Sunday, December 20, 2009

Exploring 1st - 4th century Roman villas in Brescia sounds fascinating!


I received a touristy little news item about the northern Italian town of Brescia that caught my interest.  The article mentioned that the area contained the largest Roman excavation in northern Italy so, of course, I had to read more about it.  I learned that Brescia, was once known as Brixia.

[Image: Mosaic floor of a 1st - 4th century Roman villa preserved at the Brescia Musei, Brescia, Italy.]

"Different mythological versions of the foundation of Brescia exist: one assigns it to Hercules, while another attributes its foundation to Altilia ("the other Ilium") by a fugitive from the siege of Troy. According to a further myth, the founder was the king of the Ligures Cidnus, who had invaded the Padan Plain in the late Bronze Age. Scholars attribute the foundation to the Etruscans." - Wikipedia

The Etruscans fell to the  Gallic Cenomani, allies of the Insubres, in the 4th century BCE.  The Celts succumbed to the Romans in 225 BCE.   But the Celts were not all satisfied with Roman rule and became part of a Celtic confederation allied with the Carthaginians in 202 BCE during the 2nd Punic War.

"...but, after a secret agreement, [Brixia] changed side and attacked the Insubres by surprise, destroying them. Subsequently the city and the tribe entered the Roman world peacefully as faithful allies, maintaining a certain administrative freedom. In 89 BC Brixia was recognized as civitas ("city") and in 41 BC its inhabitants received Roman citizenship. Augustus founded a civil (not military) colony there in 27 BC, and he and Tiberius constructed an aqueduct to supply it. The Roman Brixia had at least three temples, an aqueduct, an amphitheater, a forum with another temple built under Vespasianus, and some baths.

When Constantine advanced against Maxentius in 312, an engagement took place at Brixia in which the enemy was forced to retreat as far as Verona. In 402 the city was ravaged by the Visigoths of Alaric I. During the invasion of the Huns under Attila, the city was again besieged and sacked in 452 while, some forty years later, it was one of the first conquests of the Gothic general Theoderic the Great in his war against Odoacer." - Wikipedia

Republican-era buildings were discovered there in the 19th century under the remnants of the Capitolium, the temple built by the Emperor Vespasian.  Artifacts recovered from these excavations include Celtic arms, Roman portrait sculpture, frescoes and mosaics.  The Santa Giulia City Museum houses these discoveries as well as a collection of preserved Roman townhouses from the 1st to 4th century CE.

I'm also a big fan of armor collections and I see that the castle portion of the Museum houses an arms collection in the keep.  Over 580 swords, firearms and suits of armour, over half of the 1090 items bequeathed by industrialist Luigi Marzoli, are displayed in ten exhibit rooms.  The oldest item is a sword from the 13th century and one of the rarest is a large Venetian helmet and under-helmet with visor in the shape of a dog’s muzzle.

I had a wonderful time photographing the extensive armor collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York several years ago.  I would love to add images of  Brescia's marvelous collection to my Flickr set! I haven't yet visited Venice and I was really anxious to explore Ravenna someday too.  It looks like I need to plan a major expedition to northern Italy!


Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World     Roman Villas in Central Italy (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition)     Arms & Armor (DK Eyewitness Books)   Medieval Arms and Armor: A Pictorial Archive (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)   Vespasian   The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Compassion for Pompeiian Dogs Sparks New Project


Although mosaics of ancient Pompeii proclaim the Roman equivalent of "Beware of Dog", I found the current canine residents of the remains of Pompeii to be rather docile creatures who prefer to snooze on the warm ancient paving stones of the archaeological site rather than chase away tourists. So, I was glad to read that the superintendent of the Pompeii has launched an effort to not only care for the dogs, but actively seek "forever" homes for them.

"They sleep under ancient Roman frescoes and walk on priceless mosaic floors, but they are far from living a privileged life. They are the dogs of Pompeii -- sick, starving, dirty and scruffy stray dogs who wander through the ruins of the volcano stricken Roman town.

[Image: A canine resident of Pompeii still waits patiently for someone to take them home. Photo by Mary Harrsch.]

The poor animals have been living in the ancient Roman town for decades, marking the territory by urinating on the ancient walls, and relying on compassionate tourists for food and water.

"Stray dogs have given Pompeii a bad image, but things are going to change. From now on, dogs will have their own identity and dignity and will be taken care of," Pompeii's emergency commissioner Marcello Fiori said at a press conference on Monday. - More: Discovery News

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bust of Caracalla goes on the auction block


A bust of Lucius Septimius Bassianus, better known as Caracalla, a nickname thought to be derived from a hooded Gallic cloak that he regularly wore, is slated to be auctioned at Bonhams Antiquities in London on October 28, 2009. The sculpture with its characteristic frown is expected to bring up to ₤250,000.

[Image: Bust of Caracalla. Photo courtesy of Bonhams]

The Roman marble bust of the Emperor Caracalla depicts him turning sharply to his left, his face contorted in a characteristic forbidding frown, his creased forehead with curving eyebrows drawn together, the eyes deep-set with articulated pupils. The nose is broad with a short moustache above his downturned mouth, his strong chin cleft and covered with a short curling beard, his hair composed of tight curls with drilling, the thick sideburns joining his beard. He wears a paludamentum draped around his shoulders.

