Accused of being a fascist artist after World War II, famous yet neglected, Mantegna now gets his major show

Nicholas Penny talks to the exhibition organiser David Landau about his all-embracing view of one of the greatest Renaissance artists

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One of the most astonishing features of the exhibition “Andrea Mantegna, painter, draughtsman and printmaker of the Italian Renaissance” is that it has secured loans of fragile works on panel as well as canvases, prints and drawings. In addition, Her Majesty the Queen has agreed to lend the “Triumphs of Caesar” from Hampton Court, making this the most comprehensive showing of Mantegna’s works ever accumulated. (The exhibition, which opens at the Royal Academy 17 January, continues until 5 April, and then transfers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 28 April - 12 July.) Nicholas Penny, Clore Curator of Renaissance Art at the National Gallery, London, talked to David Landau, the organiser of the Mantegna exhibition.

David, when I first met you I think you were the first Bromberg fellow at Oxford.

David Landau. That’s right. The first Bromberg fellow at Wolfson college. I was trying to work out the influence of German prints on Italian art.

And you were already very interested in Mantegna?

Yes, that is when I started working on him. I prepared an exhibition in 1979 for Christ Church Picture Gallery with David Alston: that started the whole process.

It was a small exhibition and since it was in Oxford not many people went to it. Not many people have read the publication either.

It was a small catalogue which was duplicated by David Alston at night and we first thought that if it was going to be a great success we would sell twenty copies of the catalogue. It became a success in those terms and so we printed another fifty and then another one hundred and then it went out of print because one of the sheets, I think, was lost and we couldn’t reprint it in time, but that was sufficient to attract attention and an article appeared in an Italian paper saying that I had discovered all kinds of things and that most of Mantegna’s prints were fakes, which is not quite what I said.

What were you really saying?

What I was saying was that Mantegna had invented or had been the first to apply the technique of drypoint and had made in fact some of his earlier plates as drypoints and these plates had soon worn down and somebody else had reworked them. All the prints that we currently see available by Mantegna on the market except a very very small group, were later prints and therefore forgeries and not by Mantegna at all. This was picked up by an Italian journalist who wrote this article and therefore I was invited by the Mantuan town council to organise an exhibition there which, at the time, was meant to be sponsored by Christie’s, Italy, and that was to be shown with the Royal Academy in London. Norman Rosenthal, the Academy’s exhibition officer, was very interested and the whole thing proceeded until suddenly there was a tremendous row between the mayor and the Soprintendente and the exhibition collapsed during a meeting when they insulted each other across the table.

This would have been a small exhibition, in the Academy’s Fine Rooms. How did it revive and then snowball into this really very large and ambitious exhibition that’s going to open next January?

I think what triggered it was the sale of the Chatsworth prints which was a disaster for Britain but had at least one indirect advantage. It put on the market two of the most important impressions in existence of Mantegna’s prints. The Metropolitan Museum was interested in acquiring one and asked me at the time what I thought about it. I let them know, and they did acquire the print, although not directly, and afterwards I went to New York to discuss the print and they asked me whether I was interested in reviving my project. At that point I contacted Norman again and he was still enthusiastic about it. That was about five years ago.

Of course, your ideas about Mantegna’s prints makes it natural for you to wish to include them in an exhibition with drawings, to compare them with drawings—and with paintings.

I think Mantegna conceived of his prints as closer to his paintings than to his drawings, because until late in his life his drawings were always preparatory to other works of art. His prints, I think, were seen by him as works of art in their own right and in fact what this exhibition establishes beyond any reasonable doubt is that most of the surviving drawings are actually preparatory for the equivalent prints. I managed to find a system of superimposing enlarged transparencies of prints and drawings to determine that there is a mechanical relationship between most of the large drawings and the prints and that he transferred the image through the use of transparent paper as it is described by Cennini. Mantegna prepared himself very, very carefully for each print, seeing it as a work of art in black and white. I think what he was thrilled about was the concept of working out a composition in black and white, something that didn’t exist before. I think prints for him were paintings in black and white, as it were, rather than drawings.

