John Berger

andrea mantegna
(1430/31–1506)

john berger: How to begin…?

katya berger: Let’s talk about oblivion.

Is oblivion nothingness?

No. Nothingness is formless and oblivion is circular.

What colour? Blue?

Oblivion doesn’t need paint, it sculpts, oblivion leaves traces, like little white pebbles. Nothingness is before and after any pebbles or memory. The whole of everything can only be grasped by oblivion. This is why oblivion, unlike forgetfulness, has its own accuracy.

Oblivion is survival.

Is oblivion a faculty lent by sleep to wakefulness?

No, oblivion isn’t a loan from sleep. Sleep is creative, and oblivion grinds to the bone, penetrates, conserves, reduces to earth.

Maybe oblivion erases not choice but causality. And we are more often mistaken about causes than about choices.

We are the precipitates of what our parents couldn’t forget. We are what is left. The world—and our words, like the ones we are saying here—is what is left from everything that has been dispersed. To be oblivious is to travel to the essence which remains. The stone.

Oblivion is a warrant for the future. Everyone is everyone without recognising it. And so they are condemned, until they are modest enough to grasp this fact as oblivion. Everyone is everyone.

Memory and oblivion are not opposites, together they make a whole.

Are the clouds in the Oculo like oblivion?

Yes.

A painted room whose paintings are addressed to somebody who has just woken, or is about to sleep.

The room is in the Ducal Palace, Mantua. The palace is a seat of power. Imposing. Even brutal. The room by contrast is intimate. It was conceived as a private room where the prince could receive visitors, in which there was also a matrimonial bed. The paintings were commissioned by the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga and painted over a period of ten years (1465–74) by Andrea Mantegna.


Andrea Mantegna, ceiling of Camera degli Sposi, 1465–74

When it was finished, it was said to be ‘the most beautiful room in the world’.

The bed was placed in the south-west corner of the room. On the wall to the left of the bed is painted an outdoor scene with many figures. It’s entitled The Meeting, because it shows Duke Ludovico Gonzaga meeting his son, Cardinal Francesco, and receiving a letter he is bringing him.

On the wall facing the foot of the bed is an indoor scene of courtiers, in which the Duke holds the letter he has received, and read, and is showing it to his wife.

On the ceiling above the bed is a painted dome which opens on to a painted sky. It’s called the Oculus, which means ‘the Eye’.

The whole room is painted. We’re inside a painting. The two other walls are painted, covered with floral decorations. And so are the curtains that frame and separate those scenes, and the pillars and mouldings on the walls. Everything is painted.

All is representation. We know they are painted curtains. We know they are painted figures, painted sky, painted hills. Everything is surface.

We might pull the painted curtain and hide the painted landscape.

We might open the painted curtain and see the painted landscape next morning.

Mantegna signed the painted room and left his self-portrait among the painted scrolls that decorate one corner of the room.

Here everything is both presented by and hidden in painting.

And so nothing is as stark as the body next to you in bed.

As W. H. Auden wrote five centuries later:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral;
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

What is the strategy of the painted room? How does it want to surprise us?

[Katya turns the Oculo to white.]


Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ, 1480.

Mantegna was (is) famous for his innovations concerning foreshortening and perspective. Perhaps the most startling example is his Dead Christ. [Projection of Dead Christ, Brera, Milano, upon the Oculus panel.]

Remember how we saw it together?

We lay down, one after the other, on the floor of the Brera Museum, in Milan, before the Dead Christ, to discover the probable eye-level of the painter, and thus the ideal eye-level for the spectator. The one of us on the floor acted the body, and the other one the painter. We wondered whether, in the Mantegna, the head wasn’t slightly too large and the feet a little too small.

Mission accomplished, we saw that there was no error in the proportions, and that the painter was looking down on everything, his eye-level the same as that of the humble third mourner, a little above the two Marys on the left. One could draw a triangle between Christ’s head, his pierced feet (strange in English, the echo between sole and soul), and, at the apex of the triangle, the viewer’s eye – coinciding with that of the third mourner. [As John speaks, Katya indicates.]

[End of projection of Dead Christ. John turns panel back to the Oculo.]

Is there some kind of equivalence between Mantegna’s preoccupation, obsession with spatial perspective, particularly in relation to the human body, and a sense of time passing, a temporal perspective? The little angels in the Oculus painting, with their rippling tummies touching their chins, with a tit tickling a lower lip, a pair of buttocks bursting out of a pair of shoulder blades, just beneath a head of curly hair, do they, despite their frivolity, have something to do with a vision of History?

Yes. His fascination for, his intrigue with spatial perspective is inseparable from his insistence on a temporal perspective.

Look at the faces everywhere on these painted walls. Have you ever seen wrinkles, lines on faces better rendered? Have you ever seen painted wrinkles which are so alive—or, rather, which have been so lived? I’ve never seen anywhere else such a precise observation of the way time makes its mark on foreheads, eyelids, jowls, or chins.

