Madonna della Vittoria

The church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Via Fernelli in Mantua is a small Renaissance construction, with some Gothic elements. Its history is complex and almost novelistic.

By Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Madonna della Vittoria (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

It housed a masterpiece by Andrea Mantegna. It also displays a series of traces of popular faith, and the desire of a prince to publicly thank the Virgin Mary. In it we can see some important pictorial decorations, which speak of the relationship between the court of Mantua and the local Jewish community. In fact, the Jewish banker Daniele Norsa was forced to knock down his house in order to make space for the church. This event was a consequence of the fact that the banker was very much hated by the population. According to people, in fact, he had taken down a sacred image from the exterior wall of the house in an act of disrespect of Catholic religion. The banker had actually not intended to offend the Christian cult, and had obtained a regular authorization from the authorities. Despite this, the people of Mantua began to torment the Jewish population of the city, as is depicted in a painting in St. Andrew’s Cathedral. It was the hermit monk Gerolamo Redini who suggested to build this votive church in the spot where Norsa’s property stood. And so, Francesco Gonzaga’s homage to the Virgin Mary, for having saved his life during the Fornovo battle, became a concrete place, made of bricks, plaster, and colour.

Madonna della Vittoria (1496) by Andrea MantegnaMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

A painting at the Louvre

The masterpiece by Andrea Mantegna that we can admire here is unfortunately no longer visible to those visiting Virgil’s hometown today. The large tempera painting on wood, two metres high, 80 centimeters wide and 166 centimeters long, is now in the Louvre, in Paris. It was plundered by Napoleon’s troops during the Italian campaign and taken to the Louvre in 1798. It was never given back to its rightful owner, the Italian church, also because of difficulty in transportation. This work is in many ways spectacular. It was commissioned by the marquise Francesco Gonzaga and by his wife Isabella d’Este. It is basically an ex voto with which the ruler of Mantua wanted to thank God for having survived the Fornovo battle, fought July 6, 1495, by the French army and the armies of the Holy League, formed by the Pope, Ludovico Sforza of Milan and the city of Venice, the Italian army led by Francesco. Although the battle ended in a draw, it managed to temporarily halt the invasion of the Italian peninsula. The painting is characterized by the monumentality typical of the late Mantegna. It is composed by a piramidal construction at the apex of which is the Virgin Mary, surrounded by four saint warriors, Saint Andrew, Saint Michael, Saint Longinus and Saint George, by Francesco himself and by an elderly female figure who might be Elisabeth, or perhaps the Blessed Osanna Andreasi. The Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and Saint John are on a precious piedestal on which a scene depicting the temptation of Adam and Eve is visible. The setting is a beautiful pergola, decorated by flowers and fruit, from which a large red coral hangs, symbol of Passion. The pomposity of the scene somewhat diminishes its spontaneity, though the work undoubtedly confirms the painter’s skill in depicting his characters in a sculptural manner, combining very strong colour tones that stand out in the pictorial space.             

Madonna della Vittoria (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Small entrance for a significant place

The entrance reveals how still at the end of the 15th century it is possible to find works in Gothic style. The church was, in fact, consecrated in 1496. It then underwent a series of transformations in the course of time, starting from the decision to entrust it to The Order of Saint Jerome in 1499. The monks lived in the small convent next to it, with its beautiful cloister, still visible today. In 1797 the church was deconsecrated by the French. In 1887 the Army Corps of Engineers divided the interior into two floors. In 1899 the first floor was taken over by the municipal kindergarten Strozzi. The ground floor functioned as a varnishing workshop from 1942 to 1986. The whole complex underwent a skillful and complete restoration curated by the Amici del Palazzo Te, that today manage the ground floor. It has become a symbol of cultural renaissance of the city and of the rebirth of its impressive cultural heritage.