Will the exhibition bring paintings, drawings and prints together?

Absolutely. For me the main point is that when Mantegna had an idea he tried it in all media, and I would have liked, in fact, to have sculpture as well but that proved to be difficult. I am convinced that prints as well are very closely connected to sculpture and that some pieces of sculpture should be looked at again with the idea that they might be by Mantegna. Certainly drawings, prints and paintings are very closely connected in his work and that’s why some rooms will be devoted to a single theme, so that you see the same images that are worked out in a painting in a number of drawings and of prints

Lots of images of Judith with the Head of Holofernes.

Yes. And a room devoted to The Descent into Limbo. That room will be an exceptional experience: it will show a painting, three drawings, two prints and the Bellini from Bristol which are intimately connected and you will follow the development from one to the other in the use of chiaroscuro, and how he goes from an image in colour to an image in black and white. He was certainly the first artist to conceive even the idea or possibility of an image—a complete picture—in black and white.

What are the most important remaining controversial problems from the point of view of his work as a printmaker?

I think we’ve found out who made which prints and when and how and almost why. But that is my view. Another scholar from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who is involved in the exhibition, has come to quite startlingly different conclusions about Mantegna’s print making activity. Suzanne Boorsch was asked to work on the prints by Mantegna’s School, but in fact we worked together throughout the preparation of the exhibition. What happened was that at the end of all this collaboration she came to the conclusion—which I think is wild—that Mantegna did not make prints at all and that all the prints attributed to him and many others attributed to various hands in the past are attributable now to another hand, that of an anonymous engraver. She is going to put this alternative proposition in a short statement in the catalogue and she will no doubt expand on it in an article in due course somewhere. I am very interested to see what she will write. These are by far the most beautiful prints of the Italian Renaissance and perhaps of the period anywhere and I’d be surprised if they were the work of some anonymous engraver.

What will be the great surprises in the exhibition?

There will be plenty. There are some extraordinarily beautiful works shown really for the first time: for instance, the picture in the Jacquemart André Museum which, maybe because it was hung very high in the museum, or maybe because of its glass, was very little admired. The picture is in absolutely mint condition, an absolute masterpiece, never been touched. It is a distemper as most paintings by Mantegna are, but one that has never been varnished and varnish is, of course, something that has changed many many pictures by Mantegna over the years. There are also a number of other surprises, particularly among the drawings: the most spectacular one is a full-size preparatory drawing of the highest quality for a print which was found by David Ekserdjian, in Munich, in the Graphische Sammlung. In amongst the copies we have also found some drawings on the backs of other drawings, an absolutely extraordinary one in the British Museum, and another in Brescia. These were on sheets which were lifted from their mounts, thanks to the generosity of the Getty, who paid for the restoration and also for the cleaning of a number of paintings in the exhibition. There will be many surprises as far as the pictures are concerned because many will have been cleaned especially for the exhibition.

You mentioned David Ekserdjian’s discovery. He’s one of the people involved in the exhibition, who else is involved?

I must mention that Philip Pouncey was involved right from the beginning and I spent hours with him going through his notes. The catalogue is dedicated to him.

Keith Christiansen, curator of Italian paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, has made the biggest contribution. Then there was Suzanne Boorsch, also of the Metropolitan, who was involved with the prints. Jane Martineau has edited the catalogue and collaborated on an essay on “Mantegna and Antiquity” and Charles Hope has written an introduction to the Triumphs, which is the most dramatic section, literally, of the exhibition.

We haven’t discussed the loan by the Queen of the Triumphs from Hampton Court. Did that come as rather a surprise?

Well, I prayed for it from the very beginning. I found in Christopher Lloyd, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, someone very sympathetic to the whole exhibition. Indeed he had been involved in the little Mantegna exhibition at Christ Church in 1979. I had lectured to his students, so he knew very well of my interest in Mantegna. I was obviously very happy when I heard that the Queen had agreed to lend her pictures. I think that they deserve more attention. The building they are in at Hampton Court is not even marked until you get into the garden and is not even in the tourist guides. At least it wasn’t when we went last summer.

