I was prompted to look into the subject of Goethe and Mantegna by the recent issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Keith Christiansen, curator of European Paintings at the museum, has written a splendid and short (64 pages) overview of Mantegna's career. The Metropolitan has only three Mantegna paintings, including the small but exquisite Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1450-57) (below), which graces the cover of the Bulletin.
I thought this would be easy to write about. After all, very little has been published on Goethe and Mantegna. The Goethe-Handbuch does not have a separate entry on the essay, and the secondary literature cited in the Hamburg edition of Goethe's works is sparse, with references dating back to 1894 and 1901. But what resources these are: for instance, the 1901 publication is a work on Mantegna by the eminent scholar of Renaissance humanism Paul Kristeller (d. 1999) Kristeller knows his Goethe and the Mantegna essay quite well. (I have learned that Kristeller studied under Heidegger in Heidelberg before coming to the U.S. in 1939.)
Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing in The New York Review of Books about the 1992 Mantegna exhibition at the Met, introduced his essay with Goethe: "In 1786, on his famous Italian journey, Goethe came to Padua and visited the church of the Eremitani, the Hermit Friars. There he saw the frescoes by Mantegna, of the lives of Saint James and Saint Christoper, in the funeral chapel of Antonio degli Ovetari. He stood before them 'astounded' at their scrupulous detail, their imaginative power, their strength and subtlety, and as he recorded it, a cascade of epithets tumbled from his pen." Or, in Goethe's words in his letter to Charlotte von Stein of September 27: "I have seen some paintings by Mantegna, one of the older painters, and I am struck with amazement. How keenly an actual present is reproduced in these pictures! It was not the real Present -- not an effective, deceitful apparition appealing solely to the imagination -- but a pure, straightforward, clear, consistent, conscientious, delicate, well-defined Present, with a leaven of strenuous, enthusiastic and laborious effort in it, which formed a starting point for the work of succeeding painters, as I noticed in the pictures of Titian. From this time onward the living force of their genius, the energy of their nature, illumined by the spirit and supported by the strength of their predecessors, mounting higher and higher, soared away from earth and brought into being forms of heavenly reality and truth."
The paintings in the chapel were destroyed in World War II, though early copies (as at left) are reproduced in the Met's Bulletin. These were early works of Mantegna, from about 1454, and he was much under the influence of the "antique" style, which of course would have interested Goethe. I think Kristeller captures well what was at stake for Goethe: "Mantegna is not one of those happy persons who are blinded by enthusiasm. He is a clear-sighted realist who views the world as it is, who sympathizes deeply with the misery caused by the power of the material over the moral and ideal, who does not veil reality with a halo of rhetoric, and who would rather stand in questioning sorrow before the problems of life than dazzle our eyes with the brilliance of a merely apparent solution. In this," Kristeller continues, "he is so like Goethe that it is easy to understand the great poet's preference for him."
According to Kristeller, in Goethe's day, and even before, most artists and scholars were rather "aloof" toward Mantegna. Goethe was thus reliant on early accounts of Mantegna's life and work (for instance, Vasari), but was able to come to some original conclusions. Mantegna's early work was criticized by some contemporaries as hewing so closely to antique models, especially reliefs, that it was, as Goethe writes, "stone-like and wooden, rigid and stiff." From that moment on, however, Mantegna began to adorn (zieren) his paintings with the likenesses of his fellow citizens. The result is thus a combination of the ideal with "life."
Keith Christiansen comes to similar conclusions, writing, for instance, of Mantegna's disegno, or invention, the ability "to conceive a story or allegory around which to structure visual ideas." Christiansen refers to the treatise on painting by Alberti (1435), writing that "so important was invention that a well-conceived pictorial program gave pleasure merely by being described, even without being represented. " In this light, the descriptive detail of Goethe's essays on the visual arts seek to give pleasure to his contemporaries who were unable to view the great works in person.