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

More than 500 years ago, Andrea Mantegna, court artist to the Gonzaga family who ruled the north Italian city state Mantua, painted his dream of ancient Rome. In nine large, crammed canvases, he depicted scenes from a Roman victory pageant, or triumph. When the Gonzagas finally ran out of cash, these nine square pictures were bought by the avid art collector Charles I and installed in Hampton Court Palace, where they’ve spent the best part of four centuries, most recently in an outbuilding in the gardens. Now 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 packed with Renaissance art with which to compare them. It’s a new lease of life for these masterpieces.

The glory that was Rome blazes all over again in this grand, yet very human, recreation of the triumphs granted to Julius Caesar for his conquests in Gaul. Smoky colours and brooding faces, empty armour and paraded elephants fill the twilit cavalcade. Characters in the crowd hold you: a Black standard bearer, a melancholy youth pondering what it all means, an old slave bent double under the booty he’s carrying. What fascinates Mantegna about the Roman empire is its human and natural plenitude. We see the wealth of empire – the statues, tableware, siege machines and animals brought as tribute to Rome. It’s both a parade for Caesar and a summing up of all such rites, a distillation of the military might and scale of this lost empire.

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

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

Mantegna’s Triumphs have always been recognised as masterpieces – or more correctly a single masterpiece, for the pictures all cohere as 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 enjoy these canvases as much as we’re told we should.

It’s not just that Mantegna’s masterpieces have faded unevenly over the centuries, making them hard to light well – an issue the National Gallery sorts out superbly. More challenging is the immense gulf in mentality between him and us. For 21st-century minds that live in a digital now, and believe in progress, it takes a leap of imagination to engage with Mantegna’s passionate attempt to bring a lost age to life, because he thinks it was better than his own.

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

Yet even the critical Vasari, who thought Mantegna’s classical style a bit “dry”, admitted that in the Triumphs of Caesar his obsession with ancient Rome results in something truly captivating. This is an elegy to the Roman empire, which for Mantegna means civilisation itself.

Mantegna paints Rome as a diverse global empire. Officially this is meant to be a triumph awarded to Caesar for conquering Gaul: a plaque held aloft refers directly to this in Latin. But Mantegna wants to evoke the whole Roman empire that stretched from Syria to Britannia. There are siege machines that may recall the death of Archimedes in the Siege of Syracuse, as well as sculptures from Greece and Egypt.

And there’s sadness. Empty leg greaves and cuirasses, carried as trophies, pungently make you think of the lost bodies that once wore this armour. That thought is intensified by the moody, russet light Mantegna creates.

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

Mantegna is not only imitating Roman art but competing with it. In spite of his reverence, he outdoes his sources. The people are as solid as statues but they’re flesh and blood, moving in space, depicted in depth. These paintings are miracles of that Renaissance invention, perspective. Designed to be seen from below, they show the ranks of marchers, carts and objects receding away from us, towards hills and buildings in the distance. The ancient Greeks and Romans may have had a sharp eye for reality but they didn’t systematically show life in deep perspective as Mantegna does.

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It’s tempting to say the melancholy of these paintings hints at criticism of the Roman empire. But The Triumphs of Caesar want to praise Rome, not bury it. Mantegna thinks he’d have been happy in that lost, magnificent world.

He holds it up as an alternative to his own age and expresses this in perhaps the most extraordinary tributes to the fascination of history that have ever been painted. Mantegna doesn’t judge the Romans but tries to put himself in that far-off reality – to hear the trumpets and smell the elephant shit.

Let’s hope this generous loan means a new start for the royal collection. True, the Triumphs are only on loan to a public museum while their usual home is renovated. But the commonsensical choice to put them in the National Gallery is very different from the way the royal collection has sometimes held its treasures tight. It’s an optimistic sign that under this monarch it will be run more like a public asset and less like a private hoard.

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