Di sotto in sù : An Insight into the influence of Perspective and Illusion in the works of Andrea Mantegna. [Deyasini Biswas ( UG II ; Roll – 26 )]

Considered to be one of most influential early Renaissance Italian masters, Andrea Mantegna was known for his visual experiments in perspective and spatial illusion. Apprentice to the Paduan painter and archeologist Francesco Squarcione since the age of eleven, Mantegna picked up his master’s robust enthusiasm for ancient Rome, learnt Latin and studied fragments of Roman sculpture. This is evident the style that he came to develop which displays a heavy influence of a fundamentally sculptural approach to painting. Despite the fame of Squarcione’s workshop and being his favourite pupil, at the age of seventeen, Mantegna separated himself from Squarcione. He later claimed that Squarcione had profited from his work without paying the rights. After Mantegna disassociated himself from Squarcione’s guardianship, he established his own workshop in Padua, and was commissioned his first work in 1448. Being commissioned to create an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia (now lost), is proof of his  precocity, since it was unusual for an artist so young to receive such a commission. The painting’s inscription: “Andrea Mantegna from Padua, aged 17, painted this with his own hand, 1448.” seems to be an expression of the fact that the young artist was not one to feign modesty, and was aware of, and proud of his creative abilities.

The Martyrdom of St. Christopher and Transport of the body of the beheaded St. Christopher, Capella Ovetari, Padua

During the following year, Mantegna worked with Nicolò Pizolo on the fresco decoration of the Ovetari Chapel in the Eremitani Church in Padua with a large group of painters. The figures of Saints Peter, Paul, and Christopher in the apse, which are his earliest frescoes in this chapel, show the extent to which he had already absorbed the monumental figure style of Tuscany. The most dramatic work of the fresco cycle is in the St. James Led to Martyrdom, in the lowest row on the left wall, painted sometime between 1453 and 1455, both Mantegna’s mastery of di sotto in su perspective( meaning: from below to above, which gradually develops into an inherently Mantegna trait)  and his use of archeologically correct details of Roman architecture are apparent.

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St.James led to Martyrdom, Ovetari Chapel, Padua

Mantegna is also seen to adopt the wet drapery patterns of the Romans, for the clothing of his figures, yet another tribute to his fascination with ancient Rome. Unfortunately, all Mantegna’s frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel except The Assumption and The Martyrdom of St. Christopher were destroyed in 1944 due to World War II bombings, and his fresco in the Ovetari Chapel survives in a sketch he had done.

In 1454, the artist married Nicolosia, the daughter of Jacopo Bellini, and thus became the brother-in-law to the celebrated painters Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. The marriage brought Mantegna into an important artistic family.Andrea Mantegna was among the first known artists to use the trompe l’oeil, which is a French term for optical illusion or “fooling the eye.” The artist used a flat surface to paint three-dimensional works and he was among the pioneers of this technique. Mantegna mastered perspective well and this is visible in works such as “The Agony in the Garden,” “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” “St. Sebastian” or the “Three Scenes From the Passion of Christ.

The San Zeno Altarpiece

Between 1456 and 1459 Mantegna painted a triptych for the altarpiece of San Zeno, the main church of Verona. This is also an example of the usage of the trompe l’oeil. The extension of illusionistic principles to the elements surrounding a picture is expressed vividly the San Zeno altarpiece which combines real and painted elements in a unified way, where the carved half columns of the frame on the front plane of the picture space, so that the frame architecture serves as the exterior of the temple-pavilion architecture that is depicted in the painting. In this way, the sphere of intense ideality inhabited by the Virgin Mary is combined with the beholder’s own space by a brilliant combination of physical and optical devices. The San Zeno Altarpiece was inspired by Donatello’s high altar for the church of San Antonio in Padua These experiments in illusionism are also evident in the aforementioned Ovetari Chapel, in the scenes from the life of St. Christopher in The Martyrdom of St. Christopher”. Mantegna is seen uniting them in a single perspective on the right-hand wall and painting a highly realistic column on the front plane. This meticulously detailed column divides the scene in two while appearing to exist in a realm which is totally apart from the pictorial space, and instead is a realm that is shared with the observer.

The Virgin Mary in the San Zeno Altarpiece

The Agony in the Garden: Behind the three sleeping Apostles in the foreground, Christ, raised on a mound, kneels before a group of 5 angels who bring him the instruments of his impending Passion. On the right hand side in the middle, Judas leads a band of soldiers to arrest Christ and begin the series of events that will lead to his crucifixion. Mantegna uses several different devices to create an outdoor setting for his narrative apart from a single point perspective and depicts his scene in a landscape where there are no straight lines receding into the depth of the picture plane. The pictoral space is divided into three planes, foreground ( occupied by Christ and the Apostles), middles ground in which Judas leads the soldiers from the city, and a background of blue hills in the distance. Recession is also constructed by depicting figures and objects in relation to, or proportional with others in terms of scale. This helps in adding depth to the painting, and expresses that single-point perspective is not the only way for artists to create an illuson of space in their works.

The Agony in the Garden, right panel of predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece.


