An altarpiece for the duke's sister: St. Margaret presented at Trinity by Anton Maria Viani

Painted for Margherita Gonzaga, sister of the Duke of Mantua Vincenzo I, the altarpiece with Saint Margaret presented to the Trinity is the masterpiece of Antonio Maria Viani (Cremona, c. 1555 - Mantua, 1629) and one of the pinnacles of the early 17th century in Mantua.

Antonio Maria Viani was the prefect of the ducal factories in Mantua when his colleague Domenico Fetti portrayed him, in 1618, in a large canvas that was part of a cycle devoted to the life of Margherita Gonzaga, sister of Duke Vincenzo I: the noblewoman had founded the monastery of Sant’Orsola in her city in 1599, and had entrusted Viani with the task of designing it. Like a Madonna, distant and imperturbable, Madama Margherita is seated on a diagonally foreshortened throne, steeped in Titian reminiscences, and the architect, the man who built early 17th-century Mantua, is kneeling before her, depicted in the ’act of presenting her with the model of the monastic church, which on the outside still looks as its architect had imagined it, despite the many remodels and changes of use that the building underwent throughout history.

Margherita Gonzaga had returned to Mantua in 1597 after the death of her husband, the Duke of Ferrara Alfonso II d’Este, and as was common practice at the time for a woman of her status, she had decided to devote herself to the spirit and works of charity for the rest of her days. Of course, the spirit is best satisfied if it is cultivated in a suitable venue, and at Sant’Orsola the duke’s sister ended up implanting an authentic “monastic court,” as Ugo Bazzotti has effectively defined it. A court parallel to that of the Ducal Palace, we might say. A court that had for its seat that convent as splendid as a palace, grand, with gardens, rich in works of art, where the life of the nuns proceeded together with that of the court ladies, who in turn resided here. The duchess had thought of everything: she had shaped the institutional arrangement of the convent and, being the attentive patron and lover of fine arts that she was, she had personally taken care of its decorative apparatus. To adorn the convent, Margaret had called the most important artists active in Mantua. Including Rubens, who had designed an altarpiece with the martyrdom of St. Ursula, which was never executed, and of which only a sketch remains today, kept in the Sala degli Arcieri in the Ducal Palace, part of the new Ducal Apartment designed by Viani himself. There, part of what once could be admired in the elegant monastery is preserved.

Many, unfortunately, disregard the story of St. Ursula upon entering the Hall of the Archers, where most people’s attention is catalyzed by the extraordinary Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity, a masterpiece by the Mantuan Rubens, a celebrated and highly praised work that risks overshadowing everything else. But there is also more in the room. The opposite wall is occupied by Domenico Fetti’s enormous Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes , which stood in the monastery refectory. Next to it is his painting with Viani presenting the model of the church to Margherita. Nearby, the sketch that Rubens painted for the martyrdom altarpiece. And on the same wall as the sketch, here is the most engaging work by the painter Antonio Maria Viani: a large canvas, signed and dated 1619, depicting the Virgin presenting St. Margaret to the Holy Trinity. It was part of the tributes that the court painters paid to Margherita Gonzaga after her death, which occurred on January 6, 1618, although there are those who think that Viani’s work originated at the behest of the duchess herself, an entirely plausible hypothesis. The fact that she had passed away in the meantime, therefore, would not have been an obstacle to the realization of the painting. Not least because, at the time, tributes were meant to be lasting, so that the convent resulted even more sumptuous than Margherita Gonzaga had known it to be.

