Nowadays, whenever we switch on the television, we are bombarded by property shows and house renovations programmes, all wanting to know what our ideal house would be and suggesting how we should utilise the interior space of our dream home. Questions are posed such as, should we have a gymnasium or a pool room or an office? In 15th century Italy, the wealthy had similar things to ponder over and one of the popular ideas in those days was to incorporate a room in your residence, which would act as a private study or a meeting place for your intellectual friends. However having the space for such a room was only one part of the dilemma. The house owner then had to furnish it in such a way so as to impress their guests. Sounds familiar?
In the 15th century Italy the fashionable thing to do was to have a studiolo, which was a type of private study, which would be set aside for intellectual activities. Isabella d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, one of the leading women of the Italian Renaissance was a major cultural figure of that time and a patron of the arts. In 1490, she decided to create a studiolo in a tower of the Castello di San Giorgio and she commissioned Andrea Mantagna to paint two canvases to hang in the room entitled Parnassus and Minerva which she would have positioned opposite each other in the study. Her biographer wrote:
“…It was Isabella’s dream to make this Studiolo a place of retreat from the world, where she could enjoy the pleasures of solitude or the company of a few chosen friends, surrounded by beautiful paintings and exquisite works of art….. In this sanctuary from which the cares and the noise of the outer world were banished, it was Isabella’s dream that the walls should be adorned with paintings giving expression to her ideals of culture and disposing the mind to pure and noble thoughts…”
My Daily Art Display today is the second of these works of art by Andrea Mantegna entitled Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue which he completed in 1502. The artist was in his seventies at this time and would live just another four years after he completed the works of art.
The painting is full of anecdotal detail and the story is not so much historical but allegorical. On the left of the picture we have the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena, (who was known to the Romans as Minerva), spear in hand, as she rushes towards and drives away the various malformed monstrous Vices in order to re-establish the reign and rule of Virtue, who we see imprisoned in the olive tree on the far left.
If you look at the far right of the painting you can see the Vices, Avarice and Ingratitude carrying off to the swamp-like pool the fat, stupid Ignorance, who is wearing a crown. The painting is full of bizarre and weird entities. Clouds with faces, talking trees and anthropomorphic monkeys are just some of the creepy items on display in this painting. In the sky on the right hand side we have the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. They had been driven out previously by the depravities which had been occupying garden and now return. The fourth Virtue, Prudence, is walled up inside the stone structure on the far right of the painting and only a white fluttering banner reflects her cry of help.
It is not the sort of painting I would like hung in my study. I think I would prefer a beautiful landscape but again this painting would be sure to fuel the conversation of one’s guests as they study the multi-faceted composition.