1. Andrea Mantegna's painting known by the name Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (fig. 1) could not have been created without knowledge of three frescoes in the lower church of Assisi (figs 2–4).
My arguments are not based on verbal but on visual sources. The former possibility is precluded by the lack of any written information on Mantegna's presence in Assisi. What is certain is that the Mantuan court painter was working in the chapel of pope Innocent VIII's Belvedere villa between June 1488 and the summer of 1490. It is hard to imagine that he did not visit Assisi's San Francesco basilica during this time, one of Christianity's main shrines of pilgrimage endowed with the promise of papal absolution. (Isabella d'Este is known to have been there in 1494.)
Pallas – the second painting after Parnassus for the studiolo of Isabella d'Este in Mantua – was painted sometime between 1497 and 1502. The venue is the Garden of Virtues into which the Vices have intruded and they have imprisoned somebody behind a solid stone wall on the right. The person is invisible, her lament is written on a banderole fluttering parallel with the picture plane: “Gods, help me, the mother of the virtues!” On the left a female figure turned into a tree reminding one of Daphne is also calling for help. In the middle Diana and the personification of Chastity are running, followed by Pallas Athena rushing into the garden. As the intruders catch sight of them, they take to flight: a satyr mother with many children at the back, Idleness and Sloth in front are running away. Only one of them wouldn't let herself be bothered by the appearance of the determined gods: sensual earthly Venus is standing flirtatiously on the back of a centaur. However, she can't feel safe for long, as the inscription of the picture says: “when laziness is done away with, Amor's arrow also misses it target.” The modern-time title of the painting is inaccurate: we are witnessing the moments before the freeing of the mater virtutum.
In the Assisi lower church the four cells of the vault above the high altar are decorated with four frescoes: the western cell with the apotheosis of Saint Francis, the other three with monumental allegories of a Franciscan virtue each: Poverty (fig. 2), Chastity (fig. 3) and Obedience (fig. 4). The composition of the latter three is similar: the central axis is indicated by the personification of the monastic vow, with images of the exercise of the given virtue on the iconographic right and the invalidation of the respective vice on the left. The dating of the frescoes wavers between 1315 and 1330; though it is still disputed if they are by Giotto's hand, his invention is beyond doubt. Mantegna must have seen the three virtue allegories.
2. In the foreground of Pallas the oddity of one of the figures fleeing from the realm of Chastity is second to none. It is the third figure from left, the personification of several vices at the same time (fig. 5). It has a monkey head, a human body with a female right breast and male left breast. Its naked body is tied round with a rope to which bags and ribbons are fixed. Its skin complexion is dark. Upon the appearance of Pallas Athena, it flees with head turned back, right hand raised. Its right leg stepping forward wades into the mud shin-deep, the other leg sinks to the thigh.
In Assisi, Cupido (AMOR) is fleeing from the realm of Chastity in a similar manner and with similar attributes. To the strap thrown over his naked body the hearts it has stolen are fastened instead of bags and ribbons. He also turns his head back and holds a flower in his left hand the way Mantegna's figure holds the scroll. His leg taking a large step towards the abyss changes into griffon's claws where the other figure's leg sinks into mud. The right hand of the hermaphrodite lifted defensively owes to Passion (ARDOR) in flight behind Cupido. In Assisi a dark-complexioned human body with an animal head belongs to an Assisi vice, Impurity (IMMUNDITIA) already fallen into the abyss. Even irregular hermaphroditism has its inspiring source, if not prototype, in Assisi: The upper body of Saint Francis personifying Obedience is asymmetrical and the ropes fastening the yoke round his neck also remind one of the figure at issue (fig. 7).
To continue the motivic analogies: the right hand, head posture, and dread of the Cupido figure in Assisi live on in Mantegna's Sloth (INERTIA, second from left). The Assisi personification of Ardour returns in the satyr mother with many children in the Mantuan studiolo: both have an animal lower body, turn their heads back and flee with flowing hair. Athena storming in with a lance is a more temperamental variant of an angel in the Chastity allegory who is pushing the vices into the depth with a lance. (The energetic gesture of the goddess is reminiscent of the little boy's throwing a stone at Poverty.) One of the iconic predecessors of the figure turned into a tree and reminding one of Daphne is the personification of Poverty (figs 8, 9): the thin and tired bride stands bare-foot in a thorny bush which turns into a leafy and blossoming tree behind her. At the left of the Chastity allegory three ecstatic believers are progressing toward St Francis with raised arms; their memory recurs in the middle of Mantegna's composition in the figures of Diana and Chastity.
