Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of Vice and Virtue, a drawing

Italy, around AD 1490

'Virtus Combusta' ('Virtue in flames') / Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity

This unfinished drawing forms the upper half of a composition which is fully illustrated in an engraving by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia. Both are inscribed on the right with the words: VIRTUS COMBVSTA ('Virtue in flames') which summarises the complex allegory. The allegory is not based on any particular classical text but is a composition or 'invention' by the artist or a humanist (classical scholar) in the court of Isabella d'Este, wife of the Marquis of Mantua. Their intellectual court was a perfect place for enthusiasts such as Mantegna and his patrons to perfect their knowledge of classical art and literature.

The 'invention' illustrates the idea of the hold of Ignorance over humanity. In the centre of the top half, Error, a man with ass's ears, leads an unsuspecting woman to the edge of a pit. She is both literally and morally blind. Error is encouraged by a winged figure of a satyr (half-man and half-goat) with bat's wings and bird's feet playing bagpipes, symbolizing Lust. Between the satyr and blind woman is a man with a sack over his head, tied at the neck, who leads a dog on a leash. This man feigns blindness and may well be Fraud. To the right, Ignorance, a fat crowned woman, sits on a globe holding a rudder. The unstable globe and rudder both represent Fortune. Serving their queen are Ingratitude, with blindfold and scarf, and Avarice (greed) or Envy with dirty hair and large ears. On the far right are burning laurel leaves, symbol of Virtue, as virtue and merit are destroyed in the realm of Ignorance.

Mantegna's original drawing for the lower half of the image is lost, but the complete composition of the allegory is recorded in the print. Below is the pit into which the woman is about to fall, piled high with bodies. To the left is a female figure changing into a tree with a label VIRTUS DESERTA ('Deserted Virtue'). Choking the tree are thorns and just below another inscription: VIRTUTI S.A.I. (Ignorance is always opposed to Virtue). At the right, however, Mercury saves a figure from the pit, implying that Reason and Virtue can provide salvation. Unusually he wears laurel leaves on his feet, not the usual feathers.

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More information


A.E. Popham and P. Pouncey, Italian drawings in the Depa-5 (London, The British Museum Press, 1950)

J. Martineau (ed.), Andrea Mantegna, exh. cat. (Royal Academy of Arts, London and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992)

R. Lightbown, Mantegna (Oxford, Phaidon Christie's, 1986)


Height: 286.000 mm
Width: 441.000 mm

Museum number

PD Pp.1-23



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