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Grey Matters

Giovanni Mansueti (act. Venice ca. 1485-1526/27)
The Supper at Emmaus, ca. 1495
oil and ink on poplar
29 1/4 x 49 inches
74 x 124 cm
Fig. 1 Giovanni Mansueti, Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross in Campo san Lio, ca. 1494, tempera on camnvas, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

This Supper at Emmaus has long been attributed to Giovanni Mansueti, a Venetian artist in the circle of Gentile Bellini and a contemporary of his more celebrated younger brother, Giovanni. Mansueti participated in narrative cycles with the Bellini family, such as the signed Miracle of the True Cross at the Campo di S Lio painted in 1494 for the Scuola Grande di S Giovanni Evangelista (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice; fig. 1). Mansueti enjoyed the patronage of powerful Venetian merchants and recent scholarship has recognized his reputation as being the equal, at least, of Gentile Bellini. The Supper at Emmaus is a subject which enjoyed popularity in Renaissance Venice with notable depictions by Giovanni Bellini (destroyed) and his circle, as well as by Titian (Private collection, England) among others.

Feasting with guests of the East

In a confined space, lit from the viewer’s left and defined by three dark openings in the rear wall, Christ sits facing the viewer across a trestle table laid for a meal. At either end of the table are two men dressed in long cloaks gathered around simple robes, who appear to stare at one another. To Jesus’ left sits a younger man wearing Venetian costume and a tall ‘bearskin’ hat, who gazes at the bread that Christ is in the act of blessing. Three other figures complete the group: at the far left, a servant, also in a fur hat, enters the room carrying a dish of food. To Christ’s immediate right stands a turbaned figure, a long jerkin loosely belted over his robe, bearing a rod or wand, also watching the gesture of benediction, whilst to the right of the picture, a similarly dressed and turbaned man pours water or wine from a jug into a flask, apparently indifferent to the action at the table. The presence of the two turbaned figures indicates the closeness of Venice to the East and recall similar Orientalist figures by Gentile Bellini (fig. 2) as well as his contemporaries, Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio.

Fig. 2 Gentile Bellini, The Sultan Mehmet II, 1480 © The National Gallery, London

Still-lives, a cat and a dog

Although the perspective is entirely convincing, the setting is cleverly compressed front to back, so that it seems barely sufficient to contain the table, its occupants and the surrounding figures, adding a sense of narrative tension to the calm intimacy of the scene. The box stools with trefoil cut-out ends, on which the men sit at either end of the table, give depth and volume to the space, further enhanced by the presence under the table of a dog and a cat. On the table are set three long-necked flasks of wine, drinking glasses for each of the seated figures and two small loaves of bread, along with salts and dishes, one containing meat. As if to emphasise its three-dimensionality, folded napkins and knives are balanced precariously on the edge of the table, extending towards the viewer.

The subject in Bellini’s circle

The scene depicts the climax of the events described in Luke 24, vv.13-31, when, on the day of the Resurrection, two of Christ’s disciples fell into conversation with a stranger on the road to Emmaus. After recounting the events of Jesus’ death and the apparent disappearance of His body to the stranger, He had ‘opened the scriptures to them’ in so incisive a manner that they invited Him to join them for supper. During the meal, when the stranger blessed and broke the bread His identity was revealed, after which He vanished and the disciples returned to Jerusalem with the news of their encounter with the risen Christ.

Fig. 3 Pietro Monaco, The Supper at Emmaus after Giovanni Bellini © British Museum, London

The Supper at Emmaus was a familiar subject in late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century Venice. Peter Humfrey notes the existence of at least twelve versions, all of which appear to derive from a lost prototype by Giovanni Bellini, made in 1490 for the Venetian patrician Giorgio Corner (Cornaro) or his son, Francesco. That painting, destroyed in a fire in Vienna in the late eighteenth century, was recorded in an engraving of 1760 by Pietro Monaco (fig. 3). Elements of Bellini’s composition, however, were borrowed by the painters of later versions of the scene, for example Marco Marziale (fig. 4), Vincenzo Catena, and Mansueti himself, in this painting and his later and less successful monumental polychromatic canvas (Parish church, La Celle-St Cloud). However, the present version by Mansueti is almost certainly the closest relative to Bellini’s composition in terms of its meditative tone and attention to theological and narrative detail, as well as in its finely drawn technique. Indeed, it is the closeness of this panel by Mansueti to Bellini’s prototype, that places it to the 1490s at a moment when the two artists were closest.

Fig. 4 Marco Marziale, Supper at Emmaus © Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Grisaille: a highly unusual choice

Fig. 5 Giovanni Bellini, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, ca. 1490, ink brush on a lead white imprimatura on panel © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This painting is executed entirely in grisaille, painted with a mixture of oil and ink over a lead white ground. It is tinted with a tawny, pale yellow glaze which is perhaps intended to suggest vellum or parchment. Its highly unusual technique recalls a celebrated Venetian grisaille panel of almost identical size, Giovanni Bellini’s Pietà, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (fig. 5). Technically, the Supper at Emmaus has a close relationship to the astonishingly detailed underdrawings found beneath the surfaces of some of Giovanni Bellini’s paintings. The infra-red reflectograms of the Madonna and Child, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are a case in point. Discussion of the Uffizi Pietà has to some degree focused on the question of whether it constitutes a completed under-drawing for an unfinished painting, a work intended to be used as an exemplar in a busy studio or a discrete work in its own right. Jill Dunkerton and Catherine Whistler (see bibliography) have argued in favor of the Uffizi Pietà being intended as a finished work intended for a connoisseur who would have enjoyed being able to study its highly wrought detail at close quarters. The existence of this panel, and a similar Deposition (Private collection, Switzerland; fig. 6), both grisailles by Mansueti further argues for a taste in Venice around 1490-1510 for such painted monochromatic works. Mansueti was admired by sophisticated patrons such as Alvise and Jacopo Dardani, Antonio di Maistri and Vittore Ziliol, officers of the Scuole which patronized him, and this could have been painted for the private enjoyment of a such a person.