Finally, in both compositions a passionately backward looking centaur has a prominent role: in Assisi it is the only antagonist of Obedience as the personification of Arrogance, while in Mantua Venus impudica symbolizing Luxuria is standing coquettishly on its back. Besides, the centaur is the hallmark of artistic freedom in both cases.
3. The last sentence leads over to another type of analogies that are to be considered among the causes, not the effects of the borrowing. The genre of the allegory and within that a special subtype – allegorical fiction in narrative form – is similar in both cases. Personae of different quality belonging to different segments of time, and metaphors transformed into spectacular images are lively, convincing actors of equal rank in seemingly real dramatic situations. The presence and character of explanatory inscriptions also belong to the peculiarities of the genre: they name the personifications but provide no clues as to the real meaning of the whole picture.
As regards the theme, in both places Virtues triumph over Vices. For the iconography of Pallas the Assisi allegory of Chastity is particularly relevant. In both pictures carnal love is the arch enemy: in Assisi it is represented by Cupido, in Mantua an inscription alludes to it. From this (too) it follows that the heroines overcoming the arrows of Amor must be closely similar.
In Mantegna's painting the hidden heroine is not Pallas but the imprisoned lady of the garden. (In my opinion the mater virtutum is none other than the heavenly Venus as Caritas.) Her antagonist is the earthly Venus standing on a centaur, and the “arrow of Amor” cited by the inscription. Her mock image is the satyr mother with the many children. To her does the personification of Chastity bring an extinguished torch. The reason why it is so urgent to liberate her is that Isabella should be free from the disturbing vices, particularly from the arrows of Amor, and the marchesa could spend her free time meaningfully, devoted to the arts.)
Among the predecessors of this peculiar solution – the invisibility of the protagonist – is also the Chastity allegory in Assisi (fig. 3). “S CASTITAS” is hardly visible in her castle massively defended by warriors (her figure is reminiscent of Danae); the two angels on either side appear to rush to her aid. (Vasari opined that she was being attacked from two sides, which rather supports than weakens our argument.) Her major adversary is the robber of hearts Cupido. The rivalry between Chastity withdrawn to the tower and carnal love is repeated – mutatis mutandis – in Pallas in the opposition of the still imprisoned mother of virtues and still self-confident Venus/Luxuria.
4. It would be a gross mistake to accuse Mantegna of a lack of invention on the basis of the exposed connections: he is one of the most imaginative painters of the renaissance. His imagination had to feed on something, too. Cennino Cennini, who was the first to use fantasia in the renaissance sense suggested to the painters that they should penetrate “into the darkness of nature” to be able to find out non-existent things. Mantegna's zoo- and anthropomorphic clouds and rocks were inspired by real cloud and rock formations and by ancient anecdotes, and when he painted Pallas, he recaptured his memories of Assisi.
Instead of lessening his merit, his borrowings further enhance it. First, it is possible that exactly upon the influence of Assisi he recommended his lady that the second painting for the study should elaborate on the theme of Virtue triumphing over the Vices and the “arrow of Amor”. Second, it proves his greatness that he drew on the set of art works that was the only true prototype for his allegory as regards theme, meaning and genre.
It can be added that both works were epochal in their respective ages and media, for similar reasons. Both painters ventured onto unbeaten paths, painting so-far never depicted themes with similar tools. One visualized an intricate Franciscan ideological system, the other a humanist system of ideas in the special language of allegorical fiction. The intention of the client who ordered the pictures was the same: to encourage the viewers to lead moral, meaningful lives. The images of the Virtues and Vices are shocking, effective, unusual, convincing in both pictures; they stick to our memory as imagines agentes for long. Both Giotto and Mantegna developed and applied a new and autonomous visual language that can argue on its own terms.
As for Mantegna, it can be concluded that the sources of the painter taking the course of the maniera moderna, who looked upon himself proudly as a new Zeuxis or Apelles, should be sought, apart from ancient literature and Roman art, also in the Middle Ages, in the allegories of the trecento.