Mantegna Parnassus Analysis Essay

Manipulation of the Venus: Portraying different meanings for different patrons

by Christina Benner

The image of Venus, the goddess of love, can be seen frequently throughout visual culture. Depicted by artists in many different forms, her representation in Renaissance art ranges in its meaning and presentation. In this paper I will look at the manipulation of the Venus iconography to portray different values for different patrons. By examining Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) and Birth of Venus (1486), we will see the Venus take on a didactic and enlightening role. However, in paintings meant for the studiolo of Isabella d’Este, Mantegna’s Parnassus: Mars and Venus (1497) and Perugino’s Battle of Love and Chastity (1503) which take on the role of identifiers and symbols for their patron’s morals, Venus is cast in a more negative light. This negative connotation ultimately plays into the gender constructs of the Renaissance period and how they dictated a woman’s role and function in society. Although these four images may share the same central figure, their differences in context provide us with a complex understanding of artist and patron working together to convey specific meanings for their audience.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a Florentine based painter who, although working for various houses, found himself painting for the Medici family.1 The Villa Castello, acquired in 1478 by Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco, grandsons of Cosimo il Vecchio’s brother Lorenzo, housed Botticelli’s paintings The Birth of Venus and Primavera.2 Although specific patronage for these paintings is vague, scholars have constantly assigned the two paintings to Medici patronage between 1477 and 1488.3 Beginning with the Primavera (fig. 1)

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (1482), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, tempera on panel, 202 × 314cm. Photo: Public Domain.

and accounting for its location, we will see how Botticelli used the Venus as a representation of Spring, fertility of the land, and abundance.

Contemporary scholar Giorgio Vasari notes that the Primavera appears earliest in the inventory of the Casa Vecchia on the Via Larga, next door to the Palazzo Medici.4 The Casa Vecchia was a private home and a rural retreat in the countryside.5  Botticelli's Primavera is dated around 1482, the year Lorenzo married Semiramide d’Appiano, daughter of Jacopo III, Lord of Piombino.6 The painting was affixed to a wall in a ground-floor chamber next to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bedroom, set about eye level over a wooden settle. The rural setting acts as the backdrop for the theme of Primavera and the Venus’ role as spring, emphasizing the rustic farmer’s calendar, as opposed to a sexualized goddess of love.7 However, the spring time subject is also based on the literary framework of poets Lucretius and Ovid.8 The Primavera visually addresses the leading ideas of its time, such as central issues including the formation of Florentine cultural identity, the understanding and translation of the pagan past, and the realization of interdependent terms of expression for both painting and poetry.9

Focusing on the figure of Venus, we see that Botticelli presents her as the focal point of the composition. Being in the central location and at a higher level than surrounding figures, the visual language marks her as the prominent figure. Venus is shown in symbolic representation of Florence with her patterned dress, and Florentine native trees engulfing the landscape. The association of Venus with Florence is used to elevate not only her status, but the status of Florence and its patrons. We see the manipulation of the Venus’ form from the goddess of love, to an allegorical symbol of her patron’s city.

The Primavera Venus is shown in two phases in relation to the surrounding figures. Meant to be read from right to left, we see the beginning of Spring with the blowing of the west wind (Zephyr), transitioned to its fullness in the month of April, represented by Venus, and from April to its end in May, presided over by Mercury.10 The metamorphosis of Chloris transitioning into Flora shown on Venus’ right through transparent hands and intertwining vines, becomes a representation of the growing process of spring, converging Chloris and Flora into one and ultimately resulting in Venus; a three figure transition to signify one.11 We as viewers are meant to read the painting as a whole, with Venus acting in a motherly role to each figure as she looks on over her season. This motherly role is reinforced by her fully clothed presentation and her apparent pregnant condition, associating her with the Madonna.12The Venus in this painting identifies with the moving spirit of the fertile spring, as opposed to the sensual and typically erotic Venus image.13 As a goddess of the garden, Venus is shown in a positive and effective light, echoing the theme of rebirth, fertile land, and an abundant spring season.14

As the Primavera Venus is a bit obscure in its representation of a “classical” Venus, it emphasizes the disconnect from Botticelli’s definitive standard for Renaissance representations.15 Slightly smaller and painted on canvas as opposed to wood, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is dated around 1484-86.16 According to Vasari, it was displayed at Villa Castello in the same room as the Primavera as early as 1530, but its earlier provenance is a mystery.17 Although painted by Botticelli and assumed to have Medici patronage, the Medici and Florentine symbolism is lacking in comparison to the Primavera.18 Besides the shared Venus central figure, it is unlikely that they are linked directly in patronage and production.19

