This picture was part of a classical-style frieze made for Francesco Cornaro, a Venetian nobleman, in celebration of his ancestors, the ancient Roman Cornelia family. Mantegna painted the figures to look as though they are carved from stone, not painted, and set against colourful marble.
In 204 BC the Romans introduced the goddess Cybele to the city for worship. On the far left we see the goddess – she is represented by the spherical stone on the litter. According to the Roman writer Juvenal, she fell to earth as a meteor. Mantegna has included a sculpted bust of Cybele beside it. Cornaro’s ancestor Publius Scipio Cornelius Nasica was chosen – as the worthiest man in Rome – to officially receive the goddess.
Mantegna planned and prepared another four canvases, but completed only this one before his death in 1506. Cornaro commissioned Giovanni Bellini to make at least one more (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
By the time Mantegna made this picture – at the very end of career – he was well known for his skill in imitating sculpture in paint (a technique he himself had invented). Using just black and white paint applied with the tip of his brush, Mantegna made his figures seem as though they were carved from stone rather than painted.
Renaissance painters were constantly vying with sculptors to produce the most compelling and lifelike works of art. Mantegna has added white paint to the creases of the folded draperies of the figure’s robes, making them appear sharp, as though made of stone, not fabric. At the same time, the gestures and facial expressions are more dramatic and subtle than anything that could be captured in sculpture, Mantegna proving the superiority of his art.
The scene is set against a swirling orange and grey background painted in imitation of polished variegated marble. This type of picture reflected Mantegna’s own fascination with the art and culture of ancient Rome, and the fashion for this kind of object among his wealthy clients. This picture is part of a commission from Francesco Cornaro, a Venetian nobleman, for a frieze to decorate a room in his palace. We know from a letter dated 15 March 1505 that Francesco’s brother Marco asked the permission of Mantegna’s patron, Francesco Gonzaga, to commission the artist to make the series of works required. Each painting was based on classical sources, and together they would celebrate Cornaro’s ancestors, the ancient Roman Cornelia family.
In 204 BC the Romans introduced the goddess Cybele to the city for worship; this panel shows the procession that marked her arrival. On the far left we see the goddess – she is represented by the spherical stone on the litter carried by a group of men as, according to the Roman writer Juvenal, she fell to earth as a meteor. Mantegna also included a sculpted bust of the goddess on this litter; she wears a crown that resembles fortified city walls. According to the Roman writers who recorded this event, she was accompanied by priests from her cult centre in Asia Minor. Mantegna has expressed their exotic backgrounds by dressing them in turbans, and robes over trousers.
This occurred in the final years of the Second Punic War – the conflict between Rome and Carthage (present-day Tunisia). When a meteorite shower struck Rome, people feared it was a bad omen and consulted the Sibylline Books, an ancient book of prophecies, for advice. The books were interpreted as suggesting that the only way to expel the Carthaginians would be to bring Cybele to Rome and establish a centre for her worship there.
The episode was important for the Cornaro family as their ancestor Publius Scipio Cornelius Nasica was chosen – as the worthiest man in Rome – to officially receive the goddess. It’s even thought that he hosted her in his home for several days before she was finally installed at her new site of worship. This is underlined by the inscription beneath the image: S HOSPES NUMINIS IDAEI C (‘Host to the Idean deity’ – Cybele was worshipped on Mount Ida in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey). SC stands for Senatus Consulto, meaning ‘with permission of the Senate’. The litter that bears the goddess passes between two unusually shaped brick structures with Latin inscriptions: the tombs of Scipio’s father and uncle, another nod to the Cornelia family.
Mantegna wove together a number of literary sources to create the image. The woman shown wailing on her knees in front of the litter may be Claudia Quinta. According to Ovid’s account she miraculously rescued the boat which was carrying the goddess to Rome, which hit ground just outside the port of Ostia near Rome. Claudia Quinta was the only one who could pull it to shore (she argued that the miracle proved her chastity, which had recently been doubted). Once the goddess arrived at the gates of Rome, she was greeted by a group of Roman senators, including Scipio: he may be the figure standing behind who turns to talk to a companion while gesturing towards, but turning his face away from, Claudia.
The large entourage that has arrived to welcome the goddess includes musicians – the drummer at the far right looks out of the picture, perhaps into another scene; letters reveal that Mantegna planned and prepared another four canvases. However, he completed only this one before his death in 1506, after which Cornaro commissioned Giovanni Bellini to make at least one more (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). The bottom right portion of the painting was originally cut down at an angle, suggesting it might have been placed against a chimney breast.
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