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


after 1490
Tempera on wood, 73 x 23 cm
National Gallery, London

From 1490 onwards, Mantegna produced a series of illusionistic works representing sculptural reliefs in marble or bronze. These are in grisaille, light and dark tones of a single colour creating figures that stand against a background simulating boldly patterned marble. In Italy, pictures like this, which appear to be carved in stone, were first seen in the bases of Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, where he illustrated the seven Virtues and seven Vices. At the end of the 15th century, grisaille work was in great demand, and Mantegna painted a number of pictures in this technique, including two heroines of purity and constancy, Sophonisba and Tuccia. These figures presumably formed part of a larger series.

Sophonisba, the daughter of the Carthaginian statesman Hasdrubal (3rd century BC), was for reasons of state married to men one after the other. When the Roman leader Scipio demanded that Sophonisba be handed over after her husband had been taken prisoner, she drank a cup of poison rather than be taken by the enemy.