Ludovico Gonzaga

Leaving Padua in 1460, Mantegna settled in Mantua and was appointed court painter to the Gonzaga family. Ludovico Gonzaga was the ruler of the city of  Mantua from 1444 up to his death in 1478. It is here that he painted The Camera degli Sposi, the bridal chamber, a cycle of frescoes from 1465 and completed in 1474. Mantegna uses his knowledge of perspective and foreshortening to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image on the flat two-dimensional surface of the ceiling. Viewed from below (as in the image above) the artist is seen using his skill to punch a hole through the ceiling to the illusionistic open sky above.

The fresco on the ceiling of Camera degli Sposi is a perfect amalgamation of both di sotto in su, and trompe l’oeil.

This is a particularly fine example of di sotto in sù, also referred to as the worm’s eye view of perspective. He visited Florence and Pisa in 1466-1467, and the stylistic aspects of the frescoes suggest that Mantegna did not begin work on them until he returned from Florence. The Camera degli Sposi is a rectangular room with a moved barrel vault broken by three lunettes on each wall. Mantegna transformed the ceiling into a painted dome with an oculus in the center through which we catch a glimpse of a cloud-flecked sky and see the faces of people and cherubs looking down into the chamber. The walls are painted to resemble a landscape seen through openings in an airy pavilion. On one wall is the return of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga; on another wall is a portrait of the Gonzaga family posed on a platform that seems to rest on the real mantle of the fireplace.


In his decorations Mantegna unified the actual space of the room with the painted space of the frescoes to create an illusionism that foretells the work of Correggio. The perspective scheme with a viewpoint below the lower frame of the composition exaggerates the apparent height of the scene with respect to the viewer and lends an aspect of grandiose monumentality to the depictions. In early inklings of spatial experiments, he also used the worm’s-eyed view in, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and Two Donors.

Mantegna was something of a recluse in his later years, although he continued to paint despite his ill health. Toward the end of his life, Andrea Mantegna developed a painting technique that imitated sculptures. Mantegna’s painting characters had the appearance of statues and they were clearly outlined.Mantegna painted the characters in these paintings as a simulation of gilt bronze and placed them against a fictive background of colored marble. The artist used tempera on poplar wood. “Samson and Delilah” looks like a cameo or a relief in precious stone. This painting was created in glue size on a linen surface.

Samson and Delilah

The most famous and dramatic of his perspective effects is found in his “Cristo Scorto” (The Dead Christ) found in his studio after his death on September 13, 1506. The Cristo Scorto also expresses the techniques where we see the extreme foreshortening of the body of Christ and the almost metallic quality of the clothing, which are typical Mantegna traits.

Cristo Scorto

Mantegna’s fascination with St Sebastian is evident, he painted the subject several times with versions (as seen below) in Paris, Vienna and Venice, (respectively). The composition, colour scheme and perspective differs in each of the paintings, expressing a want to experiment with the overall impact of the image, while maintaining a uniform subject.

Mantegna’s art always retained echoes of Donatello’s sculpture in its hard, even metallic, surfaces, revealing an essentially sculptural approach that was somewhat softened only in the 1490s. They show Mantegna’s concern for establishing rather crisp, sculpturesque forms in an accurately rendered perspective space which carefully took into account the beholder’s viewpoint. Also, details of costume, and architecture demonstrated that Mantegna had an archeological interest in classical antiquity.

Battle of the Sea Gods

Mantegna also created a number of Engravings, which the biographer Giorgio Vasari attributed to him; though the artist never signed or dated the work. Whether he engraved the plates himself or—and this seems more plausible—made the designs which were then engraved by other craftsmen is not known. There is a great consensus of opinion that Mantegna employed engravers in his workshop. The autograph engravings include the Entombment , Risen Christ between Saints Andrew and Longinus, Madonna and Child, Battle of the Sea Gods, Bacchanal with Silenus, and Bacchanal with a Vat.  While the Virgin and the Child offers a clear contrast to the Battle of the Sea Gods both in its theme and in its expressive aspect, it testifies in equal measure to Mantegna’s ability to hatch relief-like figurative compositions out of the flat surface of his copper plates. Whether or not he had Donatello’s works in mind, the Virgin and the Child shows very sculpture-esque features, and the artist make have been specifically interested in the bronze reliefs that Donatello created in Padua.


Mantegna’s main legacy in considered the introduction of spatial illusionism, both in frescoes and in sacra conversazione paintings: his tradition of ceiling decoration was followed for almost three centuries. Starting from the faint cupola of the Camera degli Sposi, Correggio brought on his master and collaborator’s research in perspective constructions, producing eventually a masterwork like the dome of Cathedral of Parma. His work is known to have considerable influence on great painters of the time, including the German artist Albrecht Dürer and Italian painters Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci. Albrecht Dürer was influenced by his style during his two trips in Italy.Leonardo da Vinci took from Mantegna the use of decorations with festoons and fruit. When Da Vinci postulates, ” A youth should first learn perspective, then the proportion of things ” , one finds an echo of the influence of Mantegna’s works in his words.

Andrea Mantegna manages to incorporate themes which have come to be inherently associated with the Renaissance, such as perspective, the gradual assimilation of the literary, artistic revival of classical antiquity, the illusion of life expressed both literally, and metaphorically via the illusion created by sight, the expression of the status of the artist and theoretical and biological writing on art; with his sculptural style imbibed from the study of marbles and the severity of the antique and his almost radical insight on perspectives and spatial illusion, and creates paintings and ideas which set a firm foundation for the future of the movement, to be adopted and adapted by Renaissance artists for years to come.




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