonetheless indicates a serious desire not simply to read about the Roman past and study its remains, but also to participate in its very lifeblood. It is this quality of imagination that Mantegna brought to the Triumphs of Caesar.
For all that, Mantegna brought no less conviction to pictures with traditional devotional themes. It is truly remarkable that this proud, litigious, ambitious, and difficult man painted some of the most tender pictures of the Madonna and Child in all of Christian art. Their special qualities were beautifully described by Roger Fry in an article in 1905 that, for its critical insight, has never been surpassed. Of the exquisite Madonna and Child in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Fry observed that "[the Madonna] lives a life apart, a life in which feelings unknown to us, more intense than ours, still do not avail to ruffle the serenity of a superhuman insight. In the Child the main idea is more on a plane with that of other artists, notably with Bellini. Like him Mantegna here gives expression to the agony of a mind already conscious of the burden it has taken upon it, but even so the sense of mystery is stronger than in Bellini, and with a greater realism there is yet a greater remoteness." Of the even more touching Madonna and Child in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Fry noted that "There is here no idealization in the ordinary sense, no attempt to escape from the facts. All the penalty, all the humiliation, almost the squalor attendant on being 'made flesh' are marked." Is it any wonder that Mantegna's engraving of the Virgin seated on the ground, bent over the child she cradles in her lap, should have inspired Rembrandt to create one of his most intimate as well as most affecting etchings?
This brings us to what was, for me, the excitement of the exhibition in Paris: the three reunited panels from the predella (the support below the altarpiece proper) of the San Zeno Altarpiece. Following Napoleon's defeat of Verona in 1797, Mantegna's great masterpiece was disgracefully removed from the deconsecrated monastery of San Zeno and taken as booty to France for display in the Musée Central des Arts. It was returned to Verona in 1815, following Napoleon's defeat--minus the three predella panels, two of which had been exiled to Tours in 1806. The third, showing the Crucifixion, is one of the treasures of the Louvre, where Degas, for one, copied it in 1861. (Appropriately, his copy is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours.) The last time these three panels could be seen together was in 1956.
The three panels illustrate events from Christ's Passion: the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion on Golgotha, and the Resurrection. Taken individually, each seems an astonishing and perfect work of art. The balance between figure and landscape, between narrative drama and the continuum of life, between detailed description and spatial scope, is, to use a worn-out term, miraculous. But when seen together, they truly are a revelation: a tour de force of the most elevated imagination. What had never struck me before is Mantegna's brilliant and deeply poetic insight of showing the Agony against an evening sky, the Crucifixion at midday, and the Resurrection at dawn, with a pale pink horizon contrasting with the brilliant, coral-colored light emanating from Christ within the cavern sheltering his tomb. No less marvelous is the attention lavished on the depiction of the city of Jerusalem in the background of each scene, viewed in each instance from a different topographical position: from the Mount of Olives, from Golgotha, and from the cemetery where Christ was buried. By these devices Mantegna encourages viewers to experience the events depicted in a new way, journeying in their imagination from sacred site to sacred site and moving from one day to the next. Just as in the main panels of the altarpiece the Virgin and her court are made more palpable by being sited in a meticulously described classical pavilion that is complemented by the real architecture of the frame, so in the predella everything is conceived to inspire a deeper, more intimate, and more personal reflection on the events of the Passion.
Verisimilitude--one of the driving forces of Renaissance painting--here achieves a new level of complexity. And what explains this complexity? I believe that some credit must go to the man who commissioned the altarpiece, Gregorio Correr. As already noted, he had had a humanist education and was an admirer of the writings of Augustine and Jerome. Surely, in discussing the altarpiece with Mantegna, he set forth a number of texts that should inform the individual scenes: not necessarily a carefully written-out program, but rather a series of literary references, in line with Horace's famous dictum that painting is, after all, a kind of silent poetry. These sources must have ranged from the Old and New Testaments to Saint Jerome's Latin edition of Eusebius's Onomasticon (a dictionary of place names in sacred history), Augustine's Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Flavius Josephus's The Jewish War (with its detailed description of Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction by Titus in 70 C.E.), and the thirteenth-century devotional book The Meditations on the Life of Christ.
