Mantegna’s Classical World

Charles Hope

  • The ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ by Andrea Mantegna in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Hampton Court by Andrew Martindale
    Harvey Miller, 342 pp, £38.00, October 1979, ISBN 0 905203 16 X

When the Archduchess Joanna of Austria made her official entry into Florence on 16 December 1565 as the bride of Francesco de’ Medici, one of the first things she saw, at the gate of the city, was a painting showing the famous artists of Tuscany. In the distance was Cimabue holding a small lantern, and nearby Giotto with a larger lantern, surrounded by his immediate followers; towards the foreground there were two groups of 15th-century artists, and finally, at the very front and in the full light of day, Michelangelo and his companions, the great masters of the modern period from Leonardo da Vinci to the immediate past. The basic arrangement was obviously derived from Vasari’s Lives, published in 1550, although there were some surprising differences in the detailed classification. As a scheme it reflected the conventional attitude of Italians in general to the art of their predecessors, the belief that the masters of the 14th and 15th centuries had worked to a greater or lesser degree in the dark, and that perfection had only been achieved in the High Renaissance.

A few days earlier Joanna had been in Mantua, where, like other distinguished visitors, she would certainly have been shown the nine canvases by Andrea Mantegna illustrating the Gallic triumph of Julius Caesar, which then as now were usually called the Triumphs of Caesar. But it is unlikely that anyone in Mantua would have told her that these pictures were primarily of historical interest, or that they were aesthetically inferior to the more recent work there by Giulio Romano and Titian. Indeed, throughout the 16th century the name of Mantegna, alone among his contemporaries, repeatedly appeared in lists of the greatest modern painters; and it was principally on the Triumphs that his reputation was based. These were virtually the only group of pictures from the early Renaissance widely known through reproductions, a complete series of woodcuts of them being published as late as 1599. When the works of Botticelli and Piero della Francesca had largely been forgotten Mantegna’s Triumphs retained their status as one of the supreme masterpieces of Italian painting.

But after the sale of the Gonzaga collection to Charles I in 1629 they suffered increasingly from neglect. As the result of a series of disastrously misconceived restorations, culminating in the bizarre decision to immerse them completely in paraffin wax, the canvases eventually became all but invisible. Fortunately, in 1962, a new campaign of restoration was undertaken by John Brealey, under the supervision of Anthony Blunt. The results were remarkable. Although the pictures now displayed in the Orangery at Hampton Court are obviously little more than shadows of their former selves, and one could not be restored at all, enough has survived to give a fair idea of their original appearance. Considering the earlier condition of the Triumphs, it is not surprising that previous writers on Mantegna paid relatively little attention to them. Only now, with the publication of Martindale’s book, is a full and well-illustrated account of their history finally available.

Martindale himself describes his book as ‘an extended catalogue entry’, and this gives a very fair idea of its strengths and limitations. Drawing in part on unpublished documents he examines in detail the dating, purpose, style and later history of the pictures, with a long discussion of the tedious but very relevant question of Mantegna’s use of antique visual sources. His text contains a vast amount of information, which is stated accurately and judiciously. But, as compilers of catalogues tend to do, Martindale has deliberately restricted the scope of his inquiry, so that his account of the various possible patrons, to take one example, is simply inadequate. In the same way, his scholarly caution and scrupulousness are sometimes excessive. This emerges not only in the guarded tones in which he advances his own ideas, but also in such things as his habit of retaining all the abbreviations and original punctuation in 15th-century texts. There may be a case for doing so with manuscripts, although it does not conform to modern practice, but to reproduce 27 lines of Latin exactly as it was printed in 1472 is unnecessarily hard on the reader, especially when he is then told that the passage is irrelevant. More serious, however, is Martindale’s occasional deference to the views of scholars whose work is manifestly ill-informed.