Antonio Maria Viani, The Virgin Presents Saint Margaret to the Holy Trinity (1619; oil on canvas, 450.2 x 374 cm; Mantua, Ducal Palace)
Antonio Maria Viani, The Virgin Presents Saint Margaret to the Holy Trinity (1619; oil on canvas, 450.2 x 374 cm; Mantua, Ducal Palace)

Viani, as an architect, was used to working on large dimensions. And for the left altar of the monastic church he painted this huge altarpiece, exactly four and a half meters high, in which Margaret of Antioch, the eponymous saint of the illustrious honoree, easily recognizable by the iconographic attribute of the dragon (which alludes to the likeness assumed by the devil to torment her during her captivity: Margaret, the hagiographies recount, defeated him by the power of prayer alone), is introduced by the Virgin to the Trinity, in an infinite sky that radiates in concentric clouds around the figure of the blessing Christ, that of the Eternal Father curiously wrapped in a golden brocade cope, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, spreading his wings at the center of the whirlwind of clouds that invests the entire composition. Viani may have set himself the precise goal of sucking the relative into the daring vortex of air and light that we imagine extending far beyond the physical limits of this enveloping ribbed altarpiece: for a moment we too are in paradise. For a moment we are partakers of the motion of the clouds, sinuous like the waves of a rough sea; for a moment the cold light of the golden empyrean rains down on us, called to witness the celestial concert that the angels are playing with lutes and violins, above the clouds that in the lower part of the altarpiece become more substantial, like bleachers and grandstands that welcome the small angelic orchestra. One of them is singing reading on a score (which Viani exploits to affix his signature and date), a pair of little angels, below, are assisting by leaning their elbows carelessly on a small bank of clouds, from below still others are making their way to get a better view, some are turning their gaze toward us to pull us into the vortex.

Antonio Maria Viani’s altarpiece is sum of different experiences that the artist had assimilated throughout his career, a sign that he was a great painter no less than a talented architect. Stefano L’Occaso has written that “the bright, silvery tones, the light that spreads from above and dims only at the bottom, puddling the forms like dew, suggest that the artist modified his artistic lexicon by observing coeval Emilian painting and perhaps even certain luministic experiments from the Veronese sphere,” while the backdrop, “constructed with circles of clouds and streaks of light flashing from behind that create a spatial funnel,” recalls the spectacular effects of Munich painting of the late sixteenth century (before taking up the post of court artist in Mantua, Viani had worked for five years in Munich), recalls the scenographic works of artists such as Christoph Schwartz and Pieter De Witte, whom Viani must have known in Germany. All aimed at creating a work that would be able to captivate the viewer, to respond effectively to the taste of the court (note the preciousness of the clothes worn by the main characters), to impose itself on the crowded artistic scene of Mantua at the early part of the 17th century, so much so that Jonathan Bober considered Viani’s altarpiece a “parallel derivation” from Rubens’ Trinity altarpiece, as if the Cremonese expert had wanted to engage in a kind of long-distance duel with the daring Flemish, with whom, the American scholar wrote, “all the artists of that court had to reckon.” Despite the fact that Viani’s work and Rubens’s are separated by fifteen years.

If we want to put it on this level, Viani perhaps comes out the loser of the challenge with Rubens, at least on the distance. The altarpiece that the Flemish painted for the high altar of the Church of the Holy Trinity, although horrendously resected at a later date, is one of his most famous works, a cornerstone of his production, the first work that comes to mind if someone asks you what is inside the Ducal Palace. Viani, on the other hand, does not have the same appeal. Indeed, at one point in history, in the nineteenth century, the subject of the altarpiece was even misunderstood: the Madonna was mistaken for St. Ursula by someone who did not notice the crown of stars above the Virgin’s head, an attribute that leaves no room for interpretation. And the error dragged on for decades, until L’Occaso, in the early 2000s, cleared up the misunderstanding. Yet few other works are as significant in reconstructing the climate of early 17th-century Mantua, few other works manage to transport the audience with the same force, few other works manage to give the illusion of really being in heaven. But was it really a challenge for Viani? We can only guess that, given the position he held, the prefect of the ducal factories had nothing to prove to anyone. And perhaps that is precisely why today in the Sala degli Arcieri we see the masterpiece of an original artist, an indisputable summit of the seventeenth century in Mantua.

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