Mantegna’s Antiquity

Written on October 7, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature, Philosophy

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

While being away from blog duties due to some happy events alluded to by Rolf (many thanks, by the way!), I happened to get in the current exhibition at the Louvre, wholly dedicated to Andrea Mantegna. It is a great exhibition, full of masterpieces (unlike those frequent exhibitions called, typically, “Mantegna and his time”: beware of these “and his time” strings, for they probably mean that there is one small Mantegna surrounded by many minor Italian Renaissance paintings which would not bring any visitor for themselves). This is not the case at the Louvre. I am not expert in painting, but even an amateur cannot stay unmoved by Mantegna’s great perspectives, noble faces, sculpture-like figures, vivid colors, and original compositions. Many paintings, like the “Sybil with a prophet” in the photo (from Cincinnati) have been discussed for ages without definitive conclusions. And one more thing, which I thought worth a word here. As many great men of his time, Mantegna got his inspiration from Antiquity, and he reflected his view of it in his paintings. And what is more, he undoubtedly contributed to construct an image of Antiquity which has lasted till today, and will probably never die.

Mantegna’s Antiquity is full of senatorial faces, noble attitudes, grave gestures, surrounded by broken columns and white marble. It is in fact the same Antiquity imagined in the tragedies of Shakespeare, to which in 18th and 19th century Germans added a romantic touch: an Antiquity in which people seem to be the whole time either being born from some mating of god with queen, or killing some ancestral enemy, or dying in some tragic way, and in the meantime musing on great questions like the destiny of man and the cosmos. In short, quite like our blog (well, only the last part, hopefully).

In fact, this idealized Antiquity results from the addition of a few facts: Firstly, the selection of texts preserved by centuries of manuscript copying, which of course preferred those more serious and important over day-to-day gossip. Secondly, the self-presentation of some generations of ancient people who tried to reshape their own past: notably, Athens in 5th cent BCE and Rome in Augustan era (1st BCE-CE). Authors like Sophocles, Plutarch and Livy transmitted to posterity an idealized version of Greeks and Romans, adapted to their own aesthetic, philosophical and political agendas. Thirdly, the modern distortions in the representation of Antiquity, from the Renaissance to our days. For example, from Mantegna to the great 18th century German art historian J. J. Winckelmann, all those who educated our aesthetic vision of Antiquity have presented it as a world of pure and neat white marble, uncorrupted by medieval colorfulness. Today we know that the greatest of Classical temples, the Parthenon, was polychrome and painted in bright colors. Yet I bet that no Hollywood movie on antiquity will ever present ancient monuments looking like the American flag. In fact, it would look quite un-American:  most of America’s official imagery, from the Capitol to the polemic temple stage in the Denver Democrat convention, is clearly inspired on an idealized Classical architecture in which marble white is the only accepted color. When Mantegna was forced to spoil his talent in designing triumphal setting for the feasts of the Gonzaga family in Mantova, his aesthetics may have included some other marble colors, but they were fundamentally the same that inspired later “political architecture”.

So what? Are Livy, Mantegna or Winckelmann to be condemned as falsifiers? Or rather to be praised as those who saw a deeper truth, a perennial essence, in the legacy of the ancient past? Is really Shakespeare’s Caesar much farther from the truth than Plutarch’s, and Plutarch’s from the true historical person? Or does the universal image of Caesar matter much more than what Julius himself really did or said? (by the way, he was extremely zealous of idealizing himself and in his De bello Gallico he began to create his own historical persona). Do we prefer dry, even sterile, historical truth, or an ever-growing reconstruction of Antiquity which may engender new creatures ­-or monsters? More on this in forthcoming posts…


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