For many years, Milan has been my occasional base camp. And whether I am headed for a rock-climbing expedition or traveling on art-historical business, my first destination is always the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of Italy’s great art museums.
When I enter the Brera, I am at home. I know exactly when I will find myself facing, first from afar and then up close, Andrea Mantegna’s dramatic Lamentation over the Dead Christ (ca. 1498). I am guaranteed renewed excitement as I anticipate the thrill of looking at this incomparable, disturbing painting.
Nevertheless, the torment on the faces of the Virgin Mary and Saint John, the harrowing image of the cold, bloodless cadaver, and the movement backward—all these factors combine to make the experience of looking at the painting intense. The compression of the body is part of it, and the shock is invariable.
Last December, when I walked down the familiar corridor in the Brera, everything was different. I knew exactly at what point the Mantegna would come into view and anticipated my usual reaction of awe and puzzlement. But everything was wrong. Where the Mantegna should have been, there was a Carpaccio that used to hang on the opposite side of the gallery. What had happened to my unsettling masterpiece?
I searched fruitlessly for some wall text. At the same time, I kept turning back to Christ’s body, and I found that as I looked down at it from an entirely new angle, I read its position more easily than I ever had before. The compression of the figure no longer seemed so extreme; it looked, at last, plausible. The foreshortening that had always puzzled me and others now worked.
A museum guard told me that the new installation of both the Bellini and the Mantegna was meant to put these works by painters who were also brothers-in-law in a new context. This was indeed Mantegna’s actual painting, but the installation was radically different—for a reason. It was now believed that Mantegna had envisioned the painting installed much closer to the ground than it was in its previous hanging.
This explanation instantly made sense to me (although others have disputed it). Mantegna painted his ceiling frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua to make them convincing to people looking up from below. The position of the viewer was crucial to him. And once I got used to the bright lighting in the darkness and knew the Dead Christ to be real, I began to lose myself, as I always do, in Mantegna’s incredible rendering of human skin, the powerful expression on Christ’s face, and the emotion of death.
But there is furor in Milanese art circles over the reinstallation. People are genuinely upset and many feel that a desecration has taken place.
After visiting the painting in its new location, I phoned a colleague, Giovanni Iovane, a professor at the Accademia di Brera. He told me that the installation had been designed by Ermanno Olmi, the venerated neorealist film director. “For me it is a disaster,” Iovane said.
Iovane believes that the low hanging of the Mantegna, only 67 centimeters (about 28 inches) above the floor, its unframed state, and its setting in a wall recess combine to make one feel as if one is looking at a projected slide rather than an actual painting.
“In this presentation, the beholder sees the dead Christ as if he is on a real table,” Iovane says—as if the viewer were standing at one end of the table looking down on him from above. But, he continues, “it is only a vulgar joke. This crazy position is intended only for the male observer. It deliberately puts Christ’s genitals and the genitals of a medium-size male observer at the same height.” This observation has been made by other critics of the installation.
On the other hand, Iovane concedes, “Olmi’s intention was to re-create a feeling of suffering. Mantegna painted the Dead Christ after the death of his sons, and the painting remained in his studio until the end of his life.” Olmi believes (without evidence) that Mantegna kept it beside his bed.
From my viewpoint, being able to approach so close to this staggering canvas and to study it in a space devoted to it alone has its merits. Yes, the new arrangement is theatrical. But at the same time one feels, as never before, that one is confronting the reality of the deeply moving scene, and that Mantegna’s vision of agony as a prelude to resurrection and celebration resounds.
Nicholas Fox Weber is director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. His most recent book is The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Yale University Press).
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 60 under the title “A Moving Mantegna.”