A Cavalry Battle Between the Gauls and the Romans
hangs at the Museé National de la Renaissance at the Chateau d’Ecouen, just outside Paris. The picture above is a detail (click the link to see the whole painting) showing the leader of the Gauls, the figure with the black hat and the expensively draped horse, and their flag. It is attributed to the Atelier Appolionio d’Giovanni, called Lo Scheggia, who was the less competent brother of Masaccio.

The figures are stiff, the scene is crowded but lacking in detail. The horses are formalized, the human faces show little emotion, and the background is only suggestive. The two armies are balanced, on either side of the big tree in the middle. The Romans have tents on their side of the picture, and the Gauls have castles on their side.

The two armies are matched in equipment and armor, which isn’t the way I remember it from Brother Pascal’s class on The Gallic Wars (“Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est”) but that was long ago, and anyway, Lo Scheggia may not have had that book at hand. The painting follows the convention of dressing historical figures in the clothes of the time of the artist; so realism isn’t the point.

The action takes place in the center of the painting where the cavalry forces of the two sides are fighting. Everyone else is waiting to see how that goes before the pitched battle begins. That isn’t my memory of the way the Gallic wars worked either. The Romans had cavalry, but they were not primarily battle forces. For other problems with historical accuracy, Wikipedia discusses Roman infantry tactics here. The tactics in this painting look more like the tactics of Lo Scheggia’s time, with heavy cavalry leading the way into battle, because if they could break through the other side’s cavalry unit, the would devastate the infantry units behind.

The artist shows us the confusion of battle, with its crowding and confusion and force. For a better work, at about the same time as Lo Scheggia, here is a painting by Paolo Uccello, stylized, but more effective at conveying confusion and disorder: notice the animals running from the noise at the top. The Lo Scheggia work may not be world-class, but it has survived, unlike that of other equally competent artists.

The Chateau d’Ecouen is also a survivor, a fine example of French Renaissance architecture. Construction began in 1538 for Anne de Montmorency, High Constable of France and chief minister for two kings, Francis I and Henri II. It was held by the Bourbon-Condé family until 1806, and eventually passed to the French Government. André Malraux, French Minister of Cultural Affairs under Charles de Gaulle, turned it into a museum, primarily to display art from the period of its construction, which explains the wonderful tapestries and paintings from the Cluny.

I don’t know the history of the preservation of this painting, but it is likely that given to the Cluny when some family member who had inherited it decided that it was tacky, or didn’t go with the new drapes, or they needed a tax deduction or they wanted to preserve the art. In the same way, a large amount of American art is preserved, not just in large museums, but in small museums all over the country. Here is a nice example: brief biographies of five people whose portraits hang in the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia.

Look around your community: I’ll bet you have an old building that has been converted into a museum, and holds fascinating things collected by people who used to live where you do. I’ll bet it has grounds where you can enjoy a picnic on a beautiful Spring day.

masaccio

masaccio

I read a lot of books.

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