Monday, November 24, 2008

Luna Roman-era painting lost for over a century to be auctioned by Christies

This article about a beautiful painting by Philippine artist, Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899), caught my eye, not only because it has an ancient Roman subject, but because it reminds me so much of one of my favorite Victorian artists, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It is expected to bring close to $10 million dollars when it goes up for bid on November 30.

Christies lot notes:

Las damas Romanas
(Roman maidens) by the Filipino painter Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899) was an unlocated work for over a century ever since it was painted. Documentation was scant: Las Damas Romanas was but a title in the 1957 biography of Luna by Carlos E. Da Silva; it was but a faded black and white photograph from the file of the pre-war art dealer and historian Alfonso T. Ongpin, reproduced by Santiago Pilar in the standard work on the artist (1980). Las Damas Romanas, an early work, enlarges our knowledge and appreciation of Luna who is unfortunately remembered for his largest work Spoliarium (1884) that may well be his most important painting historically, but is not necessarily the best aesthetically.

To appreciate the dark and gory Spoliarium that now dominates the Hall of the Masters in the National Gallery in Manila, one has to remember that aside from being an artist, Juan Luna is also considered a hero and patriot of the Philippines. Spoliarium won the first gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts in 1884, a triumph that made Luna and his contemporary, Felix Resurrection Hidalgo, who won a silver medal, the first "international artists" of the Philippines. Luna painted a scene from ancient Roman history, the corpse of a gladiator being discarded in a room under the Coliseum. So powerful was this image it was used by Filipino propagandists as an allegory of the abuses of Spain in the colonial Philippines. It takes a bit of imagination and a heavy dose of textbook history for young Filipinos to see oppression and the Philippines in a painting best understood alongside the recent films like "Gladiator". One can read many meanings into a painting, sometimes, even meanings unintended by the artist. For example, in 1983, Spoliarium was seen to be quite prophetic. Benigno S. Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport and one in a series of photographs showing soldiers dragging the corpse into a military van has been said to mirror the main element in Luna's 1884 canvas.

Las Damas Romanas is likewise drawn from ancient Roman history, but is more cheerful. Two ladies lie on the wide steps of a dwelling, one of them holding the reins of two frisky pet dogs, restraining them from scaring away frolicking doves. In the background behind them appears to be a shelf with assorted artifacts, to their left is a small shrine with a triangular pediment with incense smoke rising from a burner in front of it. Should Las Damas Romanas be seen at face value? Is it but a typical domestic scene in ancient Rome or does it have deeper, hidden meanings?

There are three main pictorial elements here: women, dogs, and doves. Dogs were part of Roman life and were basically used: for hunting, as guardians of home or property, and in this case as women's companions. These slim and elegant dogs were pets, although they had to be kept on a leash. An inscription said to have been found in the ruins of Pompeii reads "cave canis." This is a warning still used today---"Beware of Dog". Doves were often given erotic connotations; in the Philippines, to refer to a woman as kalapatingmababaanglipad (low-flying dove) means she is of ill-repute. So is this an allegory of restrained lust or merely a way for Luna to execute many details copied from trips to Naples, Pompeii, Venice and Florence? It has even been suggested that the dark-haired woman on the right is Luna's wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, who he shot and killed in Paris in 1892 at the height of a jealous rage. That would have fitted the theme of love and lust but unfortunately, Luna was not married when he painted Las Damas Romanas in Rome in 1882. He had not even met his future wife at the time. That multiple meanings, different interpretations can be found in one painting always adds to its interest.

Las Damas Romanas was painted while Luna was a student of the Spanish Academy in Rome. It is a work completed between his prize-winning works "Death of Cleopatra" that won a silver medal in the Madrid Exposition of 1881 and the Spoliarium that garnered the first gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of 1884. It is not well known that Luna spent six years in Rome from 1878-1884. He enrolled in the school of painting in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando) in Madrid in 1877 and there took courses in color and composition and began a study of ancient art. One of his professors, Alejo Vera, went to Rome in 1878 to fulfill some commissions and he took Luna along as an apprentice.

Two years after arriving in what Luna described as "the capital of the Caesars", his teacher returned to Madrid and Luna stayed another four years to complete his studies. Many students of the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid were allowed to gain credit for their stay in Rome. The course of study usually took three years: the first year was spent copying Greek and Roman sculpture to learn anatomy, they studied and copied classical architecture to learn ideal proportion, and finally they copied old master paintings; the second year they did work on the human figure; and by the third year they utilized all the skills learned by practice, travel, and observation into one large historical painting drawn from either religious, classical, or historical texts. Hence the 1881 "Death of Cleopatra" acquired by the Spanish government could be seen as his graduation work. Recognizing his talent, Luna was then awarded a four-year grant by the Ayuntamiento de Manila to continue his studies in Rome. The grant was also a commission to do one painting for the Ayuntamiento but the grateful Luna gave them three, one of these, Pacto de Sangre (Blood Compact) is still extant and hangs in the seat of government, Malacanang Palace in Manila.

