One of the great patrons and collectors of the Italian Renaissance was Isabella d’Este (1474-1539). She came from the royal bloodline of the kingdom of Naples, was the wife of the Duke of Mantova, Francesco II Gonzaga, and, in her own right, a highly educated woman and adored figure of the courts in the Italian peninsula. She commissioned works from many artists of the period to decorate her homes and places of worship. This decorative scheme extended to her personal study or studiolo in the Castello di San Giorgio, Mantua (Campbell, 2004). This was decorated with works thought to inspire her and surround her with elements of the humanist education she had received in her youth and which she continued to expand throughout her life. Amongst these works was Mantegna’s masterpiece, Parnassus.
Painted by the celebrated Italian Renaissance master in 1496-1497, Parnassus depicts the Muses in the lower register dancing to the music coming from Apollo’s lyre on the left. This was, after all, their home (Ovid Metamorphoses 13.740-997). On the right side of the scene is a serene Hermes with the immortal horse Pegasus standing larger than the other figures, thus standing almost like a guard between the viewer and the scene itself. He does not look at us but concentrates his gaze on the horse. To the far left, an enraged Vulcan in a rocky cave is portrayed in a violent outburst of anger as he appears separated and unable to stop the union between his wife Venus and her lover Mars. These two Olympian gods stand side by side atop a rocky, naturally occurring, triumphal arch. The god of war and the goddess of love are located in the beauty of nature. There are several references to fertility, the most notable being the abundant greenery that surrounds them, which is at odds with the barren stretch of land that separates the scene from the viewer.
This painting has been interpreted as an image celebrating the marriage and patronage of Isabella and her husband Francesco. However, this reading of the work holds several problems as the inclusion of the figure of Vulcan counters this argument. If it was conceived as an allegory of matrimony, it would be accusing Isabella of adultery or polygamy as Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge, was Venus’s husband, and who was slighted by Venus and Mars whose union is depicted here (Gombrich, 1978; Campbell, 2004; Dixon, 2006). Vulcan’s body is twisted and bent with rage and pain looking on at the harmonious and beautiful scene unfurling before him.
Another reading of this image suggests that Isabella is in fact strongly connected to the figures of Apollo and the Muses, as Isabella’s literary correspondents often referred to her as such (Campbell, 2004). Whether this was from her ability to patronise or inspire the arts, the great writer Baldassare Castiglione, author of ‘The Courtier’, noted her as the Apollo of one of her most learned courtiers, Mario Equicola (ibid.). One of the most astonishing things about this notion of Isabella as an Apollo character is how this works with our understanding of women and their place in society during this period. Women were the property of men - belonging to either their father, husband, brother or son - as their dowry was a price tag denoting their value and social status. However, by some of the most intellectual and powerful men schooled in humanist teachings, Isabella was elevated to the position of a major male Olympian. Whether this was in her mind when she commissioned the work for her study or whether it was simply as a point of inspiration that beauty, harmony, and classical education should drive her endeavours, it is a point to consider when contemplating the figure of Isabella d’Este in the Renaissance courts and her choice of imagery. It should also be noted that she was not the only female patron or woman regarded highly by her male counterparts in this period (Ibid.). However, she was one of the few who had the commissioning power of men and who patronised many male artists, once again subverting some of the entrenched gender roles that characterised this period. Isabella was not quite unique in her artistic prowess but she was certainly a force easily comparable to her male counterparts.
Parnassus was part of a series commissioned by Isabella at the end of the fifteenth century, however, only two of this series were completed by Mantegna. Parnassus and its companion piece, Minerva or The Triumph of the Virtues, were soon considered to be out of date with Isabella looking to newer talents such as Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci and Francesco Francia for fresher styles, but was unsuccessful in so doing (Louvre, 2009). What is clear from these two symbolically rich artworks by Mantegna is the importance that Isabella placed on virtue and learning in place of vice and ignorance (ibid.). It may also show how she valued spiritual love over earthly love and that here we have a union of opposing personifications (love and war, beauty and brute force) that join to create a harmonious whole (ibid.).
Isabella d’Este was a woman of great vision, learning, and wit. She sought knowledge wherever possible and surrounded herself with the most notable and pre-eminent figures of her time. The Parnassus stands as a testament to this, despite her changing affection towards its style. The painting encompasses the things she held dear and which spurred her through life.
Campbell, S. (2004). The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este. Yale: Yale University Press.
Ovid (2004). Metamorphoses (Raeburn, D., Trans.). London: Penguin Classics.
Gombrich, E. (1968). Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Phaidon Press.
Dixon, S. M. (2006). Between the Real and the Ideal: The Accademia Degli Arcadi and Its Garden in Eighteenth-century Rome (1st ed.). Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Mantegna Exhibition - Musée du Louvre, Paris. (2009). Louvre Exhibition: Mantegna. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from http://mini-site.louvre.fr/mantegna/acc/xmlen/section_8_2.html
Titian. (1530–1539). Isabella d’Este [Oil on Canvas]. Palazzo Ducale Complesso Museale Mantova. https://mantovaducale.beniculturali.it/it/news/513-donne-e-gonzaga-isabella-d-este-tra-antico-e-moderno
Mantegna, A. (1496–1497). Parnassus [Tempera on Canvas]. Web Gallery of Art. https://www.wga.hu/support/viewer/z.html
Mantegna, A. (1499–1502). Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue [Tempera on Canvas]. Web Gallery of Art. https://www.wga.hu/support/viewer/z.html