This applies particularly to the discussion of Mantegna’s use of literary sources. Various writers have drawn attention to the accounts of triumphs by Appian and Plutarch, and some have also argued that he consulted a contemporary text, Valturio’s De Re Militari. But one name conspicuously absent from most of the scholarly literature is that of Flavio Biondo. It is an astounding omission, since Biondo was easily the most learned 15th-century writer on Roman civilisation, and his Roma Triumphans includes the fullest contemporary study of ancient triumphs. The book was actually published in Mantua, so Mantegna must have known it. Martindale recognises this, but seems unwilling to appreciate the importance of his observation. He speculates, for example, that the artist carried out further research in Classical texts, like some diligent graduate student. But there was no reason for Mantegna to question Biondo’s competence and nothing in the pictures to prove that he looked beyond the pages of Roma Triumphans. Again, Martindale is at a loss to explain how he ‘picked his way through the profusion of texts’ provided by Biondo. The answer is self-evident. He read the section devoted to triumphs, which are conveniently examined in chronological order; noting Biondo’s remark that they became increasingly elaborate from the time of Caesar onwards, he concerned himself only with Caesar’s triumphs and those of his predecessors. From the small number of relevant texts it was easy enough for Mantegna to establish the basic elements of a triumphal procession and their correct sequence. For the actual representation of such details as armour and military insignia he turned to drawings of Classical monuments, of which he had an unrivalled knowledge. He was of course an artist, not a modern archaeologist, so he did not follow his texts with slavish accuracy, and he committed some obvious anachronisms. But no one before him had ever produced such a vivid, elaborate or faithful reconstruction of the Classical world.

For Martindale this does not seem to be enough. Besides unnecessarily complicating the problem of the written sources he also suggests that the Triumphs contain hidden symbolism, even though nothing in Biondo or any ancient writer would indicate that this type of imagery was appropriate to the subject. For example, he provides a long analysis of the old theory that the frieze decorated with objects associated with pagan sacrifice on the arch behind Caesar’s chariot is really a hieroglyphic inscription. Martindale is well aware that in the 15th century the use of hieroglyphs was regarded as an Egyptian rather than a Roman practice, but does not stress the point. Nor does he mention a remark of Alberti (whom Mantegna had known) to the effect that sacrificial objects were used simply as a form of frieze decoration on Classical buildings. This passage quite adequately accounts for their presence in the painting.

The documentary evidence about the Triumphs is distinctly sparse. They are first mentioned in 1486, when the Duke of Ferrara saw ‘the Triumphs of Caesar which Mantegna is painting’ in the Palazzo della Corte, the old Gonzaga palace which by then had largely been replaced as a family residence by the nearby Castello. Progress on the pictures was interrupted by the artist’s visit to Rome in 1488 – 90, and in 1492 he was certainly still working on them. There is no record of their completion, but in April 1506, five months before Mantegna’s death, preparations were being made to install the entire series in a special room in the new Palazzo di San Sebastiano. Between 1497 and 1507 there are various references to painted Triumphs of some kind being used for decoration at theatrical performances, the most informative being a report of a Ferrarese visitor in 1501, who described a temporary theatre decorated with ‘the six pictures of Caesar’s triumph by the hand of the singular Mantegna’ and some smaller pictures of the Triumphs of Petrarch, also said to be by Mantegna. This is the only reference to Petrarchan Triumphs by Mantegna, and it is likely that the attribution was wrong, especially as another artist is recorded as painting a Triumph of Fame apparently in 1492. Without going into details, the simplest reading of the documents implies that Mantegna’s pictures were always in Mantua, whereas the Petrarchan Triumphs were divided between the rural palaces of Gonzaga and Marmirolo, and were brought into the city when required for court festivals. It is worth noting that in 1501 the Ferrarese visitor saw only six sections of the Triumphs of Caesar, and he apparently believed that there were no others; they were displayed behind a row of eight arches, suggesting that more could have been shown had they been available. Moreover, in 1505, during the preparations for another court festival, arrangements were made not only to obtain ‘the canvases’ from Gonzaga, but also ‘those which Andrea Mantegna has’. Three months later Isabella d’Este wrote to her husband, the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, urging him to grant Mantegna a favour, and adding: ‘If we want him to live and finish our pictures it is necessary that Your Excellency should satisfy him.’ But at this time, so far as is known, if the artist was working for Isabella at all it was on only one picture, and there is no record that he had been given a new commission from Francesco since he had completed the Madonna della Vittoria in 1496. From these various pieces of evidence one could argue that by 1501 Mantegna had completed only six of the Triumphs, and four years later had still not delivered them all.

