Uncovering A Gem of the Renaissance

The Royal Academy's comprehensive exhibition goes a long way toward serious reassessment of this Renaissance artist, who painted as though he wished he were a sculptor

THE first thing visitors see at the surprisingly popular Andrea Mantegna exhibition at the Royal Academy here is a man's head, a bust.

It's startling and powerful. Scowling, hostile, mean of mouth, its eyes are askance as if their owner can't bear to look at us. This head, a plaster cast of an original bronze in Mantua, Italy, has the willful arrogance of a Roman emperor. It is even crowned with laurel. But it does not date from imperial Rome. It is a self-portrait by Mantegna, who, 500 years ago, was no less renowned than Leonardo da Vinci, although Leonardo was about 20 years younger.

Recognition of the inventive, rigorous vision of Mantegna (c. 1430 to 1506) has never died, but his hard style and unappealing character - not to mention his preoccupation with death - have meant unpopularity. This has even extended to scholars whose distaste has clouded what should have been objective analysis of a clearly remarkable, and remarkably clear-thinking, artist.

The exhibition is the most comprehensive Mantegna display ever. Its exhaustive scholarly underpinnings go a long way toward serious reassessment.

The show's scope is impressive. Particularly so at a time when to transport delicate old-master works even across a city is increasingly frowned upon. But here is an array of fragile paintings lent from abroad. Some of them are specially restored or cleaned. Also magnificently displayed are eight large canvases The Triumphs of Caesar." This is a vast processional image of imperial Rome. It has never lost its reputation as a world masterpiece; but it has suffered wear-and-tear and poor restoration in the past. Recent care has happily made it more possible to glimpse Mantegna's achievement: how he used the antique world, but never kowtowed to it. He transformed it with imagination and wit.

These canvases, belonging to the Royal Collection, are usually housed at Hampton Court. Originally, "The Triumphs of Caesar" paintings were the proudest possession of the Gonzagas, Mantua's ruling family. Mantegna served as their court artist from 1460. In his day, he was considered everything a modern artist should be: genius, individualist, experimenter, fully an "artist." No longer, as in medieval times, a mere craftsman.

His contemporaries admired his realism. They praised his portraits as astonishingly lifelike. Some, though, did reject them as unflatteringly direct. He was eulogized for his skill in perspective and unusual foreshortening: these were the modern methods of depicting space and showing figures from unexpected angles.

Above all he was applauded for the way his art evoked the ancient, classical world. He drew inspiration from the fragmentary remains of Greek and Roman architecture and sculpture that littered Italy, and notably Padua, where he began his career.

This passion for the ancients' thought and art was the basis of his uncompromisingly severe style, so different from the shadowy nuances and hesitancy of Leonardo's. Mantegna paints as though he wished he were a sculptor (he did make some sculpture). Instead of flesh, his figures seem almost carved from stone. The textures, colors, and surfaces of rock are obviously an obsession, recurring variously throughout his work.

This chiseled hardness, however, gives added intensity to the artist's tender side when he allows it to show. It is apparent, with moving emphasis, in his print "Virgin and Child." A crisp, subtle impression of this engraving and drypoint is on view, loaned from Vienna. In every stroke of the artist's tool on the metal plate, the fierce protectiveness of a mother for her child is understood to be an enclosing and utter gentleness. Rembrandt was to own and value an impression of this print.

It was a specialist's interest in Mantegna's prints that prompted this show. The idea for it came about because of the dedication of print expert David Landau. One claim Mr. Landau makes is that research made possible by the show has clarified the history and authorship of all the prints that are either by, or associated with, Mantegna.

But this research has also spawned new scholarly disputes. While Landau is sure that Mantegna actually worked on the plates himself, Suzanne Boorsch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art believes he did not, but provided drawings for other engravers. The arguments are set forth in the gigantic catalog.

Prints and drawings form the body of the show. After all, many surviving works by Mantegna are in fresco (on walls), so they cannot be moved.

And in spite of the generous loans of precious paintings, most of the best-known masterpieces that could be moved remain securely in their permanent homes. Inclusion of fine reproductions of some of them might have enlarged visitors' views of Mantegna.

The exhibited works are organized partly in thematic groups: "The Labours of Hercules" or "The Descent into Limbo." One section presents his often-stern portraits. More of these will be seen at the Metropolitan Museum, when the show moves there later. ("The Triumphs of Caesar" will not be included.)

Another part is devoted to grisailles. These are basically monochrome paintings, evocations again of the sculptural and stony. Mantegna is thought to be the first artist to paint pictures completely in black and white, and one of the first to consider prints as important as paintings.

Mantegna's art is willful, imperative, at times almost chillingly admirable. But it can be shot through suddenly with a strange lyricism.

On view through April 5. It then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 9 to July 12.

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