A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Andrea Mantegna Part 6

5 April 2013

Seeing Triple:  Mantegna’s Saint Sebastians


Read Part 1

Read Part 2


During the period in which the Casa del Mantegna (see Part 5) was being constructed, Mantegna continued to produce several remarkable paintings as court artist in Mantua.  These include Madonna col Bambino e un coro di cherubini (Madonna with the Cherubim; c. 1485; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), Trionfi di Cesare (Triumphs of Caesar; c. 1484 - c. 1492; Hampton Court Palace, England — discussed in Part 4 of this entry), Giuditta e l'ancella con la testa di Oloferne (Judith and Holofernes; 1495; National Gallery of Art, Washington), and Madonna della Vittoria (Madonna of the Victory; 1496; Musée du Louvre, Paris).  This last painting —a sizeable canvas at 280 x 166 cm, or approximately 9 x 5.5 feet, a detail of which can be seen in Part 3 of this entry — features a portrait of Francesco II Gonzaga kneeling in full armor.

There was additionally a recurring theme in Mantegna’s work that figures in this period, one that dates back to when he lived in Padua — the martyrdom of a third century saint.  Saint Sebastian is believed to have been a captain in the Praetorian Guard in Rome.  In 286, when Emperor Diocletian discovered that Sebastian was a Christian, he ordered that he be executed by being tied to a post and shot with arrows until he looked like a “hedgehog,” following which, according to the legend, Sebastian survived.

Somewhat incongruously, due to the repeated reappearance of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe since the fourteenth century, Saint Sebastian had become a popular object of identification by Mantegna’s time.  This is presumably because in medieval thought, just as arrows travel through the air, so does pestilence. (This is technically true if we include the fleas that spread the virus.)


Paul Fürst (1608-1666): Doktor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beak from Rome), 1656, engraving — an example of what a physician might wear for protection from the Black Death plague

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Sebastian, therefore, was regularly portrayed by Late Gothic and Renaissance artists, including Giovanni del Biondo (active 1356-1399), Taddeo di Bartolo (c. 1363–1422), Pollaiuolo (1429-1498), Hans Memling (1430-1494), Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Botticelli (1445-1510), Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), Perugino (1446-1523), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Titian (1488-1576), El Greco (1541-1614), and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656).  Guido Reni (1575-1642) painted seven different canvases representing Saint Sebastian.

The fascination continued into the twentieth century, with renditions by Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), and even a “mystery play” — a collaboration between the Italian playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863-1938) and French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) called Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911).  Last year I attended a semi-staged production of this work by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.  The visual element remained a dominant aspect of this story.  While Frederica von Stade narrated and soloists sang from towers that circled the stage, images of the arrow-ridden saint were projected onto overhead scrims.

It is believed that Mantegna himself had suffered and recovered from the plague when it struck Padua in 1456–1457.  At this time he began his first depiction of Saint Sebastian, most likely having been commissioned by the podestà of Padua.  A possible motivation for Mantegna later to revisit the theme of Saint Sebastian may be that he lived near the San Sebastiano church in Mantua.  He painted three different versions of the saint.

Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian, c. 1456-59, tempera and gold on wood panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Mantegna’s first work depicting Saint Sebastian, thought to have been painted between 1456 and 1459 in Padua, can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.  As Mantegna had recently married Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of Jacopo and sister of Giovanni and Gentile, painters of the Venetian school, the influence of Venetian traditions can be seen, especially in the use of color.  Also of note, given Mantegna’s fascination with antiquities, are the ancient Roman ruins and broken pieces of sculpture — curiously anachronistic, since Sebastian lived at the time when such structures would have been still standing.

In Mantegna’s painting, instead of being tied to a pole as the legend has it, Sebastian is tied to an arch.  This arch appears to be part
of a ruined temple, an image thought to signify the victory of Christianity over paganism.  To underscore this idea, a bas-relief of Victoria, the personification of victory, can be seen on the arch above Sebastian.  Reminiscent of classical sculpture himself, Sebastian affects a contrapposto pose in which his hips and legs are twisted away from the direction of his head and shoulders.  Some make the macabre claim that the sequence of shots can be determined by the amount of blood at each arrow’s entry point.

There are several fascinating details to be observed in this work.  To the right of Sebastian can be seen a thriving city with a busy harbor, and to the left, ancient ruins.  Also on the left, walking on the road in midground are three archers — presumably Sebastian’s executioners — who wear uniforms of Mantegna’s time and not those of Roman soldiers.  Jack M. Greenstein of UC San Diego, in Mantegna and Painting as Historical

Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian — detail showing archers, c. 1456-59, tempera and gold on wood panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}
Narrative, proposes that these disparate temporal frames of reference in the painting reflect a correlation between plague sufferers of the fifteenth century and Sebastian’s martyrdom in the third. 