Linked strongly to literature and Poetry, much like the Primavera, the Birth of Venus originates from poetry itself to create a visual representation. In Stanze per la Giostra, Renaissance poet Angelo Poliziano writes of the Venus:

A young woman with nonhuman countenance /

Is carried on a conch shell, wafted to

Shore by playful Zephyrs; and it seems that /

Heaven rejoices her birth. 20

This poem has clearly influenced Botticelli and his painting of The Birth of Venus as the same iconography is used in its depiction. This imaginative version of the ancient story suggests that the image was made for a humanist patron21 and the pagan imagery of the large scale nude Venus, emphasizes fantasy through a lack of naturalism and erotic overtones.22

Botticelli continued to focus on the representation of Venus but took a different approach to the iconography. Showcased fully nude, this depiction of the Venus is what we most likely associate her with. Scholar Jane Long describes the body language of the Venus in a constructive way, praising her nudity:

Venus poses in a way that accentuates her curves; the exaggerated contrapposto and elongated body clearly celebrate her femininity. She gestures almost delicately, laying her hands above her breast and across her genitals in a way that attracts the viewer’s attention, rather than hides.23

While nudity can be associated with negative terms, relating to erotic sin and seen as the locus of lustful desires that lead humans from salvation, its meaning can also be ambiguous as nudity can be linked to purity and divinity, even echoing Christ.24 In the case of the Birth of Venus, the nudity is more closely linked to the revival of interest in antiquity, shown through the “modest Venus” pose, idealizing beauty, as well as the fantasy-like elements of the presentation.25 However, although fully nude, any erotic connotations are used as didactic tools for supporting marriage and evoking consummation.

Being the first monumental, erotic, nude female of the Renaissance, the representation of Venus makes considerable sense, for not only does her classical basis justify her nudity, but her nuptial associations give legitimacy to the sensory pleasure that nudity elicits.26 Her dual nature of nudity and beauty stood for a notion of sacred and profane love, mean to lift the viewers of the 15th century to the realm of divine love.27 Botticelli took the erotic undertones of the goddess of love and presented them in a way that would be used to evoke love and passion in the context of a marriage and possible wedding gift.28

Painted on canvas as opposed to wood, this easily transferable material could have implied the Birth of Venus’ (fig. 2)

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.9cm. Photo: Public Domain.

journey of relocation.29 With a lack of quattrocento documentation, the painting's original purpose and location are unknown. It is argued that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, well known for using gifts of images to cement relationships with allies, may have commissioned the Birth of Venus as a wedding gift, possibly for the nuptials of Giovanni Bentivoglio, who was a close ally and has appropriated aspects of the cultural traditions of Florence to his own court.30 With the context of marriage at hand, it can be argued that the nudity of the Venus promoted sexual pleasure that would be directed towards procreation.31 In Renaissance culture, a marriage is not legitimized until it is consummated, therefore the Birth of Venus could have been used to arouse a bride and groom, ultimately leading to the bearing of children.32

This manipulation of the Venus form in the Birth of Venus used to convey arousal and motivation is presented in a constructive manner. The same connotations apply in the Primavera, showcasing progressive themes and allowing the vessel of the female Venus to be put on a pedestal, using her beauty and sensuality as an enlightening implement. While these positive images have been commissioned by males, they are in contrast to negative representations of the Venus that were commissioned by a female patron, Isabella d’Este. This comparison alludes to the differences in gender roles and how d’Este manipulated the Venus in a negative way to convey her own virtuous morals, as opposed to male patrons who praised the Venus and her form.

