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Two Exemplary Women of Antiquity


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.