(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.

Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin accused of incest, proved her innocence by a feat that was proverbially impossible. After appealing to her goddess for help, she carried water home from the river Tiber in a sieve, and so was rehabilitated through a divine pronouncement. The chiaroscuro tones suggest a classical relief, although Mantegna painted this grisaille without a specific model.