So who did produce the Mantuan Roundel, the Renaissance artefact which the UK has placed a temporary export ban on?
Stuart Lochead, a member of the RCEWA which recommended the ban, has posited the names of two Italian artists: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Donatello (1386-1466).
My money is on Mantegna as the bronze roundel can be linked specifically to two paintings mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and the death of Donatello is prior to the paintings.
In 1488 Mantegna, the court painter at Mantua at the time, was invited by Pope Innocent VIII to paint frescoes at the Villa Belvedere in Rome which overlooked the old St Peter’s Basilica. He returned to Mantua two years later in 1490.
During his stay in Rome he would have had ample time to take in and study the work of other artists displayed in the Vatican, particularly the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The North and South walls of the ‘Great Chapel’ were decorated with scenes from the lives of Moses and Jesus, painted by a team of Renaissance artists that included Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Completion was in 1482.
One scene in particular, the Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli, provides the link to the Mantuan roundel. The central section shows a naked man seated on a tree trunk. He represents Leonardo da Vinci, and is the basis for the seated figure of Mars in the Mantuan roundel.
Mantegna extended the roundel connection to a later work he produced for Isabella d’Este, the painting known as Parnassus in which the Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan are included along with other mythological figures. Leonardo, an acomplished musician ‘particularly good at playing the lyre’ is also represented in the painting as one of the identities given to the figure of Orpheus sat on a tree stump. This motif is a direct reference to the Leonardo figure in the Sistine Chapel fresco and perhaps Mantegna making a caustic comment by punning on the word lyre.
However, the heads of the three main figures in the roundel are not direct representations of Lenardo, but rather his assistant Salaì, seemingly adapted from drawings that appear in Leonardo’s notebooks. Leonardo also made mention in his notebooks that Salaì was a liar and a thief, and it is probably in this connection why Mantegna utilised the likenesses of Salaì for the roundel and in the Parnassus painting.
Leonardo’s drawing shown here of the Heads of an Old Man and Youth can be likened to the head of Leonardo and the bald-headed man looking down on him as seen in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Even the ‘wing’ collar of the old man is mirrored on the fresco. The wing motif also shows up at the head of the caduceus tucked behind the head of Mars in the roundel. The snake-entwined wing of the caduceus is also echoed in the figure of Orpheus – the lyre resting on the shoulder being the wing, while the musician’s left foot and big toe is shaped to represent the serpent’s head about to bite the ankle of Eurydice and send her to Hades.
This brief presentation is simply to point to a connection between Mantegna and the Mantuan Roundel. There are more references in the work which lend to links with Leonardo and Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.