MANTEGNA, Andrea
(b. 1431, Isola di Cartura, d. 1506, Mantova)

Parnassus

1497
Tempera on canvas, 160 x 192 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Around 1495 Isabella d'Este planned to have the most famous painters of her time contribute pictures for her studiolo; she was unsuccessful in obtaining pictures from Leonardo (although he drew her portrait) and Giovanni Bellini, but not for want of trying. Mantegna, her court painter, and Lorenzo Costa, Mantegna's successor, each completed two canvases and Perugino one. Mantegna's so-called Parnassus, completed by 1497, is one of his finest works, much discussed and admired, although the exact meaning of the allegory remains elusive. As a painter dedicated to the study of antiquity and ancient archaeology, it is fitting that Mantegna should have produced a masterpiece with a classical theme.

In the centre of the painting representing a mythological scene the dancing Muses are easily identifiable, both on account of their number and the presence of the mountains in the top left of the picture. There was a tradition that the song of the nine sisters caused volcanic eruptions and other cataclysms which could only be stopped by Pegasus stamping his hoof - and indeed we see, on the right, the winged and bejewelled horse engaged in his providential pawing of the ground. Beside him is Mercury, whose presence is justified by the protection which he (together with Apollo) afforded the adulteress in the love affair between Mars and Venus. The two lovers hold sway over the scene from the top of Parnassus; a bed is beside them. The cuckolded husband, Vulcan, springs out from the entrance of his forge, fulminating against the faithless pair. Apollo is seated lower down, his lyre in his hands. Mantegna has integrated the landscape elements with the figures, using rocky cliffs as foils, while the central arch permits a deep vista into the rolling landscape.

In this late work Mantegna has maintained a monumental approach to human figures. Stocky and heavy-limbed, they plant their weight solidly in easy contrapposto.