Padua 1431 - 1506 Mantua
THE TRIUMPH OF ALEXANDRIA
Pen and brown ink;
Indented for transfer
266 by 266 mm; 10½ by 10½ in
August Grahl (1791-1868), Dresden (L.1199, twice: recto and backing),
his posthumous sale, London, Sotheby's in association with the book-dealer Alexander Twietmeyer, Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by the Late Professor August Grahl of Dresden, 27-28 April 1885, lot 209 ('Part of the Triumph of Caesar, pen and sepia'),
Alexander Twietmeyer, Leipzig,
by descent to his heirs, by whom consigned,
sale, Leipzig, C.G. Boerner, 19 February 1942, lot 491 (as Workshop of Mantegna, ‘Krieger zu Roß, zu Fuß und auf einem Triumphwagen’);
Private Collection, Germany, by 1942, thence by descent;
Private Collection, Germany
London, The National Gallery, Mantegna & Bellini, 2018-2019 and
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Mantegna und Bellini: Meister der Renaissance, 2019, p. 75, reproduced pp. 76-77, figs. 64-65 (in color, including photograph taken in ultraviolet light), p. 286, under fig. 65
C. Campbell, D. Korbacher, N. Rowley and S. Vowles, Mantegna & Bellini, exhib. cat., London, The National Gallery, 2018, p. 75, reproduced pp. 76-77, figs. 64-65 (in color, including photograph taken in ultraviolet light), p. 286, under fig. 65;
S. Vowles, 'New Light on Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar', Master Drawings, vol. LVII, no. 1, 2019, pp. 33-46, reproduced p. 34, fig. 1;
G. Goldner, 'Reviews: Mantegna and Bellini', Master Drawings, vol. LVII, no. 2, 2019, p. 239, under Berlin, Private Collection
This recently rediscovered sheet is the only preparatory drawing that has survived for Mantegna’s Triumphs, his celebrated series of nine monumental paintings that is one of the great artistic achievements of late 15th-century Italy, and one of the jewels of the British Royal Collection. The paintings, now at Hampton Court Palace, were acquired by King Charles I (1600-1649) in 1628, when he famously secured a significant portion of the celebrated collections of the Gonzaga family, Dukes of Mantua and leading patrons of Mantegna.
The sale to the English King was finally agreed by the new Duke of Mantua, Carlo I of Nevers (1580-1637), following lengthy negotiations initially conducted by Ferdinando II, Gonzaga (1587-1626), and his brother Vincenzo II, Gonzaga (1594-1627), and Mantegna’s Triumphs were recognized as one of the richest prizes included in the transaction, the most substantial and prestigious sale ever made from an historic Italian collection. The Triumphs, among the most influential and revered works of the entire Italian Renaissance, together represent a single triumphal procession through ancient Rome, recreating the military glory of Julius Caesar, the greatest of all Roman generals.
In this highly finished and extremely detailed drawing, Mantegna, with total command of his pen and ink medium, draws us into one of the most impressive compositions of the whole series: The Standard Bearers and the Siege Equipment, the second of the nine scenes. This study testifies not only to Mantegna’s indefatigable mind and extraordinary talent as a draftsman, but also to his ability as a master of constantly developing narrative. As will be explained in more detail below, Mantegna was an artist who was not afraid to introduce major changes, even very late in the development of his composition, and then to revise yet again both the composition and its iconography in the final painted version.
The drawing was included as a crucial, newly discovered element in our understanding of Mantegna’s Triumphs in the definitive exhibition Mantegna & Bellini, held at the National Gallery, London, and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, in 2018-2019. More recently, further research and technical studies, conducted at Sotheby’s following the closing of the exhibition, have revealed extremely important new aspects of the drawing and its genesis. In particular, examination under infrared illumination has made it possible to see, under the monumental features of the sculpture of Aesculapius to the far left of the composition, a previous pen and ink preliminary study for a smaller statue of Helios, now skillfully disguised within the forms of the subsequent figure.
This major discovery sheds new light on Mantegna’s working method and helps explain how he arrived at the final composition of the related painting, by making changes that would have a fundamental impact not only on that painting, but also on the perspective and proportions of the figures in all the subsequent canvases in the series. The discovery also provides incontrovertible proof that the drawing, most probably made to be presented to Francesco II, Gonzaga (1466-1519), is the only surviving preparatory study for the Triumphs. It is one of the most revealing and extraordinary of the very small group of surviving drawings by Mantegna, and one of the most important Renaissance artworks to come for sale in the present century.
ANDREA MANTEGNA AND THE TRIUMPH OF CAESAR
by David Ekserdjian
Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506) occupies an absolutely unique position within the history of Italian renaissance art. The two main reasons for this are not only that he stands alone among the painters of his generation in having foreshadowed the style of the early sixteenth century – above all as it is exemplified in the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael – but also because he was arguably the most truly classical artist of the entire period.
Renaissance simply means rebirth, but that begs the question as to what was being reborn, and in this context the answer is that the renaissance first and foremost represented the revival of the artistic style of classical antiquity, as exemplified in ancient Greece and especially – if only by virtue of what was most readily available to artists in Italy – Rome. These days we find it only natural to value works of art on their own terms, and to resist constructing hierarchies and league tables, but it was not ever thus. On the contrary, the notion of highs and lows within the history of art was taken for granted, and the idea of a dark age stretching from the fall of the Roman empire until the period around 1300 was very widely accepted. Indeed, the whole structure of what may be described as the Bible of Italian renaissance art history, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects – first published in 1550, but now almost invariably read in the form of the second, considerably expanded edition of 1568 – is based upon an absolute certainty concerning the progress of art, and led to the book’s consequent division into three parts.1 For Vasari, each part is devoted to a particular age, with the first part approximately covering the period from the second half of the thirteenth century to the start of the fifteenth, the second part the fifteenth century, and the third part being devoted to the story so far within the sixteenth century, culminating in the biography of his great hero, Michelangelo, which is incomparably the longest of all the Lives. Nevertheless, within this in essence rigid scheme, Mantegna comes about as close as anyone chronologically obliged to inhabit Part II could to qualifying for a place in Part III.
