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Born at a time of exceptional intellectual and esthetic activity, when Italian humanism was nearing its fullest development, and the art of painting, after a protracted struggle with mechanical difficulties, had at last obtained an almost complete mastery over its media, with a real grasp of the long-neglected science of perspective, Andrea Mantegna may justly be said to have been a true representative of the early Renaissance in Italy, an earnest combatant in the arduous struggle for liberty of thought and expression in which so many of his gifted fellow-countrymen were engaged. A true kindred spirit of his greater contemporary, Donatello, with whom he was in closer rapport than with any painter, the chief characteristic of his work being the plastic rather than the pictorial treatment of form, he was, like him, imbued from the first with a reverent love of truth and a conscientious desire faithfully to interpret it. Mantegna has, indeed, been sometimes charged with a too close imitation of the famous sculptor, but this is manifestly unfair, for, although there can be no doubt that he owed much to Donatello, who was the first to lead him into the right path, by showing him how Nature should be studied, the secret of the strong resemblance between the styles of the two masters is that both went to the same source for inspiration: the best existing examples of antique sculpture, which appeared to them the noblest extant expression of the ideal in the real.
According to some authorities, Vicenza was the birthplace of Mantegna, whilst others claim that honour for Padua; but all agree in stating that he was born in 1431. Of his parents scarcely anything is known, but it is generally supposed that they died at Padua when Andrea was still quite a child, and it is certain that the orphan boy was adopted at once by the artist Francesco Squarcione, who received him into his own home and began his art education. The true relations between him and his foster-father are, however, very obscure, critics differing greatly with regard to them; but it is very evident that the tastes and ambitions of the two artists were never in real accord, though gratitude for kindness received when he was left alone in the world, long restrained Mantegna from an open breach with the protector of his childhood. The probability is that Squarcione, whose work, judging from the few specimens that have been preserved, was of a very mediocre character, was merely the nominal head of a bottega, or studio, in which painters of far greater eminence than himself, including Jacopo Bellini, were visiting masters. However that may have been, it is certain that several hundred students were at different times under his roof, and, whether they did or did not learn much from him, they had the advantage of seeing the drawings after the antique that he had brought back with him from the trips he delighted in taking to Greece and the Italian towns, that owned collections of classic sculpture.
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