Andrea Mantegna, Pallas and the Vices (Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue), 1502, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris
Andrea Mantegna’s Pallas and the Vices is a complicated painting that makes use of a rather arcane allegory to convey a very simple principle: virtue will outdo vice. Although the painting seems incomprehensible on first glance (at least it often looks that way to me and to my students), Mantegna includes words and full phrases to help the viewer “read” the scene and discern its meaning. Let’s start with the 5 W’s.
Who: Andrea Mantegna, a master painter of perspective and court artist to the Gonzaga in Mantua
What: A painting of virtue overthrowing vice
Where: Originally displayed in the studiolo, a sort of private office-display room, of Isabella d’Este in Mantua, Italy
Why: Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua, required a series of paintings for her studiolo, most of which dealt with the theme of virtue conquering vice and of the triumph of the arts at the court of Mantua
Now that the basic information is covered, we can delve into the nitty-gritty of the scene and try to make some sense out of what is happening.
The heroine in the painting is Pallas, a.k.a. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom (a.k.a. Athena, the Greek name for the same figure). She charges forward with a broken spear with two tasks in mind: 1.) Expel the creatures who represent the many vices from the Garden of Virtue, and 2.) To rescue the “Mother of the Virtues” from her stone prison (to the far right of the painting, a detail of which can be seen below). The latter of these tasks is by far the most important.
Behind the above stone wall waits the Mother of the Virtues. The fluttering banner proclaims the following in Latin:
ET MIHI MATER VIRTUTUM SUCCURRITE DIVI
Gods, save me too, the Mother of the Virtues
Thus Pallas, the goddess of wisdom, and the Mother of the Virtues flank the two sides of the painting. Pretty clear so far?
Behind Pallas is an olive tree with human features, possibly a reference to the mythical Daphne, the nymph who turns into such a tree after being chased and embraced by Apollo (god of the sun, among seemingly infinite other things). Wrapped around the human-tree is another banner that proclaims the same message in Latin and pseudo forms of Hebrew and Greek. The text is as follows:
AGITE, PELLITE SEDIBUS NOSTRIS / FOEDA HAEC VICIORUM MONSTRA / VIRTUTUM COELITUS AD NOS REDEUNTIUM / DIVAE COMITES
Come, divine companions of the Virtues who are returning to us from Heaven, expel these foul monsters of Vices from our seats.
The “divine companions of the Virtues who are returning to us from Heaven” are indeed pictured in Mantegna’s painting as the three women descending from Heaven on a cloud.
These ladies are three of the four Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude (in red, holding a club, column, and the lion of Hercules), Justice (in blue, brandishing a sword and a balance scale), and Temperance (in green, pouring liquid between two pitchers to symbolize restraint). The fourth virtue is Prudence and it has been argued that Pallas herself represents this virtue in the painting. Based on what we’ve covered so far it appears that the Mother of the Virtues is calling out to her daughters - Pallas, Fortitude, Justice, and Temperance - to rescue her from her prison and to rid her garden of all vices.
Inscribed on the landing above the water, beneath Pallas’ right foot, is another phrase that helps us unlock further details in the painting. It declares:
OTIUM SI TOLLAS PERIERE CUPDINIS ARCUS
Eliminate idle leisure and Cupid’s bow is broken
Cupid’s arrows inflict instant infatuation, lust, and sensations of love on anyone whom they touch, even with the slightest prick of a finger. Thus, to a certain degree, Mantegna communicates the idea that idle leisure leads to the damaging consequences of love’s spell. For this reason, several cupids with butterfly wings scatter as Pallas emerges from the garden’s pergola arch. To emphasize the notion that Cupid’s arrows can lead to lasciviousness, Mantegna juxtaposes a satyr family beneath the mischievous Cupids. Satyrs, after all, represent lust and all forms of illicit sexual behaviors.
In the water next to the inscription is the personification of idleness, the woman hunched over without any arms, identified with the word OTIUM. Leading idleness is another creepy woman representing inertia (and thus identified - INERTIA).
One of the strangest creatures in the painting is the hermaphrodite monkey at the lower center in the water. Identified by a tiny ribbon across its abdomen as SUSPICIO, or jealousy, this rare figure carries several sacks that contain seeds of all things bad, worse, and the worst (SEMINA MALA, PEIORA, PESSIMA). In its hand is yet another banner that proclaims:
IMORTALE ODIVM / FRAVS ET MALITIAE
Eternal hatred, fraud, and malice
What I’ve gleaned from this creature is that you don’t want to cross its path or all things bad will come to you.
The two final groups in the water are pretty straight-forward. Next to the hermaphrodite monkey is a centaur - often a symbol of bestial lust or brutality - on whom stands a rather seductive woman, whose golden bow might make her Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love. In front of them is a monstrous faun/satyr who carries off an infant, or as one scholar argues, an un-winged Cupid.
But my favorite group of all is the drunk hot mess in the corner. Each are named with inscriptions on bandannas or a crown. From left to right they are ingratitude (INGRATITVDO), ignorance (IGNIORANCIA), and avarice/greed (AVARICIA). Phew! That’s a lot of characters in one painting! Have you been able to follow along?
There are two final details worth noting. The first is the group of owl-faced cupids, who represent genii or supernatural guardian figures. In the context of the painting, an owl generally accompanies Pallas and is a symbol of wisdom, but combined with a cupid’s wings and body they likely represent a vice.
And the most charming and oft-unnoticed detail are the faces in the clouds who try to blow the virtues away. Thus the entire painting comes full circle to show the struggle between virtue and vice. I hope you’ve enjoyed this lengthy explanation and that you fare well on your own quest to balance virtue and vice in your life!
Two books have proven extremely useful for the writing of this entry:
Stephen Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), 145-168.
Giovanni Agosti and Dominique Thiébaut (eds.), Mantegna 1431-1506 (Paris: Musée du Louvre Editions), 345-347.