The fact that Mantegna’s exceptional position within this progress was recognised at an extremely early date is easily demonstrated. A quarter of a century before Vasari penned his biography of Mantegna, the nearest thing to a Venetian equivalent to him, a remarkable man called Marcantonio Michiel (1484-1552), had already got the point. In a letter he wrote on 20 March 1524 to his fellow humanist Pietro Summonte (1463-1526) in Naples, he refers to a sadly now lost painting of the Deposition of Christ by Mantegna in the church of San Domenico there, and states that ‘his paintings are held in high esteem, as you know better than anyone, because it was with him that the revival of antiquity had its beginnings.’2
Within Vasari’s account of Mantegna’s career, we are left in no doubt of the fact that the Triumph of Caesar is the artist’s masterpiece. According to Vasari:
‘For the same Marquis [Lodovico Gonzaga], in a hall of the Palace of S. Sebastiano in Mantua, he painted the Triumph of Caesar, which is the best thing that he ever executed. In this work we see, grouped with most beautiful design in the triumph, the ornate and lovely car, the man who is vituperating the triumphant Caesar, and the relatives, the perfumes, the incense, the sacrifices, the priests, the bulls crowned for the sacrifice, the prisoners, the booty won by the soldiers, the ranks of the squadrons, the elephants, the spoils, the victories, the cities and fortresses counterfeited in various cars, with an infinity of trophies borne on spears, and a variety of helmets and body-armour, head-dresses, and vases and ornaments innumerable; and in the multitude of spectators is a woman holding the hand of a boy, who, having pierced his foot with a thorn, is showing it, weeping, to his mother, in a graceful and very lifelike manner. Andrea, as I may have pointed out elsewhere, had a good and beautiful idea in this scene, for, having set the plane on which the figures stood higher than the level of the eye, he placed the feet of the foremost on the outer edge and outline of that plane, making the others recede little by little, so that their feet and legs were lost to sight in the proportion required by the point of view; and so, too, with the spoils, vases, and other instruments and ornaments, of which he showed only the lowest part, concealing the upper, as was required by the rules of perspective… And this whole work, to put it briefly, is as beautiful and well wrought as it could be; so that if the Marquis loved Andrea before, he loved and honoured him much more ever afterwards.’3
Modern scholarship is less straightforwardly certain than Vasari was that Ludovico Gonzaga was the original patron of the Triumph. The earliest documentary reference to the project dates from August 1486, when an unspecified but plural number of paintings (‘the Triumphs of Caesar’) are referred to in the context of a visit to Mantua by Ercole d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, but Ludovico Gonzaga had died eight years earlier, in 1478.4 Moreover, even in the case of his successor as Marquis, Federico, who died in 1484, there is a gap of a couple of years between his death and this mention. It is also by no means certain how long the project took to complete, but the general assumption is that it was a long haul. Conversely, what is clear is that all nine canvases are uniformly lit from the left, which powerfully supports the notion that it was always intended that they should be displayed – as of course they are today in Hampton Court – in a straight line.
The series of canvases had been installed in the Palazzo di San Sebastiano, where Vasari saw them, since the early sixteenth century. They are first recorded there by the local historian, Mario Equicola, who states in his Commentarii Mantuani of 1521 that a special room was constructed to house them.5 However, this cannot have been their intended home from the outset, since the palace was not built until around 1506-1507.6 Intriguingly, there is also fairly incontrovertible evidence in the form of a copy drawing and two prints that a tenth canvas was originally planned. Known as The Senators, it must have been intended to follow after the ninth and now final scene of Caesar on his Chariot, but there is no evidence to suggest that the invention, for all that it is extremely carefully thought out, was ever translated into paint.7
What is arguably most impressive about Vasari’s account is not just the fact that he manages to combine technical analysis of Mantegna’s treatment of perspective and space with a detailed but at the same time evocative listing of so many of the individual elements that go to make up this surging mass of humanity, but especially that he sees beyond the obvious. From a modern perspective, it is all too tempting to skim over the surface of this great procession and to regard it as an alarmingly prescient species of anticipation of the kinds of scenes that almost unfailingly feature in Hollywood evocations of ancient Rome, whether in golden oldies such as The Sign of the Cross (1932), technicolor inbetweeners such as Ben Hur (1959), or altogether more recent offerings such as Gladiator (2000). Instead, Vasari brilliantly picks out the fact that ‘in the multitude of spectators is a woman holding the hand of a boy, who, having pierced his foot with a thorn, is showing it, weeping, to his mother’. Tragically, this vignette, which underlines Mantegna’s intensely human touch amidst all the pomp and circumstance, is virtually lost because it features within the seventh canvas, Captives, Buffoons and Soldiers, which was already described as ‘much spoyled’ in the seventeenth century, and is by far the most savagely ruined of them all.8 Vasari might equally have drawn our attention to the adjacent buffoons, one of whom is meeting our gaze and making a funny face, or indeed to the extraordinary combination of energy and grandeur that the figures collectively bring to life.
This is not the place to engage in a detailed analysis of the ways in which Mantegna went about planning the Triumph of Caesar, not least since the rôle of his drawing for the second canvas in the series is in any case meticulously explored elsewhere in this catalogue.9 However, it does seem worth underlining three broad points. The first is that while almost no autograph first ideas for the nine individual canvases have survived, there do exist a number of records of such studies, both in the form of drawings that must copy now lost originals, and in the form of engravings after such preliminary thoughts. The second is that all these sheets – even when they are not completely finished – represent entire compositions, as opposed to detailed studies of single figures within the various scenes. The third and most striking point is that the figure style of the first ideas is almost invariably less monumental than that of the finished paintings, which in this respect stand alone within Mantegna’s entire body of work. Indeed, even in the case of the drawing that concerns us here the figures were initially conceived of with less monumental proportions, as is particularly apparent when it comes to the statue of Aesculapius, and it was only in the definitive version of the drawn composition that this changed in a way that tellingly foreshadows the grandeur of the finished canvas.
