Students of art history know about all there is to know about the first name stars of the Renaissance from Leonardo to Raphael, but know little about the previous generation, those that influenced these godlike painting masters. This is strange because the period is well documented, and while they may not be the household names we associate with the Renaissance masters, neither are they totally unknown. One of the most important of these influences was Andrea Mantegna (pronounce Mon-TANE-ya). In fact he may well have been their greatest single painting influence. Born about 1431, near Vicenza, Italy, his heroic figures and dramatic use of perspective, not to mention daring, trompe l'oeil ceiling frescos mark him as perhaps one of the most underrated artists on the fifteenth century.
Mantegna's skill came largely by an improbably mixture of fate, his own sharp intellect, and unlikely teachers. Possibly an orphan, when he was ten, he was adopted by Francesco Squarcione, an art teacher in Padua. He was nothing less than a child prodigy. He learned quickly. He entered the painter's guild at age 15 and by the time he was 17, the headstrong young art student broke free from his adopted father and painting master to set up his own workshop, declaring he would no longer allow Squarcione to exploit his talents for profit. Continuing his studies however, he learned much about the three-dimensional modelling of figures in paint from the sculptor, Donatello. When he was 22 he shrewdly married Nicolosia Bellini who just happened to be the sister of two of the most important artists in Italy, Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. Yet surprisingly, even though they were older than he, it was his work that influenced them.
In 1459, he moved to Mantua where he worked the rest of his life as the "family artist" of the wealthy Ludovico Gonzaga. There he did some of his greatest works including the spectacular Camera degli Sposi (wedding chamber). The walls and ceiling of this small, windowless room he painted to look like an open-air pavilion. The ceiling is a fool-the-eye masterpiece made to resemble a dome that is open to a painted sky. The opening features a balustrade with pretty putti and peacocks, picturesque planters and pilasters, all perched precariously around the pretentious perimeter. On the wall is a sort of family portrait depicting the father, mother, and other kin welcoming home their thirteen-year-old son, Francesco, who has just returned from Rome having been made a Cardinal. (There wasn't much money couldn't buy back then.) In this one room it is not hard to see whom Michelangelo, Raphael, even the great Leonardo himself most admired as a painter.