One of the favorite exercises of humanist writers was to compose a written description of a picture, imagined or real, as a sort of assertion of the superiority of the descriptive powers of the writer's pen over the painter's brush. Mantegna's paintings seem to proceed from this sort of thinking--asserting, however, the superiority of the brush over the pen. To demonstrate what I have in mind, I have attempted to compose a pseudohumanist description--an ekphrasis--of the Agony in the Garden, incorporating, as such texts often do, passages from the kinds of books that Correr might have brought to Mantegna's attention. So:
It is evening and the cloud-scudded sky is still lit by the dying rays of the sun, which has sunk behind the distant hill, its soft, golden light delicately illuminating the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem below Mount Zion. Jesus, having foretold his fate to the disciples and having sung with them a Passover hymn, has "crossed the Kedron ravine" (John 18:1) to the Mount of Olives and entered a garden, "a place called Gethsemane," taking with him "Peter and the two sons of Zebedee" (Matthew 26:36-37). The three disciples, exhausted by the day's events, lie sleeping in the foreground, "worn out by grief" (Luke 22:45), while behind and above them, "about a stone's throw" (Luke 22:41)--"not as when the arm is violently agitated, but as when the stone is thrown without great force"--Jesus kneels in prayer, "in anguish of spirit." "And now there appeared to him an angel from heaven bringing him strength" (Luke 22:43-44). The angel, descending at a sharp angle from on high, flies on colored wings and leaves behind a trail of swirling clouds, his silhouette defined against the sharp-edged shafts of stone of a rocky outcrop. In his hands, delicately yet firmly, he carries a chalice from which Christ must take his bitter drink.
A crystalline light plays across the face of Christ and the rocky escarpment, illuminating the angel from below. "My Father," implores Christ, looking up with his pained face, his lips parted in speech, "if it is not possible for this cup to pass me by without my drinking it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26:42). Two fruit-bearing trees--a quince and an apple--stand like lonely sentinels of hope in this scene of arid desolation. Yet a vine has somehow managed to flourish, bringing forth grapes amid the dead branches of a blasted tree. There must once have been a garden of great beauty here--a veritable Eden from before the Fall--for on the hard slopes behind Christ can be seen barren stumps, hacked near to the ground: "now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Luke 3:9). This orchard was once pollinated by bees that swarm around a pair of hives set up on a shelf of rocks.
Around the edges of the mount, marking its boundaries, flows a stream, its surface rippled by the fast-flowing current as it winds its way through the Valley of Jehoshaphat "between the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem." Two bridges, constructed from the cleaved trunks of trees, traverse the stream. They will be crossed by the approaching mob led by Judas, who pauses to look back at "a detachment of soldiers, and police provided by the chief priests and Pharisees, equipped with ... weapons" (John 18:3). A small rabbit stops in fright on the near bridge; the winding path leads up to the main gate of Jerusalem, "fortified by three walls," with towers "twenty cubits broad and twenty high, square and solid as the wall itself," and dominated at its highest point by a fortress. "Owing to its strength [this portion of the city] was called by King David ... the Stronghold, but we called it the upper agora" (Josephus). By contrast, in the lower city is seen the domed mass of the temple, proud as the Pantheon, its circular walls with a revetement of an arched colonnade. Yet another part of the city extends down a slope, "encompassed by deep ravines [so that] the precipitous cliffs on either side of it rendered the town nowhere accessible" (Josephus). Here the walls and the towers have been allowed to crumble and fall into ruin; pointed staves, driven into the ground, block the only entrance.
Below this, directly above a cleavage in the cliff, can be seen the fountain of Siloam, "for so we called that fountain of sweet and abundant water" (Josephus). From the spigot of this fountain water splashes onto the rocks below, feeding the stream that runs past the advancing mob and the sleeping apostles. Only days before, Jesus had passed near this very spot and wept over the sight of Jerusalem, saying, "If only you had known, on this great day, the way that leads to peace! But no; it is hidden from your sight. For a time will come upon you, when your enemies will set up siege-works against you; they will encircle you and hem you in at every point; they will bring you to the ground, you and your children within your walls, and not leave you one stone standing on another, because you did not recognize God's moment when it came" (Luke 19:41-44). That day came not four decades later, when Titus gave his troops orders "to encamp at a distance of six furlongs from Jerusalem at the mount called the Mount of Olives, which lies over against the city on the east, being separated from it by a deep intervening ravine called Kedron" (Josephus). It is on this same place that we see Jesus praying, and it is to this place, so filled with mournful memories, that Mantegna has brought us.
