The work found in the deposits of the Correr Museum for the first time on display in Piazzola sul Brenta

After a long and complex restoration, the important late 15th-century painting found in the deposits of the Museo Correr in Venice last December will be on display for the first time in Piazzola sul Brenta.

Last December in the deposits of the Correr Museum in Venice an important late 15th-century painting depicting the Madonna and Child, St. John and Six Saints was found: now, after a long and complex restoration supported by the G. E. Ghirardi Onlus, the work will be exhibited to the public from May 10 to October 27, 2024 for the first time in Villa Contarini - G. E. Ghirardi Foundation in Piazzola sul Brenta, the birthplace of Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, 1431 - Mantua, 1506.

After the important finding, in fact, the study, the scientific investigation, also with the help of sophisticated technologies, and then the very delicate, complex and long restoration began, until today’s return of the painting. The first significant fact is that the same all-female sacred scene is almost identical to the one visible in a painting now preserved at theIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (USA), which has always been attributed to Andrea Mantegna -it bears his signature, although considered not original by some scholars- and was already present in the Mantuan collections of the Gonzaga family. Of this similarity the radiological and reflectographic investigations carried out on the Venetian painting have given clear technical explanations, which were absolutely unexpected: the drawing, instrumentally detected under the color, outlines a tracing almost perfectly coincident with the Boston painting. So, both paintings appear to have been made from the same cardboard, pierced to transfer the guiding points of the drawing to the two panels by dusting. It is consequent to assume that the two works were made by the same atelier (undoubtedly Andrea Mantegna’s Mantuan atelier) within a short distance of time if not at the same time: two almost completely identical paintings, only with some small but significant variations in detail and color. Another essential fact that has emerged from analysis and restoration is that this is an unfinished work: after a painstakingly long and arduous creative process, for an unknown reason the painter abandoned the work just a step away from completion. Open questions also concern who commissioned it or, more likely, “the” commissioner (perhaps an ’illustrious Gonzaga lady) and for what contingent reason she would have requested two identical paintings, for what recipients, what meanings concealed by the surrounding of the Virgin and Child Jesus by so many holy women, some clearly identifiable, others apparently anonymous, but dressed elegantly in the court fashion coeval with the painting. Another question mark concerns the journey the rediscovered painting took to reach the lagoon, and what and how many steps to end up in the hands of collector Teodoro Correr between the 18th and 19th centuries.

The rediscovered work will now be the protagonist of the exhibition event L’impronta di Andrea Mantegna, promoted by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia and Fondazione G. E. Ghirardi with the support of the Comune di Venezie and Soprintendenza Archeologia, belle arti e paesaggio per il Comune di Venezia e Laguna. The exhibition is also an opportunity to attempt the first answers to the many questions posed by the very special, material, artistic, and iconographic nature of the painting. In fact, the work will be accompanied by a rich didactic apparatus, on panels and multimedia with touch-screen monitors, with the aim of illustrating to the public the most interesting data that emerged from the investigations and restoration.

There will thus be an opportunity to learn about the first interpretative hypotheses of the multiple meanings of the depictions that revolve around the Mantuan court of the Gonzagas and famous Renaissance figures, such as Isabella d’Este, among the most likely commissioners for the singular “double painting.” At Piazzola sul Brenta, the painting is therefore also offered for the attention of scholars, who may attempt to scratch its fascinating secrets. Even while waiting for such answers, the exhibition-dossier aims to be the epilogue of an affair that combines discovery, investigation, study, conservation, restitution, and valorization.

Description of the painting

The painting represents the theme of the Sacred Conversation: the Madonna and the Child Jesus in silent spiritual dialogue with St. John the Baptist as a child and six saints. From a strictly iconographic point of view, the subject seems to tie in with the Flemish figurative theme of the Virgo inter virgines, which was especially alive in the courts of France and Burgundy in the 15th century. The figures, all and only women with the exception of the two children, are arranged in a semicircle, some seated, others kneeling on clear ground at the edge of a back lawn and with a deep open landscape behind them. A craggy dark-brown rocky backdrop is on the left, while a wide river meanders in the center and to the right, beyond which more distant clear mountainous backdrops flank a hilly hump dotted with small leafy trees, above which the only limited space of sky opens. Tiny figures populate the landscape: on the top of the rocky relief to the left is St. Jerome, a penitent hermit with a lion; the river is forded by St. Christopher with the infant Jesus on his shoulders; on the opposite bank of the river St. George on horseback fights the dragon; not far away, also on the bank, are tiny figures of men.

Of the six saints forming the unusual sacred gynoecium, identifiable are - the first to the left of the Madonna - Elizabeth, elderly and cloaked, and Mary Magdalene, with long blond hair. They, like St. Margaret to the Virgin’s right, wear the old-fashioned robes of the centuries-old Christian figurative tradition. In contrast, the other three unknown figures, one on the far right, two others toward the left margin, dress in rich and elaborate contemporary garments and sport refined hairstyles, in accordance with the fashion of Italian courts datable precisely around 1490. Could they allude to “portraits” of real-life gentlewomen, posed to impersonate saints or blessed by their own names? Could the famous Isabella d’Este, who came to Mantua as a young bride of Marquis Francesco Gonzaga precisely in 1490, be hidden among them?

Image: Madonna and Child, St. John and Six Saints (c. 1490-1495; tempera, oil and gold on panel, 38 x 44.5 cm). Photo by Matteo De Fina

The work found in the deposits of the Correr Museum for the first time on display in Piazzola sul Brenta
The work found in the deposits of the Correr Museum for the first time on display in Piazzola sul Brenta

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