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.

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