Dr. Stephen Campbell on Mantegna’s Painted Chamber

Professor Stephen Campbell, Department Chair at history of art at Johns Hopkins Univeristy. He has received his MA from the University of South Carolina and his PhD at Johns Hopkins University. He has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships such as National Gallery at Washington. He is an author of multiple books, such as Art in Italy 1400-1600, co-authored with Michael Cole (Fall 2011). He has published many articles, and is a leading figure in the study of the Renaissance. This is a review of the lecture that took place at CU on April 10th entitled Andrea Mantegna: Force and the Frame.

Camera Picta, The Painted Chamber in the Gonzaga Palace

The room was so famous and celebrated even before it was complete.  At the time it was the archetypal chamber, and the most beautiful room in the world. This room was completed in 1474 and took Mantegna 9 years to make. The room was commissioned by Ludovico Gonzaga, and is admired for its use of trompe l’oeil and di sotto  in su ceiling. Mantegna painted the whole room. Scholarship has taken various positions on what this room is about. Some saw it as an elaborate allegorical program, and some have seen it as a historical record of an actual events, while others hold the attitude that there is no meaning to it, just decoration.

There are two rooms, famous vaults, an oculus with figures looking down, and a fireplace wall.  In the outdoor courtyard painting, there are fictitious curtains pulled to the side. In the central bay, we have the King of Manchua and his wife, Barabara Brandenburg. We see many Princesses with their parents and their interested courtiers. Window gives a view of the lakes of Manchua. Interesting to note that we see a different landscape than what we’d actually see out the windows. Mantegna invents a more beautiful view. The painting has something to do with the theme of seeing, seeing as, and the theme of seeing.

Important is the unemotional, un-engaging qualities of the portraits in the room. He has rendered the princes, princesses, and courtiers in an almost sphinx like manner, and the only exception is a frowning dwarf. He is the only one looking at the viewer, while surround by profiles. Kinship and allegiance is shown by touch and proximity. Such an effect of remoteness is common to many portraits at the time. Real life protocol for conduct for courtiers of women would have called for looking noble or aristocratic, and conduct literature was popular. These would include proper manners, and how to show you are a noble or an aristocrat. In 1468, a book insists that those that govern others must resist from exhibiting passions. Nature displays clear indication of these passions in our eyes. For this reason that when your eyes move, they are neither fidgety nor staring. It is particularly important for a Prince to keep in control of his eyes. Yet, the total impression of the painting that we get here is far more pronounces that typical portraiture at the time. In 1460, Eros is the bringer of peace and civility. We have some formalized demeanor in which the putti bring out, which also alludes to this.

Dwarf looking at viewer

The room has multiple purposes, for it is a prestigious room, and only a select crowd can get in to see it. There are moments of tension and restrained formality. Painted plaster by the doorway contains a sinister portrait that looks as if it is judging the people that enter, but is actually a portrait of the artist himself.

There is an illusionistic nature of the people that might be enhanced by their allusion to the viewer, but he has juxtaposed it with engagement of the image. The dynamic images of spiritelli- little spirit genii, like classical puti, are turned into something new. Nobody notices them except for one of the hunting dogs that is disturbed by them. This is also playing with the act of viewing, and perhaps who is judging and who is being looked at is important.

Dog noticing spiritelli

The oculus itself figuratively stands for the eye. Three of the spiriteli within it are foreshortened in an almost grotesque looking manner, which antecedes another Mantenga Painting “The Dead Christ.” Command for perspective is mandatory for paintings at this time, and by using it in a surprising manner, he wants us to examine the psychological power of the work.

There are some other points that are significant about the little spirits. Mostly their heads and faces are turned in the same direction of the emperors and people in the medallion portraits around the room. Also, at the time, they believed that humans were able to see because little spirits would communicate from the eyes to the brain. The point is that gaze is important and powerful. The eye is noble. Mantenga wants us to think about whose spirits are these? Are they the artists? Are they yours? In all of these examples, we see that the room of the Camera Picta is a room that places extreme importance on the act of seeing, on judgment, and on gaze.

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