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) married into the Gonzanga court to the Marquis of Mantua, Francesco II Gonzanga (1466-1519).33 Acquiring the title Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella spent over fifteen years (1491-1508) appointing her Camerini, the studiolo and grotto, with mythological paintings and sculptures.34 Acting as a space to house works of art as well as a space devoted to writing and reading, Isabella’s studiolo was a declaration of status; a luxurious prerogative of a rulers wife.35 The overall scheme of the studiolo were notions of wisdom, celestial love, chastity, and the conquest of vice.36 As it was less likely for a woman to be a patron of art, let alone have a studiolo, Isabella pushed the boundaries of gender norms during the Renaissance and used her studiolo as a way to showcase her values and status. However, the performative nature of a studiolo threatened Isabella’s womanhood, which was inextricably linked to her reputation for chastity.37

The rules of virtuous behavior and devotion to a chaste lifestyle were set forth by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528). Printed multiple times and vastly distributed among courts all over Europe, this book showcased expected and ideal behavior that a woman should encompass in an elite court. As Isabella strived for an ideal role within her court, these courtly expectations resonated in her mind and ultimately presented themselves in every aspect of commissioned art to reverberate her role as a lady of the court in Renaissance Italy.

Acquiring the services of court painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Isabella commissioned mythological scenes to be displayed on the walls of her studiolo. In Andrea Mantegna's Mars and Venus, also known as Parnassus(fig. 3),

Andrea Mantegna, Mars and Venus (Parnassus) (1497), Louvre, Paris, tempera and gold on canvas, 54.6 x 70.7cm. Photo: Public Domain.

we see the tensions associated with Isabella’s possession of a studiolo and how she manipulates the Venus iconography as a negative aspect of lust and infidelity that she ultimately overcomes. Painted accordingly to showcase aspiring virtues, this image relates to the overall theme of mythology as well as the literature provided in the studiolo itself.38 Mars and Venus takes place on Mount Parnassus, and Mantegna was able to include gods who symbolized Isabella’s philosophical ideals.39 Apollo, the God of artistic inspiration, and the Muses dwell nearby, while he plays the lute as they dance. Mercury resides on the far right, alongside Pegasus, the allegory for fame and moral achievement.40 The main protagonists Mars and Venus are joined atop the mountain, guiding your eye to the contrasted fully clothed Mars alongside the nude Venus, who is assumed to represent Isabella herself in beauty and love. Although the Venus is nude and that normally implies eroticism in a Renaissance context, the nudity of Mantegna’s Venus is not intended to be sexual and erotic, but that of heavenly celestial love.41 Echoing the purity of Eve before original sin, the act of refusing to cover up signifies her innocence and divine perfection.42 Although it seems Mantegna represents the Venus in a positive and celestial light, her image becomes ambiguous with the presence of Vulcan.43 Vulcan, Venus’ rightful husband who rages in the left background, causes a dilemma and a bemused reading of the Venus’ iconography. His mere presence implicates that the union of Mars and Venus is an illicit affair, providing a negative connotation on her behalf.44

In 1498/99, Battista Fiera, a part of the Gonzanga court and well versed in aristocratic etiquette, wrote the earliest surviving commentary on Mantegna’s painting.45 As a close friend of Mantegna, he would have had an intimate understanding of, and access to, the painting. Published twice, first in Mantua and later in Venice, Fiera makes an open apology to Isabella referencing her to the ambiguously unfaithful Venus in a previous commentary.46 In his apology, Fiera argues that the Venus was portrayed in Isabella’s beauty and nothing else, separating her from the treasonable behavior presented in Mantegna’s interpretation.47 On Mantegna’s behalf, Fiera states:

Fair Isabella, he is sorry to have called you Venus, /But an image of you had been the source of the poets fancy. /You are not really Venus, are you, if you are untied in a chaste bed / With a Mars? You are not really Venus, are you, if Apelles makes aVenus out of you? 48

The controversy is that Fiera had not seen the “vengeful hands against Mars” and the presence of Vulcan. By associating Venus with Isabella, he accidentally calls the Marchesa’s virtue into question, which she highly strives for.49 However, according to Stephen Campbell, this poem is a part of “studiolo culture,” a type of clever, cultivated, and politically charged exchange in which paintings, such as Mars and Venus, served to stimulate interpretive games among the courtiers present in Isabella’s studiolo.50 With Isabella’s virtue at stake and being associated with an unchaste Venus, her courtiers were defending her virtue by reconciling the iconographic challenge of Mantegna’s Mars and Venus, publicly diffusing the social tensions surrounding her possession of a studiolo. However, Fiera’s poem could be making an audacious gesture to draw attention to this controversy, which would demonstrate his knowledge of Isabella’s collection.