If this exercise has any useful application to the practice of looking at pictures, it is to remind us of the descriptive richness of Mantegna's paintings and the degree to which they contain potential prompts for the informed viewer: his pictures incorporate memories and associations. Thus, the bees swarming around their beehive could have reminded one viewer of Augustine's commentary on a verse in Psalm 118, "They compassed me about like bees"--a reference, according to Augustine, to Christ's capture. Others might have been reminded of the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics, which deals with the care of bees and describes the hives exactly as Mantegna has painted them. These kinds of literary references may be viewed as the complement to the classical architecture and the antiquarian details of the Virgin's pavilion in the main panels of the altarpiece. Here misticismo archeologico and humanist scholarship combine in the creation of an altarpiece of unprecedented allusive richness and expressivity, with images that must always have been read on multiple levels by audiences with vastly different educations, some able to elaborate imaginatively on the visual clues the artist provided, while others must have remained intent on the human drama.
But of course expressiveness was unquestionably at the forefront of Mantegna's conception. In no earlier treatment of the Agony in the Garden does Christ's suffering acquire this quality of an existential crisis. It is made more poignant by the uncomprehending apostles asleep in the foreground, their poses studiously varied; the tour-de-force foreshortening of the descending angel--messenger of the bitter consolation sent from heaven; the stony, barren terrain of the foreground, and the threatening crowds arriving in the distance, with the soft green hill of Jerusalem set against the incandescent light of the evening sky. All the signifiers of artistic accomplishment that led the father of Raphael, Giovanni Santi, to rank Mantegna the supreme artist of his day are incorporated into this depiction without in any way detracting from the narrative.
If I were to seek a later literary parallel for Mantegna's achievement, I would suggest--arbitrarily, I admit--the quality of observation and immersion in nature that is found in the novels of Thomas Hardy, in which narrative and description of setting support each other so eloquently and unforgettably. I am thinking, for example, of that marvelous passage in The Mayor of Casterbridge in which Hardy describes two figures, journeying in an atmosphere of "stale familiarity" on the road to Weydon-Priors: "a road neither straight nor crooked, neither level nor hilly, bordered by hedges, trees, and other vegetation, which had entered the blackened-green stage of colour that the doomed leaves pass through on their way to dingy, and yellow, and red." Mantegna had a similar ability to describe character, and a similar interest in embedding the protagonists of his narratives in the world at large, which he often enough portrays as indifferent or even threatening. His paintings embrace the microcosmic vision of Netherlandish practice, which we know he admired and studied, but they confer upon it a dramatic focus and a narrative urgency.
On several occasions Mantegna gave visual exposition to his attitude toward his life as an artist. Perhaps the most explicit is a composition that has come down to us in an engraving by a printmaker who frequently worked from Mantegna's designs. It allegorizes humanity under the reign of Ignorance, shown as an obese woman seated on a globe holding a rudder to signify the vagaries of Fortune. The globe is supported by three-legged sphinxes, sacks of money alongside them. Ignorance is advised by Ingratitude, shown blindfolded, and by Avarice, a skinny old woman with sagging breasts and pointed ears. Beside them burn branches of laurel, the traditional symbol of virtue and merit. Mantegna titled this part of the composition VIRTUS COMBUSTA: "Virtue Set Ablaze." To the left are shown another group of figures who grope their way, only to fall into a pit. A blind, nude female figure is guided to her fate by another figure with asses' ears--Error--and is encouraged by a bagpipe-playing satyr with webbed feet and bats' wings: Lust. Another man has a cloth tied over his head and holds a dog on a leash. Is he Fraud? In the pit below bodies have piled up. To one side we see a woman transformed into a laurel tree: Virtue deserted amid the thorns and ruins of civilization.
Mantegna derived this image from a dialogue written by Leon Battista Alberti. One of the discarded marble blocks is inscribed with letters that ominously declare, "Ignorance is always opposed to Virtue." We know that Mantegna attached a personal meaning to this idea, for he voiced it in letters to Francesco Gonzaga. But to the right, Mercury, the inventor of the arts, the god of eloquence and logic, arrives, and like a figure of Christ at the gates of Hell he reaches out and rescues one of the victims of Ignorance. It is a remarkable invenzione, and one that speaks volumes about Mantegna.
We like to think of the Renaissance in terms of optimism and the progress of the human spirit--rather as Jacob Burckhardt framed the period in the nineteenth century. But the truth is darker and more complicated. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Mantegna cast a far more critical and even a pessimistic eye on the world around them, and what they saw was ignorance, folly, wantonness--and a lack of recognition of real genius. It is this biting, incisive, exalted mind that gives the art of Mantegna such an extraordinary edge and moral authority. And it is that which makes it very much the antidote to our frivolous and foolish times.
Keith Christiansen is Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By Keith Christiansen