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Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.

Italy

Andrea Mantegna Part 1

1 March 2013

Cristo Morto

 

Giorgio Vasari (1511 –1574):  engraving of Andrea Mantegna in Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), 1550 (1568 edition)

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

The Pinacoteca di Brera is an exceptional art museum located in a splendid seventeenth-century palazzo in Milan.  Portions of the building date back to the 1500s, when it functioned as a convent.  The museum itself began as a collection of art to serve as examples for students at l'Accademia di Belle Arti (the Academy of Fine Arts) founded there, which still exists, but now the school and museum are separate institutions within the same building.

As one walks through Napoleon’s courtyard to the museum, the de rigueur bohemian tone of an art school is hard to miss.  We had come to see art dating back to the Renaissance —to give this great art, as it were, a “big hello” — but initially encountered what is called, in Italian, bighellonare: students of the academy lounging, drooped listlessly over staircases, languorously leaning against walls, affecting an artist’s poverty and world-weariness, but nevertheless seriously cool, an attitude that art students have no doubt affected here since 1776, the date of the founding of the art academy.

There are many important Italian paintings among the 38 rooms at the Brera — by Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and Canaletto, as well as Caravaggio’s La Cena in Emmaus (Supper at Emmaus).  This last painting was the second that Caravaggio had done on the subject, when he was hiding in 1606.  Why was he hiding?  He had apparently killed someone — possibly by mistake — and had to run.  Caravaggio's police record was in many ways just as colorful as his canvases.

I had seen Caravaggio’s first version of La Cena in Emmaus (painted in 1601, now in London’s National Gallery) at a stupendous quatercentenary Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2006.  This second version at the Brera tones down the dramatic gestures of the first but compensates effectively in nuance and subtlety.

 

Caravaggio (1571 - 1610): La Cena in Emmaus (Supper at Emmaus), c. 1606, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. This canvas is a study of successive stages of cognition, demonstrated simultaneously in the four characters around Jesus as he breaks the bread and distributes it:  1) unawareness (hostess), 2) piqued interest (standing host), 3) investigation and concomitant insight (seated disciple at right), and 4) shock of recognition (disciple with hands outstretched).

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

The big draw for me at the Brera, however, was the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna (1430/31 – 1506).  I had seen reproductions of his Cristo Morto in various books, but wanted to study this painting up close and in person.  Painted in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, the work depicts Christ after his crucifixion, lying in state on a marble slab, head propped up by a pillow.  His mother and Mary Magdalene — both older women by that point — and the apostle John are mourning at his side.

Intended for Mantegna’s own funerary chapel, with tragic irony it was sold after his death to pay off his debts.

What is commanding about the picture is the dramatic, foreshortened perspective, with the body viewed lengthwise from the feet.  The wounds in his hands and feet are represented with almost medical precision and the entire painting is bathed in quite ghastly yellow-green and grayish tones with red highlights that seem to evoke death itself.

 

Andrea Mantegna (1430/31 - 1506): Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), between 1475 and 1501, tempera on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

The power of mortality, evidenced by the apparent stillness of the body, devoid of color and absent of spirit, is tangible in the image.  For me personally, my mother had passed away just weeks before I had arrived in Milan to view this work.  I couldn’t help but contemplate the stark finality of death, identifying with the mourners.  Then, for some reason, while I stood in front of the canvas, the darkened sonic hues of J.S. Bach’s chorale setting of Christ Lag in Todesbaden (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds), with its almost tormented harmonic progressions, entered my mind.  Obviously there is a connection, the hold of death appearing so strong and absolute in Caravaggio’s canvas, but why did this particular piece of music synesthetically lodge itself in my mind at this time?

Perhaps the gloomy tones of the painting evoked in my memory the doleful harmonies of Bach’s chorale harmonization; the brutal foreshortening in the painting paralleling the discordant clash of the initial downbeat in the music; the quadrangularly balanced nail scars in the painting echoing the both tonally- and modally-symmetrical cadence points in the music; and while the painting seems to lack any indication of hope in the visages of the grief-stricken mourners, perchance this hope may be found in the viewer, and would be suggested by the shimmering tierce de Picardie with which the chorale harmonization concludes.

Mantegna’s painting is moving not only because of its potent depiction of death and its mournful aftermath, but even more so due to its subtext:  a force greater than death exists in the man depicted.  If this painting is a despondent, heartrending “before” picture at the Brera, the Caravaggio work mentioned above, La Cena in Emmaus — emblematic of the resurrection that followed — is an absolutely brilliant, victorious “after”.

 

Mantegna’s Youth and Early Work: Squarcione’s Workshop and the Cappella Ovetari Frescoes

 

Padua’s Prato della Valle, one of the largest squares in Europe

 

Andrea Mantegna was born in 1430 or 1431 at, it is believed, Isola di Cartura (now named Isola Mantegna) near Padua, which was then part of the Venetian Republic.  The son of a carpenter, at the age of eleven he became an apprentice in Padua of the painter Francesco Squarcione, who adopted Mantegna as his own son.

