A treasure hunt for antiquities
Renaissance collectors and connoisseurs relied on artists for expert advice on classical antiquities. The erudition of some painters and sculptors gained considerable renown, raising their social and intellectual stature well above that typically ascribed to their profession. Mantegna’s expertise made him a particularly sought-after associate of the aristocrats and intellectuals who shared his passion for the antique. In October 1464 he took a boat trip around Lake Garda in search of ancient artifacts, accompanied by two learned friends: the humanist collector of inscriptions, Felice Feliciano (1433–79), and an official at the court of Mantua, Samuele da Tradate. This excerpt from Feliciano’s witty account attests to the propensity of classical enthusiasts to imaginatively project themselves back into the ancient times that so preoccupied them, whether at work or play.
On the eighth day before the Kalends [first] of October. Commanding: the clever “emperor” Samuele da Tradate. As consuls, men of the highest order, Andrea Mantegna of Padua and Giovanni Antenore [i.e., the Paduan, a reference to Padua as legendary burial spot of the Trojan hero Antenor]. As procurator, myself, Felice Feliciano, leading this brilliant band in comfort through the shady laurels, Samuele having joined us in crowning himself with laurel, periwinkle, ivy, and various leaves. Coming into the ancient sanctuary of blessed Saint Dominic, we spied a most worthy monument of Antoninus Pius. Then, on the porch of the house of the divine first martyr [Saint Stephen], not far from that place, we found an excellent monument of the deified emperor Antonius Pius, nephew of the deified Hadrian, resident of the region. Approaching next the house of the first pope, nearby, we found there an enormous monument of the emperor Marcus Aurelius—all of these we set down in our notebooks. Nor should we neglect from our mention of worthy things the lodging of the quiver-bearing goddess Diana and her nymphs; for various reasons it could have been nothing else. Having seen all this, we sailed round Benacus [Latin name of Lake Garda], Neptune’s watery field, our boat piled with carpets and all manner of amenities, decorated with laurel and other noble leaves. Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant.
Translated from the Latin in Paul Kristeller, Andrea Mantegna (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901), p. 472.