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Louvre: Mantegna – Parnassus

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Mantegna - Parnassus

Denon wing – 1st floor – Grand Gallery – Room 5

The scene represents a landscape of Olympus. On a high mound forming an arcade, Mars and Venus stand in front of a brightly draped bench sheltered by a screen of dark foliage. The blonde goddess is naked; with one hand she holds a ribbon that wraps around her leg, on the other, she leans lovingly on the arm of Mars who bends tenderly towards her. Blond like her, the warrior god is dressed in the cuirass and wears the helmet in mind; in the right hand he holds a long spear. This charming group cuts out in force on the background of greenery placed behind him.

At the foot of the mound, the nine Muses, holding hands, dance a round to the sound of the lyre played by Apollo, sitting to the left of the painting. These muses are infinitely graceful in their shimmering colors, and their pose is certainly well chosen to highlight their sculptural forms. In this painting where everything seems to be only detail, the group of dancers occupies the center of the composition and solicits the attention of the spectator, but what fantasy was able to deploy the artist in the arrangement of the episodes with which he likes to garnish his canvas! On the right, it is Mercury in a very basic costume comprising only horse leggings and a winged helmet; with his armed arm of the caduceus, he leans on a Piazante piaffant, curiously studded with rubies. On the left, Vulcan’s forge opens. The latter, on the threshold of his presence, is agitated and makes furious gestures in the direction of Mars, who is flirting with his fickle wife. At the feet of Mars and Venus a Cupid blows into a blowpipe he points to the poor Vulcan in derision, to tease and exasperate.

From the place where all these characters move, one sees on the right the Helicon, from where the Hippocrene falls in cascade, then, very far in the plain, the Earth, home of the mortals, with its cities and its houses.

Such is the Parnassus of Mantegna, colorful, lively, and so curious by the abundance of motives and the fertility of the invention. “What thought did the artist conceal under this strange composition, we do not know and will not seek it. It is enough for us to admire the elegance of these Muses, the novelty of their curve, the ingenuity of their adjustment, the sculptural beauty of the group of Mars and Venus, the pose of Mercury, the drapery throw, the curious care detail and this mythology in the Middle Ages which is the effect of Helen in the feudal palace of Faust, with its ancient nakedness whose lightness embarrassed a little. “(Théophile Gautier.)

Mantegna was born in 1431, not in Padua, as has long been thought, but in a small town in the Vicenza area. When he was young, he entered the Squarcione studio, which became tender for him and adopted him regularly as his son. But soon Mantegna, unhappy with the teaching of this master, resolved to disengage himself from it, and, in order to succeed entirely, obtained from the Court of Forty of Venice the annulment of the act of adoption. His relationship with the Squarcione, already tense as a result of this decision, became a complete quarrel when he married the daughter of Jacopo Bellini, personal enemy of his former teacher. However, Squarcione’s imprint on Mantegna’s art is not doubtful. It was through the study, in the master’s studio, of the castings and drawings of sculptures brought back from Greece, that the young artist fell in with a great love for the antique and that he strove to reach the pure and noble taste which characterizes the productions of the ancients, then almost unknown in Italy. It was there that he began to learn the art of modeling which he was to wear so high, under the happy influence of Donatello. Certainly Mantegna could not completely get rid of Gothic stiffness and drought, but as already his style is superior and makes it clear that a new element has been introduced into art! On Mantegna shines the first ray of the Renaissance; after the long Byzantine and Gothic night, Beauty returns to charm the surprised world.

Mantegna was sixty years old when Isabelle d’Este commissioned him to direct the decoration work she had undertaken in her apartment at Corte Vecchio. Isabella d’Este was the most enlightened woman of her time, with vast knowledge, fluent in Latin, Greek, and most European languages; his taste was no less remarkable than his knowledge. To the artistic treasures she had amassed she wanted a setting worthy of them: for this purpose she appealed to Lorenzo Corta, Perugino and Mantegna, who painted two pictures: Parnassus, reproduced here, and Triumphant Virtue of Vices. The first represents the triumph of Venus, Apollo, and the Muses, that is to say, the beneficent influence of the arts; the second proclaims the necessity of wisdom and intellectual activity to combat barbarism and ignorance.

These two paintings were bought by Cardinal Richelieu and were part until the Revolution of the collections of the castle of Richelieu. They then entered the Louvre.

Height: 1.60 – Width: 1.92 – Figures: 0.60.

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