The fact that Mantegna was the court painter of the ruling family of Mantua, the Gonzaga, and that it was for them that he executed the Triumph of Caesar, was to determine its subsequent fate. For while the collecting of Italian renaissance art in England was at best occasional during the period up to 1600, that was all to change in the early seventeenth century, notably thanks to the activities of King Charles I (1600-49). Charles came to the throne in 1625, but his passion for the collecting of art had already been triggered when he was Prince of Wales, notably by his embassy to Madrid in 1623 in an unavailing attempt to win the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain.10 Later on, in 1628 he acquired virtually the entire Gonzaga collection, but from the outset the Triumph of Caesar was recognised as among its richest prizes.11
As is well known, after Charles’s execution on Tuesday 30 January 1649 the Commonwealth took the decision to sell off his art collection.12 After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 with the return to the throne of King Charles II, considerable efforts were made to recover as much of the collection as possible, but inevitably this was a far from straightforward task, especially when it came to those pieces that were no longer in the country. Conversely, in the case of the Triumph of Caesar, at the time of the Commonwealth Sale it was determined that it – like the Raphael Cartoons – should be retained. In both cases, this decision may well have been taken not only because of their capacity to cover considerable expanses of wall – Oliver Cromwell did after all have to live in the former royal palaces as a head of state – but also with the idea that they might be employed as the basis for tapestries. In the event, in the 1650s there were actual plans to employ the Triumph in some fashion in the tapestry factory at Mortlake, but nothing came of them. Be that as it may, it is a striking fact that the ultimate reserve put on the set of nine canvases was £1000, admittedly as a consequence of a last-minute change of mind, as against the mere £300 reserve for the Raphael Cartoons.13
It seems only fair to add that – both later on in the renaissance and thereafter – other works by Mantegna were at least equally admired. One thinks of his early frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel in the church of the Santo in Padua, which were the victims of a direct hit during an allied bombing raid in 1944,14 and the so-called Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua,15 not to mention such extraordinary smaller-scale achievements as the Dead Christ in the Brera in Milan and the Christ as the Man of Sorrows with Two Angels in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, not to mention the very different universe conjured up in the Parnassus in the Louvre.16 Yet the Triumph held its magic for subsequent generations, as is perhaps most eloquently testified to by Rubens’ Roman Triumph in the National Gallery in London, which manages to combine reverent dependence with imaginative freedom.17 Many later artists only knew the compositions of the nine canvases through reproductive prints or drawn copies, but such was absolutely not the case when it came to Rubens. He was court painter to the Gonzaga from 1600 to 1608, and then had yet another opportunity to study the series when he visited England a couple of decades later in 1629-30.18
Even as late as the nineteenth century, both Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) are illustrious representatives of a continuing interest in Mantegna and the Triumph of Caesar. In the case of the former, he paid homage in a sheet in black chalk recently sold in Paris, which comprises two figures – and the leg of a horse – copied from the ninth and final canvas of the Triumph, which he would have had the opportunity to study during his visit to Britain in 1825.19 Degas was likewise intrigued by the Triumph, which he copied on more than one occasion, and indeed by a number of other works by Mantegna.20
By way of conclusion, I find it impossible to resist pointing out that the profound influence that Mantegna has had upon artists of subsequent centuries which I have endeavoured to trace is not simply a thing of the past. In Michael J. Browne’s The Art of the Game of 1997, the artist ingeniously combines Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the Resurrection in Borgo Sansepolcro with the final canvas from the Triumph of Caesar in an act of homage to Manchester United as well as to Italian renaissance painting. The former work inspired his representation of Eric Cantona as Christ risen, with four of his team-mates as the sleeping soldiers – David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, and Nicky Butt – in front of the tomb, while it is from the latter that Browne derived the whole upper part of the canvas, where the Man U manager of the day, Sir Alex Ferguson, replaces Caesar seated on his triumphal chariot, and the figure crowning him is substituted by the little-known John Curtis. The work in question belongs to Cantona himself, but is usually on display – appropriately enough – at the National Football Museum in Manchester.21
1. G. Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by G. du C. Vere, with an introduction and notes by D. Ekserdjian, 2 vols., London, 1996.
2. Shearman, Raphael in Early Modern Sources 1483-1602, 2 vols., New Haven and London, 2003, vol. I, p. 772, for the letter, and R. Lightbown, Mantegna: With a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Oxford, 1986, p. 465, no. 91, and figs. 172a e b, for copies of the lost work.
3. G. Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by G. du C. Vere, with an introduction and notes by D. Ekserdjian, 2 vols., London, 1996, vol. I, pp. 561-62.
4. A. Martindale, The Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London, 1979, p. 185, Appendix IV, Document 1.
5. Ibid., p. 181, Appendix IV, Document 26.
6. Ibid., p. 31.
7. Ibid., pp. 165-66, fig. 56, and p. 167, fig. 60.
8. Ibid., pp. 152-53, figs. 37 and 273.
9. C. Campbell, D. Korbacher, N. Rowley and S. Vowles, Mantegna and Bellini, exhib. cat., National Gallery, London, and Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2018-19, pp. 75-77, figs. 64-65, for this sheet.
10. F. Haskell, The King’s Pictures, New Haven and London, 2013, for a masterly overview both of Charles as a collector, and of the Royal Sale, and p. 21, for the embassy.
11. P. Rumberg and D. Shawe-Taylor, Charles I: King and Collector, exhib. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2018, for an overview of his entire collection, and R. Morselli (ed.), Gonzaga: La Celeste Galleria, exh. cat., 2 vols., Palazzo Ducale and Palazzo Te, Mantua, 2002, for the Gonzaga collection.
12. A. MacGregor (ed.), The King’s Goods: Collections, Possessions and Patronage of Charles I in the Light of the Commonwealth Inventories, London and Oxford, 1989.
13. Haskell, op. cit., pp. 138-39.
14. G. Fiocco, La Cappella Ovetari nella chiesa degli Eremitani, Cinisello Balsamo, 1978.
15. R. Signorini, Opus hoc tenue: La Camera Dipinta di Andrea Mantegna, Mantua, 1985.
16. R. Lightbown, Mantegna: With a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Oxford, 1986, p. 465, no. 91, and figs. 172a e b.
17. M. Jaffé, Rubens and Italy, Oxford, 1977, p. 42, plate 115. See also plates 103-104 for two drawings by Rubens of details from two of the canvases.
18. C. White, Peter Paul Rubens, New Haven and London, 1987, pp. 221-31, for the visit.
19. Maîtres anciens et du XIXe siècle, Artcurial, Paris, 24 September 2019, p. 55, lot 239, where the source is not identified, and Martindale, op.cit., fig. 42, for the canvas. See also L. Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue 1816-1831, 2 vols., Oxford, 1987, vol. I, pp. xviii-xix, for the visit.
20. T. Reff, The Notebooks of Edgar Degas, 2 vols., Oxford, 1976, vol. I, p. 86, nos. 15, 17 and 19, and vol. II, Notebook 14A, pp. 15, 17 and 19; vol. I, p. 88, nos. 19 and 21, vol. II, Notebook 15, pp. 19 and 21; vol. I, p. 89, nos. 37 and 40; and vol. I, p. 100, nos. 205-206, and vol. II, Notebook 18, pp. 205-206, for the Triumph of Caesar.
21. Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Greater Manchester Vol. I, London 2013, p. 300.
Important new evidence towards the evolution of the composition in Mantegna’s Triumph of Alexandria
by Cristiana Romalli
In this highly finished and extremely detailed drawing, Mantegna, with total command of the media, draws us into one of the most impressive compositions of the whole series of canvases now at Hampton Court: The Standard Bearers and the Siege Equipment (The Triumphal Carts; Canvas II).
