A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Andrea Mantegna Part 5

29 March 2013

The Casa del Mantegna


View from an arcade of the Palazzo Ducale onto Piazza Sordello — named after the 13th-century Lombard troubadour who was born near Mantua — where the dome of Basilica di Sant’ Andrea (15th century — designed by Leon Battista Alberti and burial place of Andrea Mantegna) and the Palazzo Bonacolsi (13th century) can be seen.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

There is a little wordplay that school children learn in France:  Si c'est rond c'est point carré.  This seems fairly logical at first.  It means, “If it's round, it's not square.”

However, when spoken this phrase sounds exactly like Cicéron c'est Poincaré, meaning, “Cicero is Poincaré.”  Even though Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912) thought that “toutes les parties de l’univers sont solidaires dans une certaine mesure [all the parts of the universe are interdependent in a certain measure]" and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) noticed, “Suum cuique [to each his own]," the likelihood of the French mathematician and the Roman orator and statesman being the same person is fairly slim.

But in the case of Andrea Mantegna, the subject of this blog entry, paradoxically, if it's round, it is square. 

In 1476, after Mantegna had painted the Camera degli Sposi frescoes in the Castello di San Giorgio (see Part 2), he received from Ludovico II Gonzaga, most likely as payment for the frescoes, some property in Mantua near the church of San Sebastiano. The designer of that church, Leon Battista Alberti, was a friend of Mantegna who had encouraged him to try his hand at architecture.  So Mantegna, taking the Classical Roman town house with central courtyard as inspiration, designed his own dwelling.

The foundation stone of the house gives the date 18 October 1476, but it took him twenty years to finish.  After returning to Mantua from Rome, he moved in with his family in the mid-1490s, filling the house with his own paintings and all of the ancient Roman busts that he had collected.  In spite of being used as barracks in the nineteenth century, and then as a technical school, the house has been restored and is now a museum, open to the public.


The central courtyard of the Casa del Mantegna


A few years ago when my wife and I were in Mantua, we went to see Mantegna’s house.  When we arrived, sitting patiently on a chair in front of the house that day was a docent.  The street was completely vacant — no cars or pedestrians — and who knows how long the docent had been sitting there.  He just seemed to belong to the building.  He was very pleasant and gave us some brochures about the house.  I had read earlier that the Casa del Mantegna was open only during exhibitions, and when I asked him, “C’è un mostro oggi nella casa?” his eyes grew wide.

I then realized that I had used the wrong genderuna mostra (feminine) means ‘exhibition’, while un mostro (masculine) means ‘monster’.  No wonder he looked surprised when I asked if there was a monster in the house today!  We all laughed about this for quite a while, taking turns posing as monsters.

Alas, there was no show that day, but we were allowed into the courtyard.

La Casa del Mantegna is a fascinating building, reflecting an exceptional, defining moment of art and science in the Renaissance.  In many of the building’s proportions, Mantegna used the golden section (also known as golden ratio, golden mean, golden proportion, or divine proportion — in which the ratio of the sum of two quantities to the larger one is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one, or approximately 1.618).  A constant of nature, the golden section can be found in pine cones, stock market quotations, classical architecture, the reproduction of bees, Roman poetry and the pattern of branching on trees.

Known at least since Pythagoras (570 – c. 495 BC) and found in Egyptian pyramids, this dynamically symmetrical proportion was used by Phidias (490–430 BC) in designing the Parthenon statues, defined by Euclid (c. 325–c. 265 BC) in his Elements, applied by Fibonacci (1170–1250) in his Liber Abaci (the golden section is related to the Fibonacci series), and re-introduced to Renaissance thinkers as the "divine proportion" by Luca Pacioli (1445–1517) in his Divina Proportione, illustrated by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

Since then, Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) called the golden section a “precious jewel,” Édouard Lucas (1842–1891) explored many of its possibilities, and it has been used in architecture (Le Corbusier), painting (Henri Poincaré, mentioned above, had explained the golden ratio to Juan Gris, from which he developed Cubism), music (Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy), and industrial design.

The Casa del Mantegna can be visualized as being in the form of a cube with a cylindrical courtyard at the center — a circle within a square.  All the rooms in the house are linked by a circular corridor that rings the courtyard.


Floor plan of the Casa del Mantegna


It makes sense that an artist would use the same mathematics in his living environment as he does in his painting.  Mantegna’s colleague Alberti, the first to write a treatise on architecture in the Renaissance era, maintained in De re aedificatoria (1452, On the Art of Building) that, “It is the property and business of the design to appoint to the edifice and all its parts their proper places, determinate number, just proportion and beautiful order; so that the whole form of the structure be proportionable.”

According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), Alberti “spent his time finding out about the world and studying the proportions of antiquities;” thus Alberti considered the ideal form to be the circle, as found throughout nature, and next the square which he asserted to be derived from the circle.


Written by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) in1452, De re aedificatoria was first printed in 1485.  A later edition, published in Italian in 1550, featured a title page (above) designed by Giorgio Vasari who, like Alberti, was also an author, artist, and architect.  Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects was published that same year.

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


Intriguingly, not only did Alberti have a personal knowledge of ancient ruins as well as contemporary architecture, but he patterned his treatise after the work De architectura by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (c. 80–70 - after c. 15 BC).  As Vitruvius believed that human beings are the measure of the cosmos, he argued that architecture should conform to the "members of a well-shaped man," depending on circles and squares.

These ideas are wonderfully explored in the recent book by Toby Lester, Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image (2011).  Lester discusses at length Leonardo’s drawing, L'uomo Vitruviano (the Vitruvian Man —you probably know it, the drawing in which it looks like someone is trying to do jumping jacks inside a circle and a square).  Leonardo, as Lester states, “was playing with the idea, set down by the Roman architect Vitruvius, that the human body could be made to fit inside a circle, long associated with the divine, and a square, related to the earthly and secular.”

And so the symbolic use of the square and the circle follows a straight line (or, I suppose, one could make a case for things coming ‘full circle’) from Vitruvius to Alberti to the Casa del Mantegna.  Earlier Mantegna had inscribed a circular balustrade in the oculus within the square space of the Camera degli Sposi and now he could view a circular patch of sky from the courtyard of his square home.



Next — Seeing Triple: Mantegna’s Saint Sebastians




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

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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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