This bust is of the 'Sole-Ruler' type, dating to the period after he murdered his brother and co-emperor Geta. Other examples of this type are in the Museo Capitolino Montemartini, (inv. 2310), the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, the Vatican Museum and the British Museum. A head in the Acropolis Museum, Athens has some of the closest stylistic similarities. - Culturekiosque Art and Archaeology News


Caracalla's, features reflect his mixed Punic/Berber and Syrian descent, being the son of Roman emperor, Septemius Severus who hailed from Leptis Magna in Libya. I think his face also reflects the savagery that marked his reign from 198 (co-ruling with his father) to 217 CE. In addition to assassinating his brother, Geta, the family of his former father-in-law Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, his wife Fulvia Plautilla and her brother, he slaughtered over 20,000 hapless citizens of Alexandria when rumors reached him that the people there had been mocking his claim that he killed his brother in self defense.

Caracalla was equally brutal and duplicitous in his foreign affairs. In 216 CE, he triggered a war with Parthia after accepting a marriage proposal then slaughtering the guests who arrived for the wedding celebration.

He made only two relatively positive contributions to the people of the Rome and the empire. In 212 CE, he issued the Constitutio Antoninian that granted citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire. Before this time, only inhabitants of Italia or their descendants living in provinces along with a small number of nobles and client kings held full citizenship. Caracalla issued this edict to increase the number of people subject to more Roman taxes to replenish his imperial coffers. He may have also used the legal device to increase the number of men who could serve as legionaries rather than mere auxiliaries in the Roman Army. Scholars point to this event as one of the reasons the professional Roman military became barbarized. Also, With Roman citizenship no longer an enticement for enlistment, this edict may have inadvertently led to the recruiting difficulties of the Roman army by the end of the 3rd century CE.

Between 212 and 216 CE, Caracalla constructed his second contribution, the Baths of Caracalla, a complex of buildings covering over 33 acres. Its remnants are now viewed by millions of tourists each year approaching Rome on the freeway from the Leonardo da Vinci - Fiumicino airport. It is also a stop on the Archaeology bus tour that picks up visitors at Termini Station.

The massive structure not only included the requisite cold, warm and hot bathing facilities that accomodated up to 16,000 bathers, but libraries, gymnasia, shops, and colossal statues including a sculpture representing the myth of Dirce.

[Image: Farnese bull sculpture group depicts the legend of Dirce who was tied to a wild bull as punishment for abusing the mother of Amphion and Zethus. Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch]

Dirce was the wife of Lycus, king of Thebes. Dirce's niece, Antiope, was seduced by the ever amorous Zeus, king of the gods, and impregnated. Antiope's father was furious with her so she fled to King Epopeus of Sicyon who took her for his wife. Her father, killed himself in disgrace but before he died he asked his brother, King Lycus to avenge him by punishing King Epopeus and Antiope. King Lycus marched on Sicyon and slew King Epopeus then gave the hapless Antiope to his wife Dirce to serve as her maid. Dirce hated her niece, probably for her beauty, since that is often considered a normal female rationale in Greek mythology and usually the reason women attracted Zeus, and treated her cruelly. Dirce had given birth to twin boys, Amphion and Zethus, after King Lycus captured her, and, who, like many offspring of Greek deities, were exposed but found and raised by a kindly shepherd.

One day, Antiope escaped her cruel mistress and found her way to the cave where her sons lived. When she explained who she was and what had happened to her, Amphion and Zethus rose up and slew King Lycus and tied Dirce to the horns of a wild bull. After her gruesome death, Dirce was cast into a spring on Mount Cithaeron or, as some versions relate, she was transformed into a spring by the god Dionysos because of her devoted worship of him.

Unfortunately, this myth was supposedly recreated in the Roman arena during Christian persecutions, although Christian persecutions did not occur during Caracalla's reign, with the exception of limited activities in North Africa.

[Image: Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902), Warsaw National Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The Dirce sculpture is now known as the Farnese Bull after it was excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in 1546 by a team funded by Pope Paul III who was looking for artwork to place in his new residence, the Farnese Palace. It eventually wound up in the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in Naples where it can be seen today.

When I think of the Baths of Caracalla, I also envision the pleasant scene of beautiful Roman women lounging before the luxurious pools as depicted by one of my favorite artists, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Actually, the women's clothing is a little more Victorian than it should be and the scene depicts men bathing alongside women that was not accurate either but you get a definite sense of the size and sumptuousness of the halls and how much bathing was viewed as a shared social experience in the Roman world.

[Image: The Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899, Oil on canvas, courtesy of The Art Renewal Center]

Monday, September 28, 2009

Possible Victims of Trojan War unearthed in Turkey


A team from the University of Tubingen, led by Ernst Pernicka, have uncovered a pair of skeletons in the ancient city of Troy near ceramic fragments dated to the period of the Trojan War. It is discoveries like this that remind us how important literature like Homer's Iliad is to understanding our ancient past. It will really blow me away if they find a skeleton of an infant with its head crushed. We could then be looking at the only corporeal remnant of the famous Hector, trainer of horses!

[Image - Warrior with captured child, Roman copy of 3rd century BCE Greek original. Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch.]

This discovery, though, also raises the question about disposal of "enemy" dead after a catastrophic sack. Both the Greeks and the Trojans at the time practiced cremation. If skeletons are found that could have been retrieved for burial, it makes a person wonder if the Greeks not only violated religious taboos by slaughtering people who had fled to the temples for sanctuary, but did not grant the defeated and enslaved survivors the courtesy of properly burying their dead either. Perhaps the violent deaths later visited upon the Mycenaean victors were just desserts after all.

