Friday, May 30, 2008

Brightly Painted Ancient Sculpture Featured at Getty Villa

A polychromy restoration of the Roman emperor
Augustus in his Prima Porta pose.  Image courtesy of
The Digital Sculpture Project.

I particularly enjoyed reading about this upcoming exhibit at the Getty Villa and looking at the picture of a brightly colored Augustus in his Prima Porta pose in preparation for my visit there in two weeks.

"For nearly two centuries, some scholars have been arguing that white-on-white and green-on-green were not the true tints of antiquity. The Parthenon in Athens and the Forum in Rome might have been almost gaudy. But such ideas have never trickled down, or even sideways: In Hollywood today, but also in many experts’ talk, the ancient world comes off as monochrome. In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, when Russell Crowe strides down the streets of ancient Rome, circa A.D. 180, he’s backed up by the proper complement of bronzes and marbles. All of them are green or white.

But, a flood of recent exhibitions has set out to put their color back. Over the past five years, audiences in Amsterdam, Athens, Basel, Boston, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Munich, and Rome have been treated to a bright new image of Greek and Roman art.

One of the greatest statues of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, has come down to us in marble. His carved armor and rippling robe meld into the symphony of cream on cream we all expect. At the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., a reconstruction of the piece, retouched with colors based on tints that still cling here and there to the original, has the great Augustus togaed in a cherry red that matches his lips. His tunic’s touched with blue. What he’s lost in elegance he’s regained in verve.

The head of the Roman emperor known as Caligula
 colored as it would have been in antiquity  Image
courtesy of The Digital Sculpture Project.
A carved portrait of Caligula, the mad Roman emperor who died in the year 41, looks blank-eyed and remote in the marble that’s survived. His reconstruction, computer-carved into another block of marble and then painted, now has nice pink cheeks, red lips and brown eyes and hair. The insane leader who declared himself a god now comes across as the Roman next door.

“Oh Praxiteles, which are your greatest marbles?” a fan once asked that famous sculptor, who pioneered the art of female nudes in Athens around 350 B.C. The artist — or so the story went in ancient times — answered that he preferred those works whose stone had been colored over by Nicias, a leader in the art of realistic panel painting. So much for the ancients’ taste for sculpture’s white perfection.

“For the Greeks, it was all about mimesis,” says Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin, using the Greek word for realistic imitation. Beauty depended on it.

“If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect / The way you would wipe color off a statue,” says Helen of Troy, in lines written by Euripides in 412 B.C. For Greeks of that era, not only were sculptures assumed to be painted but also if you stripped their paint you stripped their good looks, too." 

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Restored Valeri Mausoleum reopened to the public

"The Vatican unveiled the largest and most luxurious of the pagan tombs in the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica on Tuesday after nearly a year of restoration work.

A family of former slaves built the Valeri Mausoleum during the second half of the second century, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled. It is one of 22 pagan tombs in the grottoes under the basilica.

Emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, had the pagan burial grounds covered up in the fourth century so the basilica could be built over the site holding St. Peter's tomb.

The Valeri tomb, made up of several rooms, is several hundred feet from the burial place of the Apostle Peter, venerated by Catholics as the first pope. Peter was martyred in Rome in the area near the Vatican known as Nero's Circus during the first century persecution of Christians by the Romans.

The mausoleum is considered a particularly fine example of the stucco work popular from that era, as well as for the bas reliefs and statues that adorn the tombs.

The tomb tells the history of the family, particularly in bas reliefs, of a girl and a boy from the Caius Valerius Herma family. The children died young, possibly from plague.

Such stuccoed objects as a quill pen and a skein of yarn tell the tale of daily life in the Valeri family. Reliefs of major gods and other pagan figures attest to their strong religious belief."

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Christian Martyrs or the Roman Emperor's Imperial Guard?

"When a sinkhole opened up after a pipe broke underneath the convent and school of the Instituto Sacra Famiglia on Rome's Via Casilina, the sisters there received a surprise--about 1,200 surprises, in fact. The partial collapse of the building's foundation revealed five large chambers in which the remains of more than a thousand individuals had been interred almost simultaneously sometime at the beginning of the third century A.D.

t is not even certain that the newly discovered remains are of Christians, despite the fact that they are firmly ensconced within one of the most important Christian catacomb sites of ancient Rome. According to Giuliani, "there is at the moment no conclusive proof that can exclude the possibility that these may in fact be pagan burials." Which begs the question: What would pagan burials be doing in the middle of a Christian catacomb?

