Mantegna and the Critics
OF all the great masters, none belongs so entirely, perhaps,
or so gloriously, to the past as Mantegna, and as befits one who chose more deliberately perhaps than any other fifteenth- century master to assume the high Roman manner, his style is what all writers agree to call austere and abstract. He
has never been a popular artist ; and he has never ceased to be respected. Whether we read the pages which Mr. Berenson devotes to him in Italian Painters of the Renaissance, or the brief note in Bickham's old guide, The Curiosities of Ilampton Court, the verdict is the same : " With respect to this painter, Mr. Graham assures us that he was very correct in his Designs, curious in foreshortening his figures, well skilled in Perspective, and familiarly acquainted with the Antiquities, by his constant application to the Statues, Basso Retrevo's, &c. His neglect, however, of seasoning his studies after the Antique, with the living beauties of Nature, has made his pencil somewhat hard and dry : his drapery likewise is for the most part too stiff, according to the mode of those times, and too perplexed with little folds."
A natural judgement, perhaps, in an age when the nature of Mantegna's medium, tempera, was imperfectly understood, and when he was one of the few exponents of its hard clean effects whose work was then looked at.
Everyone is now familiar with the idea that hardly any of the great Italian works before Titian are oil paintings in our sense of the word; and the precision of Mantegna's line, compared with that of Titian or Poussin must have seemed to Mr. Graham the result of a pedantic belief in the theory to which Ingres afterwards gave the stamp of dogma when he said that " drawing was the probity of art."
Now Mantegna was interested passionately in probity and in pure painting, or rather pure art, for painting in his day was not painting as we now see it. He was an abstract artist, and he was conscious of his artistic aims. But he believed as all pupils of the Paduan Humanists did, that the secret of painting, as of all the arts, was somehow to be found in the study of the Antique. Perspective, the new scientific preoccupation of the Florentine, of Piero, he took in his stride ; he was impressed as no other artist had been before with the belief that the real problem lay in the application of
perspective to the planes of human figures, to the whole science of figure-drawing.
Here lay, he could see, the secret of that marvellous symmetry and rhythm combined with a natural appearance, which
was to be found in classic art. He was not, therefore, in- terested in tone or colour for themselves, nor-and this is important-in line for itself. He was not a calligrapher ; masterly though his touch is, and delicate, he makes one feel that his lines are part of a general scheme of drawing. They come last, not first ; Mantegna , drew in the most approved Slade tradition-the solid forms were broadly
blocked out and mastered first ; then and only then is the rhythm of line permitted to play on the surface of the deep, like ripples which show the currents of a tide.
What a tragedy that Mantegna's greatest work, now at Hamp- ton Court, has been so ill-used by time ! Let us congratulate ourselves and the Office of Works on its worthy preservation now. There are still fragments left of the real thing ; the scaly body-armour carried as a trophy is pure Mantegna there is a good photOgraph of this detail on sale.
But if Mantegna was as I have said an abstract artist, is there no danger for such a man that he may fall into the aridity which Mr. Kenneth Clark says besets the abstract artist of today? " What the human mind invents it can also exhaust," he says. " Unrefreshed and uncontrolled by natural appearance, our internal rhythms are redundant.
They are also self-conscious." But we need not use nature to exercise, to control or to refresh our internal rhythms ;
we may also use art, if we- understand it well enough, that the artistic themes of other times and other men, be they of archaeological or anthropological interest to us, or even
of what we call aesthetic interest only, provided that we can interest ourselves in them with our whole interest, and our whole emotional personality, are as good a material