This chapter is devoted to a fascinating and important new element in our understanding of the development of this composition, which was recently revealed during the course of scientific investigations with infrared light, conducted at Sotheby’s, following the exhibitions at the National Gallery, London, and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.1
This important discovery not only sheds new light on Mantegna’s working method, but also explains many of the changes seen in canvas II. Moreover, it is unquestionable proof that this is the only surviving preparatory study for the Triumphs, made to be presented to Francesco Gonzaga, and one of the most revealing and extraordinary of the very small group of surviving drawings by Mantegna.
Before going into further detail, it is perhaps helpful to highlight some key stylistic features of this magnificent and elaborate sheet, and to emphasize that we are looking at a highly finished and polished drawing, which Mantegna must have intended as a modello or presentation drawing.
The master spared no effort in executing this drawing, covering almost the entire surface of the sheet with fine, closely drawn parallel hatching, often varying the pressure of the pen to create areas of deeper shadow, which augment the defined contours that firmly outline the figures and objects in the composition.
Mantegna’s highly disciplined working method and rigorous handling of the pen and ink results in great sophistication and variety in the modelling, achieved through delicate gradations of chiaroscuro, heightening the sense of luminosity and sculptural relief. His technique is extremely subtle and confident, and as is the case in many of his later drawings, Mantegna does not here employ any cross-hatching. (For a discussion of the dating of the drawing, see p. 58). As has rightly been noted by various scholars, Mantegna’s late drawing style can be seen as a parallel to the techniques found in niello engraving.2
Mantegna employs a variety of devices to engage the viewer and draw them into the scene. He achieves variety in the narrative through the hatched modelling of the figures and objects, which densely crowd the entire space, while at the same time he brilliantly takes advantage of the blank surface of the paper to enhance the luminosity of the ensemble. In this drawn composition, the light falls almost frontally and from the left, just as in its painted counterpart, and the other paintings in the series. This clearly demonstrates, as has been pointed out by various scholars over the years, that these canvases were intended to be displayed consecutively on a wall in a long gallery, faced by windows.
Originally, the contrasts in this highly subtle and refined drawing must have been more pronounced, and indeed the richness and delicacy of the penmanship and its nuances are more striking in the photograph taken with ultraviolet light (see p. 62).3 The darker areas and the well-defined contours none the less effectively enhance the volumes of the figures, emphasizing their three-dimensionality and successfully simulating a procession as seen in an antique relief. In the background, an array of siege equipment is balanced by the circular form of the tower of the lighthouse at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is here in the Triumphs that the artist’s lasting fascination with ancient reliefs and deep understanding of their potential finds its most powerful expression.
Mantegna described the series of paintings in 1489 as ‘li trionfi mei’ (my triumphs)4, and it was surely he who was the main driving force behind its creation. He must therefore have weighed up very carefully any significant changes when making his final studies for each composition, as all such changes would affect not only the final canvas for which that drawing was a study, but also the flow of the entire sequence, which depends on the theatrical effect of a continuous procession advancing behind the wooden pilasters which framed the canvases.5 The detection of any radical revisions and pentimenti is therefore of immense significance, and this is precisely what the recent examinations have revealed.
This sheet had previously been examined under infrared illumination, by Dr. Eva Hummert, but that study had not detected any carbon-containing drawing media.6 During our examination, on the other hand, clear evidence was found that Mantegna did use a carbon-containing drawing medium when making this drawing, probably an iron gall ink containing soot or some other form of carbon, and this carbon was detected using a CMOS camera sensitive to near infrared wavelengths.7 Seen under certain very specific wavelengths of infrared illumination, lines drawn in this carbon-containing medium are visible even if they have subsequently been obscured by other lines and layers of pigment, allowing us to ‘see’ underdrawings and revisions in a way that is otherwise impossible.
In studying the infrared photograph of the present drawing and focusing on the majestic statue of Aesculapius to the far left of the composition, it immediately became apparent that his beard had been enlarged, a change followed in the final painting. This minor pentimento, visible even to the naked eye, prompted me to scrutinize the figure more closely, revealing the presence in the underdrawing of the outlines of a much smaller statue (fig. 1), now skillfully disguised, the top of which is at the level of Aesculapius’s lower chest, his head turned to the right looking towards the two main central characters, the standard-bearer on horseback and the soldier halting him in the immediate foreground.8 The smaller sculpture, which surely derives from or was inspired by the antique, shows a long-haired youth with rays emerging from his head, a curl falling down to the left of his neck; it must be a representation of Helios or Apollo.9 The right arm of this figure of Helios is raised up, but has been integrated with the shoulder of the second gigantic statue to the extreme left margin of the sheet, which almost seems to have the form that it does for the sole purpose of disguising the right arm of the initial figure. Some cloth draped over Helios’s left shoulder and arm is still visible, though now almost totally disguised by Aesculapius’s mantle, and the latter’s left arm and hand holding a staff reach over Helios’s belly, which is now obscured by intricate folds and pleats of drapery. The drapery in this area would in fact be far more elegantly resolved in the final painting. Moving further down the figure of Aesculapius, the position and proportions of his bent left leg are still consistent with those of Helios, whose upper body twists so he can gaze at the procession just below; Aesculapius’s right leg has, however, been more successfully adapted to suit the figure’s gigantic size. The proportions of the original Helios figure to the far left of the composition are also more consistent with the very small cart on which he stands; in the painted version, the scale of the cart is increased, and fits better with the monumental dimensions of the new sculpture – which would, incidentally, have been an unusual presence in a triumphal procession. There are no records of Aesculapius, the ancient god of medicine, having figured in the iconography of such an event, whereas a golden sculpture of Helios or Apollo was carried, according to Pliny the Elder, in the third triumph of Pompey the Great, in 61 BC.10
Having established that Mantegna initially drew a different leading figure for this scene, much smaller in size, we can better understand the proportions of the following retinue. Mantegna must at first have outlined the whole composition, which is very well balanced. The only overwhelming feature would have been the large battering ram’s head. The classical building below the tower of Alexandria and the wall would have extended further to the left, while the second horse’s head, behind the cavalryman’s mount, would have been totally visible. It should also be noted that the mounted figure, wearing a green draped cloth, who looks backwards at the right hand end of the first canvas in the series, ‘The Trumpeters’, would have been gazing directly towards Helios’s head, in a coordinated effort to link the various scenes and their narrative. Therefore, it seems most probable that at this point in the evolution of the composition Mantegna is rethinking his approach to the perspective and proportions of his figures, in a way that was to have a lasting impact on the subsequent canvases in the series.
In general, it is fair to say that the proportions and perspective of the figures in The Trumpeters (fig. 2) are much more in keeping with what we see in the present drawing, than with the final painted version of ‘The Triumph of Alexandria’. In the final canvas, with the introduction of such an overwhelming statue paired with a second one, just visible to the extreme left of both the drawn and painted versions, many elements have been eliminated to create more space and to improve on certain aspects of the original composition. The proportions of the figures in the foreground have been noticeably elongated, creating a more extreme da sotto in sù perspective. We can reasonably conclude that the many changes between the present drawing and its painted counterpart are clearly intended to better integrate the majestic figure of Aesculapius and his companion.
