Making it with Mantegna
This is the last week of the university vacation and the final -- that is, final final -- deadline for my book to be with the publishers is on Tuesday. So it took some blithe self-confidence (or perhaps self-destructive folly) to go to London today for two “gigs”. The truth is, of course, that they were both arranged some time ago, when I had optimistically imagined late September would be a time of post-partal calm, and some trips out would be fun.
In fact it was fun nevertheless. The first date was to speak at a “Greek Breakfast Club” from 8 till 9 at a London school. About sixty people – some kids, some parents, some locals – had turned up to hear about the Parthenon over coffee and croissants. Not surprisingly, for people who had taken the trouble to come along before work, they were an extremely keen audience. But any self satisfaction I was feeling about catching the 6.15 train in order to be with them was dampened when I discovered that the teacher-organiser had already taught one lesson even before the Club met. It’s this kind of “twilight” classes – and “twilight” is a euphemism if we’re talking about 7.15 in the morning -- that keep Classics going in many schools. Even for someone pretty committed like myself, it’s gobsmackingly impressive.
The next date was at the Henry VIII theme-park (otherwise known as Hampton Court Palace), where an enterprising group of curators is trying to enhance the profile of Andrea Mantegna’s cycle of paintings of the “Triumphs of Caesar”.
These have been one of the star holdings of the Palace since they were brought from Italy by Charles I: a series of nine canvases depicting the extravagant triumphal procession of Julius Caesar in 46 BC, originally painted for the Gonzagas of Mantua in the late fifteenth century and hyped by Vasari as the best thing Mantegna ever did.
For all that, it is currently a rather sad display. Hardly any of the visitors to the Palace bother to poke their noses into the Orangery whether they are now hung. For a start, they haven’t got anything to do with Henry VIII – and a much more vulgar sideshow, in the shape of the “Great Vine”, is just next door. It has been that way for almost a century. As long ago as 1922 a correspondent to the Times complained after a visit: “The superior attraction of the vine was hard to escape, and I was all but forced to see that horticultural monstrosity whether I would or not.”
Even if the visitors do get inside the Orangery, they don’t tend to stay very long. The paintings are frankly baffling if you don’t know a bit about Roman triumphs, and what all the armour, elephants, statues and placards are for. And they are not in such a good condition that they smack you in the eye even if you don’t know what’s going on. In fact their conservation history is one of the worst there is. A particular low point was when Roger Fry (who for some reason was called in to restore them) chose to paint out the face of the single Negro standard bearer and turn him into a Caucasian. (Let’s hope that there’s a better explanation for that than the obvious one.)
So the Palace has decided to re-package them with some videos of people like me enthusing and explaining (high risk, one might observe). And I was there to be filmed doing just that. This too was fun – and it reminded me that, despite being in the throes of completing a book on it, I was still really interested in the Roman Triumph.
But the irony was that even I didn’t get to see the paintings today. We did the interview upstairs in the Palace with some colour xeroxes.