The answer may lie with the history of the land in which the catacombs are located. The property was originally the site of the barracks and training grounds of the equites singulares Augusti, a private corps of mounted Imperial bodyguards thought to have been formed by the emperor Trajan at the end of the first century A.D. At the beginning of the fourth century, they found themselves on the losing side of the war between Constantine and Maxentius, and were subsequently disbanded by the victorious Constantine after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312. At this point, the land--already in use by them underground--was turned over to the Christians. It was considered so sacred to the Christian community that the mausoleum of Constantine's mother, St. Helena, was constructed there.

During the period of use by the equites, however, this site was also used as a cemetery for the soldiers who served here. So the presence of pagan burials would not be as surprising as one might think. But more than a thousand of them interred almost at the same time? Giuliani explains that "it is very possible that what we are seeing here is the occurrence of some sort of plague or epidemic, perhaps a recurrence of the famous Antonine plague that took almost 1,200 lives a day during the reign of Antoninus Pius [A.D. 138-161]. The bodies are layered very carefully, one on top of the other, without lavish ceremony but nevertheless with great care. It seems as if these individuals were all interred within a short period--perhaps a few months at the most. Initially there was a great deal of excitement that these could perhaps represent martyrdoms [Christians executed for adhering to their faith], but this now appears unlikely as the Carbon 14 evidence and coins found among the remains date the burials to a period of relative peace between the Christian community and the Imperial government."

Further evidence that these may in fact be soldier burials is found in a close examination of the remains. Between the shrouds, a layer of gesso (a type of chalky plaster) covers each body. "This is a rather inexpensive and simple way to attempt to conserve the body, like a crude sort of mummification. We see this in soldier burials of the Roman period at times, particularly up in the northern parts of the Empire," says Giuliani, "and yet while we have found bits of amber and a limited amount of jewelry buried with the remains, we do not as yet have any conclusive proof one way or another as to whether or not these were Christian or pagan individuals. The fact that there are many women and several children present within these chambers does not necessarily preclude the fact that that these are the remains of the soldier of the equites it's possible and even probable that the soldiers would have had their families with them here on this property."

To date, approximately 100 skeletons have been excavated by a team of anthropologists from the University of Bordeaux whose specialty is the study of epidemic burials. They are currently studying the osteological remains for indications of trauma, which would perhaps point to a mass persecution rather than disease, but have found no such evidence. "So far,' explains Giuliani, "it would seem as if we are not dealing with victims of a persecution, but rather of a plague or epidemic of some sort. "
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Friday, May 16, 2008

Thetford Treasures Return to Thetford

"Treasures that rested underground for more than 1,500 years and were promptly whisked away to London following news of their discovery have returned home for the first time.

The new Thetford Treasure, Romans Rediscovered exhibition at the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life, opened to the public on Monday.

The precious hoard of Roman gold jewellery and silver spoons that was uncovered at a Thetford industrial site nearly 30 years ago is considered one of the country's greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The hoard has been on permanent display at the British Museum since being discovered and now part of it is being loaned to the Ancient House where it will be on display for the next seven months.

The Thetford Treasure was found by metal detectorist Arthur Brooks in 1979 and includes 44 pieces of jewellery and 33 silver spoons. His decision not to immediately declare it to the relevant authorities was described as “tragic” by the British Museum's then keeper of Romano British antiquities as the precious hoard's six month occupation in a bank vault denied archaeologists the chance to investigate the site off Mundford Road, which was being turned into an industrial warehouse.

It is thought that the treasure was buried in around 390 AD when opposition to religious cults was rife. Amongst the pieces on loan from the British Museum are an iconic gold belt buckle depicting a satyr, and a 'duck handled' spoon decorated with the image of a triton.

The finds on display include items from a Roman temple site in Hockwold-cum-Wilton, the Roman town at Brampton and a Roman blacksmith's hoard from an organised excavation at Kilverstone.