To the left of Sebastian, inscribed vertically on the pier, is Mantegna’s signature in Greek — TO ERGON TOU ANDREOU M (“this is the work of Andrea M”; only a portion of the first letter of the last name is visible) — as if the hidden signature of a Greek artisan who carved the stone used in the arch has come to light.  “His name,” according to Keith Christiansen in The Genius of Andrea Mantegna, “like Sebastian’s victory over paganism, has thus been revealed through the destruction of the Roman building.”


Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian — detail showing Mantegna’s signature, c. 1456-59, tempera and gold on wood panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



In the upper left corner of the painting is a white cloud which, on closer examination, reveals a rider with a scythe. This figure is thought to represent one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, harbingers of the Last Judgment.  Might the pestilence of the Black Death be implied here?


Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian — detail showing rider in cloud, c. 1456-59, tempera and gold on wood panel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Mantegna’s second painting of Saint Sebastian dates from around 1480, when the artist was living in Mantua.  It can be seen in the Denon wing of the Louvre in Paris.  This work was presented as a wedding gift to Chiara Gonzaga, the daughter of Mantegna’s patron, Federico I Gonzaga.  She married Gilbert of Bourbon-Montpensier, Duke of Sessa, and the painting was placed in the church at Aigueperse in
Auvergne, France, where it remained until the French Revolution.

Compared to the earlier Saint Sebastian, at 68 x 30 cm, or approximately 2 x 1 feet, this painting is immense — 255 x 140 cm, or approximately 8 x 4.5 feet.  In this version, Sebastian is again shown in contrapposto.  Also once again, Mantegna’s absorption with antiquity is evident.  Sebastian is tied to a composite column at the ruins of an arch, behind which rises an ancient city.  This city is reminiscent of that found in the Meeting Scene in the Camera degli Sposi that Mantegna had recently painted.

Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian, c. 1480, tempera on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Other ruins lie strewn about, including an improbably placed sculpted foot next to Sebastian’s blood-stained foot.  A fig tree defiantly grows amongst the ruins. 


Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian, detail showing sculpted foot, c. 1480, tempera on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Relying on a low viewpoint with vigorous foreshortening, the scene places the viewer at the head level of the two executioners — whose identity is divulged by the presence of bow and arrows.


Andrea Mantegna:  Saint Sebastian, detail showing executioners, c. 1480, tempera on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Mantegna’s third depiction of Saint Sebastian is a late painting, one that was found in his studio after his death.  Dated presumably to 1490, it was painted for the bishop of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga (not to be confused with the Marchese Ludovico I) and can be seen at the Galleria Franchetti of the Ca' d'Oro in Venice. 

Andrea Mantegna: Saint Sebastian, c. 1490, oil on canvas, Galleria Franchetti, Ca' d'Oro, Venice

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}
Missing in this version are any ruins, cities, sculptural fragments, clouds, or archers.  A dark background is enclosed by a marble frame, through which, in Mantegna’s expert perspectival illusionism, Sebastian appears to be stepping.  The artist could have been demonstrating what his friend and colleague Leon Battista Alberti had boldly announced in De Pictura (1435):  a painting is a window on reality.

While Sebastian, again found in contrapposto, is abstracted from his natural environment, his arrows are still present.  These arrows are foreshortened in a masterful use of trompe-l’oeil, appearing to project into and out of the canvas, pulling the viewer into the painting.

In the lower right-hand corner is a smoking, extinguished candle to which is attached a small label on which is written:  NIHIL NISI DIVINUM STABILE EST, CETERA FUMUS [Nothing stands firm except the divine; all else is smoke].  Mantegna was growing old, suffering from ill health and becoming reclusive.  He recognized and acknowledged the transience of existence on earth through this painting.Many have observed that, curiously, the arrows in Sebastian’s legs seem to form the letter ‘M’.  Might this symbolize

Andrea Mantegna: Saint Sebastian, detail showing candle, c. 1490, oil on canvas, Galleria Franchetti, Ca' d'Oro, Venice

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}
morte [death] — or Mantegna?  And intriguingly, the lowest arrow — the only one with red feathers — intersects the candle to form a cross.  Perhaps Mantegna was indicating his identification with Christ.



Automne à Mantoue


With the third Saint Sebastian, Mantegna had reached the autumn of his life.  (As Part 5 of this entry commenced with a wordplay in French, the above tidy, anagrammatic expression — “autumn in Mantua” — seems apt.)  During the last decade of Mantegna’s life, he put his greatest energy into a commission to paint a series of large canvases for Isabella d'Este.

Isabella was one of the first female collectors of the Renaissance period, both of the art of her contemporaries and antiques.  In fact, her collection of Greek and Roman antiques in important ways adumbrated scientific archaeology.  Mantegna himself had been a collector of antiquities for most of his life, and the Gonzagas had long esteemed his antiquarian knowledge.

