A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Andrea Mantegna Part 4

22 March 2013

The Triumphs of Caesar


The Castello di San Giorgio at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua — surrounded by a moat — was built in the early 1400s.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Before our detour (in Part 3 of this entry) through the rich, centuries-long tradition of art, literature, and music at the Gonzaga court, we had been discussing Andrea Mantegna’s service as court artist to the Gonzagas.  With one brief (known) exception, he had remained since his arrival in 1459 at Mantua for the rest of his life.

In 1488 Mantegna was invited to Rome to paint a series of frescoes in the Belvedere Chapel at the Vatican.  These frescoes, which were meticulously described by Vasari, were unfortunately destroyed almost 300 years later to make room for the construction of the Pio-Clementino Museum.  Mantegna’s stay in Rome allowed him to further his study of ancient Roman sculpture and architecture, an enduring interest for his entire life and a significant influence on his paintings.


Ancient ruins can still be seen in the Roman Forum.


Returning to Mantua around 1490, Mantegna is thought to have resumed work on a series of nine tempera paintings known as Trionfi di Giulio Cesare (Triumphs of Caesar; c. 1484 - c. 1492, or as late as 1505).  These paintings are considered his most superb works.

The Triumphs of Caesar conveys in magnificent images the celebration of Julius Caesar’s victory over Gaul and the recapture of Pontus in Asia Minor, equally revealing Mantegna’s fascination with classical antiquity that he had acquired as a protégé in Padua under Francesco Squarcione, and (the assumed patron) Francesco II Gonzaga’s idea of the type of military example that he wished to emulate.

Each of the nine canvases is nearly eight meters (25 feet) square, yielding a total area of almost 70 meters (230 feet) square for the complete series.  It is thought that because Mantegna did not have many opportunities to paint in fresco at that time, he choose an immense scale appropriate to wall paintings for his canvases.  No one is sure where the series was originally displayed, although the paintings were used as theatrical decoration in the 1490s and early 1500s.

The ancient Latin texts of which Mantegna seems to have made use for his portrayal of Caesar’s triumphal procession were chiefly Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD), Appian of Alexandria (c. 95 - c. 165 AD), and Suetonius (c. 69 - after 122 AD).  Mantegna’s life-long study of antiquities throughout Italy contributed significantly to bringing these accounts to life.

According to Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) description of these paintings, "We can see grouped and cleverly arranged in the Triumph the ornate and beautiful chariot, the figure of a man cursing the victorious hero, the victor's relations, the perfumes, incense and sacrifices, the priests, the bulls crowned for sacrifice, the prisoners, the booty captured by the troops, the rank of the squadrons, the elephants, the spoils, the victories and the cities represented in various chariots, along with a mass of trophies on spears, and with helmets and armor, headgear of all kinds, ornaments and countless pieces of plate."


Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar I: The Picture-bearers, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In Canvas I, leading the procession are trumpeters, Roman soldiers who carry smoking censers on long poles, and standard-bearers who hold up pictures of conquered cities on their banners.  In Canvas II, massive statues that were taken from the enemy’s temples are carried on carts — along with captured arms, spears, breastplates, shields, and towers representing the vanquished cities — and a tablet with the not-too-subtle inscription: IMP [ERATORI] IVLIO CAESARI / OB GALLIAM DEVICT [AM] / MILITARI POTENCIA / TRIVMPHVS / DECRETVS INVIDIA / SPRETA SVPERATAQ [VE] [The Emperor Julius Caesar was awarded the triumph because of the total submission of the Gauls and based on its military power after envy was scorned and overcome]. A somewhat frightened dog cowers below.



Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar III: The Bearers of Trophies and Bullion, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Canvas III features additional carts and stretchers which carry the spoils of war:  vases, urns filled with gold and silver coins, and captured weapons and armor piled ridiculously high.  According to Plutarch’s Lives, there was “the finest and richest armor of the Macedonians, both of brass and steel, all newly polished and glittering the pieces of which were piled up and arranged purposely with the greatest art, so as to seem to be tumbled in heaps carelessly and by chance: helmets were thrown upon shields, coats of mail upon greaves; Cretan targets, and Thracian bucklers and quivers of arrows, lay huddled amongst horses' bits, and through these there appeared the points of naked swords, intermixed with long Macedonian sarissas.”


Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-bearers, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


More trumpeters appear in Canvas IV, having banners attached to their instruments, one of which reads: SPQR IVLIVS CAESAR [SPQR = Senatus Populusque Romanus, The Senate and the People of Rome, signifying the government of the ancient Roman Republic], as well as large vases filled with plunder and white oxen for sacrifice.  Elephants with candelabras tromp through Canvas V, their riders perched high on their backs.


Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar VI: The Corselet-bearers, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Canvas VI includes more war booty:  arms, body armor, and large urns filled with coins.  A Roman viaduct dominates the background.  Next, in Canvas VII, we see a procession of the captives: men with their hands tied in front of them, along with women, children, and infants.  According to Plutarch’s Lives, “pity fixed the eyes of the Romans upon the infants; and many of them could not forbear tears, and all beheld the sight with a mixture of sorrow and pleasure, until the children were passed.”  Behind the captives is a torch with yet another banner bearing the initials SPQR — and a prison, its inhabitants looking through bars.


Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar VIII: The Musicians, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In addition to more standard bearers of the Roman legions, musicians performing on lyre, tambourine, and trumpets appear in Canvas VIII.  In Appian’s Roman History, Book VIII, we are told, “Lietors clad in purple tunics preceded the general; also a chorus of musicians and pipers, in imitation of an Etruscan procession, wearing belts and golden crowns, and they march evenly with song and dance. They call themselves Lydi because, as I think, the Etruscans were a Lydian colony. One of these, in the middle of the procession, wearing a purple cloak and golden bracelets and necklace, caused laughter by making various gesticulations, as though he were insulting the enemy.”


Andrea Mantegna: The Triumphs of Caesar IX: Julius Caesar, c. 1484 – c. 1492, egg and glue tempera on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Next, as Plutarch tells it, “Then he himself came, seated on a chariot magnificently adorned (a man well worthy to be looked at, even without these ensigns of power), dressed in a robe of purple, interwoven with gold, and holding a laurel branch in his right hand.”  Canvas IX presents Julius Caesar in his chariot drawn by a white horse, while putti holding laurel and olive garlands dart about the horse’s legs.  A triumphal arch overlooks the procession.  Varying somewhat from Plutarch’s account, in Mantegna's picture Caesar holds a palm frond in his left hand and a scepter in his right.  While winged Victory is about to place a laurel crown on his head, a plaque is held aloft with three simple words:  “VENI VIDI VICI [I came, I saw, I conquered].”

Mantegna probably never completed the tenth scene, but he had made a preparatory design of which there exists an engraved copy at the Albertina in Vienna.  In this scene we see Roman senators in togas, carrying tablets and processing through a Roman street bordered by a tower and a building with Roman arches.  While onlookers view the procession through windows, guards follow the senators with halberds and shields.

Mantegna’s workshop not only made an engraving of the tenth scene — the only means by which we know it today — but they produced numerous engravings of all of the original drawn designs for the series of paintings.  These prints made their way throughout Europe, causing Mantegna’s work to be widely renowned.

After the Gonzaga dynasty was overthrown in the late 16th century, the Triumphs of Caesar paintings were sold in 1629 to King Charles I of England, where they remain.  They are now displayed in the Orangery at Hampton Court Palace, London.

As these canvases were painted in tempera (rather than oil paint) on canvas, using egg yolk and glue to bind the pigment, they are somewhat fragile and have suffered with age.  Consequently, they have been repainted and restored through the centuries, a well-intentioned mistreatment.  Beginning in 1962, Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, supervised a restoration campaign that lasted through 1974.  Many repaintings have been removed, improving the appearance of the Triumphs of Caesar paintings only slightly, but doing little to remedy the irreparable damage of the last five centuries.

But Anthony Blunt is philosophical:  "The Triumphs may be a ruin but it is a noble one, one as noble as those of ancient Rome which Mantegna so deeply admired."


Next:  the Casa del Mantegna



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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