Key objects from these sites include a small figure of Mercury, a key handle depicting a lion devouring a man and several blacksmith's tools and agricultural implements.
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French divers discover bust of Caesar in the Rhone

"French archaeology divers have discovered a marble bust of an ageing Caesar in the Rhone river that could be the oldest known of the Roman emperor.

The life-sized bust showing Caesar with wrinkles is tentatively dated to 46BC.

A statement issued by French culture minister Christine Albanel called the find "exceptional" and said that the Caesar bust was "the oldest representation known today" of Caesar.

Divers have uncovered the bust and a collection of other finds in the Rhone near the town of Arles, which was founded by Caesar.

Among other items in the treasure trove of ancient objects is a 5.9 foot marble statue of Neptune, dated to the first decade of the third century after Christ.

Two smaller statues, both in bronze and measuring 27.5 inches each also were found, one of them, a satyr with his hands tied behind his back, "doubtless" originated in Hellenic Greece, the ministry said."

I see classicist Mary Beard doesn't think so though:

"This sculpture is, I should say, a very nice piece of work – and looks remarkably good for something that has been at the bottom of the Rhone for a couple of thousand years. There is, I suppose, a remote possibility that it does represent Julius Caesar, but no particular reason at all to think that it does – still less to think that it was done from life. (How do you compare something less than a centimetre with a bust of the better part of a metre?)

The game of art-historical snap is a risky business, and honestly you could find hundreds of Romans who, with the eye of faith, look pretty much like this. Besides – despite all you get told about the style of the portrait pinning it down to a few years – this style of portraiture lasted for centuries at Rome. There is nothing at all to suggest that it came from 49-46 BC.

The desperate archaeologist in this case has, of course, found a nice reason for imagining how a made-from-life portrait of Julius Caesar might have ended up at the bottom of the Rhone. It was chucked there after Caesar had been assassinated and so had fallen from favour.

Has he forgotten that that was the very moment when Caesar was turned into a god?"

She makes her point by including a picture of a coin featuring Caesar's image.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Caesar's Assassins Financial "Rape" of the East

Right now I am listening to Colleen McCullough's latest Roman novel, "Antony and Cleopatra". Colleen paints a much more intellectual Antony than many ancient sources did. In the novel, Antony's meeting with Cleopatra in Tarsus was not at all the seduction experience depicted by so many others. It was more of a contest of wills with Antony trying to "bring Cleopatra to heel" and Cleopatra, of course, having none of it. This is in contrast to the effect Cleopatra had on Antony according to Plutarch:

" Antony was so captivated by her, that while Fulvia his wife maintained his quarrels in Rome against Caesar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops...were assembled in Mesopotamia, and ready to enter Syria, he could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyment that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time." - Plutarch

The novel also emphasizes the financial "rape" of the east by Cassius during the civil war following Caesar's assassination. The sheer lack of resources in the traditional centers of the East is portrayed as the reason Antony turned to Cleopatra in the first place to fund his Parthian campaign.

Antony initially, at the urging of one of his advisors, charges Cleopatra with providing aid to the conspirators when she sent four legions from Alexandria to the governor of Syria who subsequently diverted them to Cassius. Cleopatra points out that Egypt was suffering from plague and famine at the time so she was only too glad to comply with the request of Sextus, the legitimate Roman governor of Syria to remove the burden of feeding the legions from Egypt's dwindling grain supply. According to Cassius Dio, Sextus was actually a relative of Caesar so Cleopatra would not have viewed granting a request by him as accommodating Caesar's assassins.

"The governor of Syria was Sextus; for since he was not only quaestor but also a relative of Caesar's, Caesar had placed in his charge all the Roman interests in that quarter, having done this on the occasion of his march from Egypt against Pharnaces." - Cassius Dio

Cleopatra in turn pointed out that it was also not her fault that the fleet she sent in support of Antony and Octavian was destroyed in a storm at sea.

I find these complex exchanges during and following the civil war with the conspirators most interesting. If you read book 47 of Cassius Dio's history of the period, you discover that there were various Romans from both sides of the controversy running around in the east claiming to be provincial governors and engaging in battles to assert their claims and issuing edicts to squeeze money from eastern populations.

