The origin of things is wholly the work of that which imagines, thinks, wills, feels.
This morning over coffee a young English “classics” post-graduate who is probably going to start an education course in New York this autumn says to me: “Of course Virgil wanted ‘The Aeneid’ burnt after his death, it wasn’t as he wanted it, he wasn’t happy. It’s amazing how flimsy these things are. If they burnt it, we would never know.”
I feel the same about everything I discover. How easy it is to miss the story, or view it under strange lighting, through the wrong lens, a foreshortened perspective; I can’t even guess at what I have missed or distorted so far. Isn’t that the “Secret” of Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”? a burnt classic: was it Aristotle’s poetics…?
Virgil’s statue was destroyed here in 1399, as an idol, because at that time poets were to be regarded as liars, I read. Why? When did they come back into fashion? Was it Dante? Does it matter? Who reads poetry now?
When the artist Andrea Mantegna began to work for the Gonzaga family here in the middle of the fifteen century “art” was still considered a craft, not part of the relatively new “humanist” curriculum, taught and exported from academic centres such as the famous university in nearby Padua. The Gonzagas might have been in command here, but their territories weren’t enough to pay for their lavish lifestyle and extravagant tastes: they hired themselves out as Condotierri, mercenary generals. Guns for hire. Those guns helped to pay for a few of the humanist gems of the Mantuan Renaissance.
The house Mantegna commissioned and designed for himself is a short walk from the Gonzaga’s Palazzo Te. He built it to show his worth in the town, it was and still is said. Mantegna was a sort of self-made man, after all. Now the house is a minor “modern” art gallery, with the most fantastic computer-based installations about the construction, Mantegna himself, and the academic resources available on the artist. In one of the mathematically perfect rooms a cinema screen is installed and a great film about the artist is on continual loop. New media and classical architecture in harmony on the subject of an artist, who for thirty years helped to define “Art”.
The curator is quick to explain there are no works by Mantegna here, just the audio-visual. There is no furniture either, nor glimpses, or hauntings: just the virtual house on screen – which, curiously, is enough for me. “And the space itself, and the circular courtyard,” I say. Which is airy and calm. “Yes,” he says. “And the film is very good.”
”The Painted Room” written in 1976 by the experimental Danish author and poet, Inger Christensen (just check out her Wikipedia entry, and ask yourself had I really heard of her?) constructs a tripartite view of the Gonzaga court at Mantegna’s time. Here, one of her narrators describes the artist’s ‘attitude’ and her first vision of the casa Mantegna:
“If I know him aright, he has delusions of grandeur as do so many of the vagrant brats the state has adopted. Not by installing them in society. The upper class is too timid and too canny to do that. No, by letting them install themselves as a separate, self-governing, association, like the church: so these two areas in which talent and a fervent fear of God are all that counts….[of the house] The ground plan alone, which he has drawn, says it all. Throughout the centuries perfection in geometry has been reserved for the upper classes. But naturally this is something that this upstart must also have! Even if the wife and children have to live under the stairs, or in the pantry and wine cellar…”
It is said that Christensen will win the Nobel prize for literature one year…
In Dawson W. Carr’s monograph on Mantengna’s Adoration of the Magi (for the Getty Museum “Studies on Art”) he writes that in later life Mantegna was “a great cynic.” And by 1500 his “vision” outmoded. “Atmospheric naturalism” was the rage.
Very soon I will be in Padua, home once of Livy the Historian. Perhaps he can help. Or Alberti, Leon Battista Alberti…