Dated to the late 1480s, the drawing is the only known preparatory study for Mantegna’s famed series of paintings depicting the triumphal procession of Julius Caesar and his army through ancient Rome.
The Triumphs of Caesar, a seminal set of nine monumental works, are now part of the British Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace, having been acquired by Charles I in 1629 from the Gonzaga family, Dukes of Mantua, who were Mantegna’s most important patrons.
The example at Sotheby’s is one of only two drawings by the artist that remain privately owned – the others being in major institutions such as the British Museum. It has provenance to the German collector Professor August Grahl (1791-1868) of Dresden and has come to auction from a separate private German collection.
The drawing recently featured in the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition held at the National Gallery in London and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and is now is estimated to fetch in excess of $12m at Sotheby’s sale in New York on January 29, 2020.
The pen and ink drawing is a study for The Standard Bearers and the Siege Equipment, which is the second canvas in the Triumphs series. A highly developed theatrical sketch, it features a procession, statues on carts, a model of the tower of Alexandria and oversized siege weapons.
It was sold as an autograph work by Mantegna in 1885 as part of the auction of Professor Grahl’s collection at Sotheby’s London, although it was later offered as a ‘workshop’ drawing at a sale in Leipzig in 1942.
After subsequently disappearing into private collections, it was unknown to scholars until shortly before the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition. Sotheby’s said its research has now “conclusively proved” that it is by the master.
Since the exhibition took place, technical analysis using infrared photography by Sotheby’s scientific research department has helped establish how the artist adapted the composition. Among the significant discoveries relating to the drawing and the artist’s technique are:
- Mantegna had a restless working method and continued to refine and perfect his compositions, even in the final stages
- The main figure on the left side of the composition was altered significantly during the process of the drawing’s creation
- Underneath the figure of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, which appears in the finished drawing and the final painted version, there is another entirely different figure, identified as Helios, the Roman god of the Sun, which the artist chose to replace as he developed his composition
Sotheby’s said that the changes “conclusively prove that Mantegna himself was the author of the drawing” and that “it is unquestionable proof that this is the only known surviving preparatory study for the Triumphs”.
Senior director and Italian specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master drawings department Cristiana Romalli said: “The discovery of a previously unseen underdrawing, more than five hundred years after it was made, is a moment of considerable importance for the study of this complex, intriguing and highly influential master of the early Italian Renaissance. By examination under special filtered infrared light, we were able to detect the hidden figure of Helios, revealing a major change in the composition that proves Mantegna’s authorship. This change in fact defined his whole approach to the finished painting that we see today.”
Only two other drawings by Mantegna have appeared at auction in the last half century. If it sells, this work will become one of the most expensive Old Master drawings ever sold.
The auction record for the artist is the $28.5m (£17.6m) bid for the painting Descent into Limbo that sold at Sotheby's New York in January 2003.