Obviously this is going to be a very different exhibition in New York because the Hampton Court Triumphs won’t be shown there.

It will be different for other reasons. We have managed it in such a way that, for instance, the section on portraits will be stronger in New York, while the section on Descent in Limbo will be stronger in London. And it was important, we thought, because there were these divisions, that each theme should be as complete as possible, at least in one location. Not everything can travel to two locations—the miniatures, for instance, which will be another great surprise in the exhibition. One of them from Venice is not at all well known.

What’s the subject of that?

It’s an infant Christ in the cradle and it’s an illustration of the history of the world, as it were, and he is placed at the year dot, at the beginning of the Christian era.

Mantegna is a very strange artist, I think more people admire him than love him.

Yes that’s probably true. I think he’s been treated very badly by history for two reasons, first, because most of his paintings were distemper or tempera and restorers have always loved to varnish pictures and as soon as you varnish tempera or distemper you destroy all the subtlety of the relationship between light and dark and there are in fact very very few pictures by Mantegna that look as they did when they were painted, although now, with the funds made available for the restoration, some have returned a little bit towards that original condition. I think the other reason is simply because Mantegna is a very precise artist, a very hard-hitting artist.

He seems like a fascist artist?

He was accused of being a fascist artist; in fact in an article in 1947 I think, he was literally accused of having been a fascist artist, which is...

...going a bit far!

Yes. And then Longhi, the most influential Italian art historian, never really liked Mantegna at all. Nobody studied Mantegna afresh and he’s not an easy artist and it’s very easy when you look at a picture to be taken by the small details and not look at the whole because he was so pernickety and attentive to detail. It is true to say that his greatest work was lost in World War II. The bombing of the Eremitani Chapel in Padua, where his greatest frescoes were to be seen, was the biggest artistic loss of the war.

Do you see any pattern in his development which you hadn’t expected, as a result of preparing the exhibition?

He was, or at least so he has always been described, overbearingly sure of himself and a pain in the neck and an absolute bore and convinced he was the greatest painter alive, which he wasn’t in his time. He appears like this in at least some documents. But one thing he never stopped doing was experimenting and that is a sign of humility, which very few painters who acquire a great reputation go on doing.

Throughout his life, in every decade, there is a major new departure, a new major invention, whether it is a technique or whether it is a way of approaching painting or whether it is suddenly making paintings in distemper (again a different approach to painting, rather than frescoes or oil or tempera) or whether it is making prints rather than drawings, or whether it is inventing the presentation drawing. He continued to challenge himself, to do new things all the time—do new things with perspective, as in the “Dead Christ”.

Will the “Dead Christ” be coming to the exhibition?

I don’t know yet [softly].

You can’t answer that question. Do you think that there was a changing attitude to space? I’m very much struck by the fact that there isn’t much of it in his later paintings.

I think he fell into a dream world in which he was not very interested in nature as such, he was interested in his own experimentation with the nature of colour and light and chiaroscuro. He wasn’t very interested in depicting nature. That’s why he became so unfashionable so soon, because the next generation was completely devoted to the depiction of nature.

Do you mean by that partly that he became an artist who, as it were, made deliberately artificial works of art or works of art even about works of art?

I think at the end of his life he inhabited a world of his own, which was a classical world transported into the real world and in which only the highest sensations and emotions could be felt and in which everything had a perfect space and a perfect meaning and he was not concerned any more with representing people or things or events, just concepts and ideas and pure form.

Well so much for Mantegna. What about you, David, now you’re no longer a research fellow in Oxford?

I am a fellow at Worcester College and go there every week.

And you are the editor of Print Quarterly, which you founded and you collect works of art: prints, drawings, paintings—contemporary works as well as Old Masters.

Everything............and sculpture!

Is the diversity of your interests one of the things that attracts you to Mantegna? Has it helped shape this exhibition?

Yes, I think it has, that and the fact that he experimented so much. The experimentation, the cheekiness and the humility of Mantegna, I think that’s what attracted me.

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