The value of the space

back: San Zeno Altarpiece

The value of the space

Andrea Mantegna  >  San Zeno Altarpiece

The environment where Mantegna’s Pala di San Zeno characters live is a monumental classic scene formed by a quadriporticus with architraves supported by columns and rosette-coffered ceiling.
The internal pillars show polychrome marble reflections and their tops are decorated with medallions displaying mythological figures. The trabeation is enhanced with high frieze cupids and vegetables festoons, palms and medallions on a golden background.
On the foreground, hanging from the trabeation, the rich decoration of flower and fruit cornucopias and festoons is painted with lively colours and extreme faithfulness to the real, with a trompe l’oiel effect.

On the perspective grill established from the architectonic set, Mantegna builds a perfect “emotional involvement machine” from the spectator. Each element, from the whole to the small details, has to contribute to the functioning of a space of maximum visual impact, which tends to develop both in the depths of the background and in the foreground.

In the background, the space seems to develop beyond a deep rose garden, where a calm sky can be seen, blue with white clouds, also these seen in perspective.
In the foreground, the festoons, the architrave and the saints are painted as if they are leaving the pictorial space to come ahead towards the spectator. The eight saints arranged in two lateral formations are elements in perspective with great effectiveness expression: above all, the expedient of Saint Peter to the right, whose mantle of extravagant drapery seems to overflow the painting; and John the Baptist, absorbed in his reading, with his feet protruding beyond the paving, as if he is in a position ahead the surface of the painting. The idea that Mantegna guides is therefore the one to create continuity between the reality and the painted space.

The frontal pillars correspond to the ones carved in the golden frame, a fusion between painting, sculpture and architecture that transforms the traditional idea of the triptych in a unitary spatial vision, particularly innovative.

The frame, with complex finishing, is an important element of the work, because it coincides with the perspective construction, but by identifying itself with the foreground, it offers also a classic architectonic placement to the sacred scene. Besides, it contributes to create the unity of the scene and to underline the monumentality of the figures due also to the lowered point of view.

The classical decoration lavished by Andrea on the architraves an the porch pillars develop a repertory full of symbols that allude to the Triumph, the Fortune and the Immortality, seen in the roman sarcophagi and again in the Christian times.

For example Mercury and Pegasus have a greeting and apotropaic strength; the fruit and flower festoons, together with the cupids, nereids and tritons, besides being symbols of fortune and abundance, refer to the Christian meanings of resurrection and eternal life. In the centre, also the egg symbol can be seen, indicating the birth and universal perfection, usually linked to the Madonna and the Immaculate Conception.
The link between the painted space and the exterior space fuses also with the link between the classic myth and the Christian sense according to a fundamental connection between story and reality, past and present.
The classic cupids carved on the architrave become musical angels around the Madonna; the decorative festoons of the frieze become real fruit and flower in the festoon of the foreground.

A. Cocchi

Trad: A. Sturmer



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Tags:Alessandra Cocchi, A. Sturmer, altarpiece, St. Zeno, renaissance, painting, space, .


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