It is difficult to explain why Mantegna, at this stage in the development of his composition, made such a major change, though the two monumental statues at the beginning of a long triumph do undoubtedly add a theatrical and rather unexpected visual effect. Mauro Lucco, in his still unpublished study on the present drawing, draws attention to an observation made by Mary Beard, who stressed that Roman triumphs ‘were to a certain extent rooted in the realm of excess, in which everything had to be bigger, and more important, impressive and spectacular’.11 Andrew Martindale, in his exhaustive study devoted to the series at Hampton Court, also notes that: 'To fill a long row of sizable canvases with a line of people set above eye level and processing in somewhat specialized fancy-dress presents difficulties which it requires little imagination to appreciate. The main danger is monotony….’12 It is very plausible that Mantegna, at an advanced stage in the project, wanted to introduce more daring and theatrical elements precisely to counteract this danger of monotony.
Another iconographical difference between the drawing and its painted counterpart is the introduction of a monumental head of the goddess Cybele, on a cart on the right side of the composition which, most likely, substitutes the head of a ‘defeated general’. Interestingly, we can also distinguish just above Cybele the bust of the goddess Diana, seen from the back. The striking and enormous battering ram at the top of our sheet, somehow in grandeur counterbalancing Aesculapius, has been raised and made less prominent in the painted version, while the doomed lighthouse of Alexandria is less of a towering presence, its elongated proportions enlarged, with some decorative sculptures added to the base.
As recent scholars have noted, some motifs are unquestionably far better resolved in the present drawing, the composition of which appears more elegantly conceived and harmonious than that of its painted counterpart.13 Especially noticeable is the gesture of the soldier in the foreground, who in the canvas is moved almost to the center of the scene, much closer to the mounted standard-bearer, as a result of which the figure has become excessively elongated, his elbow awkwardly foreshortened. The balance of the composition has also been changed: Mantegna has pushed the figures in the foreground further forward and to the left, and has eliminated the second horse behind the standard-bearer, allowing him to introduce more details to the far right end of the procession, thereby creating a link with Canvas III: The Trophy Bearers.14 The latter, with its elongated figures in the foreground, balances well with the final composition of Canvas II.
There are many smaller differences between the present drawing and its painted version. As pointed out by Mauro Lucco in his study on the present sheet, and also in other recent publications, the drawing seems to be far more accurate than the painting in terms of historical details. For example, in the drawing the foot soldier halting the horseman wears Roman armor, while in the canvas his clothing, as well as his sword and scabbard, are from Mantegna’s own time. Also, in the drawing the sculpture of Aesculapius wears Roman sandals, rather than the elaborate boots reaching up to his knees that are seen in the canvas. Perhaps Mantegna’s introduction of contemporary costume details such as these was a deliberate device, intended to allude to the military prowess on which the Gonzagas depended.
More important, though, than these and the other minor difference that can be identified is the fact that Mantegna changed the whole subject matter of the scene between making the drawing and the painting, shifting his attention from the Alexandrine to the Gallic War. In the canvas, the inscription on the main placard reads: IMP IULIOCAESARI/OB GALLIAM DEVICT//MILITARI POTENCIA /TRIUMPHUS/DECRETUS INVIDIA/SPRETA SUPERATA, whereas the same tablet in the drawing bears only the text: SPQR DIVO IULIO AUG…. The reason behind this substantial and major revision can only be a matter of speculation, as unfortunately there is no surviving documentation relating to the ‘Triumphs’.
To conclude, the present, recently rediscovered sheet testifies not only to Mantegna’s indefatigable mind and extraordinary talent as a draftsman, but also to his incredible ability as a master of constantly developing narrative. This was an artist who could introduce major changes, even at such a late stage in the evolution of the composition, and then still revise yet again both the composition and its iconography in the final painted version.
The newly discovered pen and ink preliminary study for a statue of Helios, now incorporated and disguised in the monumental features of Aesculapius, clearly demonstrates that the present sheet is an autograph preparatory drawing by Mantegna for Canvas II in his series of paintings of the Triumphs of Julius Caesar. It is also the only preparatory drawing that has survived for Mantegna’s Triumphs,15 his most celebrated series of nine monumental paintings representing a triumphal procession through ancient Rome, recreating the military glory of Julius Caesar, the greatest of all Roman generals. The Triumphs are Mantegna’s masterpiece, and among the most influential and revered works of the entire Italian Renaissance.
1. Specifically, a near infrared image captured with a modified DSLR camera equipped with a CMOS sensor and fitted with a 830 nm filter
2. A. Martindale, The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna, in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Hampton Court, London 1979, pp. 34-35
3. The photograph taken with ultraviolet light was also included, together with the one taken under normal light, in the National Gallery exhibition catalogue; see, Mantegna & Bellini, exhib. cat., op. cit., 2018-19, fig. 64
4. For the complete letter see P. Kristeller, Andrea Mantegna, Berlin and Leipzig 1902, p. 546, doc. 102. In a letter dated 23rd February 1489, Francesco Gonzaga also wrote: ‘ …recondandovi, ch de qua anch haveti de l’opere nre ad finire, et maxime li triumphi: quali come vui diceti e cosa digna, et nui voluntieri le vederessimo finite: se posto bono ordine ad conservarli: qatunch sia opera de le mane et inzegno vro: nui nodimeno ne gloriamo haverli in casa..’ (‘…reminding you that you have works to finish here, especially the Triumphs: that as you say are special and we will like to see them finished: and we have made sure these are well preserved: whatever is coming out of your hands and your invention: we will be no less proud and flattered to have them in our home…’); see Martindale, op. cit., p.181, Document 3
5. These are now exhibited in the Orangery at Hampton Court Palace, and displayed in an architectural setting with carved and decorated pilasters standing between the canvases, based on some of the pilasters introduced by Mantegna in his paintings and the ones which appear on the early engravings after the Triumphs
6. Significantly, examination under infrared illumination, conducted at the British Museum, has also revealed a black chalk underdrawing in Mantegna’s drawing, Virgin and Child enthroned with an angel (inv. no. 1858,0724.3), datable to c. 1580-90; for an image see, M. Faietti, in Fra Angelico to Leonardo, Italian Renaissance drawings, exhib. cat., London, British Museum, 2010, p. 143, fig. 2; these findings have also been published in a British Museum publication: Italian Renaissance Drawings: Technical Examination and Analysis, London 2010
7. This photograph examination was carried out with wavelengths of c. 830-1100 nm
8. I am grateful to Rachel Billinge for confirming the new findings having examined the infrared images
9. I am grateful to my colleague Florent Heintz for the identification of this figure, and for further valuable information
10. Pliny the Elder, Natural History (book 37, chapter 6)
11. M. Beard, The Roman Triumph, Cambridge, Mass & London 2007, p. 8
12. Martindale, op. cit., p. 75
13. Vowles, op. cit., p. 36
14. Especially adding the forequarters of an ox behind the figure of a man carrying a heavy female sculpture, with its base, whose hindquarters appear on the following canvas
15. See pp. 56-57 for information on the known early copies after Mantegna, relating to the Triumphs
Drawings by the workshop of Mantegna related to the Triumphs
Six further drawings can be associated reasonably closely with the compositions of the Triumphs. Although none of these sheets can be considered to be by Mantegna himself, they appear to be unique records of lost originals, which were surely kept in the artist’s workshop. Executed in pen and ink, in two cases worked up with washes, they have – with the exception of one that has been trimmed to the right margin – much the same almost square format and dimensions as the present sheet. Various differences between these drawings and their painted counterparts indicate, however, that they are based not on the final paintings, but on lost original designs by Mantegna.