Madonna della Vittoria (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

The lower floor

This image documents one of the last phases of the restoration of the ground floor. Here we can see that the ground floor is delimited by a wooden beamed ceiling that does not allow to view the single nave in its entirety. The decorations on the wall present various empty spots; they date to different periods, but the most important ones date to the last years of the 15th century. It is evident that these were the result of a direct influence of Andrea Mantegna. On the left we can see two small chapels, connected to room that gives onto the ancient convent.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Angels and frescoes

Most of the frescoes on the ground floor, in particular the ones on the wall to the left, do not date to the Renaissance but to later periods. Evidently, the pictorial decoration of the church was integrated over time with later interventions. Here we can admire a couple of angels adorning the apex of an arch.  

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

God in the arch

Inside a second arch, slightly higher than the first one, we see the figure of God opening his arms to men, directing the dove of the Holy Spirit towards them. This fresco is characterized by swift brushwork.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Signs of a sinopia

Here, still on the ground floor, we are looking at where the wall on the left joins the back wall. The fake tapestry in fake Cordoba leather at the back is remarkable, typical of Mantegna’s style. Among the other fresco decorations, once stood the altarpiece of the Madonna della Vittoria. On the left, an anonymous artist has drawn a Gothic looking sepulcre in a reddish brown colour, adorned with images of angels and a Christ, which perhaps marked the place where a real tomb was supposed to be located.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Painted words

Another painted sepulchre, though from a different period and with a different style. The writing on it reads: 1561. Inside the small church, families that were not very wealthy could commission a virtual representation of a tomb of a dear one, an alternative to a marble tomb that was much more expensive. Also, the size of the nave would not have allowed to insert very imposing burials.  

Madonna della Vittoria - Upper Floor (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

The ceiling of the upper floor

The upper part of the nave of the church is still today separated from the inferior part by a wooden coffered ceiling. It has been turned into a gym by the municipal kindergarten, and the wooden beams break up the harmony of the construction, though they allow visitors to view the most notable sections of the frescoes from up close. It is uncertain who the author of the paintings is, hypothesis have been made concerning artists influenced by Mantegna, painters from Verona such as Domenico Morone, born in 1442, the son of Francesco Morone. The ceiling is divided in three sections, each with four rib vaults inside which some illustrious protagonist of the history of the church are represented. In the first one, starting from the oculus, we can see four Hermits; Cyril of Alexandria, Walter of Pontoise, Saint Eusebius and the Blessed Carlo da Montegranelli. In the second one we find the Doctors of the Church: Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Ambroise, Pope Saint Gregory I. In the third there are the Evangelists. The image we can see here is taken from the third section.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Sant'Eusebio

Saint Eusebius was a noble Hungarian who lived in the 13th century. He became a hermit and soon acquired the fame of saint. He founded the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit with the permission of Pope Urban IV. Here he is represented holding a book, his body almost pyramidal, his face tired and expressing kindness, in what is certainly a personal interpretation of this figure. As for many other figures shown here, plant motifs can be seen decorating the tondo in which he appears.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Il Beato Carlo

The Blessed Carlo da Montegranelli, also a nobleman, lived as a hermit near Fiesole. In 1405 he founded the Congregation of the Hermits of St. Jerome, under Pope Innocent VII. The church was entrusted to this congregation at the end of the 15th century, together with the convent of Santa Maria della Vittoria. His kind face, with there rays of light, expresses devotion and intensity. His hands and fingers are painted beautifully, they stand out against his robe, holding a book. From an artistic point of view this is one of the most refined figures.  

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Il Beato Gualtiero

The Blessed Walter lived in France, precisely in Picardy. A hermit monk, he became very famous for his holy life, his charity and his personal battle against corruption inside the church. He also is depicted with rays of light, and his eyes express the strength of his faith. His thin hands are open in the act of blessing, while showing us a book. His large white beard is another notable element in the fresco.  

