Visiting Scholar Lecture Review: Stephen Campbell

Sonya Rivera

ARTH 3539

Visiting Scholar Lecture Review

I attended the Stephen Campbell lecture Andrea Mantegna: Force and the Frame on April 10. Campbell is a specialist in Italian art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with a focus on the artistic culture of North Italian court centers. He is currently both a professor and Chair of the Department of History of Art specializing in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art at John Hopkins University. Campbell describes his research as an exploration of “the relationship between artistic theory and practice and literary models of imitation and interpretation.” In his lecture, Campbell described in great depths the different theories and characteristics associated with Andrea Mantegna’s magnificent Camera Picta.

Stephen Campbell, after introducing himself, dove right into describing the Camera Picta, also known as the Painted Chamber. Mantegna began this work in 1465 and finished nine years later in 1474. This work is considered an archetypal chamber, and has many times been called the most beautiful room in the world due in large part to its evocative detail. The artwork depicts the Marchese and his consort, Barbara of Brandenburg, as well as their children, friends, courtiers, and animals. Campbell presented different theories on what the room is actually about, though of course the actual intent cannot be known. The first interpretation consists of a hermetic program, where the ideal prince is depicted in the most honorable way possible by the artist. Another theory, perhaps the most popular, suggests that the work reflects a historical event which occurred, more specifically a crisis. And then, of course, many believe that the painting has no meaning at all and is simply a painting.

He then described the details of the room, starting with the wall which depicts a landscape setting. In this landscape, there is a very flat terrain, with clouds resembling rocks and vice versa. On another wall, an ancient city background was painted with the Emperors and King of Denmark included. It is said that the Duke of Milan was excluded, and he was very upset over this fact. On the north wall is the Court scene, where the most activity occurs. The figures in this scene seem to be void of emotion, which is a main issue Campbell discussed.

This scene consists of Ludovico and his family members surrounding him. These characters are, as Campbell described them, almost “sphinx-like,” with dull expressions on their faces and no sense of any feeling being conveyed. The one exception in the painting, however, is the frowning dwarf present. Though it is a pessimistic emotion he has been portrayed as having, it is still an emotion which is far more than any others in the scene posses. Steven Campbell then went on to describe that even though the lack of emotions seems strange to an audience of present times, remoteness was common for the time which it was painted. He stressed the fact that in the 1400s, those with status such as governing positions were expected to have very fine manners, including lack of passion and emotion. Self-restraint, in particular, was essential for people in such positions. One was to restrain from having facial expressions or loud laughter, especially. Campbell described the belief that the integrity of an individual was compromised if he or she caught another person’s eye or displayed emotion. In all, rigidity and strength was key.

What was very interesting to me was the comparison between the Camera Picta and Camera d’Oro, which were painted in the same time period. The Camera d’Oro, however, had an emphasis on romantic connections, with Eros present in the painting trying to bring the subjects together. The main reason these two pieces are so different is due to the emotions present on the face of the prince. Therefore, the question is further raised to why one painting of the time shows a person of rank having emotion while one of a similar time frame is completely opposite in its presentation. Campbell also suggested that the subjects in the Camera Picta seem to be painted in order to totally disregard the audience. He suggests that due to the lack of emotional engagement which results in a refusal, perhaps the appeal of the work is enhanced. Also, the audience may become more aware of personal acts and emotions.

The topic of the room’s status was then discussed. The room itself has multiple uses, and continues to be a very prestigious space to visit. A tension of polite deportment is present in the room, as felt by the viewer. There is a painted pilaster in the room which can be seen as sinister, yet is a portrait of Andrea Mantegna.

Campbell then went on to describe the subtle and hidden messages in other works, particularly those in the backgrounds of works. In a serious work, for example, if one looks closely in the background, often times the artist includes a sense of playfulness or even spookiness. He then argued that an unemotional quality in a work may in fact bring out other aspects, since the viewer is searching for something to captivate their attention.

I was very interested in Steven Campbell’s lecture, and learned a lot from it. I enjoy works from that time period and appreciated his immense amount of knowledge on his subjects. The only thing I regret is my lack of prior knowledge to the artist as well as not understanding Italian, which was prominent in the lecture.



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