When Isabella had come to the court of Mantua in 1490, she soon devoted two rooms at the Castello di San Giorgio of the Palazzo Ducale for her collection — the studiolo (a small room used as a study) and, directly beneath, the grotta (a term used for a cavern-like retreat).  The grotta, despite its rudimentary name, was actually a small room with intarsia cabinetry in which to store Isabella’s antiquities collection; it was also where concerts and other events were held.

Isabella turned her studiolo into a personal museum filled with fine paintings and Roman and Greek artifacts.  Initially she commissioned the painter Gianluca Leombeni to decorate the walls with a frieze.  Then, in 1496, she enlisted the court poet Paride da Ceresara to develop a theme of classical allegories about female virtue and began to commission five large, allegorical paintings for the room.  She corresponded with Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Raphael, but was unsuccessful in gaining the interest of any of these painters to assist Mantegna.

Mantegna painted the first two of these allegorical paintings, Parnassus (1497; in which Isabella is Venus and Francesco II is Mars) and Triumph of the Virtues (or Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue,1502; with inscriptions in different alphabets, and a tree and clouds in human form).  For these paintings, he again relied on his intimate knowledge of ancient archaeology.  A third painting — The Reign of Comus (c. 1507-1511) — was left unfinished by Mantegna and completed by his successor at the Gonzaga court, Lorenzo Costa.  Costa also painted a fourth, Isabella d'Este in the Realm of Harmony (or Allegory of Isabella d'Este's Coronation, 1506).

Perugino painted a fifth, Combat of Love and Chastity (1503), and later, Correggio added two more:  Allegory of Vice (c. 1525-1530) and Allegory of Virtue (c. 1532–1534).  Isabella acknowledged that she was not as pleased with the paintings of Perugino and Costa as those of Mantegna.  Centuries later, all of these paintings were given to Cardinal Richelieu and eventually ended up at the Louvre.

When Mantegna died on 13 September 1506, found in his home along with copies of Cicero's De officiis, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid's Ars Amatoria, and Saint Jerome's translation of the Psalms, and several copper engraving plates, was his third version of Saint Sebastian (now at the Ca' d'Oro in Venice) and his Cristo Morto (see Part 1).  This last painting, after being placed at the head of his coffin at his funeral, was sold to pay his debts.

Mantegna’s sons arranged for a chapel to house his tomb in the Basilica di Sant'Andrea in Mantua.  This church was designed by Mantegna’s friend Leon Battista Alberti and the dome of the funerary chapel was decorated by Correggio.  Fifty years later, Mantegna’s grandson Andrea set up a bronze bust outside the chapel.

Mantegna’s genius was recognized by his contemporaries and appreciation for his work has grown ever since.  Vasari noted that, “He was rightly praised by Ariosto (as much for his courteous manners as for the excellence of his paintings) at the beginning of Canto XXXIII where the poet places him among the greatest painters of his time:  Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino [Giovanni Bellini].”

The poet Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) claimed that Mantegna was “the shrewdest and most ingenious of all artists.”

Giovanni Santi (1433–1494), father of Raphael and court painter to Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, marveled at the skill of Andrea Mantegna, saying,No man ever took or used the brush or other pencil, who was a clear successor of ancient times, as he is, with such truth.”

The impact of Mantegna’s artistic brilliance was extensive.  He influenced artists from his brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini (c.1430–1516) to Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who observed his style during his two trips in Italy, to Correggio (1489–1534) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), as well as a number of other painters including Jacopo da Montagnana (1440/1443–1499), Francesco Raibolini (c. 1450–1517), Francesco Benaglio (c.1432 - 1492), Liberale da Verona (1441–1526), Francesco Morone (1471–1529), Girolamo dai Libri (1474–1555), Marco Zoppo (1433–1478), Cosimo Tura (c. 1433–1495), and Lorenzo Costa (1460–1535), Mantegna’s successor at the Gonzaga court.

Mantegna’s oeuvre exemplifies Renaissance ideals in many ways, but especially in two crucial aspects.  First, his figures manifest an almost sculptural painting style in a milieu that clearly shows the influences of classical art and architecture, as can be found notably in his frescoes in the Ovetari chapel in Padua, his Triumphs of Caesar series of paintings and the three Saint Sebastian paintings.  Second, his painting displays a bold and inventive use of linear perspective and foreshortening in creating the illusion of depth.  This is exhibited exceptionally in the Camera degli Sposi frescoes and in his Cristo Morto painting.  When encountering Mantegna’s gift, as Giovanni Santi put it when describing the reaction of the Duke of Urbino upon seeing his paintings at the Gozaga court around1482, one is rendered stupefatto — speechless.



Andrea Mantegna: Presentation at the Temple — detail with presumed self portrait, c. 1460, Tempera on wood, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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