COSTA, Lorenzo the Elder
(b. ca. 1460, Ferrara, d. 1535, Mantova)

The Triumph of Death

San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna

Triumph was the official honour bestowed by the Roman senate on a victorious general, taking the form of a grand procession through the streets of Rome, in which the victor was borne on a bedecked triumphal car drawn by white horses. Renaissance Italy, with its love of public spectacle that had long been manifested in the traditional religious processions, revived the triumph, not only in honour of its princes and military leaders, but to glorify the gods and heroes of pagan antiquity, the famous poets of Greece and Rome, the Liberal Arts and so on.

The idea of the triumph as an allegory was given literary expression by Dante in describing the pageant of Beatrice (Purgatory, 29), and later by Petrach in his set of poems, the Trionfi. Illustrations of the latter began to appear in the 15th century, and out of this grew the theme, widely popular in Renaissance and Baroque painting, of the triumphal car bearing an allegorical or mythological figure surrounded by its appropriate attendants and attributes. In Petrarch's six poems each succeeding figure triumphs over the last: thus Love comes first, only to be overcame by Chastity, who in turn is followed by Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. Though a car is mentioned only in the first instance, illustrators of Petrarch came to depict the rest in a similar manner.

In the Triumph of Death, Death is represented by a skeleton with a scythe, its chariot is drawn by black oxen.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.