This naked figure traditionally identified as Vulcan, the Greek god of fire, features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. Its attribution date is 1497. In mythology Vulcan was the husband of Venus and this depiction shows him raging against her because of her presumed infidelity with Mars.
Although naked, Mantegna has applied other guises to the figure, notably Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella d’Este (in the guise of Venus), and the Domincan preacher Girolamo Savonarola. The figure also references three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Antonio Pollaiuola.
It was Pollaiuolo who produced the engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men in which Leonardo is depicted fighting with himself in the centre. Mantegna has borrowed the naked man to portray Vulcan. The identity transition is a deliberate smoke-and-mirrors technique by Mantegna to reference Leonardo’s sfumato painting style and mirror writing. The Mantua court artist also makes and mirrors other pointers to Leonardo in a counterpoising manner.
For example: the naked man is a pointer to Leonardo’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Wilderness. Mategna has portrayed his figure with the left arm outstretched whereas the right arm is extended in Leonardo’s Jerome. It also grips a stone. Close inspection of Mantegna’s version reveals the left hand has some of its fingers bent to form the shape of a skull, and so another reference to Leonardo’s Jerome and his skull symbolising a ‘memento mori’. The ‘memento mori’ theme links to the identity of the fiery friar Girolamo Savonrola who set Florence alight with his end-time preaching and prophecies during a four-year period that ended in his own execution and burning in May 1498. His moral campaign encouraged the people to burn and destroy their secular art, books and other objects considered as “occasions of sin”. These public events became known as “bonfires of vanities” and Botticelli was an artist said to have taken heed and destroyed some of his work in this way.
The red cloak tied around the neck of the naked man also ties to other meanings. Not only does it represent a flame of fire stemming from a hot-head, it is also shaped to represent a dog. This is matched in three ways, first to the facial features as that of a werewolf and therefore connected to a hellhound. This then links to Botticelli and his Adoration painting that features the Twelve labours of Hercules, one being his descent into the underworld to combat the dog Cerberus that guards Hades. The third match is to the epithet applied to Savonrola’s Domican Order, Domini canes, meaning ‘dogs of the Lord’.
Mantegna also presents the red cloak as a wing, and the probable inspiration for this is a passage from one of Leonardo’s notebooks on the flight of birds: Leonardo writes: “The centrepiece of the shoulder of the bird is the part turned by pectoral and dorsal muscles. These muscles control whether the elbow is raised or lowered, according to the will and needs of the animal that is moving.” This note is accompanied by a wing illustration similar to the shape of the red cloak. A later note observes: “Always in the raising of the hand the elbow is lowered and presses the air down, whereas in the descent of the hand the elbow is raised and remains sideways on in order not to impede the movement in the air compressed within the wing.”
Leonardo’s observations about lowering and raising are adapted by Mantegna to refer back to Savonarola who was tortured before he was hanged and his body set alight. The method of torture used on the preacher was the strappado. The victim’s arms and legs are tied behind his back. He is suspended by a rope tied to his wrists and then dropped at intervals from a great height. The outcome usually results in a dislocated shoulder and permanent damage. Mantegna alludes to the drop process by showing water cascading from three levels of the high ground behind the naked man. Notice how the right arm hangs as if his shoulder is dislocated. Is Mantegna also alluding to the damaged right shoulder Leonardo is said have suffered with? And was this also caused by a fall, perhaps from a great height? How similar is the shape of the crouched, bird-like figure of Jerome in Leonardo’s painting, to the bound figure suspended in the Jacques Callot drawing of the strappado. It is said that Leonardo bought caged birds in the marketplace just to set them free.
The strands of wire gripped in Vulcan’s right hand refer to the fine net he made to throw over Mars and Venus (similar to how birds on the ground are captured). The wires also represent the strands of a spider’s web stemming from the lopped tree root. Alongside are bunches of grapes. The combination represents the fable of the spider and the grapes that Leonardo recorded in one of his notebooks.
Another feature that connects Leonardo to this section of Mantegna’s painting is Vulcan’s furnace. Its flames represent a “bonfire of vanities” and its red and blue flames are possibly the predominant colours favoured by Botticelli in the paintings he assigned to the fire. Vulcan’s left foot points to a recess in the furnace where ashes can be removed. A close inspection reveals a ‘charcoal’ representation of Leonardo. It connects to the head of one of the dancers. She is Isabella d’Este who Leonardo drew a portrait of – in charcoal – when he once visited Mantua.
The charcoal reference to Leonardo disguised in the stone furnace has two other links: First to his representation as the head of the sphinx in Botticelli’s Uffiz Adoration and its associated reference to preparing ink for writing; and the second to an early painting – The Baptism of Christ – attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in painting one of the angels.
Between the figures of Christ and the Baptist is a rock outcrop with a recess at water level. It depicts the helmeted head of herod, the king who later ordered the beading of John the Baptist. Herod also ordered the killing of all Jewish boys under the age of two, hoping that among them would be Jesus the new-born king.
This prompted the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and so provides a link to another painting by Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks. According to legend, the Holy Family was met on the road by an angel escorting John to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Herod’s bloodbath became known as the Massacre of the Innocents, indicated in the painting above by the blood-red water at ‘Herod’s Gate’. The slaughter of innocents, or even innocence, is represented in other parts of Mantegna’s Parnaussus painting.
There are two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, both attributed to Leonardo, and in both paintings the infant John is shown with the Virgin’s right hand placed on the child’s right shoulder. Another pointer, perhaps, to Leonardo’s shoulder injury?