Squarcione's workshop was renowned all over Italy — more than one hundred painters over the years had come to be trained there.  One of Squarcione’s interests was ancient Rome:  he traveled throughout Italy to collect antique statues, vases, and other art, making many drawings of these objects and encouraging his students to do so as well.  Mantegna, who learned Latin along with painting from Squarcione, seemed to acquire this same fascination with classical antiquity.  Later, the influence of Roman sculpture would be seen in Mantegna’s approach to the human form.

When Squarcione was commissioned in 1448 by the influential Ovetari family to decorate their family chapel in the transept of Padua’s Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits), he assigned a group of painters that included Mantegna to do the work.  After Antonio Ovetari, a Paduan notary, had died and left a pile of money, his widow, Imperatrice Ovetari (whose name means “empress” — aptly, as we'll see in a moment), oversaw the decoration.

 

interior of Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits), Padua. This church is located near the Cappella degli Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel), famous for Giotto’s remarkable frescoes.

 

 

Through an uncanny sequence of events, Mantegna ended up doing most of the work himself. As it happened, the curious maneuverings in the personal lives of the group of painters caused the work on the frescoes to advance and retreat, nicely prefiguring the sixteenth-century dance named after the city:  the pavane (French, from the Italian pavana, a contraction of padovana, meaning from the city of Padua).  Or maybe it was more like the reality game show Survivor.  First, there were some snarky interpersonal problems between Mantegna and one of the other painters, which led to Squarcione having to sort things out.  At this point it would seem that Mantegna disappeared and spent some time cooling off in Ferrara.  After he returned, another painter died and a year later yet another painter simply left.  Next, the work was halted for two years due to lack of funds.  By this point, the painter with whom Mantegna had originally clashed had died, and Mantegna worked solo, completing the fresco cycle in 1457.

The result was that Mantegna's series of frescoes on the lives of St. James and St. Christopher in the Cappella Ovetari (Ovetari Chapel) was considered his masterpiece.  Probably the most dramatic work of the fresco cycle is ‘St. James Led to His Execution’, in which Mantegna used the worm's-eye view perspective.  By lowering the horizon he created a stirring sense of monumentality. Spatial illusionism would come to characterize many of Mantegna’s works for the rest of his life.

 

Andrea Mantegna (1430/31 - 1506): a worm's-eye view perspective is used in ‘St. James Led to His Execution’ in Cappella Ovetari (Ovetari Chapel) of Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits), Padua.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw the frescoes almost 300 years later he wrote in his diary, “In der Kirche der Eremitaner habe ich Gemälde von Mantegna gesehen, einem der älteren Maler, vor denen ich erstaunt bin. Was in diesem Bildern für eine scharfe, sichere Gegenwart dasteht! [In the church of Eremitani I saw some paintings by Mantegna, one of the old masters, before which I am astonished. What a sharp, assured actuality they have!]”

Mantegna couldn’t be blamed for thinking things were pretty snug just then.  But that’s when Imperatrice Ovetari counted the apostles in one of the frescos and noticed that there were only eight instead of twelve, and she was upset at being shortchanged.  Everyone knows that there are supposed to be twelve apostles, she paid for twelve, and so she sued Mantegna.  The situation finally improved when two painters from Milan were consulted. They convinced Imperatrice Ovetari that there wasn't enough space for the other four apostles and the matter was settled.

After that, things went smoothly for the frescoes for nearly 500 years.  But then, during WWII, the Nazis decided to build their headquarters next door to the church, which the Allies in turn bombed on 11 March 1944, almost completely destroying the frescoes in the process.  Alas, more than 88,000 pieces of frescoed plaster were retrieved from the rubble.

Wait, there were two scenes that survived after all:  around 1880, the ‘Assumption’ and the ‘Martyrdom of St. Christopher’ were detached from the walls and during the war these frescoes were stored in a safe location.  However, the destroyed scenes, which account for most of the fresco series, are known today only through black-and-white photographs.

So the coin-sized fragments of the frescoes that were collected waited uncomplainingly at a Rome archive for decades.  Eventually, in 1992, they were cleaned and photographed and an attempt was made to organize them.  It was found that the recovered pieces represented less than one-tenth of the original fresco.

Then, in 2000, along came mathematician Massimo Fornasier, professor at Munich's Technical University, who developed an algorithm that could help locate the exact position for each chip.  Using a mathematical process called "Circular Harmonic Decomposition," Fornasier and his team employed computers to reassemble the remaining parts of the masterpiece, finishing the project in 2006.

So that viewers can have an idea of what the original fresco looked like, the missing parts are painted in black and white on the wall between the restored color fragments.

 

Andrea Mantegna (1430/31 - 1506): Detail from The Martyrdom of St. Christopher in Cappella Ovetari (Ovetari Chapel): that's his leg that they are carrying

 

Another view of the reconstructed frescoes: note the missing areas of the frescoes that are filled-in with black and white

 

 

Next: Mantegna in Verona and in Mantua

 

 


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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