The Trumpeters, now at the Louvre (related to the first canvas in the series: Trumpeters, Bearer of Standards and Banners), is the only study that, prior to the rediscovery of the present sheet, has been considered by some scholars an autograph work by Mantegna (fig. 1).1 Andrew Martindale, in his comprehensive volume devoted to the Triumphs, defended the authorship of the Louvre sheet, though he wrote: ’It has various features which might be interpreted as weaknesses: and perhaps for this reason it has been dismissed by most writers as yet another variant or copy by a Mantegnesque follower.’2 As Martindale observed, ‘the most disappointing parts are probably the faces of the soldiers’, and he also stressed the lack of genuinely comparable material among the surviving sheets by the artist.3 In fact, leaving aside stylistic faiblesses in the rendering of the figures and their draped clothes, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the child-like faces of the soldiers, or their expressions, with the hand of Mantegna himself. In 2008 Caroline Elam rightly demoted the Louvre drawing, classifying it as a workshop production, a view recently reiterated by Sarah Vowles.4 Interestingly the Louvre drawing, which surely copied a lost original by Mantegna, includes to the left and right margins the profiles of the pilasters of the frame,5 the vehicle that the artist conceived to give the various scenes visual unity; the triumphal procession, in its various stages, unfolds behind this frame, focussing the attention of the spectators on each elaborate and highly theatrical scene.6
There are two other compositional studies related to Canvas III, The Trophy Bearers, respectively in the Albertina, Vienna, and with Galerie Hans, Hamburg.7 The Albertina drawing shows some differences to the final canvas, though overall the composition is very similar to that of its painted counterpart. The same scene is repeated in the sheet at Galerie Hans, though this is slightly cut to the right margin, making the format more vertical. Interestingly, it includes in the foreground to the left the same figure carrying a female statue seen to the extreme right of the present sheet and in the related canvas.
This second sheet must record an earlier moment in the development of Canvas III, when Mantegna was looking for ways to link this composition with that of Triumph of Alexandria (the subject of the present drawing). Indeed, the figure carrying a statue is actually much more in keeping with the subject of the previous moment in the unfolding of the procession, with its flamboyant display of statues, monuments on carts and siege equipment.
Two further drawings, The Captives and The Senators, respectively in the Albertina, Vienna and the Musée Conde, Chantilly, share a very similar composition, both in the figures and in their architectural setting. The drawing of the Captives relates to Canvas VII, while the second drawing shows essentially the same composition as the first, but reworked to represent The Senators. In fact, this relatively modest drawing of The Senators is the only surviving record of Mantegna’s intentions for the last canvas in the series, Canvas X, which was never executed. The composition of that canvas was supposed to follow on naturally from that of Canvas IX, which shows the majestic figure of the triumphant Julius Caesar on his chariot – also the subject of a sheet in the British Museum, the last of these contemporary workshop drawings. Though sharing the same format as the others, this British Museum drawing seems not to be entirely finished, yet is still extensively elaborated through the application of coloured washes of various shades, and its appearance is somewhat different from the finished studies in pen and ink discussed above, except for the drawing with Galerie Hans, which also incorporates some blueish wash.
None of the various workshop drawings described above come remotely close, though, to the sophistication and refinement in the use of the pen that we see in the present drawing of the Triumph of Alexandria, nor do they achieve the same strength and characterization in the individual figures, with their dignified expressions so typical of Mantegna. In his great series of the Triumphs of Julius Caesar, Mantegna created a unique visual experience, which brought to vivid life the enormous fascination that Caesar and Ancient Rome aroused throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He was the first to attempt an accurate visual representation of these events from classical history, drawing on accumulated knowledge deriving not only from antique sources but also from contemporary writings, and the monumental impact through the centuries of his great series of paintings is testimony to his ambition in describing these noble subjects (see also the essay, above, by David Ekserdjian).
1. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Rothschild Collection, inv. no. 775 DR; (see Vowles, op. cit., p. 38, and notes 25-26)
2. Martindale, op. cit., 1979, p. 163
4. C. Elam in G. Agosti and D. Thiébaut, Mantegna (1431-1506), exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2008-09, pp. 382-383, under no. 161; Vowles, op. cit., pp. 38-39
5. Mantegna’s preparatory study for the left wing of the Pala di San Zeno, now at the Getty Museum, does include similar profiles to indicate the frame
6. Elam in Agosti and Thiébaut, Mantegna (1431-1506), exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2008-09, pp. 382-383, under no. 161
7. Vienna, Albertina, inv. no. 2584; for images, see Vowles, op. cit., p. 37, fig. 4 and p. 38, fig. 5. The Galerie Hans sheet was catalogued by Paul Joannides in Raffael und Umkreis: Handzeichnungen aus der Sammlung Wolf Bürgi, exhib. cat., Hamburg, Galerie Hans, 2008, no. 2, reproduced (in colour)
Establishing a date for The Triumph of Alexandria
When attempting to arrive at a dating for the present drawing there are at least two important issues to consider. The first – and most relevant – of these is the dating for the related canvas, and therefore the establishing of the sequence in which the nine canvases in the series of the Triumphs were conceived and executed (which is, as we shall see, almost certainly different from the sequence in which the compositions are now displayed, or follow from each other thematically). In the absence of any contract or other documentation relating to the series, this is still a matter of debate, and the conclusions of various scholars differ. Only a very few contemporary references, published by Martindale, can help shed light on this question.1 The first of these is a mention in a document in the Gonzaga Archives of the visit to Mantua by the Duke Ercole d’Este in August 1486: ’… e smonto al porto de corte par andare avedere li Triomphi de Cesar’ che dipinge el Mantegna; li quali molto li piaqueno…..’ ‘…he arrived at the port to see the Triumphs of Caesar that Mantegna is painting, which he liked very much’).2 Given the use of the plural in this note, at least two canvases must therefore have been painted by this point in 1486, and a further point of reference is provided by the fact that in February 1501, Sigismondo Cantelmo mentions to Duke Ercole d’Este that six of the paintings were hanging in a theatrical auditorium.3 The only other certainty as regards dating is that the nine canvases were completed by 1506, the year of the artist’s death.