Martindale scarcely considers this possibility. Like earlier writers he thinks that the Triumphs were completed by the mid-1490s. His main argument is based on the style of the pictures, which shows some striking inconsistencies. The nine canvases are clearly divided into three groups of three. Canvases I-III, showing the front of the procession, have no landscape or architectural background, but there are individual elements, such as a bull, which link one picture to the next, creating a continuous composition. Canvases IV-VI are linked to one another, not only by devices of the same kind, but also by a distant landscape with buildings. In this second group of paintings Mantegna was at pains to avoid the frieze-like character of the first three, and he used various devices to give a greater impression of depth – for example, showing the procession initially receding slightly from the foreground and then approaching it again. The individual compositions have a subtlety he never surpassed, while the vitality and naturalness of the figures are unequalled in the work of any other painter of the 15th century. But, as Martindale puts it, ‘one gets the distinct impression that something has gone wrong’ in canvases VII-IX, which bring the series to a close with Caesar on his chariot. Once more the figures are arranged in a simple, densely-packed frieze; the spaciousness and wealth of invention so evident in the middle group of pictures are here conspicuously absent, as is the powerful forward momentum that dominates all the preceding scenes. All three pictures in this last group have elaborate backgrounds, but the transitions between them are clumsily handled. Architecture is more prominent than ever before, especially in canvas VII, where a massive structure is placed immediately behind the procession; and buildings of the same kind also appear in an unexecuted design by Mantegna, the so-called ‘Senators’, which shows the figures who should have followed Caesar’s chariot.

The existence of this design indicates that at some point Mantegna was planning to continue the series, so one might suppose he painted the pictures in roughly the order they are numbered above. This is the view of Martindale, who argues that canvas VII and the ‘Senators’, with their distinctive use of architecture, embody the artist’s latest ideas for the Triumphs. He suggests that the other compositions pre-date Mantegna’s trip to Rome, and thinks that this visit led to a fundamental reappraisal of his approach. Whereas he had previously made no effort to show a historically realistic setting, the direct experience of Rome, with its wealth of ancient architecture, apparently caused him to feel that his enterprise would be incomplete without some indication of the triumphal route. In his last two scenes he tried to provide this, but the problem of incorporating monumental buildings proved insoluble because of the low vanishing-point he had already adopted. As a result, he became discouraged and simply abandoned the whole project.

There are several objections to this theory, not least the fact that the buildings in the compositions which supposedly post-date the visit to Rome do not look like anything Mantegna could have seen there. Indeed, the only clearly identifiable architectural motif comes from a Roman arch in Verona. Moreover, even if Mantegna had problems with the background this does not explain why he handled the procession itself here so much less competently than in canvases IV-VI. Finally, since the preliminary designs for canvas VII and the ‘Senators’ have higher vanishing-points than any of the actual paintings or the other related drawings, it is likely that, far from reflecting the artist’s latest ideas, they were produced at a very early stage, before he painted anything at all.

Everything points to Mantegna having started work with the rear of the procession, not the front. It is easy to see why he should have done so. From the outset he must have realised that the Triumphs would involve years of work, but he must also have expected his patron to display individual pictures or groups of pictures as soon as they were ready. In these circumstances it was only logical to begin with Caesar and the figures preceding the chariot. This section made sense on its own, but without Caesar the rest of the procession was meaningless. At this early stage Mantegna also gave some thought to the figures behind the chariot, the ‘Senators’. But his next priority, presumably, was to paint the front of the procession. As it happens, canvas III is so designed that there would not have been an awkward transition if it were hung beside canvas VII. This is something which Mantegna seems to have planned when he painted the picture: the preliminary design shows part of a group of vase-carriers which would have continued in canvas IV, but in the actual painting the whole group is shown in canvas III. After his difficulties with the backgrounds of canvases VII-IX it is not surprising that in his next pictures Mantegna chose to dispense with landscape and buildings entirely. We can see from the preliminary drawings that initially there was to be no background setting in canvases IV-VI either. But when the artist finally came to paint this group he changed his mind, confident now of his ability to overcome the difficulties he had encountered in the early pictures.

Considered in this way, the discrepancies between the three major parts of the Triumphs can be easily explained. Rather than suffering some crisis, as Martindale believes, Mantegna displayed an increasing mastery as the work proceeded, just as one would expect of a great artist. The sequence of events just proposed fits very well with the chronology indicated by the documents. In terms of style, the closest parallels to canvases IV-VI appear in paintings from the last decade of Mantegna’s life, such as ‘Parnassus’ and ‘Minerva expelling the Vices’ in the Louvre and above all the ‘Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome’ in the National Gallery, which was commissioned only in 1505.

