The artist would make use of two main themes within his work, namely classical art and also religious themes. Some of the examples that have been uncovered from his career include Hercules and Antaeus, Marine Gods, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, the Deposition from the Cross, Battle of the Sea Monsters (Battle of the Sea-Gods), Virgin and Child, The Adoration of the Magi, A Bacchanal Festival (Bacchanal with Wine Vat), The Entombment, the Resurrection, the Man of Sorrows and the Virgin in a Grotto. In all, we believe that Mantegna produced around thirty different engravings, though some of these would have had involvement from members of his studio. The amount of work produced by his assistants is also unclear, and this is why most of these pieces are listed as having been from his studio, rather than specifically from his own hand. Many academics have argued over the extent to which he worked in this medium, but the likely answer is that he did so regularly and worked on most of the engravings mentioned here.
Across the engravings there are some clear technical consistencies. They would often use metals that were slightly softer than copper. They also would have a crosshatched technique for the purposes of delivering shadows, leaving closer strokes in order to achieve different tones of shadow. From this the prints could then be produced, and this allowed extra income to be brought into the studio, helping to supplement some of the worker's wages, whilst also helping to spread the studio's reputation far and wide. Prints were cheaper and therefore could be purchased by lower levels of society, enabling the creation of a sort of brand which helped the artist to pay off some of the debts that he accrued at different times in his life. This method of promotion was used by a number of North European artists as well, such as Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Hogarth and often those living within major port cities, or at least close to them, could use these links as a means to spreading their work further afield in ways that they may never have imagined even being possible.
When we consider the full breadth of engravings produced by this artist, it is easy to conclude that these were spread right across his career, because the styles used within them match up with his development over the full cycle of his lifetime. Whilst we cannot specifically date any of them precisely, we can certainly see notable differences across the full array of artworks which link closely to the changes that occurred with his work in other mediums, such as drawing and painting. Having worked alongside a goldsmith whilst young, that may have been the earliest experience that he had with engraving, but some biographers have given other explanations that have never been proven. We do know that around thirty engravings in total appeared from his studio, and are then left with the difficult task of separating those that he produced solely, with those which were more collaborative or even excluded his involvement completely.
Giovanni Antonio da Brescia is a name which crops up fairly regularly when discussing Mantegna's career. He is believed to have been a major figure within the studio and a number of accounts have suggested that he was responsible for around seven of the thirty engravings, though, again, this has never been confirmed and is highly unlikely to be progressed as a theory any further in the coming years. Either way, Mantegna's influence can be felt throughout the studio and he was undeniably the lead to this group, encouraging them to work effectively but also in a consistent manner that would not diverge too far from his own.
Mantegna would inspire a number of significant artists, including Albrecht Durer who was particularly impressed by the artist's engravings and would produce several copies of his own. He travelled across to Italy on two occasions in order to better understand the techniques used across the country at that time. We would also elements of his paintings appear in the work of Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, though it was certainly Nuremburg-based Durer who was most interested in the engravings. We do know that the artist would have expensive tastes which needed to be paid for through innovative means and so he was forced to find ways of maximising his income, part of which came from his series of prints that came from his paintings and engravings. There would also have been pressure from running and financing a large studio, meaning he would have to constantly draw in new commissions with which to keep his staff busy as well as make the group consistently profitable.
You will find a number of Mantegna engravings in the collection of the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in the USA. With the resources that they have, the institution has managed to provide some research into this group of work and help us learn a little more about the artist as well as the studio that he ran. He did not help matters, though, with little clues left for us - he did not sign or date any of the engravings, leaving art historians with the tricky task of mapping out his career oeuvre many centuries later. There have also been some items that were originally attributed to the artist up until about the 19th century that have since been attributed elsewhere, or simply left as unclaimed. Whilst we now have more techniques of art discovery than we have ever had, there will always be question marks left around the work of artists from this period, simply because it was just so long ago. The particular artwork pictured in this page was titled Hercules and the Hydra and is loosely attributed to the artist's school, with a possibility that the master did in fact produce it himself.