The second factor to be considered when dating the present drawing is the comparison of its graphic style with that of other autograph sheets. This is certainly not an easy task considering the long period over which Mantegna worked on the Triumphs, and the fact that no other autograph studies relating to the project are known, only contemporary copies (see p. 56). In addition, Mantegna’s style seems not to have changed dramatically over the last decades of his life, and furthermore the entire corpus of the artist’s surviving drawings is extremely limited: only some twenty drawings are universally accepted by scholars, and hardly any more are even seriously considered as possible additions to that group.
The only known drawing that is actually signed by Mantegna is a large sheet representing Judith and the Head of Holofernes and her servant Abra, dated 1491, now in the Uffizi, Florence.4 Stylistically this drawing, executed in pen and brown ink and wash, perhaps over black chalk, seems typical of what we know of the artist’s late period, but due to its poor state of preservation, compromised and disfigured by old staining, we can only really guess at the polished finish with delicate nuances of washes which must once have characterized this handsome and highly refined sheet.
A second sheet that is surely by Mantegna can be dated to around 1453. This is a very early study in pen and brown ink, St. James led to martyrdom, now in the British Museum.5 This most handsome and energetic compositional drawing, surely inspired by the revolutionary and highly emotional work of Donatello6, is a first idea for the fresco of the same subject formerly in the Ovetari Chapel, in the church of the Eremitani, Padua, part of the cycle of frescoes completed by the master in 1457.7 It clearly shows how accomplished was Mantegna’s style, even at such an early stage of his career. Dateable to this same early period, circa 1457, is the magnificent sheet Four Saints: SS. Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and Zeno, formerly at Chatsworth and now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, which is preparatory for the left wing of Mantegna’s triptych for the high altar of the church of San Zeno in Verona, executed between 1456 and 1459.8 Interestingly, in the Getty sheet, Mantegna indicates the profiles of the pilasters which correspond to the original wooden frame on the panel.9 A fourth drawing, The Risen Christ between St Andrew and Longinus, in Munich, can be associated with Mantegna’s engraving of the same subject, which is datable to the early 1470s.10 The Munich drawing, though very damaged, is executed with a very precise and accurate use of pen and ink, combined with delicate washes. It shows great diligence and talent in its perfectly delicate, parallel hatching, but overall it is less powerful in its execution than the present drawing which has a boldness and a reassurance in the use of the media that supplants Mantegna’s severely linear style, as seen in the Munich sheet. The latter was once classified as a copy, until an important and elaborate correction was detected by David Ekserdjian in the head, neck and upper torso of the figure of Christ.11
Other than the present sheet, no studies dating from the last two decades of Mantegna’s artistic career can be associated with any of his surviving works. Stylistically, though, the dating of 1480s-1490s that Sarah Vowles and Dagmar Korbacher proposed for the present drawing in the catalogue of the recent Mantegna and Bellini exhibition (see Exhibited), seems very plausible.12
Although we do not have other finished sheets by Mantegna, executed in the same technique and datable to the 1480s or the very early 1490s, to which we can compare the Triumph of Alexandria, our sheet, which probably dates from the second half of the 1480s, is stylistically very comparable to A Man on a Slab, in the British Museum.13 That drawing probably dates from the early 1480s14, and comparisons can also be made with another slightly later (circa 1490) pen and ink drawing, The Calumny of Apelles, also in the British Museum.15 In the first of these London sheets the subtle luminosity and variety of tonal contrasts created by the darker contours and the delicate parallel hatchings are especially close to our drawing, which must originally have been much more contrasted. Mantegna’s interest in anatomy, even when covered by drapery, is also evident in both drawings; he particularly liked to underline with slight indications the muscles, veins and sometimes the bones, as we see clearly in the rib cage of the Man on a Slab. This must be an inheritance from Mantegna’s early artistic training in Squarcione’s workshop, which he left in 1447 to establish an independent practice in Padua.
Another sheet also datable to the 1480s, Bird Catching a Fly, again in the British Museum, demonstrates very similar handling of the pen, characterized by subtle parallel strokes and strong contours, set against a shaded background that defines the space around the forms.16
Technically highly elaborate, and presumably made for presentation to a patron (surely Francesco Gonzaga) the present drawing demonstrates a highly sophisticated graphic language worthy of Mantegna's mature years, and a dating after the mid-1480s is therefore very plausible, or even perhaps one to the period of the master’s sojourn in Rome at the end of the 1480s.17
Going back to the canvases, contrary to Martindale’s view, followed also by others, that the episodes were painted consecutively from Canvas I to IX (leaving Canvas X unrealized18), a theory followed also by other scholars, it seems more likely from the way that the different compositions are conceived, and from their evolution in terms of the fluidity of the narrative, that, as Charles Hope first suggested, Mantegna actually started the project with Canvases VII to IX, while Canvases I-VI were added later.19
It is also worth seriously considering the hypothesis proposed by Stephen Campbell that Mantegna reviewed the iconography of the Triumphs following Francesco Gonzaga’s 1495 victory over the French at Fornovo, only then shifting the emphasis of the subjects to the Gallic Triumph of Julius Caesar, who appears triumphant on his chariot in the last painted canvas.20
1. For an account of all related documents see Martindale, op. cit., p. 31, and ‘Appendix IV. Some Printed and Documentary Sources’, pp. 181-187
2. Ibid., p. 181, Document 1
3. Ibid., p. 183, Document 13; Martindale explains that the use of the Triumphs in theatrical context reoccurs. They were easily transportable, and until 1506 had no permanent home
4. Florence, Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, inv. no. 404 E
5. London, British Museum, inv. no. 1976,0616.I
6. Donatello had just completed in 1450 the bronze reliefs in the Basilica del Santo, in Padua
7. The cycle was mostly destroyed in 1944
8. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. no. 84.GG.91. A related study for the figure of Saint Peter, executed only with the point of the brush, is in the Ambrosiana, Milan (inv. no. F273, no. 35)
9. The drawing is slightly cut to the left margin, therefore only the profile of the base is now visible, while the indication of the column to the right is detectable. For similar indications of framing pilasters, see the drawing by the Studio of Mantegna: The Trumpeters, now in the Louvre, inv. no. 775DR (Collection Rothschild)
10. Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, inv. no. 3065
11. Andrea Mantegna, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 211, no. 44, reproduced fig. 44 (entry by David Ekserdjian)
12. A dating between 1486 and 1491 was again suggested by Sarah Vowles in her enlightening and instructive article in Master Drawings (see Literature)
13. London, British Museum, inv. no. 1860, 0616.63
14. Also dated by some scholars to after the mid 1570s
15. London, British Museum, inv. no. 1860,0616.85
16. London, British Museum, inv. no. 1946,0713.7
17. Sarah Vowles (see Literature p. 43)
18. This tenth composition, depicting The Senators, is known from a studio drawing in the Albertina (inv. no. 2585) and an engraving (in reverse); because of its subject matter, this composition must have been intended to follow Canvas IX
19. C. Hope, ‘The Chronology of Mantegna’s Triumph’, in Andrew Morrogh et al., Renaissance Studies in Honour of Craig Hugh Smyth, 1985, vol. II, pp. 297-298
20. S. Campbell, 'Mantegna’s Triumph: The Cultural Politics of Imitation "all’antica" at the Court of Mantua, 1490-1530', in Campbell, Artist's at Court: Image Making and Identity 1300-1500, Boston 2004, pp. 94-95
Technical information: the watermark and stylus indentation
The first scientific report on the present drawing was carried out in 2017, under the direction of Dr. Eva Hummert. The analyses performed in Dr. Hummert’s studio provided important information on many aspects of the drawing’s physical properties, and in particular shed great light on the paper support, and the watermark that it bears.