"Pernicka said pottery found near the bodies, which had their lower parts missing, was confirmed to be from 1,200 BC, but added the couple could have been buried 400 years later in a burial site in what archaeologists call Troy VI or Troy VII, different layers of ruins at Troy. professor of archaeometry who is leading excavations on the site in northwestern Turkey, said the bodies were found near a defense line within the city built in the late Bronze age.

The discovery could add to evidence that Troy's lower area was bigger in the late Bronze Age than previously thought, changing scholars' perceptions about the city of the "Iliad."

"If the remains are confirmed to be from 1,200 B.C. it would coincide with the Trojan war period. These people were buried near a mote. We are conducting radiocarbon testing, but the finding is electrifying," Pernicka told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Pernicka said pottery found near the bodies, which had their lower parts missing, was confirmed to be from 1,200 BC, but added the couple could have been buried 400 years later in a burial site in what archaeologists call Troy VI or Troy VII, different layers of ruins at Troy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pompeii exhibit nears its end in Los Angeles


The fantastic exhibit "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Along the Bay of Naples" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be closing soon (October 4, 2009). If you haven't seen it yet, I would heartily recommend it.

I had the opportunity to see this exhibit last month while I was in the area attending a donor fund raising event for the Gallery of Historical Figures. I was particularly fascinated by the emphasis on archaism in Roman art, so much so that I wrote an extensive article about it for Heritage Key. Heritage Key is a new website that came online in June 2009 that focuses on the ancient and prehistoric world before 600 CE. The executive director, Jon Himoff, asked if I would be interested in writing articles for them and I agreed. If you haven't explored their website yet, I would encourage you to do so as they not only have some fascinating articles to read but have a virtual recreation of King Tut's tomb that you explore using an interface very similar to the one used in Second Life.

[Image: Bronze Replica of a Wild Boar at the House of the Chitharist in Pompeii. Photograph by Mary Harrsch]

At the Pompeii exhibit I was also finally able to see the original wild boar surrounded by hunting hounds sculpture from the House of the Citharist. In Pompeii there is a marvelous
replica of the work in situ but there is nothing like seeing the real thing. I'm afraid I was teased by my friends for traveling all the way to Pompeii (about a 20 hour flight with plane changes for me)
to see a replica then just taking a short hop (2 hours from here) down to L.A. to see the original!

I also saw a fresco of the Three Graces from an insula in Pompeii. It looks very much like a mosaic of the Three Graces from the House of Apollo in Pompeii that I photographed at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli two years ago.

[Image - Mosaic of The Three Graces from the House of Apollo in Pompeii. Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch.]

I was also excited to finally get to see the beautiful ceremonial gladiator helmet that I had heard about but was unable to see at the museum in Naples because it was on tour at the time.

The ornate Thracian-style helmet was beautifully embossed with scenes from the Fall of Troy. The curators felt that the helmet was probably ceremonial because of the detail on it. It was probably worn during the pompa or parade of the gladiators that preceded the combat portion of the games.

Monday, August 31, 2009

"Legacy of Carthage" exhibit tours Japan


I saw a note about this wonderful exhibit that is presently opening in Kanazawa, Japan. I wonder if this lovely relief depicts the legendary queen Dido?

The “Legacy of Carthage” will travel throughout 10 Japanese cities to showcase Tunisia’s rich Carthaginian and Roman legacy. The exhibition includes rare, authentic pieces dating back to the Punic and Phoenician eras. It also offers an opportunity for Japanese visitors to admire some splendid 2 nd and 3 rd century frescoes and mosaics discovered in Carthage, El Jem,Utica, Sbeitla, Sousse, as well as in other Tunisian cities. - Tunisia Online News

The exhibit is slated to travel from Kanazawa to Tokyo, then Okyama, Kyoto, Hamamatsu, Miyazaki and Nagoya. I wish it would make an appearance here in the U.S. I saw some truly spectacular mosaics from Tunisia at an exhibit at the Getty Villa a year ago and I would love to see more remnants of Roman North Africa as well as pre-Roman artifacts.

As much as I love to study Roman civilization, I find Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, fascinating as well. Its too bad that Rome felt compelled to destroy Carthage instead of absorbing it like it did so many other cultures. Here's the first of a series of videos about the fate of Carthage, entitled "The Roman Holocaust":



Of course, one of my favorite videos about Carthage is "Engineering an Empire".

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Caesar's Fables and the Price of Fame


I was working on my "virtual" Julius Caesar today, a natural language conversational agent depicting a resurrected Julius Caesar, when I happened upon this fascinating excerpt from Maria Wyke's book, "Caesar: A Life in Western Culture" about all of the fables that have grown up around the man and the myth that was Julius Caesar. I had been specifically searching for references to his unique horse "Toes".

