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Is this the first known sculpture by Mantegna?
An Italian scholar has spent three decades looking for documentary evidence to link the statue with the Renaissance artist. Now she says she has found it

Irsina, Matera. An Italian scholar says she has found a sculpture by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. Clara Gelao, director of the Pinacoteca Provinciale in Bari, claims that a painted stone statue of Saint Eufemia in Irsina cathedral can be attributed to the artist, “I am convinced that the work is a rare sculpture made by the great Paduan artist when he was young. My main evidence is that the style of the statue is very similar to that of Mantegna’s paintings”. If she is correct, the work would be the only known sculpture by the artist. Both David Landau, curator of the 1992 Mantegna exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London, and Anthony Radcliffe, former keeper of sculpture at the V&A, said that the attribution should be taken seriously.

The sculpture stands to the right of the altar in a niche in Irsina cathedral and has never been restored. The 1.72 metre-tall stone carving shows the virgin’s right hand in the mouth of a golden lion. An incision across her chest shows what could be a knife wound. This is possibly a visual reference to her martyrdom. Dr Gelao saw the statue for the first time in the 1970s. The facial expression and drapery of the statue immediately reminded her of the paintings of Mantegna. For the last three decades, she has pursued documentary evidence to substantiate an attribution.

She now says she has found it in the form of a short Latin poem, “The life of Saint Eufemia”, which she discovered in the Vatican library. This was written in 1592 by Pasquale Verrone, the Archdeacon of Montepeloso (the former name for the region of Irsina). The poem lists a series of gifts donated to Montepeloso cathedral by a certain Roberto De Mabilia in 1454.

Dr Gelao then discovered in Paduan archives that De Mabilia was the parish priest of the San Daniele church in Padova in the 15th century. He was born in Montepeloso which was made an episcopal see in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V. The region’s Santa Maria church was subsequently transformed into a cathedral which sought to adopt a new patron saint. De Mabilia maintained close ties with the area and often sent reliquaries from his Paduan church back to his home town. One such item included a relic which was thought to be a bone from the right arm of Saint Eufemia. This gift prompted the new cathedral to adopt her as their patron saint. De Mabilia also commissioned a series of works by Paduan artists in 1454 which he sent as gifts to Montepeloso.

The Latin poem lists these works including a painting which, according to Archdeacon Verrone, “has been painted by the excellent hand of Andrea to whom has been given the honorary name of Mantegna” and two statues that “exceed the genius of Phidias”. The first is of a painted Virgin and Child. The second is the statue of Eufemia. The painting, also of Saint Eufemia, is signed by Mantegna and dates from 1454. It is on display at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.

Dr Gelao’s argument is strengthened by documentary references to Mantegna’s work as a sculptor. Other circumstantial evidence includes the three mounds in Eufemia’s left hand which support the moulding of a castle, the symbol of Montepeloso. Furthermore, the statue is made of stone from the Berici mountains near Padova.

Dr Gelao’s account of her research is to be published this autumn, Andrea Mantegna and De Mabilia’s donation to Montepeloso cathedral (La Bautta Editions). Her findings are backed by Michele d’Elia, director of the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome, one of Italy’s top restoration laboratories. Renaissance experts are excited by Dr Gelao’s findings and stress that, based solely on photographic evidence, there are grounds to believe the attribution is justified.

David Landau says that this is a “very possible attribution. The face and other features are characteristic of the artist’s work”. Mr Landau pointed out that there are written sources that identify Mantegna as a sculptor. Anthony Radcliffe says that the object is “worth taking seriously because of the way it looks”. Mr Radcliffe made the case for another attribution of a sculpture to Mantegna in the collection of the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna. The institution purchased the early 16th-century gilt bronze statuette in question in Germany in 2001.

Another claim was made for a wooden, “Pietà with angels”. This appeared in the exhibition, “Masterpieces of Renaissance Art” at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York in 2001. Andrew Butter-field, senior vice president of the gallery said that the Pietà “attribution received very strong support from the academic community”. The work is now in a private collection.