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

San Girolamo

Saint Jerome, his full name was Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, was born in Stridon, Croatia, in the 4th century. He lived in the desertic areas near Antiochia, between Syria and Turkey, for many years. He dedicated his life to the study of sacred texts, and died in Bethlehem, though his body was brought to Rome and buried in Santa Maria Maggiore. His most important work is the Vulgate, written in Latin, a transcription of some sections of the Greek Old Testament and then of all the books of the Hebrew Bible. He is often painted by the most important painters of all time, he is a symbol of faith, knowledge and intense dedication to solitary life. He is the protagonist of the renown legend in which he cures and taims a lion. Here he appears in the role of scholar and writer, inside a monastic cell. His hand lightly touching a sacred text, a sign indicating total interpenetration between divine verb and human existence. The characterizing halo is almost a material circle that gives a rhythm to the tondo in which he appears.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

San Luca

The Evangelist, patron of the arts and of medicine, was born in Antiochia, and is buried in the Basilica di Santa Giustina in Padova. Here he appears intent on writing in a language that might be Latin, or Greek, perhaps Hebrew, a language not known to the painter who depicted him. His beautiful features are somewhat melancholic. Beneath him we can see the head of a bull with a look that is almost human. This animal is his symbol, because his Gospel begins with the sacrifice of Zechariah in which a bull is killed. On the whole, the artistic quality of the section is which the Evangelists are represented is higher, and shows a more refined use of colours.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

San Giovanni

The disciple loved by Jesus is here represented at a very young age, with a severe expression on his handsome face, his eyes half-closed, with an attitude of contemplation of the symbol of an eagle, which evidently alludes to the relationship with the voice of God. The scroll we see on his desk certainly is part of his work, written in Greek. Also here it is difficult to make out the writing in the painting. Paradoxically it is possible to read the Latin word lux, visible twice, a fundamental concept in the fourth Gospel, so different from the other three.

Madonna della Vittoria's Frescoes (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

San Matteo

Also in this case the Evangelist is portrayed as a young man. He seems to be discussing animatedly, his hand open, with the angel next to him. Matthew's symbol here becomes a concrete figure, it is larger than the eagle, the lion and the bull, and it is evidently speaking to the Evangelist, dictating the text. The angels is, in fact, touching the scroll, which seems to be written in Latin: we can clearly read the words pater noster. From an artistic point of view it is one of the finest tondos: the characters express a subtle and intense concentration and attention to the divine message.

Madonna della Vittoria's Fresco (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Flames over the blue

In the upper part of the nave we can see some very beautiful decorations from the 15th century, clearly influenced by Mantegna’s style. In this detail of a fresco, for instance, a fire that seems to be alive stands out against the blue background, accentuating the verticality of the composition.  

Madonna della Vittoria's Fresco (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Mantegnesque decorations

The careful restoration process has brought back to light these beautiful coils, with plant motifs, which underline the way the pattern chosen by the unknown artist is based on the combination of clear colours that stand out against the brighter colours of the background. Light blue, yellow, red. The effect created is similar to what can be seen in paintings by Mantegna, and the architecture is embellished by insertions suggesting the idea of a close relationship between the inventions of man and those of nature. Still today this kind of painting can be seen inside many houses in Mantua, which is typical of the second half of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. In some cases these traces are visible also on facades, which once must have given the city a lush and lively appearance.

Madonna della Vittoria's Courtyard (1496)Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

An ancient cloister

Today this is the courtyard of the Asilo Strozzi, the municipal kindergarten. The rectangular space where the children play was once part of the convent that was joined to the Madonna della Vittoria church. The arcades and capitals clearly indicate the prevalence of a Renaissance style. The restoration of this part of the building allows to grasp the beauty of an ancient and spiritual place.

Credits: Story

Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by: Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova) con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova) Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator: Sebastiano Sali Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images: Giovanni Pasetti Foto di / Photo by: Art Camera Redazione / Editor: Erica Beccalossi Assistente / Assistant: Annica Boselli

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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