Wyke observes:

Every conqueror needs a distinguished horse which only he can ride. A number of classical sources note that Julius Caesar possessed such a horse, born on his own lands, whose front hooves resembled feet since they were divided in such a way that they looked like toes. This unusual condition was interpreted by a soothsayer as an omen that the master of such a horse would one day rule the world. Naturally, the horse would endure no other rider save Caesar. This observation in Caesar’s ancient biography seems to recall the characteristics of Bucephalus, the wild horse tamed by Alexander, which provided that hero too with an oracle predicting world empire. In medieval romance, Alexander’s horse becomes a horned creature so wild that it eats men. In a later medieval epic on Julius Caesar, in addition to unmistakable feet, his horse gains a fabulous horn on its head with which it can topple other riders and their mounts. A number of depictions survive in which this mythic horse (rather than its owner) is in sharp focus. A colourful earthenware dish of the early sixteenth century, which captures a moment in the triumph of Julius Caesar, appears to jettison the medieval horn in favour of a more rational spike attached to a harness, but all four of the horse’s human feet remain clearly visible as it is ridden on parade by a youth, who carries a globetipped branch to signify that their master is ruler of the whole world . - Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

I found her discussion of Caesar as one of the medieval "Nine Worthies" quite interesting as well:

The mature Caesar was also included in the medieval canon of the Western world’s greatest military heroes. This collection of champions, or Nine Worthies (‘neuf preux’), was first identified, categorized, and made popular in the early fourteenth century in a poem composed by a French jongleur or itinerant ministrel. Joining a neatly composed arrangement of three Christians, three Hebrews and two other pagans (Hector and Alexander the Great), Julius Caesar along with the rest was made to embody chivalric goodness, wisdom, prowess and valour. Perfect warriors, the Nine Worthies conferred glory on their nations and provided patterns of both military virtue and moral conduct for imitation. They frequently appeared on frescoes, tapestries, enamelled cups and playing cards owned by medieval princes and noblemen. In a similar way to a collection of saints, their role was to exhort a supposedly degenerate present to live up to medieval ideals projected back into the past. In this line-up, Julius Caesar was conventionally distinguished by his imperial crown and the crest of a two-headed eagle emblazoned on his medieval armour. In a fourteenth-century tapestry of the Nine Worthies commissioned by the Duke of Berry (and now surviving only in parts), a majestic and heavily bearded Caesar sits enthroned within a fantastic Gothic niche. He grasps a broad, unsheathed sword and is surrounded by his courtiers (mainly musicians, but also a soldier and, directly above him, his lady). His heraldic symbol of the double-headed imperial eagle is woven in sable on gold." Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

The idea of a heavily-bearded Caesar seemed pretty far-fetched since Caesar was so meticulous about his appearance he frequently had his body plucked to remove any unsightly hair (except on the top of his head) and all ancient sculptures of him show him clean shaven like most military men of the late Republican era.

[Image: Imperial Statue from the Antonine Period with modern head of Julius Caesar, Museo Archaeologico di Napoli. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

Wyke also said medieval chroniclers further elaborated on the evil portents preceding Caesar's assassination. In addition to the ancient references to horses Caesar had dedicated to the gods that would no longer graze but wept abundantly; a bull Caesar was sacrificing turning out to have no heart and a ‘king’ bird torn to pieces by other birds in Rome’s senate-hall, a 15th century poem related:

"... on that dark night, at the sixth hour, when the betrayal was arranged, terrible voices were heard clamouring in the sky, the earth quaked as if it were releasing a great sigh, fires with bloody tails circled through the air in battle, a lamb cried out ‘Slaughter! Slaughter!’, oxen pointed out to their ploughmen the pointlessness of carrying on …"

These strange manifestations of fame that Caesar openly sought seem to point to the fulfillment of an eerie prophecy by Cicero during his own on-again, off-again relationship with Caesar.

"Posterity will be staggered to hear and read of the military commands you have held and the provinces you have ruled … battles without number, fabulous victories, monuments and shows and Triumphs. And yet unless you now restore this city of ours to stability by measures of reorganization and lawgiving, your renown, however far and wide it may roam, will never be able to find a settled dwelling-place or firm abode. For among men still unborn, as among ourselves, there will rage sharp disagreements. Some will glorify your exploits to the skies. But others, I suggest, may find something lacking, and something vital at that. (Cicero, pro Marcello 28รป9. Trans. M. Grant, 1969)"

[Image: Marcus Tullius Cicero. 1st century BCE. Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. Photograph by Mary Harrsch]

Yet, the two-edged nature of such fame, however, has served men's purposes through the centuries.

"Caesar has been deployed to legitimate or undermine the authority of kings, to justify or denounce the coups of generals, to launch or obstruct revolutions, to demonstrate incisive literary style and perfect grammar, to teach military strategy and tactics or the workings of fortune and destiny, to display luxury, to play out sexual excess, to stimulate expenditure and consumption. Moreover, the history of Caesar’s reception is not only a matter of re-presenting him in ways that speak to the present (in paintings, plays, novels, operas, films and computer games, as well as in political speeches and historical treatises); it is also often a matter of adopting aspects of his life in someone else’s, or replicating his murder for political reasons—a matter of becoming or removing a new Caesar. - Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

Like Achilles who accepted death to obtain enduring fame, I think Caesar would have found it a worthy trade off.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fabula Atellana Masks from Pompeii Rediscovered

This mask of Atellan character, Buccus [left], seems to have a more human expression, despite the prescribed comic grimace, than the more stilted and formal masks I have seen elsewhere like the theater at Ostia Antica. Of course it could have been distorted from volcanic heat following the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Discovery article describing a collection of masks recently "rediscovered" from Pompeii pointed out that some of the masks had closed mouths indicating they were used as models for the mask craftsman. However, the masks could have been worn by dancers in a pantomine, who wore masks with closed mouths because they did not speak but performed using only expressive gestures.

"...the most popular genres were unquestionably mime and pantomime, which sought to please the audience. Here even nudatio mimarum (a sort of striptease) was sometimes staged or, more surprising yet, the reenaction of real executions and torture. Mime was based on action and performed without masks. It was the only type of performance in which women played the female roles."

