Andrea Mantegna and Isabella d'Este: the project for the monument to Virgil

In this post we retrace the story of the design of the monument to Virgil, conceived by Isabella d'Este and entrusted to Andrea Mantegna. We are in 1499.

Credo deve essere cognito, saltem per fama, alla Ex. V. la condicione et summa virt¨ del Pontano, quale meritamente se po dire non solamente alla etÓ nostra, ma dapochi manch˛ Virgilio, la natura humana non aveva producto homo de magtrina nÚ valuta de luy. Where it occurred to me to speak at length with him, having visited him on behalf of the Most Illustrious Your Spouse, having in my memory the laudable purpose of Your Excellency of having a statue of Virgil formed, according to the raison d’ŕtre I had with it, it seemed to me to consult him with Your Excellency, telling him that he had such an order and commission from you, and narrating to him the purpose that moved your generous mind to do such a work. These lines, which you have just read, constitute the beginning of the letter that Jacopo d’Atri, secretary to the Gonzagas and ambassador from Mantua to Naples, wrote to Isabella d’Este (1474 - 1539) on March 17, 1499. In the missive, the ambassador reports on a meeting he had with Giovanni Pontano (1429 - 1503), a learned humanist, rhetorically regarded by Jacopo d’Atri as the man “de magiore doctrina” from when “manch˛ Virgilio” onward, to discuss an interesting idea of the marquise of Mantua: the creation of a statue to be dedicated to Virgil, the great poet of antiquity originally from Pietole, the ancient Andes, a village on the outskirts of Mantua, now a hamlet of the municipality of Borgo Virgilio.

A tale with historical implications that are not fully documented, tells that in Mantua, in Piazza delle Erbe, there was a monument to the poet, perhaps a bust, which, however, would come to a bad end at the end of the 14th century. It was, to be precise, August 31, 1397: the leader from Rimini, Carlo Malatesta, an ally of the Mantuans at the time at war with the Duchy of Milan, managed to get the better of the Visconti army and entered Mantua triumphant. Reaching Piazza delle Erbe, however, he allegedly removed the statue of Virgil, officially because it was considered a pagan idol, but the real reasons remain unknown: perhaps the condottiero, a strongly devout person, was really disturbed that a poet of antiquity was still held in such high esteem, or probably his was a gesture of contempt against the plebs who always paid great honors to the poet, even going so far, it seems, as to decorate the statue with laurel wreaths on feast days. We do know, however, that all the greatest intellectuals of the time, starting with Coluccio Salutati and Pier Paolo Vergerio, addressed harsh words against Carlo Malatesta’s iconoclastic fury, deeming the gesture highly outrageous and unworthy of a lord of his caliber. On the other hand, we do not know the real fate of the monument: it seems to have been thrown into the waters of the Mincio River, but on the contours of the affair the historiographical debate has always been quite lively, though without any certain conclusion being reached.

And anyway, the fact remains that Jacopo d’Atri, Giovanni Pontano and especially Isabella d’Este agreed that Mantua needed a monument celebrating its most illustrious son. And, Giovanni Pontano’s word, Pier Paolo Vergerio would have been overjoyed to know that such a young woman, as Isabella was, would make herself the protagonist of such a magnanimous and elevated work. Indeed: he would have been more pleased with Isabella’s generous spirit than saddened by the shameful action of the Romagna condottiero. So, in the letter is also reported the discussion of how the new monument should be made: the most suitable material would have been marble because, still that bronze was more noble (according to Pontano’s convictions), marble would have been more suitable because bronze would have run the danger that at some time they would not make bells, or bombards out of it. In short, a new destruction of the monument was feared. The statue, still according to the description given by Jacopo d’Atri, should have had a beautiful base de underneath and been placed in a worthy place. Arriving then at the figure of Virgil, to follow the style of the ancients, it should have been alone cum laura on the head, et con manto a l’anticha, cum l’abito togato col groppo in su la spalla, overo col abito senatorio che Ŕ la vesta et il manto sopra, e ancora senza cosa alcuna in mano, ma la statua semplice senza libro nÚ altro sotto, e ancora cum le scarpe a l’antiqua et de sotto la base poche parole, cioŔ P. Vergilius Mantuanus, et also “Isabella Marchionissa Mantuae restituit,” or similar.

And who would have been the artist commissioned to execute the design for a monument of such great importance to Mantua and its community? Obviously the most sublime artist the Gonzaga could count on: Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506), who despite his rather advanced age (he was sixty-eight in 1499) was still held in the highest esteem not only by the Gonzaga court (despite some minor friction with Isabella herself), but also by the Neapolitan humanists. Given Andrea Mantegna ’s passion and sensitivity for classical antiquity, there could not have been a more suitable artist for such an undertaking. Of the project, however, we do not know much: besides the letter from Jacopo d’Atri, the only other direct evidence is the reply from Isabella d’Este, who expressed appreciation for Pontano’s words. There remain, however, a couple of drawings that could be traced to the enterprise: one, in very poor condition, is preserved in the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe degli Uffizi (inventory number 1672 F). The first to speculate that the drawing was made as part of the project is art historian David Ekserdijan: however, its state does not allow for solid assumptions. For example, the attribute of the laurel wreath would be missing (or, if there is one, it would no longer be legible), and there is obviously a lack of documents that could establish on what occasion the drawing was made.

Then there exists, in the Louvre, a drawing, better preserved than the one in the Uffizi but of lesser finesse of execution, and therefore probably the work of a school, which depicts a hypothetical monument to Virgil represented more or less as in the description of Jacopo d’Atri’s letter: it is a dignified and severe figure, dressed in senatorial robes and crowned with laurel. Compared to the letter, however, Mantegna’s Virgil has a book in his hand, a symbol of his poetry, and the inscription on the base, decorated with putti recalling classicism and with the festoons typical of Mantegna’s art, differs slightly from that proposed by Pontano. Although the features of the work are the hard and strong ones typical of Andrea Mantegna, it is most likely that it is not an autograph, not least because the design has been conspicuously repainted, and this undermines evaluations: today, therefore, there is a tendency to consider it the work of his circle.

The project, however, never found fulfillment: perhaps, Isabella d’Este was caught up in too many thoughts and too many projects (precisely in 1499, moreover, Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Mantua) and Mantegna, given his advanced age, did not feel like nor could he afford to drag around for a long time such a demanding work on which several unknowns hung. The artist would pass away just seven years later, in 1506, and with him also went the dream of giving Mantua back a monument to its Virgil. The city that had always loved the poet had to wait until the 19th century to see Virgil honored with a large statue: but that is another story.

Cerchia di Andrea Mantegna, Monumento a Virgilio
Andrea Mantegna’s circle, Monument to Virgil (drawing; c. 1499; Paris, Louvre, Cabinet des dessins; inv. RF 439)