My Favourite Painting: Ashley Hicks

'This timeless triumph of trompe l’oeil always gives me something to dream of and aspire to .'

Ashley Hicks chooses The Vestal Virgin Tuccia with a Sieve:

‘I love this little picture for many reasons. I like to think that it and its companion, another model of feminine virtue now titled prosaically A Woman Drinking, were made for the great collector Isabella d’Este’s rooms at her Gonzaga husband’s palace in Mantua.

‘These sublime examples of Mantegna’s exquisite, perfectly crafted art were surely made as part of a room’s decoration, to face each other near a window, with shadows painted correctly for its daylight.

‘They look like gilt-bronze reliefs on marble, but the figures are impossibly lifelike and deeply modelled for reliefs, allusions to the tale of Pygmalion whose sculpture came alive. This timeless triumph of trompe l’oeil always gives me something to dream of and aspire to.’

Ashley Hicks is an interior designer and artist. His latest book, Rooms with a History, is published by Rizzoli

John McEwen on The Vestal Virgin Tuccia with a Sieve:

This picture, one of two similar images of figures from Roman antiquity, is placed as a probable pair in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, where the cream of the gallery’s Renaissance pictures are to be found. These rooms are the least attended, so one invariably has a work to oneself.

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Mantegna is the most lapidary of painters. Vasari, in his 16th-century Lives of the Artists, observed that his style ‘sometimes suggests stone rather than living flesh’ and the late art historian Lawrence Gowing wrote ‘stone is everywhere in his pictures’.

The quintessential debate of the High Renaissance, the paragone, which Mantegna helped set in train, was the comparison between sculpture and painting. This was because the ancient art of Greece and Rome, which fired the Renaissance imagination, survived almost uniquely in sculpture. An eye-deceiving trompe l’oeil picture such as this affirmed that pictorial invention could create sculptural illusions as real as sculpture itself. The picture simulates a gilt-bronze relief against a marble ground.

It shows Tuccia, a vestal virgin who was accused of unbecoming behaviour and whom the goddess Vesta enabled to carry water miraculously in a sieve from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, to prove her innocence. There, Tuccia performed the vestal virgins’ sacred duties.

Chaste Vesta was the goddess of the hearth – a hearth and its fire being the centre of every home. Her temple, with its perpetual fire, repre-sented the sacred hearth, centre for all citizens of the Roman state united as one family. The vestal virgins, who tended the temple’s needs, were priestesses in Vesta’s chaste image.

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