The number of days devoted annually to [theatrical] games gradually increased over time. At the end of the third century BC there were probably twelve at the most and, yet, at the beginning of the Empire, there were already 56 consecrated to theatre performances, reaching 100 by the mid-fourth century AD - The Roman Theater: Staging the Performance
A set of 15 mysterious life-size masks, reminiscent of ancient Roman drama, have been rediscovered in Pompeii after being forgotten for more than two centuries, according to Italian archaeologists who have shown them for the first time at an exhibition in Naples, Italy.

Made of plaster, the rather heavy masks were unearthed in 1749 in Pompeii during the excavations promoted by King Charles of Bourbon. They were deposited, along with many other artifacts, in the Royal Palace of Portici, a town on the Bay of Naples.

"Two masks show letters in the space usually reserved to the mouth. While the meaning of one is incomprehensible, on the other we can clearly read the word 'Buco,'" Borriello said. The word refers to Buccus, a stock character from the earliest form of Italian farce, known as fabula Atellana.

Deriving its name from the town of Atella in the southern Campania region, the fabula Atellana was a form of entertainment widely popular from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Basically a form of improvised farce, it used masked actors, stock characters and conventional plots. - More: Discovery News

Atellan farces also relied on the physical comedy of slapstick and burlesque.

By the early Imperial period, Atellan farces were no longer improvisational, but scripted performances.

Livy describes the Atellan Farces and the names for the actors (histriones) in section 7.2. of his History of Rome, where he says the Romans first performed them to try to fight a pestilence (in 363 B.C., according to Richard C. Beacham in The Roman Theatre and Its Audience). - About.com


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tullio sculptures demonstrate antiquity's influence on Renaissance Art

When I glanced at the images of some of the sculptures in the new exhibit, "An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I could hardly believe I was looking at Renaissance sculpture and not Roman funerary art (except for the bared breasts - the ancient Romans were a little more modest than that!).

"Carved from a single block of marble in high relief, this double portrait is so deeply undercut that the two figures appear almost in the round. Traces of applied color survive on the eyes, the lips, and the background, which was once black. The intense emotions of the pair, who do not look at each other, remain a mystery. Was this work a memorial, emulating Roman funerary reliefs of married couples? An ancient love story, perhaps with a tragic conclusion? A pair of idealized contemporary portraits in antique guise? At a time when even formal portrait busts were rare in Venice, this ambiguity may have been part of Tullio’s appeal. The prominent signature was inscribed at a point perhaps meant to be at the viewer’s eye level." - National Gallery of Art.


This tomb sculpture would have looked quite natural along side the collection of ancient funerary art I saw this past spring displayed in the new tunnel gallery of the Capitoline Museum in Rome or in the halls of the Getty Villa like the first century CE grave monument of the freedman Popillius and wife Calpurnia [right] I photographed there.

Grieving was actually regulated by the Roman state.

Pompilius Numa, the legendary second king of Rome (c. 715-673 BC), was credited with creating the basic framework for Roman public religion and the grief process.

Numa himself set out rules for the periods of mourning according to age and time. So, for xample, there was to be no mourning at all for a child of less than l year; for a child older than that, up to 10 years old, the mourning was not to last more months than it had lived years; and the longest time of mourning for any person was not to exceed 10 months. This was also the time set for
widowhood for women who had lost their husbands, and any woman who took another husband before this time was out was obliged by the laws of Numa to sacrifice a cow with calf. - Plutarch, Numa 12.

Paulus further interpreted the mourning laws of the Twelve Tables in a legal opinion in the late 2nd c. or early 3rd c. AD.

"Parents and children over 6 years of age can be mourned for a year, children under 6 for a month. A husband can be mourned for 10 months, close blood relatives for 8 months. Anyone who acts contrary to the restrictions is placed in public disgrace. Anyone in mourning ought to refrain from dinner parties, jewellery and other adornments, and purple and white clothing." - Paulus, Opinions 1.21.2-5


Although Roman males were expected to keep a "stiff upper lip" when it came to mourning one's lost loves, I could easily imagine an inscription quoting a line from the Roman poet Tibullus, "May I look on you when my last hour comes; as I die, may I hold your hand in my failing grasp."

The exhibit also features the bust of a grieving heroine, with head tilted slightly, by Antonio di Giovanni Minello, a great admirer of Tullio Lombardo [left]. It reminded me of a Roman Imperial Period sculpture of a goddess at the Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale Romano [below right].

"The sculptor’s admiration for Tullio is suggested by the tragic expression, seminude treatment, and intricately winding hair, which is raised in relief in some places and incised into the marble in others. The medallion above her forehead is based on a famous ancient gem. The Trojan hero Aeneas is among the identities proposed for the seated figure in Minello’s version. If it is he, the woman would be his grief-stricken lover Dido, queen of Carthage, whom he abandoned." - National Gallery of Art.
A relief of Mars (left) by Tullio's younger brother, Antonio Lombardo, seems to have been inspired by the Ludovisi Ares or the seated warrior thought to be the pendant to the Ludovisi Ares [below right], a second century BCE copy of a Greek original, also on display at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome.

