Artibus et Historiae no. 61 (XXXI)2010, ISSN 0391-9064
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MARZIA FAIETTI - The «Gorgóneion» from Mantua
The present author explores the unusual iconography of a sheet in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi, in which she has recognized an autograph drawing by Andrea Mantegna in the so-called Head of a Man with a Wide-Open Mouth. It may be identified with the "Mask in Pen" by the great Paduan artist, mentioned in the manuscript of the Inventory of Drawings of the Florentine Collection, which was compiled at the end of the eighteenth century by Giuseppe Pelli Bencivenni. This drawing is executed in a synthetic manner. It displays the self-confident hand and vigorous technique of parallel-hatching evident in some pen-and-ink studies by Mantegna. He developed this style of graphic mark, and it remained consistent throughout his career, from his earliest years in Padua onward. Like almost all of his securely attributed sheets, the newly identified Uffizi drawing reveals little, or no cross-hatching.
The Uffizi Head of a Man exhibits facial features closely similar with the celebrated Self-Portrait, frescoed by Mantegna in the Camera picta, which peeks out from amidst the stylized ornamental designs and the acanthus leaves on a painted pilaster in the so-called wall of the Meeting. The newly identified Uffizi drawing also resembles the mask with hair in the form of acanthus leaves, seen at the centre of the basin in the Project of a Fountain, now in the British Museum. A second version of this British Museum sheet is also preserved in the drawings collection of Emilio Santarelli, now forming part of the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi. Both sheets, in turn, seem to stem from a common Mantegnesque prototype, which was either an autonomous lost work, or a work that recombined various figural elements deriving from the great master. The Uffizi drawing, with its exaggerated expression of the face, reveals that it is part of the Quattrocento tradition of reusing antique masks, and which was an especially prominent part of Mantegna's practice of antiquarianism, as has been emphasized by Fritz Saxl and Moshe Barasch.
It is possible that Mantegna sought to portray himself with a terrifying expression, as an allusion to the fierce Gorgon. For, this mythological figure embodied terror, but as she resided on the breast of Athena—Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom, she was also able to keep her ghosts far away and instil terror only in ignorant and unwise persons. A relevant example, the Medusa on the shield of Pallas in the reverse of a medal, executed by Bartolommeo Melioli, was based on a drawing that was probably by Mantegna, and the physiognomy in this work resembles that of the bronze portrait bust of the great artist in his funerary chapel at Sant'Andrea in Mantua. The attention lavished by Mantegna on the theme of the Medusa (from the ruined frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua to the Triumphs of Caesar, today at Hampton Court) reflects his close ties to the intellectual milieu of scholars of epigraphy, antiquarii, humanists, and copyist-scribes of ancient sources in Padua and Mantua. They revered the collecting of medals and antique coins, and in these objects the myth of Medusa figured with some prominence. The drawings by Cyriac of Ancona, which were made well known by Felice Feliciano, also provided an important means of dissemination of such motifs.
Mantegna probably produced the Uffizi sheet after he had finished the fresco-cycle in the Camera picta — 1474 being a likely post quem date. This drawing is undoubtedly earlier than the two lost works by Leonardo described in Giorgio Vasari's Vita of the artist, and which Leonardo would have executed before his departure for Milan in 1482—1483. The type of figure in the Uffizi drawing seems also comparable to Florentine works from the 1470s, especially those produced in the workshops of Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo. In these Florentine works, the figures are portrayed with mouth wide-open and hair dishevelled, and thus represent a typology that oscillates between the head of the Gorgon and those of the Furies.
The Self-portrait in the guise of Medusa at the Uffizi appears to embody some kind of artistic declaration by Mantegna. It demonstrates the strength of his will in imitating Sculpture rather than Nature, for it was precisely this artistic propensity in Mantegna's Ovetari frescoes which provoked the criticisms of Squarcione, according to Vasari. At once deeply suggestive and idealized, Mantegna's Self-portrait alludes to the apotropaic masks of antiquity and the myth of the Gorgon, and arrives at a kind of consecration of a "poetica di pietra" — a poetry in stone — magnificently evident from his early sculptural figures of the Ovetari frescoes to the monochrome paintings imitating marble or bronze of his late years.