Tag Archives: Verona

How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part IV

Great artists steal, poor artists borrow. Picasso was first to say it, but it had been done long before him. 

How to steal ideas from five other artists and still produce something they couldn’t have made, something truly innovative?

This is the final part on Mantegna’s masterpiece. Easy reading, if you’ve read Part III: you’ll intuitively understand what was “stolen” from whom.

Mantegna stole the general idea from the Donatello’s assistant who made this sculptural altar. It includes the overall shape, and the way the composition is organised. The stone altarpiece is far from perfect:

  • The space in which the Virgin is seated is flat: there’s no volume to it
  • Proportions don’t seem right: the whole structure looks heavy, as if weighed down by decorations and angels on top of it, which also draws attention away from the main composition in the centre.

Basic idea

Mantegna then took Donatello’s own ideas of decoration, and, most importantly, proportions:

Proportions and decor

He appropriated the architectural ideas of his father-in-law, Jacopo Bellini, to create celestial space for the Virgin and saints:


Drawings of Jacopo Bellini

And if I remove the woodwork, you’ll see it much better:


Central panels of Mantegna’s Altarpiece

He also picked up landscaping ideas from the old man, clearly visible in the predella (and the cloud shapes as well):


The rhythm and movement are both the influences of Uccello and Bellini, especially well visible in the Crucifixion predella. I am putting Uccello and Bellini together so that you could appreciate the extent to which Mantegna’s future father-in-law was fascinated by the Uccello’s visual trick, when the spears denote lines of action, lines of sight, and groups of people in a complex composition:

bellini uccello

Mantegna puts the observer in front of Christ, and inside the crowd, but not above it. He then lowers the horizon line and uses landscape to add emotion and significance to the scene. In Bellini’s work (above) the crucifixion looks like a regular execution outside the town walls. Mantegna, having fewer people(!) at the foreground, makes it an epic moment with crowds of spectators, showing them as “dots” on the road to Jerusalem:

Andrea Mantegna, The Crucifiction from the Predella of St Zenon altarpiece. CLICKABLE!

Andrea Mantegna, The Crucifixion from the Predella of St Zenon altarpiece. CLICKABLE!

Indeed, with the show over, there’s no point to stay, unless you’re a relative of the executed or a soldier whose pay has been so much overdue that you don’t have money to buy a new pair of sandals and have to gamble on the meagre possessions of the criminals.


Who could blame this guard, looking at the torn soles of his shoes?


The love for anything and everything classical and antique was indoctrinated in Mantegna by his first teacher and adopted father, Squarcione. And even though Mantegna sued Squarcione to rid himself of his care, he remained passionate about all things classic. No one before, and for a hundred years after Mantegna could draw legionnaire’s armour with such “archeological” accuracy.

At this point, you may say, Mantegna just borrowed ideas and improved them. What was then truly innovative about this work? What made it worthwhile to steal? 

In Part III, I mentioned that altarpieces were meant to be portals to the celestial world, with individual saints often portrayed in “windows” or “doors” opening up to Heavens:


Altarpiece by Beato Angelico

Mantegna gives us not a window to the Heavens, but a 3D portal, 500+ years before the Stargate team came up with this:

He joined the Heavens and the mortal observer by placing the real half of columns in front of the painted ones, and hanging the fruit garlands between the two. I masked the woodwork again to highlight the trick:


Thus, Mantegna fused together painting, sculpture, architecture, and history (and one may also add archeology) in a single artwork. A 3D experience of the 15th century.

I can go on and on, talking about the way the saints communicate with each other, or how Mantegna changed perspective (a little bit) to bring the saints closer to the observer. Compare the “correct” preparatory drawing with the end-result:


You may ask me if all these visual inventions and tricks are…important? These subtleties may be lost on a tourist who’s on a mission led by a stern lady with the colourful umbrella who commands the group, the bus, and genuinely believes herding people with Tasers and cattle prods is not a bad idea at all. Think of the way people were watching this art before. They would see it day after day, mass after mass, often from different angles, and they would keep discovering nuances, details, emotions, themselves, the Virgin, the saints, and the Heavens.

I only wish galleries today would allow visitors with foldable chairs.

Before I part with this altarpiece, there’s just one “parallel” you may enjoy:

Michelangelo and Mantegna

No, your eyes don’t play tricks on your mind: I had to flip David to make the pose similar.

Now you can understand how much I envy these people:

Come visit Verona. Renaissance art is never boring, if you know its story.

PS And if you know someone important from Verona, can you have a word with them? I’d love access to Mantegna, for a closer view, when I come back next year. If you’ve heard me lamenting about the inaccessibility of Mantegna’s altarpiece in Part III, you’ll know why I’m asking.




How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part III

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:

three_masters - копия

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.

How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part II

A smiling saint?
A graffiti on a 13th century fresco, left by one of your ancestors?
A fashion idea from the 14th century?

This is what awaits us inside the Basilica of San Zeno. We spent some quality time outside it, now is time to enter.

Oh, if you have a toddler, you MUST come in, for San Zeno, among other things, is also a patron saint for kids who are learning to walk, speak, and use the pot rather than a pamper’s.

The Basilica seems larger on the inside than from the outside, just like VW Golf, at least according to their advertising, in which a lady driver (how sexist) can’t squeeze her relatively small VW into a comparatively huge space between two parked cars.


Most people rush to see the masterpiece altar painting by Mantegna, but we’d first go and see Saint Zenon. It is his church, so we must pay respect to the patron saint.

This is his 13th century statue, created by an unknown Picasso who lived some 700 years before the Picasso. To appreciate it, we must learn something of the saint first.