Although it looks as if the Triumphs were finished towards the end of Mantegna’s life, it is not immediately obvious when they were begun. The answer to this problem depends on one’s view of the identity of the patron and the likely circumstances of the commission. There are three people who could have initiated the project: Ludovico Gonzago, who died in 1478, his son Federico, who died six years later, and Federico’s son Francesco, who outlived Mantegna by 13 years. Martindale’s choice is Ludovico, since he ‘alone is known without doubt to have had the cultural interests and the academic attainments which would have enabled him to play a part in the creation and planning of the Triumphs’. This is certainly true, but not necessarily relevant. The idea that Renaissance patrons were primarily concerned with the learned content of paintings, that they gave the artists detailed instructions and closely supervised their work, is an art-historical cliché, largely based on the behaviour of one person, Isabella d’Este. But Isabella was a notably pretentious and domineering woman, and the pictures she commissioned are for the most part laboured allegories of a rather obscure and unusual kind. In terms of their subject-matter, the Triumphs are not in the least obscure, nor very unusual. At this period, palaces in north Italy were full of paintings both of triumphal processions and of famous men and the notable events in their lives. In the Palazzo della Corte at Mantua, for example, there was a loggia of Caesar and Pompey, and Filarete, in his architectural treatise, recommended ‘the stories of Caesar... and Alexander’ as suitable themes for palace decoration. But one aspect of the Triumphs is unexpected. In commissioning decorative schemes of this scale aristocratic patrons generally chose to glorify themselves and their family, as Ludovico Gonzaga had done in Mantegna’s earlier project, the Camera degli Sposi (although Pisanello’s still earlier frescoes in Manrua are an exception in this respect). In the Triumphs there are no allusions to the Gonzaga family at all. If these pictures glorify anyone other than Caesar himself, they are a glorification of Mantegna, in that they display to perfection his special gifts as an artist – his mastery of foreshortening, his love of packed, minutely detailed compositions and, above all, his extraordinary empathy with the material culture of ancient Rome.

There are two plausible ways of envisaging how the commission came about. Either the patron was sufficiently imaginative to think of a subject ideally suited to the abilities of his court painter, or Mantegna himself had some hand in the choice. Whichever alternative we choose, it looks as if the Triumphs were seen as an opportunity for Mantegna to produce a masterpiece. Historians are generally reluctant to concede that this kind of consideration was an important factor in the behaviour of Renaissance patrons, but in this case I think it makes sense. By the 1480s Mantegna was regarded in north Italy as the greatest painter alive; his work was in demand and the Gonzaga family were well aware of their good fortune in having him in their service. What better way could have been devised for employing him in his later years than allowing him to produce something which was both entirely suitable as decoration for a palace and also likely to exploit his talents to the full?

Against this background, Ludovico’s qualifications as the original patron no longer seem so compelling, especially as it is difficult to believe that Mantegna spent almost thirty years on the Triumphs. Federico, too, certainly liked and admired the artist. He was also well aware of the desirability of choosing subjects which would appeal to Mantegna: as he once explained in a letter, ‘these outstanding masters have strange notions, and it is a good idea to take whatever you can get from them.’ But because he employed Mantegna on another, quite substantial project in the last months of his reign, I believe that the Triumphs are more likely to have been commissioned by Francesco. Aged only 18 when he succeeded to the title, he was a straightforward, unintellectual man, a soldier whose main interest in life was horses. His other commissions were either very conventional – for example, the Triumphs of Petrarch – or conspicuously unlearned in their iconography, notably a series of views of famous cities. In fact, he is just the sort of patron who could have been open to suggestions from Mantegna, who was 35 years older and had been employed by the family before Francesco was born. Most important of all, he is known to have taken great pride in the Triumphs, not only telling the artist that ‘in as much as they are the product of your talent and skill we glory in having them in our house,’ but also building a room specially to exhibit them.

If the pictures were commissioned in the way I have suggested, the one remaining problem of their early history, that of their original location, becomes less puzzling. Martindale thinks they were designed for the Palazzo della Corte, where the Duke of Ferrara saw Mantegna working on them in 1486. But the principal members of the family did not live there, and eight years later another visitor, Giovanni de’ Medici, probably saw them in the Castello. I suspect that the question of a permanent setting was not resolved until most of the canvases had been completed. It is possible that only at a relatively late stage was the size of the final scheme established, for the subject itself, as well as Mantegna’s use of canvas, allowed a good deal of flexibility in this respect. When he stopped work on the Triumphs the artist was almost certainly in his seventies. Very soon afterwards, they were installed at San Sebastiano, and although it is possible that they were brought out for a court festival in 1507, there is no indication that this ever happened again.

The creation of the Triumphs of Caesar is one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of Renaissance painting. Only now, after centuries of neglect and maltreatment, can they be recognised once more as among the greatest achievements of European art. It will take a long time before the pictures recover their former fame, but Martindale’s book, which is by far the most substantial and detailed study of the subject ever undertaken, marks an important step in the process. For the present, incidentally, anyone planning to see the Triumphs would be well advised to check first that the Orangery is open.