Mantegna’s Revenge

Nicholas Penny

  • Mantegna by Ronald Lightbown
    Phaidon/Christie’s, 512 pp, £60.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 7148 8031 0
  • The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered edited by Massimo Giacometti, translated by Paul Holberton
    Muller, Blond and White, 271 pp, £40.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 584 11140 1

There never has been a great painter more inclined than Mantegna to lavish skill and thought on minute particulars, and even if this is less clear than it might be from the plates in Ronald Lightbown’s massive monograph, Lightbown himself has a very keen eye for the subordinate, often tiny things which the artist painted so well, and has industriously inquired into what exactly they were, and also into what they meant. There is, for instance, the glass oil-lamp, painted as if it was hanging above, and in front of, the throne of the Virgin in Mantegna’s great altarpiece in the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, which is of a type invented in Venice, with a gold mount decorated with ‘sunk rosettes and sex-foils’, set with sapphires, rubies and pearls. It also has an ostrich egg hanging above it – an arrangement to be observed in other paintings of the period.

These exotic marvels had long served as church ornaments. Presumably their translucency made them glow magically above the lamps. They could also be regarded as symbols. Lightbown cites the indefatigably over-ingenious Durandus, the author of a treatise on ecclesiastical symbolism in the 13th century, who suggested, among other interpretations, that the sight of these eggs, by reminding us of the proverbially forgetful ostrich, might help us to bear in mind how easy and dangerous it is to forget God. Lightbown then refers to the vast literature on the symbolism of lamps. (He might have continued with the sapphires, rubies and pearls.)

It is, however, still possible to doubt whether Mantegna or his patrons attached any more significance to this lamp and egg than they did to other luxury accessories, such as the Islamic carpet and pagan Greek reliefs with which the Madonna is in this case also – and no less conspicuously – supplied. A lamp or an egg given special prominence – for instance, serving as a device on the reverse of a medal or on the back or the lid of a small panel painting – would merit this sort of exegesis, but here they may not.

Lightbown is as keen to expand on the historical events, recorded in published and in manuscript sources, which provided the occasion for Mantegna’s paintings as he is to investigate the objects depicted in them, and this, also, is often of great interest. He describes, for example, how a narrow escape from death in battle put the Marquess of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, into the right frame of mind to be persuaded by his brother Sigismondo and his bigoted clerical advisers to force a Jewish banker, who had inadvertently excited popular hatred, into paying for a new votive painting by Mantegna. Then they got him to agree to let them knock the Jew’s house down to build a church and house the painting.

As with the lamp, so with this episode: having discovered so much about it, the temptation is to make it more significant than it is. Anti-semitism certainly does ‘lie behind’ Mantegna’s splendid Madonna della Vittoria (the altarpiece in question, today in the Louvre), but whether it is reflected in the content of the painting is another matter. Lightbown is convinced that the prominence of St Elizabeth and the infant Baptist beside the throne of the Virgin and opposite the kneeling Marquess is connected with the fact that they are associated with baptism, ‘the rite that above all others separates Christians from Jews’, and he notes that they appear in an altarpiece with an explicitly anti-semitic inscription in the same period (which he does not illustrate).

However, a simpler, more obvious and entirely adequate explanation has been advanced by other scholars. St Elizabeth was the patron saint of Isabella d’Este, Francesco’s wife. Isabella would have prayed to St Elizabeth to intercede for her husband’s safety, and intercession explains why the saint kneels in the painting. The saint was placed opposite Francesco in lieu of Isabella’s own portrait, which we know had been originally proposed for this part of the painting. For Isabella to have suggested that her patron saint should be in the painting in her own place seems entirely probable, but for Isabella to have been eliminated in the interest of including an anti-semitic allusion seems most unlikely.

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