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Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar – you can hear the trumpets and smell the elephant dung | Art

Mr.More than 500 years ago, Andrea Mantegna, court artist for the Gonzaga family who ruled the northern Italian city-state of Mantua, painted his dream of ancient Rome. In nine large filled canvases he depicted scenes from a spectacle of Roman victory or triumph. When the Gonzagas finally ran out of money, these nine square paintings were purchased by the avid art collector Charles I and installed at Hampton Court Palace, where they spent the better part of four centuries, most recently in an outbuilding in the gardens. Today, six of them have been loaned for “about two years” by Charles III to the National Gallery. This means you can see them for free, in a museum full of Renaissance art to compare them with. It’s a new life for these masterpieces.

The glory of Rome shines once again in this grandiose, but very human, reconstruction of the triumphs granted to Julius Caesar for his conquests in Gaul. Smoky colors and sullen faces, empty armor and paraded elephants fill the twilight cavalcade. Figures in the crowd hold you: a black standard-bearer, a melancholy youth reflecting on what it all means, an old slave bent double under the loot he carries. What fascinates Mantegna in the Roman Empire is its human and natural plenitude. We see the wealth of the empire – the statues, tableware, siege machines and animals brought as tribute to Rome. It is both a parade for Caesar and a summary of all these rites, a distillation of the military power and the scale of this lost empire.

Detail of the Triumphs of Caesar I: The Trumpeters.
Detail of the Triumphs of Caesar I: The Trumpeters. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust/His ​​Majesty King Charles III 2023

The National Gallery constructed new gold and blue frames to contain these scenes in two sets of three, facing each other across a gallery painted a deep red. The effect is remarkable. These paintings have never looked so good.

Mantegna’s Triumphs have always been recognized as masterpieces – or more accurately as a single masterpiece, because the images all form one long panorama. The 16th-century painter and writer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Mantegna’s Triumph, singular, was “the best thing he ever produced.” Yet it can be difficult for modern eyes to appreciate these paintings as much as we are told.

It’s not just that Mantegna’s masterpieces have faded unevenly over the centuries, making them difficult to light well – a problem the National Gallery solves superbly. The biggest challenge is the huge mentality gap between him and us. For 21st century minds who live in a digital world and believe in progress, it takes an act of imagination to engage with Mantegna’s passionate attempt to bring a lost era back to life, because he believes it was better than his.

How often did Mantegna think about ancient Rome, to cite a current social media trend? All the time, it seems. The portrait sculpture he created for his tomb in Mantua (there’s a cast here) imitates ancient Roman busts. His self-designed house, which survives in Mantua, is his Roman villa fantasy. Mantegna also reproduced classical statues and reliefs as paintings – the National Gallery has his Introduction to the Cult of Cybele at Rome, made as a stone frieze painted on faux pink marbling. Vasari was impressed but not entirely charmed.

Yet even the critic Vasari, who found Mantegna’s classical style a bit “dry”, admitted that in The Triumphs of Caesar his obsession with ancient Rome resulted in something truly captivating. It is an elegy to the Roman Empire, which for Mantegna means civilization itself.

Mantegna depicts Rome as a diverse global empire. Officially, it is a triumph awarded to Caesar for having conquered Gaul: a plaque raised in the air makes a direct reference to it in Latin. But Mantegna wants to evoke the entire Roman empire which extended from Syria to Brittany. There are siege machines that can recall the death of Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse, as well as sculptures from Greece and Egypt.

And there is sadness. The empty greaves and breastplates, worn like trophies, bring to mind the lost bodies that once wore this armor. This thought is intensified by the moody, red light created by Mantegna.

Detail of the Triumphs of Caesar VI: The Corselet Bearers.
Detail of the Triumphs of Caesar VI: The Corselet Bearers. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust / His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Mantegna not only imitated Roman art, he also competed with it. Despite his respect, he surpasses his sources. The people are solid like statues but they are flesh and blood, moving in space, represented in depth. These paintings are miracles of that Renaissance invention, perspective. Designed to be viewed from below, they show the ranks of walkers, carts and objects moving away from us, towards the hills and buildings in the distance. The ancient Greeks and Romans may have had a keen sense of reality, but they did not consistently show life from a deep perspective like Mantegna does.

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It is tempting to say that the melancholy of these paintings alludes to a critique of the Roman Empire. But the Triumphs of Caesar want to praise Rome, not bury it. Mantegna thinks he would have been happy in this lost and beautiful world.

He presents it as an alternative to his times and expresses it in perhaps the most extraordinary tributes to the fascination of history that have ever been painted. Mantegna does not judge the Romans but tries to situate himself in this distant reality – of hearing the trumpets and smelling elephant shit.

Hopefully this generous loan means a new beginning for the royal collection. Of course, the Triumphs are only loaned to a public museum while they renovate their usual home. But the logical choice of placing them in the National Gallery is very different from the way the royal collection has sometimes kept its treasures. It is an optimistic sign that, under this monarch, this heritage will be managed more as a public good and less as a private treasure.

theguardian Gt

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