As a Renaissance woman’s virtue and chastity were decrees set forth for court ladies like Isabella, Pietro Perugino’s Battle of Love and Chastity (fig. 4)

Pietro Perugino, Battle of Love and Chastity (1503), Louvre, Paris, tempera on canvas, 160 x 191cm. Photo: Public Domain.

was commissioned under strict rules set forth by Isabella herself and her advisor Paride da Ceresara.51 To avoid any confusion about Isabella's ambition of being a virtuous and clever courtier, such as the regulations proposed by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528), there was an exchange of at least seventy letters between Perugino and Isabella regarding the production of his painting.52 In these letters, Isabella expressed in great detail the iconography she wanted this painting to portray:

My poetic invention, which I wish to see you paint, is the Battle of Love and Chastity – this so say, Pallas (Minerva) and Diana fighting Venus and Love. Pallas must appear to have almost vanquished cupid…..The issue of the conflict between Diana and Venus must appear more doubtful….Behind these four divinities the chaste nymphs in the train of Pallas and Diana will be soon engaged in fierce conflict, in such ways as you can best imagine, with the lascivious troop of fauns, satyrs, and thousands of little loves.53

With strict guidelines in place, we see Isabella’s letter to Perugino come to life in the Battle of Love and Chastity, as he seemed to have followed her rules quite accurately and gracefully. Diana and Venus, the most prominent figures in the foreground, create a psychomania, or soul struggle, defining a state of strife between dispositions.54 Chastity, personified by the virgin goddesses Pallas, Diana, and Diana’s nymphs, are pitted against their antagonists, Venus, Cupid, Satyrs, and a host of predatory male gods.55

The negative significance of the figure of Venus plays into the gender constructs of the Renaissance and how they dictated a woman’s role and function in society. It has been taken self-evident that Isabella is to be identified with the figures of Diana and Pallas, and that that the purpose of the work is to proclaim her virtuous opposition to the vicious sensuality and levity associated with Venus and Cupid.56 The flowing blue cloth covering Venus is supposed to designate venery in a carnal and worldly sense, even more appropriate for her onslaught on the virtuous Pallas and Diana.57 That the virtues are actively battling, rather than acting as mere symbols, now makes a woman virile.58

The positive, enlightening image of the Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus act in a didactic role in providing specific positions. While Primavera conveys rebirth and prosperity in rural settings, the Birth of Venus conveys inspiration to procreate and bring prosperity in family settings. In comparison, Mantegna's Mars and Venus and Perugino's Battle of Love and Chastity, both commissioned by Isabella d'Este, also serve didactic roles in that they represent the Venus in a negative light and show her overcoming it in order to express Isabella's values and morals. Whether positive or negative, we see that through the complex relationship between patron and artist, alongside gender constructs, the process of manipulation can help convey any specific message that the patron wants to implement.


1 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, ed. Phillip Jacks. (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 187.

2 Ibid. , 522.

3 Jane C. Long, “Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as a Wedding Painting,” Aurora: the Journal of the History of Art (November 2008): 1-2.

4 Vasari, Lives, 522.


Bourne, Molly. "Renaissance Husbands and Wives as Patrons of Art: The Camerini of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzanga." In Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy, edited by Sheryl E. Reiss and David G. Wilkins, 93-124. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001.

Campbell, Stephen J. Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. The Book of the Courtier: Translated and with an Introduction by George Bull. Translated by George Bull. London: Penguin, 2003.

Cody, Steven J. "'The Rest He Left Unsaid:' Battista Fiera’s Poetic Commentary On Mantegna’s Mars and Venus." Source Notes in the History of Art, Vol 30. No. 4 (Summer 2011): 12-17.

Dempsey, Charles. "Mercurius Ver: The Sources of Botticelli’s Primavera."Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 31 (1968): 251-273.

Gilles, Jean. "The Central Figure in Botticelli’s Primavera." Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring – Summer 1981): 12-16. 

Long, Jane C. "Botticelli's Birth of Venus as a Wedding Painting." Aurora: The Journal Of The History Of Art (November 2008): 1-27. 

Manca, Joseph. Andrea Mantegna and the Italian Renaissance. New York: Parkstone International, 2012.

Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. New Jersey: Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

Rubinstein, Nicolai. "Youth and Spring in Botticelli’s Primavera." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 60 (1997): 248-251.