Saint Zenon lived in the 4th century, came to Verona from northern Africa, and was brown. That was confirmed a few years ago when scientists ran tests on his remains, kept in the crypt of this church, and went as far as reconstructing his face. He left a volume of well-written sermons, in which he made a strong point against the Aryan Heresy (Aryans’ didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity: they could not rational out the concept of the Son of God being the same as God the Father). The Trinity concept is a complex one, but Zenon offered a metaphor that more or less summed it up: “the Son and the Father are like two seas connected by a strait of the Holy Spirit”.

Common folk fondly remembered Zenon’s habit of fishing in the local river (he is also a patron of freshwater fishermen now), him being very nice with kids, and his successes at mass baptism. In fact he was an all round nice chap, the sort you could introduce to your mother without any fear of scorn.

His pastoral hobby of fishing naturally has led to him being portrayed holding a rod with a fish:


…a kind smiling face (standing out against the backdrop of stern faces of other saints):


… and a HUGE blessing hand with hyperbolised fingers. Note how the right hand is visibly larger than the left.

IMG_9257 - копия

This is exactly what slightly maniacal Picasso did to fingers, noses, and some less appropriate parts of people he portrayed when he tried to show their inner character.


Picasso, 1960. Reclining woman reading

There is a bit of horror in this statue as well. Click on Page 2 at the bottom to see it!

Dreamy country

Italy dreams about its glorious past, hoping for a better future, while living in the carefree present*. A few dreamy shots from the last trip. There’s logic in the captions.

Part II on how NOT to get bored by Renaissance art is coming!

* I know the present is not, actually, carefree, but what matters is the attitude to hardship.

Fate cuts it short

What do you do when you are stressed out? Storm outside, lit a cig, down a shot, hit a wall, murmur nasty things about people responsible for your being tensed? Medieval monks would step out to the cloister of their monastery: a peaceful courtyard used for contemplation and murmuring, usually surrounded by a columned gallery around the perimeter.

Visual arts (sculpture) at the time was meant to make them realise the stress they’d brought out to the cloister was insignificant in the general scheme of things.


Fate can have your head on a plate in the most awkward manner at the most inconvenient of times. What petty stress can compare to that? A 10-minute meditation, and – done! Cured of stress free and better than a shrink could do in an hour.

For those who read my previous post about medieval sculpture, this is the cloister of San Zeno Basilic, through which we would enter the Cathedral in the next post.

How to NOT get bored by Renaissance art. Part I.

In a recent comment, one of my readers said, “some Renaissance art can really bore a person to tears”. This is true, but it can make a person smile too, as well as trigger reflection, and spark inspiration. To prove my point, I’ll take you on an adventure many await with dread as tourist buses squeeze through cobbled viales in search of a suitable place to disgorge their sweating contents. Yes, it is visiting an “average” cathedral in a “half-a-day-worth-of-staying” Italian town.

I personally believe there’s no such thing as an Italian town worth staying for half a day only. While I can’t promise I won’t run away from a hill-top medieval citadel in a month, I can guarantee at least a week-long satisfaction, given the town is located inside a wine-making region.

So, I am taking you on a tour. Our bus has just parked outside the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona.

Nothing extraordinary. A Romanesque church with a rosary window, huge gates, a bell tower, and marble bas-reliefs on the facade.

This square is the best place to think of European history and culture. Not because it is pretty, but because of WHO had a hand in the Basilica construction.

It was initially a small church on top of Saint Zenon’s grave, set up by Theodoric (5th century AD), the guy who killed Odoacer. I’d love to strangle Odoacer too, for he was a Goth chieftain who introduced us to the Dark Middle Ages by deposing the last Roman Emperor. Odoacer got his one-way ticket during a reconciliation dinner with Theodoric, and it was a sword blow that cut the former almost in half. Odoacer’s wife was stoned to death, and his brother was killed by archers. All Odoacer’s troops were killed too. If you are a GoT fan, you’d find a connection to the series’ most gruesome scene.

Having wiped his sword on Odoacer’s tunic, Theodoric became the King of Italy, married a Byzantine princess, developed an interest in arts, and started sponsoring philosophers working on Aristotle and Plato translations. Were it not for the Great T, we might have a delayed Renaissance.

The small Theodoric’s church was replaced in the 9th century by a cathedral, sponsored by King of Italy Pepin, a son of Charlemagne, and brother to Pepin the Hunchback, immortalised in the musical Pippin, wildly inaccurate historically, but warmly received by the public. Pepin [the Normal Back] made Verona his capital and the epicentre of the Carolingian Renaissance which set the standard of lavishly illustrated books and pushed visual arts in new directions. Look at the pink sky against the blue landscape in this manuscript:


Without those books, the “real” Renaissance would also have been delayed.

Finally, in the 10th century the Cathedral took its more or less current shape with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who launched the Ottonian Renaissance (again, mainly in book illustration, but with the valuable addition of ivory miniatures).

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

Thus, we are standing in a square that has seen three kings from the Dark Ages (two Germans and one French), who promoted progress and innovation, and thus sped up the Italian Renaissance, and, ultimately, the modern world as we know it today. 

Now the boring part is over; and we are at the bas-reliefs. Click on Page 2 at the bottom of the post.

Killed by comparison

What can be a better opportunity for a modern artist to prove his or her point than being exhibited alongside old masters?

Nothing beats a decommissioned baroque church as a modern art venue.

IMG_9186 - копия


The challenge is to show modern art that is different from what comes with the church, and in more ways that just being oulandish.


What a waste of space!