Imagine yourself a teenager of 13 years, who finds himself in the company of three of the greatest artists of your time. What would you learn from them? What would become of you?
As we progressed on our tour of the San Zeno Basilica of Verona (Part I and Part II), I promised to take you to Andrea Mantegna’s masterpiece of 1456, but to appreciate it we need to step back in time for another 200 years.
Our first stop is 1222, when a group of students and teachers of the oldest European university in Bologna decided to plot their own path in science and art, and set off to Padua, where they established a new campus. They valued freedom of expression above anything else, and Bologna had proven to be a place too stuffy for their liking.
Freedom of thought shaped their new motto, which in English would be “Liberty of Padua, universally and for all”.
The new university became the boiling pot of ideas and innovation, with the alumni including Copernicus (the father of astronomy), Andreas Vesalius (the father of anatomy), and Casanova (the father of adultery). Galileo Galilei held the chair of math there for almost 20 years.
Giotto came to Padua in less than a hundred years and frescoed the Scrovegni Chapel (the iconic Kiss of Judas is there).
So in two hundred years before the year that we are interested in (1444) the uni had become a catalyst of innovation for the whole of Northern Italy, with Padua at the centre. Much of that innovation depended on… excavation, for the leading trend then was a theory that the more the antique past was understood, the more the present would be able to reveal about the future.
Not surprisingly, the leading art studio in 1444 belonged to a 50-year old collector of antique statues, and manuscripts. The workshop had 137 students, who were endlessly copying Roman designs (and especially heavy fruit garlands) when not labouring on client orders. The boss was a rich businessman, but a poor artist, so to maintain his artistic ego he had to have an eye for talent. He loved passing the work of his gifted students for his own.
That was how he found Andrea Mantegna, and even adopted him as his son (not to pay for Andrea’s work, of course). I wonder if Damien Hirst has entertained this idea.
Andrea Mantegna was 13 at the time.
1444 was the year when three most prominent masters of the time came to Padua. First, they were interested in Paduan collections of excavated classical past, and second, Padua encouraged experimentation and what today is called “the sacred right of freedom of expression”.
The three gurus were Uccello, Donatello, and Jacopo Bellini:
Donatello and Uccello were friends since apprenticeship times with Lorenzo Ghiberti (he made the gates of Florentine Baptisterium and had seriously pissed off Brunelleschi by winning the pitch), and when a local cathedral landed a massive order to Donatello, he convinced his friend to come over too.
Jacopo Bellini was the single most prominent artist from Venice, rich, flamboyant, with a large household that he moved 30 miles away from the far more comfortable Venice, to Padua, because it was still a part of the Venetian republic, but had good schools, universities, and cheaper rents. Kids have always been changing priorities of their parents. haven’t they?
Uccello innovated foreshortening, introduced new angles, and invented almost cinematographic dynamism in a perfectly still painting. He had studied perspective with a mathematical genius who was also the biographer of Brunelleschi, but he was not interested in perspective itself. He was interested in how he could twist perspective to accommodate a bigger world in his paintings.
Bellini worked together with Leon Battista Alberti for a few years before he came to Padua. Alberti wrote the first book on perspective for artists, and published it nine years before the events I am describing. As you can see from the drawing accompanying Bellini’s name and age, Alberti’s knowledge rubbed off: Jacopo got deeply interested in complex perspective compositions. Similarly to Uccello, Bellini was more interested in how new colour combinations that he was using could mix up with perspective solutions, than in the perspective itself.
And, certainly, there was an exchange of ideas going on between the artists:
Donatello was a genius in everything, including perspective, and instead of talking, I will show you the difference, easily illustrated by the bas-reliefs in Siena’s Baptisterium on which Donatello worked together with his former teacher, Ghiberti, and one other artist.
Click on page 2 at the bottom to see it, and to have the story continued.