San Juan, Rose Marie. "The Court Lady’s Dilemma: Isabella d”Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance." Oxford Art Journal Vol. 14 No. 1 (1991): 67-78. 

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere, edited by Philip Jacks. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

This article looks at the ever changing representation of the Venus in renaissance art. Focusing on four different paintings, the article looks at how each central Venus figure was manipulated to convey either positive or negative connotations. While considering location and patronage, we see that both of these roles impact the artist to communicate specific messages to their audience.

Andrea Mantegna, (born 1431, Isola di Cartura [near Vicenza], Republic of Venice [Italy]—died September 13, 1506, Mantua), painter and engraver, the first fully Renaissance artist of northern Italy. His best known surviving work is the Camera degli Sposi (“Room of the Bride and Groom”), or Camera Picta (“Painted Room”) (1474), in the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua, for which he developed a self-consistent illusion of a total environment. Mantegna’s other principal works include the Ovetari Chapel frescoes (1448–55) in the Eremitani Church in Padua and the Triumph of Caesar (begun c. 1486), the pinnacle of his late style.

Formative years in Padua

Mantegna’s extraordinary native abilities were recognized early. He was the second son of a woodworker but was legally adopted by Francesco Squarcione by the time he was 10 years old and possibly even earlier. A teacher of painting and a collector of antiquities in Padua, Squarcione drew the cream of young local talent to his studio, which some of his protégés, such as Mantegna and the painter Marco Zoppo, later had cause to regret. In 1448, at age 17, Mantegna disassociated himself from Squarcione’s guardianship to establish his own workshop in Padua, later claiming that Squarcione had profited considerably from his services without giving due recompense. The award to Mantegna of the important commission for an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia (1448), now lost, demonstrates his precocity, since it was unusual for so young an artist to receive such a commission. Mantegna himself proudly called attention to his youthful ability in the painting’s inscription: “Andrea Mantegna from Padua, aged 17, painted this with his own hand, 1448.”

During the following year (1449), Mantegna worked on the fresco decoration of the Ovetari Chapel in the Eremitani Church in Padua. The figures of Saints Peter, Paul, and Christopher in the apse, his earliest frescoes in this chapel, show to what extent he had already absorbed the monumental figure style of Tuscany. In the St. James Led to Martyrdom in the lowest row on the left wall, painted sometime between 1453 and 1455, both Mantegna’s mastery of di sotto in su (from below to above) perspective and his use of archaeologically correct details of Roman architecture are already apparent. The perspective scheme with a viewpoint below the lower frame of the composition exaggerates the apparent height of the scene with respect to the viewer and lends an aspect of grandiose monumentality to the triumphal arch.

In the two scenes from the life of St. Christopher united in a single perspective on the right-hand wall, Mantegna extended his experiments in illusionism to the framing element by painting a highly realistic column on the front plane. The meticulously detailed column divides the scene in two while appearing to exist in a realm totally apart from the pictorial space, a realm shared with the observer. This extension of illusionistic principles to the elements surrounding a picture anticipates Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece, where the carved half columns of the frame abut the painted piers (vertical members) on the front plane of the picture space, so that the frame architecture serves as the exterior of the temple-pavilion architecture depicted in the painting. In this way the sphere of intense ideality inhabited by the Virgin Mary is conjoined to the beholder’s own space by a brilliant combination of physical and optical devices. Unfortunately, all Mantegna’s frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel except The Assumption and The Martyrdom of St. Christopher were destroyed by a bomb during World War II.

The environment of the city of Padua, where Mantegna lived during the major formative years of his life (from about age 10 to about age 30), exerted a strong influence on his interests, ideas, painting style, and concept of himself. Padua was the first centre of humanism in northern Italy, the home of a great university (founded in 1222), and renowned as a centre for the study of medicine, philosophy, and mathematics. With the influx of scholars from all over Europe and Italy, an atmosphere of internationalism prevailed. From the time of the 14th-century poet Petrarch, Padua had experienced a rapidly growing revival of interest in antiquity, and many eminent humanists and Latin scholars had resided there. Increasing interest in and imitation of the culture of ancient Rome produced a climate in which feverish collecting of antiquities and ancient inscriptions—even if only in fragmentary form—flourished. Mantegna’s friendly relations with several humanists, antiquarians, and university professors are a matter of record, and hence he may be seen as one of the earliest Renaissance artists to fraternize from a position of intellectual equality with such men. In this way, Mantegna’s lifestyle contributed to the early 16th-century ideal of the artist as one so intimately familiar with antique history, mythology, and literature as to be able to draw easily from these highly respected sources.