"This deeply undercut high relief reflects a type of small sculpture developed by Tullio Lombardo’s younger brother Antonio for the luxurious private chambers of the Duke of Ferrara. Reliefs like this one, with single figures based on ancient myth, history, or philosophy, soon gained popularity among collectors. Here, the ancient Roman god of war, full of an energy echoed by his windblown drapery, appears amid his divested armor. Some believe this relief was made to be paired with a marble version of the bronze Peace. Others argue that the inscription refers to Mars’ amorous exploits and that a more likely pendant would be Venus, the goddess of love." - National Gallery of Art

Tullio Lombardo, also known as Tullio Solari, was born into a family of sculptors in 1460. After studying in Rome, he returned to the family business that had been established in Venice after a short sojourn in Padua. Building upon his father's style, Tullio developed a more natural form with fluid lines.

The Lombardo family branched out into architecture as well, building the Church of S. Maria dei Miracoli, and contributing to numerous other structures, including the Church of S. Giobbe and the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista.

In Venice the Church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo [Zanipolo] contains two sculptural works of Tullio: the Monument to Doge Pietro Mocenigo, executed with his father and brother, and the Monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin, an evocation of a Roman triumphal arch encrusted with decorative figures, which appears to be Tullio's work alone. To Tullio are also attributed the Funeral Monument of Cav. Marco Cornaro in the Church of SS. Apostoli and the frieze in the Cornaro Chapel of the Church S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. - More: Boglewood.com


"The Lombardos' church monuments reflected the latest Florentine ideas about reviving classical antiquity through statues inspired by archaeological finds.

The exhibit displays only four sculptures known to be solely carved by Tullio, but these are enough to demonstrate his enormous talent. The most striking are marble reliefs portraying two couples, each figure carved so deeply as to resemble a freestanding bust set against a block of stone.

With its rounded faces, glancing eyes and curly hair, the earlier work from around 1490-1495 reveals Tullio's close study of Roman funerary reliefs and other ancient sculptures. However, its depiction of a toga-clad man and bare-breasted woman isn't just a dry copy but is infused with the psychological intrigue of a Giorgione or a Titian.

The pairing suggests a bridal couple doomed to separation, since the figures seem to occupy different worlds. They do not face one another but stare in opposite directions, their full lips parted as if sighing at an unseen presence. - More: The Washington Post

The exhibit is tiny - only a dozen sculptures - but well worth a look if you are planning a visit to the National Gallery anytime soon. The exhibit will be on display until October 31, 2009.

Read more about it!







Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rome opens House of the Gryphons and other restricted sites to summer visitors


In attempts to lure more tourists to the archaeological sites of Rome, the Italian government has managed to divert money normally spent on staff bonuses and special projects to security details to monitor public access to sites that have been closed to the public for decades. I just hope they allow people to take time to fully appreciate the remnants of ancient art on display.

[Image - Mural from the triclinium of the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Roman, 1st century CE, exhibited at the Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy. Photograph by Mary Harrsch]

When I visited the newly excavated rooms of the Villa of Augustus on the Palatine Hill this spring, I had to stand in a long queue only to be hustled through the viewing area for the rooms, which were sealed off with glass, and denied the opportunity to photograph anything even without a flash. I could not fully appreciate the detail of the frescoes or anything else with such a quick glance. I had intentionally looked for the Egyptian motifs that I had seen discussed on a History Channel presentation but could not readily identify them without more time to examine the frescoes more carefully. I imagine the visitors who came in the height of tourist season would have been given even less time to make the tightly controlled circuit through the remains with queues probably four times as long.

At least I was able to take all the time I wanted to examine and photograph the beautiful garden frescoes that once adorned the subterranean triclinium of the Villa of Livia now displayed in the Palazzo Massimo venue of the Museo Nazionale Romano (see image above left). I had a special low-light camera with me this time so was able to take a number of detail images of the lush foliage, flowers, fruit trees and birds that comprise that stunning work. The totally encompassing painting must have truly soothed the empress' guests with its pastoral calm. I would have loved to have toured the villa itself.

Among the attractions that await visitors is the House of Livia, once the home of the wife of the emperor Augustus. The two-story structure has been closed for more than two decades, but until October it will be open every Tuesday.

Buried under the ruins of the Domus Flavia, built by Nero and Domitian, are the remains of the so-called House of Gryphons, one of the most important residences of Republican Rome. Excavated in 1912, it is virtually unknown outside academic circles. It too is now open on Tuesdays.

Behind its massive original bronze doors, the misnamed Temple of Romulus in the Roman Forum (it was probably the Temple of Jupiter Stator) shows evidence of the gradual merging of pagan religions with the Christian usurper. Like the so-called Oratory of the 40 Martyrs, decorated with eighth-century frescoes of soldiers who perished in frozen waters in Armenia, the temple is now open on Fridays.

[Image - Temple of Romulus in the Forum Romanum. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

One relatively modern attraction is the Loggia Mattei, which dates from the Renaissance, when some aristocratic families colonized the Palatine with landscaped gardens and small villas, often absorbing Roman ruins. Frescoes from a hall dedicated to the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, have been brought here from another site on the Palatine. The loggia, built in the 16th century, was briefly open in 1997, Ms. Tomei said, “but even then we didn’t have enough custodians. Since then it’s fallen into oblivion.”

The ancient frescoes abut the newer loggia, which was painted by the workshop of Baldassare Peruzzi with mythological scenes. The decoration includes 12 roundels with signs of the Zodiac, panels that belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. - More: New York Times

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Script pending on "Rome" series movie wrapup!


I was browsing Steven Saylor's website today and saw a blurb about Bruno Heller working on a movie script for "Rome" to serve as a decent wrapup of the original HBO miniseries.

