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A Woman Drinking
Andrea Mantegna
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This woman is most likely Sophonisba, an ill-fated but brave Carthaginian princess; she drains a glass of poison. In 206 BC Massinia allied with the Roman general Scipio to defeat the western Numidians, ruled by Sophonisba’s first husband, Syphax. Massinia fell in love with Sophonisba, but could not dissuade Scipio from his plan to parade her in Rome as a victory trophy. To spare her this humiliation, Massinia sent her poison.

Sophonisba appears as if lit by a strong light coming from the left. Areas hit by this imaginary light – the tips of the folds of the drapery, for example – are bright, while the creases are much darker. The sharp contrasts help create the illusion that the figure is sculpted. Mantegna is showing off: with paint alone he could create a figure that looks as hard and solid as a bronze relief. It may have been made to decorate the studiolo (study) of Mantegna’s patron Isabella d'Este.

Key facts
Artist Andrea Mantegna
Artist dates about 1431 - 1506
Full title A Woman Drinking
Series Two Exemplary Women of Antiquity
Date made about 1495-1506
Medium and support Egg tempera on poplar
Dimensions 71.2 x 19.8 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1882
Inventory number NG1125.2
Location in Gallery Room 57
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Two Exemplary Women of Antiquity

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Viewed from a distance these two small pictures look like little bronze sculptures set against a pink and white marble background. They were known as bronzi finti – fictive bronzes. Mantegna painted several images mimicking antique sculpture, reflecting his interest in the art of antiquity but also showing off his ability to rival the work of sculptors using just paint.

The woman holding the sieve represents Tuccia, a renowned Vestal Virgin (a priestess who maintained the eternal fire at the temple of the chaste goddess Vesta in Rome). The woman with a goblet could be Sophonisba, a Carthaginian ruler who drank poison rather than be taken into slavery by the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Both were celebrated in the work of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch.

Archaeological discoveries of ancient artefacts sparked new appreciation of the classical world among the aristocracy. Mantegna’s inventive imitation of classical-style artefacts would have appealed to his sophisticated patrons – the ruling Gonzaga family – in Mantua.

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