The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until July 30) is Alluring Artifice: Mannerism in the Sixteenth Century. The show features 30 prints that explore Mannerism, a movement that emerged in European art around 1510-20 and lasted until about 1600. Characterized by densely packed compositions and a focus on the human form, the style resulted in images that are deliberately challenging in both design and technique. One of the prints featured in the show is Preparations for the Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche, an important recent acquisition by the Italian female engraver Diana Mantuana (ca. 1547–1612), who is sometimes referred to as Diana Scultori.
The story of Cupid and Psyche originates from the second century AD and was included in the novel Metamorphosis by the Roman author Apuleius (ca. AD 124–after AD 170). The story discusses the difficulties of the love between Cupid and Psyche.
The renowned beauty of the mortal Psyche angered the goddess Venus because Psyche’s astonishing looks have lured worshipers away from their devotion of her, the goddess of love and desire. Consequently, Venus sends her son, Cupid, to remove the mortal. When tending to the wishes of his mother, Cupid pricks his own skin with his arrow, and he falls in love with Psyche.
Now madly in love, Cupid tries to entice Psyche to come to his home. Upon entering, Psyche is taken with the beauty of the dwelling, the wine, and the disembodied voices that assist her every need. Psyche eats, bathes and then retires to rest at night when Cupid would come to her in the dark.
This routine continues for a while. Eventually, Psyche’s curiosity leads her to come up with a plot to see Cupid in the light. The moment arrives and Cupid flees, knowing Venus still despises the mortal, but not before an arrow pierces the skin of Psyche.
Now that Cupid and Psyche are mutually in love with each other, they still have to go through many trials before they are reunited. This part of the story is an adventure, and, as any good classical myth, includes dragons, tasks, death, and a trip to the underworld.
Ultimately, the story ends with the apotheosis (or the deification) of Psyche and her marriage to Cupid. In later centuries the myth was given Christian morals—paralleling the redemption of Psyche with that of the human soul—while the love story has been a popular topic in literature and other media.
Diana Mantuana’s engraving depicts the preparation for the wedding feast for Cupid and Psyche. Let’s see what gods and goddess we can identify (from left to right):
Vulcan, the god of fire, with his hammer tucked into his belt, talks to a woman who helps him tend to the ovens to cook the meal:
Apollo, the youthful god of music, sits while receiving tribute:
Bacchus, the god of wine, wears his crown of grape vines, holds a drinking cup, and is surrounded by tigers:
Mercury, the messenger god, with his cape, winged hat and shoes, and staff called a caduceus, strides into the scene from behind the grotto:
Venus and Mars, the god of war, bathe in a pool with the help of puti:
The moment in the story that is depicted within this image is very interesting, as the text of Apuleius’s Metamorphosis describes no period between the meeting of the gods to decide Psyche’s apotheosis and the wedding feast. Why, then, has Mantuana depicted this banquet?
It is because Mantuana based her composition on the work of another artist. She used as her inspiration a fresco by fellow Mantuan artist, Giulio Romano (Italian, before 1499–1546). His fresco decorates a full room at Palazzo Del Te.
In her engraving, Mantuana adapts this image that wraps around over two walls of a room, which requires some editing.
One obvious omission by Mantuana is the scene of newlywed Psyche and Cupid in their marriage bed (in the image above on the right hand side).
Eliminating this passage may have been because another artist, Giorgio Ghisi (Italian, 1520–1582), had already made a famous print of that part of the fresco (right). But is also probably because, as a female artist, Mantuana wanted to avoid controversy that showing an explicit scene could have caused—it could have ended her career.
As a women working as an artist in the sixteenth century, Diana Mantuana holds an unusual place in history. What makes her unique is that, at the age of nineteen, she was immortalized in biographer Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.
Lives of the Artists is a text that is required reading in many art historyl classes even now in the twenty-first century. According to Vasari, Mantuana’s natural talent was inherited from her father, Giovanni Battista Mantovano, who was himself an artist profiled by Vasari.
Even beyond Vasari’s recognition, Mantuana may have another claim to fame. It has been suggested that she is the first woman to use her own name to sign her work.
And, to promote herself even further, she received a Papal Privilege from Pope Gregory XIII. This Privilege did two things: it allowed Mantuana to market her art and identified her work as acceptable by the Catholic Church. In Preparations for the Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche, the Papal Privilege is noted within the engraving on the lower edge toward the center of the image.
It may seem surprising to us that such high praise would be put upon an artist that made engravings. The reproductive nature of the medium seems to be less original and creative than other types of artwork.
But it is important to understand Mantuana’s art within the historic context. Engraving during the Renaissance was the highest form of printmaking, as it was extremely precise when compared to other techniques such as wood carving. The skill required to create such images was great and difficult to achieve.
Also, society’s understanding of a copied image at that time differed greatly from our current conception. Instead of being an exact reproduction of a painting—like a poster—an engraving of this type is an image that demonstrates the artist’s and consumer’s education and cultural awareness. Because it reproduces an image derived from the ancient past and interpreted by an Italian master, an engraving such as Mantuana’s was highly esteemed. In Preparations for the Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche, Mantuana is demonstrating her knowledge and talent in a number of fields.
Diana Mantuana was certainly a historical landmark within the art world, and Preparations for the Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche is her masterpiece.
-Evan McAllister, Curatorial Intern