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The Vestal Virgin Tuccia with a Sieve
Andrea Mantegna
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Taking careful steps, a woman comes towards us, holding what at first glance looks like a deep circular tray. She is the Vestal Virgin Tuccia and the object she carries is, in fact, a sieve.

Vestal Virgins maintained the fire in the temple of the chaste goddess Vesta in Rome. Their virginity was crucial, but Tuccia’s was challenged. In order to prove it, and knowing that she had divine assistance, she gathered water from the river Tiber in a sieve and carried it to the temple. She predicted – correctly – that none of it would be lost, and that this would prove her virginity.

Mantegna has painted her in imitation of bronze relief sculptures set against a marble background – he was showing that he could rival the work of sculptors by imitating their material so brilliantly. We know that his patron Isabella d‘Este had a ’feigned bronze' picture by Mantegna in her studiolo (study): it is possible that Tuccia was made for that location.

Key facts
Artist Andrea Mantegna
Artist dates about 1431 - 1506
Full title The Vestal Virgin Tuccia with a Sieve
Group Two Exemplary Women of Antiquity
Date made about 1495-1506
Medium and support Egg tempera on poplar
Dimensions 72.5 x 23 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1882
Inventory number NG1125.1
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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