As regards the paper, the sheet, which measures 266 by 266mm, is almost exactly one tenth of the size of the final canvas. It bears an interesting watermark, first reconstructed by Georg Josef Dietz1 and visible, inverted, under transmitted light, in the lower part of the sheet. This rather elaborate watermark seems to represent a large dragon or basilisk (fig.1). Eva Hummert, in an unpublished essay on the drawing, described the creature represented in the watermark as ‘a dragon moving to the right’, with ‘two claws, its head is put back into the nape of the neck. Its chest is swollen, the mouth wide with a tongue sticking out’. A wing is clearly visible over its back, the other is possibly above the beast’s head.
The dragon or basilisk seems to have a long tail and a rugged body. Similar watermarks occur quite frequently in the 15th Century, and mythical creatures of this type, with some variations, were relatively common in paper manufactured in the North of Italy from the last third of the century onwards. More significantly, very similar basilisk watermarks can be found in other drawings by Mantegna and his studio, executed over a period of some two decades.2 In the catalogue of the 2008-9 Paris Mantegna exhibition, Laura Aldovini noted that such a watermark is to be seen in The Risen Christ between St. Andrew and Longinus, in Munich (1470s) and the Three deities (1490s), in the British Museum.3 As Hummert noted in her paper: ‘It is interesting that there is a source, which mention, that for Mantegna’s best prints a paper with a basilisk watermark was used’.
At some point, the contours of the drawing were indented with a stylus – as is clearly visible under raking light – surely to transfer the composition to another surface. Although no print deriving from this drawing is known, examination under the microscope reveals, as Hummert has also observed, the presence of ‘black particles in the fiber web of the paper, which may be powdered charcoal.’ The best explanation for the presence of this material is that the back of the sheet was blackened for transfer to the engraver’s plate, a further indication that a print was made from this drawing.
Seven prints, by three different hands, reproducing three compositions from the series of the Triumphs are known.4 Those prints are all similar in size to the present sheet, and show compositional differences from the final canvases, so must have been based on lost original drawings by Mantegna, similar to the work now offered for sale.
1. Noted by Hummert in her unpublished examination report, dated 2 March 2017
2. See S. Boorsch and D. Landau, in Andrea Mantegna, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1992, pp. 471ff.; for a similar basilisk see image p. 477, fig. 1
3. Respectively: Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, inv. no. 3065; London, British Museum, inv. no. 1861,0810.2; G. Agosti and D. Thiébaut (eds), Andrea Mantegna 1431-1506, exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2008-9, p. 260, under cat. no. 95
4. See Boorsch and Landau, op. cit., p. 375, cat. 117; two of the prints reproduced a composition preparatory to The Elephants, Canvas V, both with differences to the canvas; three show designs very close to The Corselet Bearers, Canvas VI, and two record the design for The Senators, Canvas X, which was never executed
Mantegna’s drawing for The Triumph of Alexandria bears in the lower left corner an inventory number, inscribed in pen and ink, the significance of which has unfortunately not yet been established. The number, 127, is distinctively written, the first digit with a dot over it, like a letter i. The hand is an early one, and this numbering must precede the first known provenance for the drawing, namely its ownership by August Grahl (1791-1868), whose collector’s mark it bears in two places (in the lower right corner of the recto of the sheet, and also on the reverse of the backing sheet).
Grahl, who was born in Mecklenburg, was a distinguished German portrait painter, connoisseur and collector. He started to collect around the time of his first trip to Italy in 1821, returning there in 1823 and again in 1830. Over the years, he amassed a substantial and exceptional collection, which was sold in London nearly two decades after his death, on 27-28 April 1885, by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge: Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by the Late Professor August Grahl of Dresden (Grahl had died in Dresden, having also previously lived in Vienna, England and Berlin).1
The present sheet was lot 209 in that sale, fully and accurately catalogued as a drawing by Andrea Mantegna, ‘Part of the Triumph of Caesar’.2 The attributions in the sale catalogue, organized with the assistance of the German book dealer Alexander Twietmeyer, were due to Grahl himself, and the sale also included other sheets given to Mantegna.3 The drawing was not, however, sold at the Grahl sale and for the next half century it was in the collection of Twietmeyer, who may have acquired it after the sale. His heirs in turn consigned it for sale to C.G. Boerner, in Leipzig, where it was sold on 19 February 1942, as lot 491, catalogued as ‘Werkstatt des Andrea Mantegna…’ (Workshop of Andrea Mantegna).4
After this sale, where is possible that the lot was again unsold, it was bought by a private collector in Germany and stayed in the same family for more than fifty years.
1. There were also two further sales containing groups of Grahl drawings held at the beginning of the 20th Century, both by C.G. Boerner, in Leipzig, the first on 28 November 1912, the second on 19-20 March 1914
2. ‘Pen and sepia’, h 0,265; w 0,271’
3. See Vowles, op. cit., p. 45 note 10
4. Ibid., note 11