Las Damas Romanas is one of a number of drawings, watercolors, and oils by Luna that have surfaced in the past quarter of a century. As an important example of his early work, Las Damas Romanas helps us understand his training as an academic painter and enriches our knowledge of his life and work. - by Ambeth R Ocampo, Chariman, National Historical Institute, The Philippines
I always thought doves were a symbol of purity and were used as such in ancient augury rituals. Apparently, the article author points this out as well:

"Against the dark interpretation of the doves, some observers have noted that the doves in Roman mythology really symbolize the divine. The fact that the two ladies seek to restrain the dogs from attacking the birds appear to highlight the sacredness of the divine. This makes it really a picture of the abundant richness of life, with humankind shown in harmony with Nature." - By Lito Zulueta, Philippine Daily Inquirer
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Saturday, November 8, 2008

3D Rewind Rome Now a Reality Near the Colosseum

I was thrilled to see that the "Rewind Rome" project will open November 20 complete with 3D gladiators! I look forward to seeing it when I travel to Rome once more in March!

For tourists who struggle to make sense of the ruins around the Roman Forum, a new high-tech show provides a 3D sense of what life was like for plebeians and gladiators in ancient Rome.

Blending Hollywood animation and video-game technology Photowith Cinecitta studio technicians' versions of ancient frescoes and brickwork, plus academic research, "3D Rewind Rome" sucks the visitor back in time to 310 AD, the reign of Emperor Maxentius.

In a refurbished theatre just off the Colosseum, the visitor centre opening to the public on November 20 tries to breathe life into the tourists' experience of Rome's ancient artefacts, which for all their majesty are sorely lacking in orientation.

"Now all of Rome is at your feet," says Sapientus, the tubby, balding, toga-clad 3D guide to a detailed virtual model of the city, developed by University of Virginia archaeologists.

Smoke, grime, graffiti and street scenes involving 60,000 virtual characters give visitoPhoto rs a 30-minute taste of what life was probably like in ancient Rome.

You get a peeping-tom's view of the Vestal Virgins, watch a rowdy Senate debate and see the plebeian district Suburra. There is even a financial crisis that may ring a bell with modern viewers.

"Oh no! My life savings! I could have earned more by keeping my money under the mattress!" moans Sapientus.

But the effects are most dramatic in gladiatorial scenes in the Colosseum. A preview audience kitted out with 3-dimensional glasses leapt back when evil gladiator Bestia shoved his sword at them. - More

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Drug Use Among Ancient Civilizations: Everybody musta got stoned

Portrait bust of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius at the
Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy.
Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2009
Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2008

I found this article not only fascinating from a scholarly perspective but an interesting indictment of the modern approach to classical study.
Some of us wondered in geometry class how Pythagoras came up with his famous theorem regarding the relationship between the hypotenuse and the remaining two sides of a right triangle. Madison author David Hillman has a theory about the ancient Greeks that may grate on a few nerves in the classical studies world. It comes down to this: Maybe Pythagoras was smoking something.

"Everyone," attests Hillman, "was using drugs, from farmers up to [Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius."

Hillman's new book, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, takes a closer look at the use of drugs by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

"The early Greek philosophers who inspired the mental revolution that influenced the birth of democracy were the biggest drug-using lunatics of them all," attests Hillman. "Seriously, they were much more like medicine men than philosophers. So not only did democracy spring up in a drug-using culture, but its roots lie in a drug-using, shamanistic, intellectual movement. I think it's perfectly safe to say: 'No drugs, no democracy.'"

But Hillman says this tradition of drug use has largely been written out of history by scholars and historians, who have brought their own moral perspectives to the texts.
At his home on Madison's southwest side, Hillman displays a 22-volume collection of Galen, a second-century physician who represents the pinnacle of the Greek medical tradition begun by Hippocrates. Only a fraction of it has ever been put into English, enough to fill about three trade paperbacks. Passages show Galen prescribed opium to Marcus Aurelius for his headaches — and that, over time, the strength of his "prescription" gradually increased. 

Hillman also uncovered examples of virgins being given a mild narcotic on their wedding nights. He argues that the typical classicist — on whom the rest of us rely for English translations — don't read or can't understand these texts. 

"There is an entire work regarding drugs used for gynecology," he says. "Do you think a classicist knows the difference between a drug that's meant to close the cervix and why that's important and a drug that's meant to open it and why that is important for, say, a prostitute? No." 

Academic resistance to claims about ancient drug use outside of medical practice are not new. Carl Ruck, a tenured classical studies professor at Boston University, endures what he calls "official silence" over similar claims. 

In 1978, when Ruck collaborated with the late Albert Hofmann — the discoverer of LSD — and R. Gordon Wasson, a mycologist, to write The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries, the idea that an important Greek ritual and secret initiation involved ingestion of a psychoactive chemical potion was extremely controversial. 

"Classical antiquity is a construct of modern scholarship," says Ruck. "We've made them into something they weren't really. Scholarship has chipped away at it. Suddenly, after the feminist movement, people became aware that women had a strange role in [ancient] society. There are frescos showing people having opium parties. [Classicists] don't want to admit Greeks had this kind of experience." Ruck looked for deeper meanings in metaphor patterns and wondered if wine was one way of freeing the psyche. He began to suspect that the Eleusinian Mysteries were about more than just wine. 

"It is well known they drank something," says Ruck. "We have the formula of what they drank. That wasn't prohibited. The exact formula was intricate and not well known to regular people. They drank and they saw something." 

Such ideas haven't sparked outrage; rather, they've occasioned silence. 

"There's no great dialogue going on," says Ruck. "People don't come up to me and try to refute what I'm saying. They just don't mention it." 

Ruck says he published a book that was available for free online for a month. Ruck sent a link to his colleagues on the East Coast. No one contacted him. He published an article in New England Classical Journal regarding a drug-initiation ceremony in pre-Christian Rome. It was peer reviewed, yet no one ever talked to him about it.- MUCH more from The Daily Page

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