Mantegna and Goethe: The Triumphs of Caesar as seen from Weimar

The exhibition inside Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie presents how German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe regarded Andrea Mantegna as one of the most outstanding artists of the Italian Renaissance. Goethe was particularly inspired by Mantegna’s monumental series of paintings: The Triumphs of Caesar. Mantegna’s series of nine paintings were created between 1484 and 1492 for the Ducul Palace in Mantua, northern Italy. They depict a parade celebrating the victory of Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars.


Goethe first became fascinated by Mantegna when he came to Padua in 1786 and visited the church of the Eremitani (Church of the Hermits). There he saw frescoes which were painted by Mantegna and he was astounded by their detail, subtlety and overwhelming power. Goethe could not comprehend how a straightforward, clear and delicate image could evoke such emotion, and make even the most archetypal historic events feel present.


Mantegna was clear-sighted and viewed the world as it was. He did not conceal realism with false pretences of happiness and victory, despite the artistic ideals of the time. Goethe held the same values and transferred them into his own literature. Goethe was in awe of Mantegna and decided to evaluate his work further.


Goethe’s essay Über Kunst und Altertum (About Art and Antiquity), extensively evaluates Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, primarily based on the chiaroscuro prints reproduced by Andrea Andreani. The Kupferstichkabinett within the Gemäldegalerie presents these delicately uncoloured prints in a single-room exhibition, allowing visitors to experience small-scale versions of Mantegna’s masterpiece accompanied by Goethe’s insightful descriptions.


The small, rectangular room is confined and painted crisply white. The prints run consecutively around the room, the vision is polished and uninterrupted with every piece the same height, width and length, bearing resemblance to a fragmented tapestry. The arched ceiling gives the impression that the prints are drawing closer towards you, summoning your absolute attention. Housed behind glass casing, the only light in the room comes from spotlights above each print, accentuating the shadows and highlights of the majestic, colourless images.


These replicas still convey the power of Mantegna’s original paintings. I was drawn to the sixth in the series ‘The Corselet Bearers’. It conveys men carrying armour, urns and vases behind an elephant. Goethe saw this part of the Triumph as the most important. He wrote: “The strength and extraordinary ability of the defeated princes can be seen in the bearers who can barely lift their burdens, who drag them or indeed have to set them down, in order to rest for a moment before, rested, they can continue.” Goethe liked how Mantegna, despite naming the series the Triumphs of Caesar, also shines a candid light on those who were defeated. Something that was uncommon in a time that was obsessed by the great victories of the Roman Empire.


I was also drawn to the ninth in the series ‘Julius Caesar on his chariot’. Caesar is a statue-like figure placed high on his chariot, his stony aesthetic is contrasted with the soldiers who surround him and who look more alive but not at all celebratory. The anticlimactic depiction of Caesar at his victory parade is contrary to traditional images of the ruler. What is being conveyed by the piece is that the reality of war should not be forgotten, and despite his victory even Caesar is preoccupied by the horrors that unfolded.


The exhibition parallels the artwork. Despite its simplistic layout, the story is conveyed spectacularly. The visitors’ attention and emotions are completely captured, and as Goethe wrote, the historical depictions are made present and themes of war and mortality are brought to a head. In my opinion, the exhibition highlighted the realism behind famous stories of victory and defeat and is a reminder that all victories hide a darker reality, which is still very relevant today.