Mantegna in Mantua: La Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna's beautiful frescos in the Camera degli Sposi are among my very favorite works of art.  I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to visit these in Mantua in the summer of 2006 and it made me appreciate them even more.

The 15th century painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was the court painter for the Gonzaga family who ruled the Italian city of Mantua (Mantova in Italian).  During his time there one of his most important commissions was the fresco cycle in the Camera degli Sposi (Bridal Chamber) also known as the Camera Picta (Painted room) which was painted between 1465 and 1474 in the Ducal Palace.

Ceiling Oculus from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna
Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

Mantegna was invited as the court painter of the Marchese, Ludovico Gonzaga II, in 1456 when the artist was 25 and working in Padua (Padova).  Mantegna was already working on a variety of commissions and began additional work on some Gonzaga owned palaces before finally relocating to Mantua in 1460.

After moving to Mantua Mantegna worked on a variety of other projects for the Gonzaga before starting painting the fresco cycle in the Camera degli Sposi in 1465. Originally the bedroom of Ludovico Gonzaga II, it was later used as a private audience room.  Later it was abandoned and required restoration.  

The room is just over 26' square (8 m) and the fresco above is a detail of the "oculus" which is an especially charming element painted on the ceiling.  Here Mantegna has used foreshortening to great effect, it is as if the ceiling really has opened up to the sky and a group of people and plump cherubs are looking down at us.  The shapes in the railing are particularly convincing as he has used perspective in a very sophisticated way.

Mantegna also uses a bit of humor in the oculus.  Watch out below viewer....if the bar holding the heavy potted plant gets rolled away it will fall right on your head!

Ceiling Oculus from the Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna
Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474
diameter of oculus- 8.85 ft/270 cm 

The artist married into the famous family of Venetian artists, the Bellini.  Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini were brothers-in-law and Mantegna learned some painting skills from Jacopo Bellini though he had been originally trained as a painter by the artist Squarcione who he was later estranged from. 

Above is an view of the entire ceiling, as you can see the oculus is just a small part of the ceiling, which was covered with faux relief panels and arches. The roundels have portraits of Roman emperors and the small lunettes contain mythological scenes.

Mantegna painted using the effect of trompe-l'œil, it is convincingly very sculptural and the painted arches appear to be architectural elements of the room.  As was traditional, the ceiling was the first part of the room to be painted and it was painted using true fresco technique. 

Portrait of the Gonzaga family: the Marquese Ludovico II and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg surrounded by their children and members of the court

Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna, Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

The rest of the frescoes were commissioned by the patron to show the importance of the Gonzaga family.  This group portrait was the scene which was painted next and appears to show a specific event in addition to serving as a portrait.  Ludovico II is being handed a letter and the figures to our right are both coming and going.  The meaning isn't entirely clear but one interpretation has suggested this was when the Sforza family of Milan had written to the Gonzagas asking for help.1  That letter famously arrived on January 1, 1462 which was the same day that festivities were planned to honor their son Francesco who was being given the title of Cardinal in Rome (more info below).

As one enters the room this fresco is on the same wall to their left, just over the fireplace.  Mantegna again is aware of the viewpoint of the viewer in regard to the placement of his fresco.  He includes in his use of perspective a slight foreshortening as if the people he is showing us actually exist on a terrace just above the level of the viewer.

As Keith Christiansen writes in his book, Andrea Mantegna, Padua and Mantua:

"The impact of Mantegna's work- both in Padua as later in Mantua- stems from the carefully calculated relationship of the architectural setting to the frescoed decoration."

Unlike the ceiling painted in true fresco, the walls were painted using a combination of fresco with walnut oil on plaster.  This technique hasn't lasted as long and has needed quite a bit of restoration through the years.

Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna, Ducal Palace, Mantua, 1465-1474

By looking at this wall we see how Mantega has used fresco to turn the room into a garden pavilion with landscape scenes between the archways of the painted pilasters.  The event here is taking place in Rome with a meeting between Ludovico II and his son Cardinal Francesco Gonzago. Though it isn't clear if this event is taking place in 1462 commemorating the event of Francesco being given the title of Cardinal or in 1472 when he was to return to Mantua to serve in the church of Sant'Andrea.2  The city of Rome is not shown in an accurate way, the buildings are meant to represent the idea of classical architecture.

This fresco cycle can help illustrate the importance of patronage in the arts during the Renaissance.  Of course until the late 19th century an artist primarily created work based on the request of a patron who commissioned and paid for it.  Patronage could come from an individual (typically a wealthy individual), the church/papacy, head of state, royalty or an emperor.  Patrons played an enormous role in shaping the arts whether deciding on subject matter or which artist to hire.  The importance of patronage in the arts still continues today, though the individual voice of an artist is equally important in the 21st century.

Though tucked away in a room in the Ducal Palace of Mantua (the Gonzaga family received the title of Duchy in 1530), these charming and delightful frescoes are among the works that Mantegna is best known for.

1 Camesasca, Ettore. Mantegna. Milan: Scala/Riverside, 1992. p-42.
2 Ibid.

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