"...learning that Caesar [Octavian] was growing stronger, they [Brutus and Cassius] neglected Crete and Bithynia, whither they were being sent, since they saw no prospect of any noteworthy aid in those countries; but they turned to Syria and to Macedonia, although these provinces did not belong to them at all, because they excelled as strategical positions and in point of money and troops. 2 Cassius went to Syria, because its people were acquainted with him and friendly as a result of his campaign with Crassus, while Brutus proceeded to unite Greece and Macedonia. For the inhabitants of those districts were inclined to give heed to him in any case because of the glory of his deeds and in the expectation of similar service to their country, and particularly because he had acquired numerous soldiers, some of them survivors of the battle of Pharsalus, who were even then still wandering about in that region..."

"...He [Brutus] reached Macedonia at the moment when Gaius Antonius had just arrived and Quintus Hortensius, who was his predecessor in the governorship, was about to retire; however, he experienced no trouble. For Hortensius embraced his cause at once, and Antonius was weak, being hindered during Caesar's supremacy in Rome from performing half of the duties belonging to his office. Vatinius, who was governor of Illyricum near by, came from there to Dyrrachium, seized it before Brutus could prevent it, and acted as an enemy in the present strife, but could not injure him at all; for his soldiers, who disliked him and furthermore despised him by reason of a disease, went over to the other side. So Brutus, taking over these troops, led an expedition against Antonius, who was in Apollonia; and when Antonius came out to meet him, Brutus won over his soldiers, shut him up within the walls when he fled thither before him, and captured him alive through betrayal, but did him no harm. After this success, Brutus next acquired all Macedonia and Epirus, and then despatched a letter to the senate, stating what he had accomplished and placing at its disposal himself as well as the provinces and the soldiers. The senators, who, as it chanced, already felt suspicious of Caesar [Octavian], praised him[Brutus] highly and bade him be governor of all that region..."

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Friday, May 9, 2008

Early Greek Influence In Etruria

I continue to listen to a lecture series on the intersection of Greek and Roman culture. In today’s lecture Professor Garland mentioned that the fifth king of Rome was really not Etruscan but the son of a Corinthian Greek named Demaratus who settled in Tarquinia to teach the Etruscans how to mold clay – especially into roof tiles. Apparently, roof tiles from Etruria have even been found in excavations of Corinth and scholars think the clay beds recently uncovered in Rome were probably the source of the raw material used in their construction. I found this information really interesting.

In his evaluation of classes of early Etruscan pottery, Alan Blakeway, in his article "Demaratus": A Study in Some Aspects of the Earliest Hellenisation of Latium and Etruria" in The Journal of Roman Studies, observes:

"This class, implying as it does the presence of Greek craftsmen in
Etruria at least as early as the ninth century B.c., is by far the most important as evidence of the character of this early Hellenisation. It is, of course, impossible to estimate exactly the contribution of these Greek [craftsmen] the development of Etruscan civilisation in this and in the following period, but it must be admitted that they provide a more satisfactory explanation of the Hellenisation of Etruscan Art in the ninth, eighth and seventh centuries than the theory of native genius working on imported models. In fact, it is probably they who are largely responsible for the great capacity for the imitation of Greek products shown by some of the ninth- and eighth-century potters of Etruria, as well as for the efflorescence of Graeco-Etruscan art in the seventh century. For Etruscan art (unlike that of most other Barbarian peoples) thus not only enjoyed the benefit of Greek influence both early in its own history and at a time when Greek art was not so far advanced beyond that of Etruria as to sterilise the native genius, but also learnt its lessons, in part at least, from Greek craftsmen working in Etruria, and not merely from the chance models imported by
Greek commerce."

He goes on to say:

"So far as our archaeological evidence goes, this earliest Greek influence seems to have been almost as strong as the Oriental in its effects on Etruscan art. If indeed there was any large-scale Oriental immigration in this and the preceding period, the art brought with it had no overwhelming or immediate effect on that of Etruria. With the major historical problem of the origin of the Etruscans I am not concerned; but it is necessary for me to point out that the theory of late Lydian immigration has done much to obscure (if not to conceal)the important early Greek contribution to Etruscan civilisation. Greek influence on Etruria is, in fact, not confined to the seventh century and later: it begins almost as soon as the civilisation of Etruria (on one theory) passed from the Villanovan to the Etruscan culture, that is to say, it almost coincides in time with the first appearance of non-Italian imports and influence."
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