The experience of the Paduan milieu was thus decisive for the formation of Mantegna’s attitude toward the Classical world, which may perhaps be characterized best as double faceted. On the one hand, Mantegna’s search for accurate knowledge of Roman antiquity was reflected both in his depiction of specific monuments of Roman architecture and sculpture and in his creation of a vocabulary of antique forms that became the language of antique revival for more than a generation of northern Italian painters and sculptors after the mid-1450s. On the other hand, through a process of artistic synthesis, Mantegna sensed the forces and significances below the surfaces of Roman grandeur. The architectural backgrounds of pictures in the Ovetari Chapel, such as the St. James Before Herod and the St. James Led to Martyrdom, as well as of the two paintings of St. Sebastian in Vienna and Paris, were infused with a brooding harshness and severity against which the suffering of the Christian saints took on the added tragic implication of an impending cultural clash that was to separate and alienate the Christian and pagan worlds. In Mantegna’s century, overcoming the experience of alienation from antiquity through the study and revitalization of its architectural and sculptural vocabulary was an obsessive theme. That the Roman world still existed in Italy in ruins only served to increase the sudden sense of cultural loss that struck the 15th century. By his thoroughgoing description of antique forms coupled with an instinctive sense of the political realities that underlay their original creation, Mantegna lent great impetus to the antique revival movement at mid-century.

Mantegna’s starting point had been a still earlier form of antique revival—the monumental Tuscan figure style brought to Venice by the Florentine painter Andrea del Castagno in 1442. Mantegna presumably saw Castagno’s frescoes of evangelists and saints in the church of San Zaccaria during a visit to Venice in 1447. His Venetian connections were strengthened by his marriage in 1453 to Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini and sister of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, who became the leading family of painters in Venice during the following decade. Jacopo’s studies in perspective and drawings of fantastic architectural settings based on antique architecture would have interested his new son-in-law, who very likely had studied such drawings during his earlier visit to Venice.

Though Mantegna might have been expected to join the Bellini studio, he preferred to pursue his independent practice in Padua, where the overwhelming artistic influence on him for the preceding few years had come from the wealth of sculpture produced by the Florentine Donatello for the high altar of San Antonio (finished by 1450). Giovanni Bellini’s response to Mantegna’s style has been termed a dialogue, but Mantegna’s reaction to Donatello’s works might more aptly be called a struggle or even a dialectic. The frame and painted architecture of Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece (1459) answered the challenge posed by Donatello’s Padua altar, for example. Mantegna’s art always retained echoes of Donatello’s sculpture in its hard, even metallic, surfaces, revealing an essentially sculptural approach that was somewhat softened only in the 1490s.

Years as court painter in Mantua

Mantegna has been characterized as strongly jealous of his independence; yet by entering the service of the marchese di Montova (Mantua), Ludovico Gonzaga, in 1459, he was forced to submit to limitations on his freedom of travel and acceptance of commissions from other patrons. Despite such restrictions, Mantegna journeyed to Florence and Pisa in 1466–67, where he renewed contact with works of art by Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno. During this decade (1460–70), Mantegna produced his finest small-scale works, such as The Circumcision and the Venice St. George.

The Gonzaga patronage provided Mantegna a fixed income (which did not always materialize) and the opportunity to create what became his best-known surviving work, the so-called Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale at Mantua. Earlier practitioners of 15th-century perspective delimited a rectangular field as a transparent window onto the world and constructed an imaginary space behind its front plane. In the Camera degli Sposi, however, Mantegna constructed a system of homogeneous decoration on all four walls of the room, mainly by means of highly realistic painted architectural elements on walls and ceilings, which from ground level convincingly imitate three-dimensionally extended shapes. Though the ceiling is flat, it appears concave. Mantegna transformed the small interior room into an elegant open-air pavilion, to which the room’s real and fictive occupants (actually one and the same, since the beholders must have been members of that very court) were transported from deep within an essentially medieval urban castle.

Directly above the centre of the room is a painted oculus, or circular opening to the sky, with putti (nude, chubby child figures) and women around a balustrade in dramatically foreshortened perspective. The strong vertical axis created by the oculus locates the spectator at a single point in the centre of the room, the point from which the observer’s space blends with that of the frescoed figures.

