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Mantegna, Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna, Camera degli Sposi (Frescos in the ducal palace, Mantua), 1465-74 Speakers: Beth Harris and David Drogin. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Female Voiceover: Let's talk about this frescoed room by Andrea Mantegna. Male Voiceover: First a little background information. Mantenga was active in Northern Italy, first in Padua, also Ferrara, and around the Veneto in the middle of the 1400s. Then, in 1460, he's appointed by the Marquis of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga, to be the court artist of the Court of Mantua, so he moves there in the 1460s. Female Voiceover: It's really important to recognize that what's happening in Mantua is going to be really different than what's happening in Florence. Male Voiceover: Yeah, in other kinds of cities, Mantua, at this time, is a court; it's ruled by a marquis, which is a step below a duke, the Gonzaga family who'd been in control for quite a while are the single dominant rulers of the city. It's very different from a situation, as you pointed out, Florence, or Venice, which are republics. So, Mantegna comes and he begins working on this project, which is called the Camera Picta, or the Camera degli Sposi, which- Female Voiceover: Camera just means Male Voiceover: Room. Male Voiceover: Camera Picta means the 'painted room'. One thing to point out is that besides the door frame, and the mantle piece and some architectural features like these brackets at the bottom of the vault, everything that we're looking at is paint. Female Voiceover: It's just amazing to me that it's all paint. Male Voiceover: It's completely frescoed. All of the things that look like architectural decoration, and ornaments, and moldings, Female Voiceover: And molding. all of this is fresco. Female Voiceover: He made it look as though the walls are actually open. Male Voiceover: We have the ceiling that's decorated with these architectural and sculptural forms, and then it has an oculus, or this open hole at the center of the ceiling that we'll take a look at, all painted, and painted very, very naturalisticly and with the careful attention to perspective, as if you are seeing 3-dimensional objects from below or on the walls and that makes it illusionistic, as if it's really there. Female Voiceover: And we're, what, about 40 or 50 years after the death of Masaccio, so it really in that full swing of the early Renaissance, and humanism, the [unintelligible] discovery of classical antiquity. Male Voiceover: That's right, and Mantegna was a big part of that. Speaking of classical antiquity, and we can start on the ceiling, and what we see is this oculus, and then surrounding it is this architectural and sculptural ornamentation that's extremely classisizing in terms of the molding and the details in the ribbons and the garlands, and the putti, Female Voiceover: And the putti. and what they're holding are fictive reliefs of the first eight ancient Roman emperors; and so, also [within] the subject matter, the ceiling is extremely classical. What's important to point out is that, we talk a lot about classical antiquity in the Renaissance, and the revival of antiquity, but it's important to remember that different types of cities drew from different types of classical antiquity, and what we're looking at here with these portraits of the emperors, is an imperial classical antiquity, which is entirely appropriate for a court city like Mantua that's ruled by a marquis or any other city ruled by a duke. But this kind of imagery would have been completely inappropriate in a place like Florence. Private citizens in a republic would not have been allowed to decorate, Female Voiceover: (laughs) or ruin their house with Roman emperors. Female Voiceover: No, Florence looked back to the period of ancient Rome when it was a republic. Male Voiceover: So, it's important to remember that for the people in the Renaissance, they were able to distinguish between different types of classical antiquity, and pick what was most relevant to them. Below that, again, we see this open space, and on the walls are frescoes of the Marquis Ludovico and his everyday life scenes in what supposedly Mantuan territory scenes from his activities. Here we see Ludovico meeting with his son, the cardinal. In the landscape there's some putti that are standing up on top of the door holding an inscription, and then on this wall we see Ludovico and his wife and his family and his favorite dog and the court little person all sitting around while he receives a message from an adviser on the far left. Then, coming up the stairs on the right are some visitors who are coming to greet him, and that might be related to the function of this room, which might have been a kind of ceremonial greeting space. You see this extremely naturalistic, illusionistic painting that creates the fiction of architectural spaces. Look at how the curtain seems to be pulled forward and in front of the column, so sometimes it's really hard to distinguish between what's real and what's not. Female Voiceover: There's a lot of fun clearly in playing with those boundaries and using perspective to fool the eye. Male Voiceover: Right, because you are looking slightly up at these figures, they're standing on top of the fireplace, and notice that you actually do look up at them. You can see slightly up into the bottom of their tunics, so you don't see the top surfaces of the stairs or the floor that they're standing on; so, Mantegna's painting it as if you're really seeing them elevated in that position. This is a part that's intentionally fun and humorous. This is the oculus, this opening. Oculus means eye in Latin. Female Voiceover: That's not a real opening. Male Voiceover: Not a real opening; it's just painted from this Di sotto in su, from below, radical perspective. So, we see everything very foreshortened, the balustade, this railing that circles the oculus. The putti that are standing here, you seem them very foreshortened from below. Here's a peacock that we see from below. You see several servants, including an African one, standing around and they're looking down and they're laughing. If you look very carefully, you'll notice that one of these women has her hand on this pole that's supporting this pot with a plant in it; and the suggestion, I think, is that she's about to pull that pole away and that potted plant is going to fall right on your head. So, that's the joke; you're standing there looking up with your mouth hanging open, and suddenly you realize that there's the joke, the illusion, of these objects that are going to fall on you. Female Voiceover: In fact, there are other figures who look like they could drop things on us Male Voiceover: Out of their hands, or- other parts of their body. Male Voiceover: Right, because look at these putti, not wearing diapers with their little rear ends sticking out, or the front of them facing us, and so there may be other things falling on you, too. On the one hand, this room gives us a serious subject matter of the marquis as a ruler of his domain, with this serious, imperial, classisizing imagery of the ancient Roman emperors on the ceiling, but at the same time, in a kind of marginal location, above your head, what you might not see right away, there's this puerile, humorous joking quality that lightens the atmosphere a little bit. (lighthearted music)