Mantegna's House (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso
His long permanence in the hometown of Virgil - he was indeed the favourite artist of Ludovico II Gonzaga and thus the court in which he resided is in large part his creation - marks an entire epoch of Italian Renaissance, from the year of his arrival in 1460 to the year of his death in 1506.The so called House of Andrea Mantegna is the building the artist lived in and that he contributed to create. It is located in an area that is rich in cultural references, such as the Palazzo del Te, the Palazzo di San Sebastiano, and the Tempio di San Sebastiano, designed by Leon Battista Alberti, that stands almost opposite.
The square and the circle
One of the characteristics of the House, built on two floors, is that it basically constitutes a square inside which a circle is inscribed that forms the plan of the cylindrical courtyard. An evident reference to the renown oculus in the Bridal Chamber in the Ducal Palace, this circular opening allows to view a portion of sky, creating an effect of harmony between the solidity of the general plan and the infinite quality of the circumference which is the soul of the building.
A refined harmony
From the entrance door of the circular inner courtyard, which mirrors and follows the entrance of the House, one can appreciate the volumetric complexity created by the mysterious architect, perhaps Mantegna himself, or an architect following his instructions. The insertion of the cylindrical shape makes visible the three French windows on the ground floor, but also determines a double section on the second floor that overlooks the courtyard. The windows in the curved part are on the floor above; the smaller ones on the flat part of the wall give onto a small attic on the floor above. The rhythm of the interior facade is set by a geometrical illusionism where full and the empty spaces are perfectly compensated.
The game of sky and geometry
In his Lives Vasari wrote that Mantegna erected and painted a beautiful house for himself in which he lived for the rest of his life. It is not known where the artist resided during the first years of his stay in Mantua, supposedly he lived in the Aquila district, close to the Ducal Palace. Over the years the land owned by him increased, thus allowing him to access a substantial income. Mantegna was an outstanding artist, but also a talented architect, as is clearly indicated by various documents of the time. He was in charge of the decoration of various palaces in Mantua, many of which no longer stand. The need to design a house for himself, its features an example of the most exquisite Renaissance style, evidently was felt starting in 1476, a date that can be found in an inscription on the marble reinforcement on the corner on the external wall of the House. The Latin inscription reads: “On land given by Prince Ludovico, Andrea Mantegna laid the foundations November 18, 1476…”
The motto “AB OLYMPO” is inscribed, as a joyful warning, over the entrance visible when entering the inner courtyard. These words, though mysterious still today, certainly refer to a direct connection between the art of men and the world of the Gods, the Olympus ruled by Jupiter. It must be noted, in fact, that the Mount Olympus was also a theme dear to the Gonzaga family. The motto, however, is ambiguous, because by simply translating it as “from the Olympus” it is uncertain whether it is alluding to a House that is the home of the Gods, or if on the contrary this same house is being blessed by a presence that descends on it from above.
Coat of arms
The frescoes decorating the inside of the House, of which unfortunately only traces remain, show two coat of arms, that can both be linked directly to Mantegna, because they are similar to the one that can be found in the funerary chapel in the Mantua Cathedral of St. Andrew. On the right the sun is visible, the symbol of the Marquise Ludovico, granted to the painter in 1459. On the left a crown surrounded by myrtle, while below we can see two decorated strips on a black background, an echo of the first coat of arms of the Gonzaga family.
The construction of the House was carried out slowly, starting in 1476. In the meantime the Maestro lived in other parts of the city. After a short stay in Rome, which ended in 1490, Andrea returned to Mantua, though he probably started living in his new home only later. It is certain that he lived here in 1496. His permanence did not last long however, because an order dating January 16, 1502 made the building property of the Gonzaga, and in exchange the artist was given a building near Piazza Purgo, what is today Piazza Marconi, a few metres from St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The dream of spending the last part of his life in a house that was also a workshop, reflecting the harmonious relationship between the arts, thus vanished.
A shining sun
This is the most prestigious fresco inside the House: a sun shining over a grid made of rings of various colours, such as azure and yellow: the sky and light. In between the rays of light a scroll is visible, with the motto “Par un desir”. Everything here is a reference to the Bridal Chamber in the Ducal Palace, where we can find a similar motif with rings. The writing, also a reference to Ludovico Gonzaga, alludes to man’s intense desire which is fortified by willpower.
Raising from ground
The history of the House is linked to that of the Ducal family in the 16th century. In 1607 it was sold to Pirro Maria Gonzaga of the Vescovato branch of the family. Various transfers of property followed and in 1728 the building became property of the marquises Paleotti Lanzoni, who modified the building extensively. However, by doing this, the marquises managed to preserve the construction from inevitable ruin. In the 19th century the House became a school managed by the City of Mantua and more works followed. Finally, the House was managed by the Provincial Administration that, more recently, restored its exceptional structure in various phases, bringing back to life its beauty despite the loss of nearly all the interior decorations. The House has thus become a venue for prestigious exhibits and an information point on the life and works of the Maestro.
This is a fragment of a fresco that has remained visible despite the numerous interventions. It is a typical decoration of the late 15th century, made precious by the beautiful blue of the background.
Here we can admire the decoration of the coffered ceiling, which probably dates to after the period of Andrea Mantegna.
The relationship with the classical ideal is fundamental in the painting of Andrea Mantegna, che often depicted portions of ancient buildings, creating a direct link with the precepts of Humanism. This occurs also in the decorations next to the arched doors that give onto the inner courtyard of the House. The marble of the Greek model is transformed into red earth, used for instance by Luca Fancelli to adorn buildings in Mantua. The ideal harmony remains visible to this day, despite the precariousness imposed by the passing of time.
Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by: Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova) con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova) Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator: Sebastiano Sali Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images: Giovanni Pasetti Foto di / Photo by: Art Camera Redazione / Editor: Erica Beccalossi Assistente / Assistant: Annica Boselli