What time does to a face, in any of the many portraits he made, has rarely been delineated with more vehemence. With other painters, it usually only occurs when the subject, the theme of the image, is ‘old age’, whereas in Mantegna’s painted faces, he makes us see the work of time whatever the age of the sitter. (Amongst his contemporaries there were, it seems, some who were uneasy about being painted by him.)

Consider all the buildings in the landscape which we see through the arch of the fresco called The Meeting. They are there under the sky, one after another: a tower in ruins, a tower being built—with tiny workers on the scaffolding. Everywhere a remnant from the past and a plan for the future. Is this not, as well, a form of perspective? There is no other term for it…If Mantegna hadn’t been a painter, he might have been an architect, or a historian, or a geriatrician—or a midwife! [As Katya speaks, John indicates.]

Mantegna, perhaps more than many other Renaissance painters, was devoted to and obsessed by the notion of Antiquity. But to understand what that meant, we have to make an imaginative leap and leave behind modernity, with its promise of continual progress.

There was nothing nostalgic in the Renaissance attachment to Antiquity. Antiquity with its models offered a guide to achieving fully human behaviour. It was exemplary in the strict sense of the word—insofar as it offered in its stories, its reflections, its art, examples of human wisdom, justice, and dignity. Examples which were to be followed, but continually risked to be forgotten.

The past offered rather more promises to the present than the future did. Or, to put it in another way, the more the world left the act of its creation behind, the more confused it would become, unless it studied and learnt from its prototypes which now had to be seen as archetypes.

Mantegna had his own personal collection of antique statues. He drew them. And perhaps they played a part in his fascination for foreshortening. You can move statues around, lie them on the floor, draw them from any point of view.

Yet despite all this experience and observation, the standing life-size figures who surround the bed are inherently immobile.

Right from the beginning, when Mantegna was recognised as a master, people commented on the fact that he painted rocks and human bodies in the same spirit : that for him the existent was first and essentially mineral.

Yes, there’s something very mineral in Mantegna’s paintings, but I don’t see figures being cast, molten, from some giant cauldron; rather, I see a stone or a metal surface, worn, dented, scratched, resistant, a surface reflecting all the different aspects of human experience subject to the flow of time. As if for him the four essential elements weren’t air, earth, water, and fire, but stone—or, to be more precise, metal: iron, copper, tin, gold.

The most familiar natural coating, for Mantegna, was rust. And since the fifteenth century, time has worked for him. Under his colours there resided, even in the year 1500, and more so in the year 2000, the colour of rusted metals.

No, not always: in his painting of human scenes, yes. But amongst the angels, in the sky of the Oculus, there is no place for rust. Humans support both the weight of metal and its ageing, its deterioration, a deterioration that brings a certain beauty. Mantegna painted the wrinkles, the lines of faces and their oxidation, revealed by that very special tint, somewhere between green and orange, that metals slowly acquire with time.

There’s the colour of rust, and there’s weight. Metals are heavy.

[John turns the panel to white.]

It’s revealing to compare Mantegna with his brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini.

[Projection of the Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini on to the white side of the panel.]

Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna were almost exactly the same age. Mantegna married Giovanni’s and Gentile’s sister. They made versions of each other’s paintings and influenced one another. Yet they were so different. Giovanni lived to the age of eighty-six and all his paintings look young; not immature, not tentative, not derivative, but gently full of appetite, or appetites.

And Andrea, even when he was a seventeen-year-old prodigy, was painting like an old man. What he paints is premeditated, patiently weighed up, measured. I don’t know any other painter in European art who is older than him.

[End of projection of the Madonna and Child.]

There’s a sculpture by Mantegna, discovered about twenty years ago. A standing, life-size figure, carved in marble from near Padova, of Saint Euphemia.

She has put her right hand into the jaws of a lion who does not bite but licks her fingers. She’s fifteen years old. A young woman wearing elegant clothes. Her face is smooth, utterly unlined. Her expression is that of somebody waiting for the rest of the news she is hearing or witnessing.

Saint Euphemia was a third-century martyr from Asia Minor. She intervened with a local Roman governor on behalf of Christians who were being tortured and thrown to the lions. Take me first!, she commanded. And her composure was such that the other victims became calm and re-found courage. The legend is that when Euphemia was thrown to the wild beasts, they, instead of devouring her, made a hammock with their tails for her.

The expression of the sculptured head of the fifteen-year-old saint has something in common with the old man’s look which I was attributing to our painter. The same distance and attentiveness. The same concern for details and the same foreknowledge about the end of all stories. A similar composure.

[Projection of the sculpture of Saint Euphemia upon the white side of the panel.]

We saw her original statue in the Mantegna exhibition at the Louvre, Saint Euphemia, determined and a little astounded, her hand, calm and safe in the jaws of a lion—jaws that are almost hidden behind the hand to which is done no harm. Her fingers, perhaps also the fall of her dress, attract all of our attention. No, not all. My gaze wanders down to the spot where the two creatures—virgin and animal—really merge and come together: their feet. The long toes of their four feet, so similar to each other. Similar in their very Being, in their strangely controlled wildness.

