Man Of La Mantua

The Italian Renaissance was more than a mere reinvigoration of the arts. It was the reawakening of the ancient Greek and Roman views of life that saw science, art and morality as inseparable parts of a whole. Renaissance artists who were real Renaissance men knew Plato and Pliny as well as paint. For them, beauty was no less objective than a fact of, say, botany. Andrea Mantegna (circa 1430-1506), who grew up and began his artistic career in Padua, near Venice, was the quintessential Renaissance man: he could draw with the precision of a surgeon, play with perspective like a computer animator and paint with the sensuousness of a diva.

Mantegna's unflinching naturalism and technical precision may make his work, as art historian Lawrence Gowing puts it, "dry [and] violent," but he nevertheless ranks near the top of the Renaissance hierarchy. He doesn't match Giotto's heroic break with the Gothic, nor is he as warm and elegant as Raphael, but he's certainly more at ease depicting space than Uccello, and he's the painterly equal of Donatello, the great naturalistic sculptor. A reminder of Mantegna's lucidity-and his patient determination to get it right-is just what the current art world, adrift in fuzzy theory and stentorian stylization, needs. The exhibition "Andrea Mantegna: Renaissance Master" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (through July 12) is just that. Organized with London's Royal Academy of Arts, where it opened in January, this is the first assemblage of Mantegna's work in more than 30 years. The show is big (the 130 works include prints made by other artists based on Mantegna's originals) but so beautifully installed that it feels quite intimate. The net effect is that Mantegna, an uncompromising artist who painted stone as passionately as he painted flesh, is made humane.

The son of a carpenter, Mantegna was apprenticed to Francesco Squarcione, a mediocre artist who liked to adopt his proteges, literally, so he could exploit their talents for free. At 17, Mantegna broke with his teacher and, along with three others, was awarded the commission for the frescoes in Padua's Church of the Eremitani. (They were almost totally destroyed by an Allied bomb in 1944.) He married Nicolosia Bellini, from the great Venetian family of painters; she was the daughter of Jacopo and sister of Giovanni and Gentile. In 1457, Ludovico Gonzaga invited Mantegna to become the court artist in nearby Mantua and, except for a two-year subcontract to the pope in 1488-90, he spent the rest of his life there.

Mantegna was a consummate artist. He was the best printmaker ever up to his time. Nobody before had ventured compositions as complex as "Battle of the Sea Gods" (1470s) on plates as big. No wonder Durer, Rembrandt and even Degas paid him homage in their work. When an engraver named Simone Ardizzoni da Reggio made off with several of Mantegna's copper engraving plates, Mantegna is said to have first sent hit men after him (they were unsuccessful), then accused the man of sodomy, a capital offense in those days. He could also hold his own in the art of the deal. When Pope Innocent VIII, who had as yet to pay Mantegna for his services, inquired what the eighth figure added to the Seven Virtues in a Vatican chapel stood for, Mantegna answered, "Ingratitude."

The exhibition's exhaustive catalog hints that Mantegna paid a psychological price for his integrity. He was thought by his neighbors to be "irascible, almost impossible to get on with." But Mantegna's talent proved more memorable than his prickliness, and, at the end of his life, he was considered the best painter of his century.

"Death of the Virgin" (circa 1460) shows why he was so revered. It's a veritable encyclopedia of Renaissance painting devices--perspectival setting, acutely observed shifts of hue (the slightly varying reds, for example) and individually expressive figures, like each of the singing apostles on the right. The background landscape-a specific view of a lake in Mantua-is rendered so faithfully, in fact, that it's a little too noticeable, like the scene of freeway traffic behind a TV weatherman.

Mantegna's realism could upset a patron's vanity. Isabella d'Este, the young wife of Francesco Gonzaga, wrote in 1493 that Mantegna "has portrayed us so badly that ... we have sent for a painter from outside Mantua who is reputed to be good at counterfeiting from life." What criticism Mantegna engenders today is similar. His stubbly portrait of the slippery political opportunist, "Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan" (1459-60), would seem to capture perfectly a prelate described in his time as "small, dark, hairy, very proud and stern." But Lorne Campbell writes in his 1990 book "Renaissance Portraits" that the painting's harsh lighting and dependence on line to define the features is "a result of attempting the impossible task of emulating in tempera the effects obtained with [oil] by the Netherlanders."

Impossibility was Mantegna's middle name. Within the confines of his role as court artist to the Gonzagas, Mantegna maintained his own agenda of reviving the clarity of classical art, and stuck to his own slow pace, which involved many preparatory drawings. One drawing like "Descent Into Limbo" (circa 1470) shows that Mantegna did have a delicate side. Like the nine-canvas "The Triumphs of Caesar" cycle, which was too fragile to travel to New York, this drawing was shown just in London (but is included in the excellent catalog). In spite of a few similar omissions, the Met's version of the show is, in its handsome presentation, a greater pleasure. Mantegna's work may not seem romantic enough for the show to be a favorite of the general public. But art as tough and profound as this deserves crowds.