The realism of the perspective handling of the oculus made it the most influential illusionistic di sotto in suceiling decoration of the early Renaissance. Its implications for the future of ceiling decoration were largely unrealized, however, until the time of Correggio, a major northern Italian painter of the early 16th century, who employed the same type of illusionism in a series of domes in Parma (Italy). Furthermore, the idea of total spatial illusion generated by Mantegna was not fully exploited until inventors of ingenious schemes of ceiling decoration in the Baroque era (the 17th century), such as Giovanni Lanfranco and Andrea Pozzo, utilized a basically identical concept of total illusion dependent upon the location of a hypothetical viewer standing at a single point in the room.

While at the Gonzaga court, Mantegna attained a position of great respect. His close relations with his patron Ludovico were a unique phenomenon at such an early date. As one might expect, the signatures of Mantegna’s paintings reveal intense pride in his accomplishments as a painter. Other than that there are only a few legal records of disputes with his neighbours (from which Ludovico had to rescue him) to provide tentative evidence for the painter’s irascible and contentious personality during his later years. An empathetic viewer may draw many subjective conclusions as to Mantegna’s thoughts and emotions by looking carefully at his paintings.

Ludovico died in 1478, followed soon after by Mantegna’s son Bernardino, who had been expected to carry on his father’s studio. Mantegna’s financial situation was so bad that, in 1484, he was forced to ask for help from the powerful Florentine merchant prince Lorenzo de’ Medici and even contemplated moving to Florence. But Ludovico’s son Federico outlived his father by only a few years, and, with the accession of young Francesco II in 1484, the financial conditions of patronage improved.

Though many of Mantegna’s works for the Gonzaga family were subsequently lost, the remains of nine canvases depicting a Roman triumphal procession, the Triumph of Caesar, begun about 1486 and worked on for several years, still exist. In these paintings, reflecting the classical tastes of his new patron, Francesco, Mantegna reached the peak of his late style. Perhaps it was this new imaginative synthesis of the colour, splendour, and ritualistic power of ancient Rome that brought about Pope Innocent VIII’s commission to decorate his private chapel in the Belvedere Palace in Rome (destroyed 1780), which Mantegna carried out in 1488–90.

Notwithstanding ill health and advanced age, Mantegna worked intensively during the remaining years of his life. In 1495 Francesco ordered the Madonna of the Victory (1496) to commemorate his supposed victory at the Battle of Fornovo. In the last years of his life, Mantegna painted the Parnassus (1497), a picture celebrating the marriage of Isabella d’Este to Francesco Gonzaga in 1490, and Wisdom Overcoming the Vices (1502) for Isabella’s studiolo (a small room in the Gonzaga palace at Mantua embellished with fine paintings and carvings of mythological subjects intended to display the erudition and advanced taste of its patron). A third canvas intended for this program, with the legend of the god Comus, was unfinished when Mantegna died and was completed by his successor at the Gonzaga court, Lorenzo Costa.

A funerary chapel in the church of S. Andrea at Mantua was dedicated to Mantegna’s memory. Decorated with frescoes, including a dome painted (possibly by Correggio) with paradise symbols related to Mantegna’s Madonna of the Victory, it was finished in 1516. No other 15th-century artist was dignified by having a funerary chapel dedicated to him in the major church of the city where he worked, which attests to the high stature Mantegna came to enjoy in his adopted city.


Mantegna’s art and his attitude toward Classical antiquity provided a model for other artists, among them Giovanni Bellini in Venice and Albrecht Dürer in Germany. By placing the Virgin and saints of the S. Zeno altarpiece in a unified space continuous with its frame, Mantegna introduced new principles of illusionism into sacra conversazione paintings (i.e., paintings of the Madonna and Child with saints).

Perhaps of even greater significance were his achievements in the field of fresco painting. Mantegna’s invention of total spatial illusionism by the manipulation of perspective and foreshortening began a tradition of ceiling decoration that was followed for three centuries. Mantegna’s portraits of the Gonzaga family in their palace at Mantua (1474) glorified living subjects by conferring upon them the over-life-size stature, sculptural volume, and studied gravity of movement and gesture normally reserved for saints and heroes of myth and history.

Wendy Stedman SheardThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica


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