[End of projection of Saint Euphemia.]

And so I went through the entire exhibition, at the Louvre, guided by a hunch: Mantegna being somehow fixated on feet. In Vienna, four centuries later, they could have labelled him a foot fetishist! Why feet? Because feet say so much about standing upright and the human condition. They articulate, they carry and transport.

They are the human signature at the bottom of the body. At the bottom of the page.

I went to look at Judith with Her Servant Abra. The two women have just come out of Holofernes’s tent. Judith is handing the general’s chopped-off head to her old servant, who is holding open a sack. So: on the left of the painting, one sees this man’s head, long-haired and bloody. And on the right? A bed, on which one supposes Holofernes was sleeping before he was attacked. And on the bed there is only a foot visible. Holofernes’s foot. We see nothing but the head and foot of the man’s body, and they are separated, the spiritual bit and the terrestrial bit. One celestial, the other mineral.

Other paintings, which were not in the exhibition, come to mind. Above all, of course, the Dead Christ, whose feet are in the foreground, as important as his head.

[John turns the panel back to the Oculo.]

I thought of his flying angels whose feet and legs are so emphatic. I thought of his Disciples asleep on the Mount of Olives. Mantegna, with his perspective and foreshortening, seldom missed a chance of tilting our verticality, and thus questioning our priorities!

His passion for Antiquity often led him to put the past in front of the present and future—the future which is symbolised by all the building that takes place in the background of his paintings. He liked to reverse the usual order of things. Head over heels!

Foot. Link between man and ground, hinge between heaven and hell, anchor, plinth, point of balance, the animal sign more distinct than any other.

If I’ve counted correctly, along the very bottom edge of the two wall frescoes in the Bridal Chamber, there are twenty-five human and animal feet. A little behind them are more. The very frontier between the painted scenes and the lived-in room is lined with feet. Moreover, all the human feet—except those of the messenger from afar who has delivered the letter to the Duke—are without shoes. Stockinged feet, dog paws, and a horse’s hooves.

This bedroom, designed for a bed on which we lie down, on which we put our feet up so they are level with our heads! [John and Katya get up as they speak.]

[They lie back on the sheet and look at the ceiling.]

There is no more weight. The heaviness of metal is behind us. The force of gravity is absent. Or, if it’s still there (our backs are still pressing against the mattress), it’s been transcended by a force of attraction, by the invitation to ascend.

Isn’t the sleep, which the room offers to the sleeper, trying to do something extraordinary? To bring together the totality of a moment?

One moment.

With its relics from the past, its building sites, and all its different activities, its juxtaposition of daylight and night time, its plants, its animals in mid-movement, the degrees in social standing of all the people present, the details in their clothes, the expressions on their faces, their wrinkles, their whispered asides, their roving looks—and all of it, the whole of it, beneath a sky of little angels, and a cloud.

The sleeper in this room can close her or his eyes on such a sight, reconciled with all the endlessly complicated layers and strata of the real.

And going to sleep, the sleeper will have around her or him, the example, the demonstration of an artist who had the courage, yes, the courage, to consider and accept and include all those simultaneous strata.

Mantegna, like a botanist who takes a specimen from all the plants he comes across. Painted upon the four walls: apricot, orange, lemon, pear, peach, apple, and pomegranate trees, cedars, plane trees, acanthus, pine trees. Mantegna, who sets out to embrace the totality of what the world offers at a given moment.

Only Man separates and gives a pecking order to all these strata and processes and time-flows. And the apparatus he has for doing this, which forces him to do this, is his ego. This apparatus, the ego, designed by nature for man as a mean for his survival, corresponds with nothing else in nature! It’s his most mortal part. When a man dies, only this part, only this chopping-up apparatus, disappears. Everything else is recycled. [John and Katja together:] Everyone is everyone.

Last night I had a dream. I was carrying a large shoulder bag – like postmen used to have when delivering letters. I’m not sure whether it was of leather or canvas. Probably plastic. In it were all Mantegna’s paintings (one hundred and twelve). Not his frescoes. I was taking them out of the bag, one after another, to look at, and I was doing this lightly (neither they nor the bag had any weight), doing it with pleasure, in order to come to a decision or a conclusion. About what? I didn’t know. I awoke happily.

The Oculus we’re now looking into is not proposing an escape, an evasion. Mantegna with his painstaking application and his lifelong courage continually insisted upon facing the real, on not looking away from what happens. It proposes dissolving into.

There is, in this room decorated for sleeping in, something of Death. This something is neither rigid nor morbid. It’s to do with the example of a painter who knew how to exclude himself, bravely, yes, in order to observe the infinite number of events and moments which constitute the world.

Mantegna counts them, adds them up obstinately, brings them together, makes a whole of them. A sum total. He knows how to dissolve. He dissolves himself, he dissolves us in nature. And I dream here of closing my eyes for good, lying down within these four walls which dare to sum up all that is on earth, beyond human perception.