Such is the vibrancy of the international exhibition circuit that it is easy not to notice that one type of show has become increasingly rare - life-and-works displays of the big-name Renaissance artists. An increased unwillingness to risk fragile works, a reluctance to denude home collections of their most celebrated pictures and spiralling insurance costs have led curators to devise new types of exhibition. It is only the fact that France has the richest holding of Mantegnas outside Italy that makes the fascinating show of the North Italian pioneer, currently drawing to a close at the Louvre, possible. Even then, it has been beefed up with drawings, prints and works by several of Mantegna's contemporaries and acolytes.
Mantegna (1431-1506) was the most significant 15th-century painter to be faithful to one of the founding ideals of the Renaissance: the rediscovery of Classical antiquity. Ancient Rome's legacy is a constant presence in his painting - through the architectural backgrounds against which his figures stand and in the figures themselves, who more often resemble statues than flesh and blood. Mant-egna approached his paintings with clarity of purpose, adopting a limited palette, a rigorous adherence to perspective and a low pictorial viewpoint. These traits are present in the three superb predella panels from the San Zeno altarpiece reunited for the exhibition - The Agony in the Garden, The Crucifixion and The Resurrection - painted between 1457 and 1459 when he was in his twenties. They are still evident in the monumental St Sebastian of Aigueperse c1478 of his middle years and remain there at the end with the suite of nine paintings that was the culmination of his long career, The Triumph of Caesar 1486-1506 (from which the Queen has lent The Vase Bearers).
However, while Mantegna's stylistic austerity gives his paintings, both large and small, a tragic grandeur, there is a lyricism present too. In 1453, he married Nicolosia, Giovanni Bellini's sister, and the sweet emotionalism of his new brother-in-law's paintings left its soft imprint on Mantegna's subsequent work.