[Image: Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo. Courtesy of HBO]

I am ecstatic! Like many "Rome" fans, I couldn't believe HBO made such a monumental mistake when they canceled the series. I guess HBO has come to that realization as well:

"The lavish period drama ran for two seasons on HBO, which co-produced the series with the BBC. With the final season of "The Sopranos" as its lead-in, the first season was solidly rated. But the show's hefty $100 million production cost presented the network with a tough call on the pickup. HBO opted for a second season to help get more value from its initial investment but not a third, effectively canceling the show in summer 2006 before the second season debuted the following January. The "Rome" sets were destroyed, and the actors were released from their contracts, making the network's decision all but irreversible.

But season 2 of "Rome" was a surprise. Although slightly lower rated than the first, the show did much better than HBO expected without its "Sopranos" lead-in (averaging roughly 6.5 million viewers, nearly the same as "True Blood"). Plus it won awards, which is important to a pay network that attracts subscribers by offering premium programming: Post-cancellation, the first season received four Emmy Awards, and then another seven Emmys were heaped upon the final season.

Suddenly "Rome" was a Greek tragedy: a successful show with no future. The broadcast nets quickly snatched up the show's leads for top fall pilots.

HBO executives have since admitted that axing the show probably was a mistake. - More: The Live Feed

Apparently, Heller is considering picking up the story some years later in Palestine.

"Heller would not discuss plot ideas, but the original series outline for "Rome" next called for the hedonistic Roman leaders to deal with the rise of a certain problematic rabbi -- a story line that would have put a new Roman-perspective spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told and potentially bring "Rome" a larger audience." - - More: The Live Feed

I'm not sure this tactic would attract any religious viewers (if that's what Heller means) unless Heller tones down the visceral reality factor in the series. I hope he doesn't do that, though, for the sake of broadening audience appeal. It's the gritty nature of the series that made it stand out from the syrupy visions of the ancient world of many previous sword and sandal flicks. Of course its outstanding production qualities certainly helped as well. It garnered emmys for art direction, cinematography, costumes, hair design (must have been all of those wonderfully outrageous styles and wigs worn by Atia!) and visual effects.

I also found a brief interview on MovieWeb with actor Ray Stevenson who played Pullo in the HBO miniseries indicating the script is nearing completion:

Is the Rome movie still moving ahead?

Ray Stevenson: Apparently so. It is no longer a smoke and mirrors rumor. The script is in full development. As you are probably aware, this is a pretty strange process. We could go into production in a year, or it could be as quick as six months. Who knows? It will happen. At least it is no longer a rumor. From what I have heard, they are nearing the end of script development. We shall see. We shall see.

How excited are you to go back and play Titus all over again.

Ray Stevenson: I can't wait to dust off the cobwebs of old Pullo. The guy is going to come in with a high body count. I love Pullo. I love him to pieces. I had such a great time playing him. And I got to do it in Italy and Rome. He is very special to me. He is a very special part of my history. I was very blessed to get that part. - More: MovieWeb
I'll keep my fingers crossed and my eyes peeled! 2010 looks like its going to be my kind of year with a "Rome" movie sequel, "Agora", a movie about Hypatia starring Rachel Weisz and a Spartacus series on Starz!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Romans capture most slots on 10 most extravagant emperors list


I see that Roman emperors captured six of the 10 slots for Times Online's list of ten most extravagant emperors. I do wish professional journalists would at least get the facts straight, though.

[Image - Bust of Commodus dressed as Hercules in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

In the brief recap on Caligula, the Times repeated the myth that Caligula made his horse a consul. But classicist Michael Grant disavowed this oft quoted tale:

"Since the beginning of his reign Caligula had spent lavishly on public shows, games, and displays (sometimes even participating in them himself); in the most extravagant of these, he had hundreds of ships tied together to make a temporary floating bridge so that he could ride across the Bay of Naples on horseback. By 39, the public treasury was near bankruptcy. Therefore, at the beginning of the year Caligula revived the treason trials that had become so unpopular under Tiberius; he also began other methods of raising public money, including the auctioning off of public properties left over from shows. Many of these revealed his strange sense of humor (e.g., at one of these auctions a senator fell asleep and Caligula took each of his nods as bids, selling him 13 gladiators for a huge sum). In the words of historian Michael Grant, “Caligula had an irrepressible, bizarre sense of the ridiculous, deliberately designed to shock, but frequently taken by his alarmed subjects too seriously. Notoriously absurd traditions . . . such as the story that he intended to give a consulship to his favorite horse Incitatus no doubt originated from his continual stream of jokes. Probably he remarked that Incitatus would do the job as well as most of the recent incumbents; and meanwhile he ordered silence in the entire neighborhood, to prevent the horse from being disturbed” (The Twelve Caesars, [New York: Scribner, 1975], 113). Some of his jokes were more sadistic, as when he arranged an oratory competition in which all the losers had to erase their wax tablets with their tongues." - More: Vroma.org

The Times also mentioned how Nero was famous for fiddling (playing the lute) while Rome burned - another myth circulated at the time by his political enemies. They also portrayed him as obese. His appearance was certainly bizarre for the head of a militarily-based empire:

“He was of average height, fair-haired, with features that were pretty rather than handsome, weak blue eyes, a fat neck, pot belly, skinny legs, and a body which smelt and was covered with spots. . . . He was so insensitive about his appearance that he used to wear his hair in rows of curls, and when he was on his Greek trip he let it grow down his back. He usually appeared in public in a dressing-gown without a belt, a scarf round his neck, and no shoes.” (Suetonius, Nero 51)

I don't think I would classify him as "pretty" if he looked anything like this digital recreation by Richard Sebring though.