Fig. 6 Giovanni Mansueti, Deposition, Private Collection, Switzerland

Entertainment with style

Mansueti’s careful selection and unambiguous depiction of a particular moment in a familiar story, with its allusions to the mystery of the Eucharist, suggests that this Supper at Emmaus was made to be examined, discussed and pored over by its owner and his or her circle of educated friends, much as has been considered the principal function of Bellini’s Pietà. The evident theological and narrative precision of this Supper at Emmaus is further matched by the skill of its draftsmanship. The foreshortening of the left hand and forearm of the standing figure to Christ’s right has an eloquence beyond mere anatomical virtuosity, as is Christ’s own hand raised in benediction. Below the table, Christ’s robe is described in a manner that successfully combines volumetric solidity and textural softness. The creation of space is achieved through the convincing volumes of the figures as opposed to the over-emphasis of perspectival construction, resulting in an image whose narrative drive is focused and legible and not overwhelmed by the setting, as is the case with his later version. The still-life arrangement of vessels on the table, on the other hand, stripped down to the simplest of shapes and demonstrating complete command of their forms and absolute fidelity to their location relative both to one another and the surface on which they stand, lends the painting a delicate, controlled materiality alongside its nuanced spirituality. There is a similar sensitivity in the treatment of the tablecloth, whose unfolded creases persist and whose hang over the edge of the table is described with a finely observed balance between weight and insubstantiality.

Painting as drawing

Fig. 7 Giovanni Bellini, The Continence of Scipio, ca. 1506-08, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Although tonal shifts mark passages of the Supper at Emmaus, the whole is characterized by a softness and delicacy, which complements its dual narrative focus on both Christ and the two disciples. The technique of building areas of shade and contour from a mass of tiny brushstrokes, some seemingly in ink, recalls silverpoint drawing, indeed the offsetting of densely worked passages with substantial areas of white heightening underlines this comparison. The visual effect of the almost ephemeral shifts from dark to light, coupled with occasional, dramatic brightness is the perfect complement to the gradual unveiling of Christ’s person, promised but not yet completed in the moment depicted.

Fig. 8 Andrea Mantegna, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1495-1500, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

It is important to note that, unlike the monochromes by Giovanni Bellini (fig. 7) and Mantegna (fig. 8), these grisaille panels are not intended to reproduce reliefs either in marble or in bronze. Instead, if there is one, the visual pun is on drawing. Perhaps this is to explore the idea of color versus design or the finished and the preparatory, but most of all it is to achieve a spiritual expressiveness through simplicity of design and the artist’s virtuoso command of detail and perspective. A point of departure may have been the highly finished albums of drawings by Jacopo Bellini which were intended as collectible objects in their own right and displayed his mastery of perspective and illustrative detail.

Fig. 9 Major Domo, detail of the present painting
Fig. 10 Giovanni Mansueti, Pietà, 1515-25, Fondazione Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

The attribution of the painting to Giovanni Mansueti is widely supported (see literature), based not only on its relationship to the Cini Deposition, but also on the closeness of the faces and costumes to others in Mansueti’s known output. The Major Domo (fig. 9), standing to Christ’s right, is based on the same model as the Nicodemus in Mansueti’s Pietà at the Accademia in Bergamo (fig. 10). The crowd at the center of St Mark Healing Anianus, one of the large-scale paintings made by Mansueti for the Scuola Grande di San Marco (fig. 11), demonstrates the extent to which Mansueti maintained the same repertoire of figure types throughout his career.

This entry is substantially based on one previously written by Dr. James Harris and I am, in addition, grateful to Peter Humfrey for his generous assistance and his suggested dating of the panel to the 1490s. ❖

Fig. 12 Giovanni Mansueti, Saint Maik Heals Anianus, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Installation view of Grey Matters at Nicholas Hall, 2021
With the Supper at Emmaus by Giovanni Mansueti

London, Sotheby’s, 7 July 1954, lot 153

Private Collection, United Kingdom

with Halcyon Gallery, London

with Colnaghi, London by 1988

London, Christie’s, Important Old Master & British Pictures Day Sale Including Property from the Collection of the Princely House of Liechtenstein, 8 July 2008, lot 255

Private collection, United Kingdom


Sandra Miller, ‘Giovanni Mansueti: A Little Master of the Venetian Quattrocento’, in Revue roumaine d’histoire de l’art (Serie Beaux-Arts), XV, 1978, p. 101.

Stephane Loire, “Un Tableau de Mansueti conserve a La Celle Saint-Cloud”, in Hommage a Michel Laclotte. Etudes sur la Peinture du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance, Milan, 1994, pp. 317-323.

Peter Humfrey, Giovanni Bellini, Milan, Scuderie Papali al Quirinale, Milan, 2008, exh. cat., p. 228.

Gabriele Matino, Venetian istorie: re-evaluating Giovanni Mansueti’s narrative painting (1500-1530’s). PhD thesis. University of Nottingham. 2014, p.3, note 10.

Mauro Lucco, Peter Humfrey, Giovanni C.F. Villa, Giovanni Bellini, Catalogo ragionato, Ponzano, 2020, pp. 459-60, 482-484, nos. 96, 117.

Catherine Whistler, ‘Invention and Devotion in Giovanni Bellini’s Uffizi, Lamentation’, in Artibus et Historiae, no. 81 (XLI), 2020, pp. 79-98.

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