[Image courtesy of The Romans]

The summary for Commodus mentioned that he battled gladiators in the nude in public. I don't think I had ever heard of that before so I checked the Historia Augusta and all I could find there were references to his impropriety, so charged for dressing as a woman:

"Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow. 4 Such was his complete indifference to propriety, that time and again he sat in the theatre or amphitheatre dressed in a woman's garments and drank quite publicly." - Historia Augusta

Commodus had some really nasty dining habits, however:

"It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company..." - Historia Augusta

and he did not shy away from humiliating his his praetor prefect:

"He pushed into a swimming-pool his praetor prefect Julianus,85 although he was clad in his toga and accompanied by his staff; and he even ordered this same Julianus to dance naked before his concubines, clashing cymbals and making grimaces." - Historia Augusta

Although the Historia Augusta is considered severely biased, the list it provides of Commodus' offenses would certainly place Commodus above Caligula in brutality in my book.

The Times list also includes Hadrian, one of the five "good" emperors, apparently for his lavish construction of his 250-acre villa in Tivoli.

[Image -Bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian found at Heraklion on Crete 127-128 CE now in the permanent collection of The Louvre. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

However, it should be pointed out that Hadrian did not accumulate his wealth by butchering other wealthy Romans like Commodus. On the contrary, Hadrian was known for his generosity:

Hadrian gave large sums of money to communities and individuals. He allowed the children of proscribed individuals to inherit part of the estate. The Augustan History says he wouldn't take legacies from people he didn't know or from people with sons who could inherit. He wouldn't allow maiestas (treason) charges. He tried in many ways to live unassumingly, like a private citizens. - More: About.com

Hadrian even paid 900,000,000 sesterces in back taxes to the Roman treasury.

"He remitted to private debtors in Rome and in Italy immense sums of money owed to the privy-purse,66 and in the provinces he remitted large amounts of arrears; and he ordered the promissory notes to be burned in the Forum of the Deified Trajan,67 in order that the general sense of security might thereby be increased. 7 He gave orders that the property of condemned persons should not accrue to the privy-purse, p25and in each case deposited the whole amount in the public treasury. 8 He made additional appropriations for the children to whom Trajan had allotted grants of money.68 9 He supplemented the property of senators impoverished through no fault of their own, making the allowance in each case proportionate to the number of children, so that it might be enough for a senatorial career;69 to many, indeed, he paid punctually on the date the amount allotted for their living. 10 Sums of money sufficient to enable men to hold office he bestowed, not on his friends alone, but also on many far and wide, 11 and by his donations he helped a number of women to sustain life. 12 - Historia Augusta

As commander in chief he also ensured that the army was properly equipped and money wasn't squandered on poorly made equipment or tainted supplies:

"...he strove to have an accurate knowledge of the military stores, and the receipts from the provinces he examined with care in order to make good any deficit that might occur in any particular instance. But more than any other emperor he made it a point not to purchase or maintain anything that was not serviceable." - Historia Augusta

So, although Hadrian spent a lot of money on innumerable projects, he apparently spent his own money - not money confiscated from his fellow Romans like Commodus or Caligula. I couldn't find any references to how Hadrian accumulated his wealth. It must have been a combination of inherited wealth and tribute paid by conquered tribes either to Hadrian himself or to Trajan that was then passed on to Hadrian upon his adoption.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lod mosaic restoration funded by Leon Levy Foundation and private collector


Mosaics are one of the most beautiful and enduring legacies of the Roman Empire so I am always thrilled when one is uncovered, or, in this case, slated for restoration and exhibition.

[Image - A worker for Israel's Antiquities Authority washes a 600- square foot Roman mosaic, circa 300 A.D., after it was unveiled in Lod, central Israel. AP Photo by Sebastian Scheiner.]
Israeli archaeologists unveiled one of the largest and best preserved mosaics ever found in the country Wednesday, for only the second time since it was discovered more than a decade ago.

The 600-square-foot (56 square meter), 1,700-year-old Roman floor mosaic was found in 1996 during an archaeological dig in the town of Lod near Tel Aviv.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority covered the mosaic back up, though, because it lacked funding to properly protect it, said Miriam Avisar, the archaeologist who first unearthed the mosaic.

That changed with a recent $2.5 million joint gift from the Leon Levy Foundation and antiquities collector Shelby White to fund construction of a new center to house the mosaic in Lod. The center is set to open in 2012, said Jacque Neguer, head of art conservation at the Antiquities Authority.

Antiquities Authority workers slowly rolled a thick covering off the massive mosaic Wednesday and began a laborious cleaning process using water and soft sponges. After the cleaning is completed, they'll transport the entire mosaic to Jerusalem for a lengthy preservation process.

The mosaic is made up of more than two million small stones and covered with detailed pictures and geometric shapes.

"The decorative elements are extremely rich and well executed," Neguer said. "We have hunting scenes, lions and giraffes from Africa, and scenes of the sea with ships and fish."

The mosaic is similar to others found in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa, Neguer said, indicating the owner or artist may not have been from Israel. - More: Associated Press


I have photographed several hundred Roman mosaics in my travels. Although I am still in the post-production process on a number of images from my most recent trip to Rome in March 2009, you may view others that I have uploaded to Flickr here.

A couple of years ago I attended a fascinating exhibit of North African mosaics at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. The following books were recommended for further study and I found them quite interesting: