Something Old, Something New

I’ve recently been on site in Herculaneum and Pompeii doing some work. Whilst my research often leads me to new areas of the city or I am trying to find some particular detail about whatever I’m working on, it is rare, having first set foot in Pompeii more than twenty years ago, for me to really see it in a new way. This visit, however, was different.

Currently (and until January), there are thirty bronze sculptures created by Igor Mitoraj placed around the city. This exhibit, reportedly curated by the artist before his death two years ago, places statues in various locales around the city. Many are in obvious public places like the Forum or the Stabian Baths, but others are placed in such a way that they kind of surprise you as you find yourself on the floor of the theatre with them looming above from the wall of the Triangular Forum. The artist was heavily influenced by Classical art, as is obvious from his work. I admittedly knew little about his work until quite recently, but have since read of his fragmented and misplaced or broken bodies as depicting both how damaged ancient statues appear, and as the physical representation of human despair. There is, certainly, a sadness in the faces that appear.

Temple of Venus
Stabian Baths

There were four sculptures, two in the changing room of the Stabian Baths and two in the Triangular Forum, that I found particularly reminiscent of ancient art. The wrappings and postures of these works are evocative of various ancient bronzes of boxers. One that comes to mind most immediately is Boxer at Rest, a late Hellenistic statue found in Rome.

One piece I found quite interesting simply for its placement was at the junction of the Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana. In antiquity, much like today, this crossroads was a hub of activity and foot traffic coming and going from the Forum, the theatre district, and the commercial area of the street leading to the amphitheatre and palaestra. It was here one of the most prominent men in Pompeii in the Augustan period built an arch, which was surrounded by statues, including one dedicated to himself, Marcus Holconius Rufus. As this was an area once filled with honourific statues, it was really quite something to see one (more or less) as it should be. The same could be said of an equestrian statue placed in the Forum, positioned on one of the remaining statue bases of antiquity.

Equestrian Statue in the Forum


Junction of Via dell’Abbondanza and the Via Stabiana.

I absolutely loved seeing Mitoraj’s work scattered across the city. Besides the fact that his work is incredibly beautiful in its own right, seeing these bronze sculptures against the backdrop of the Pompeian cityscape was quite extraordinary. For one thing, it is rare to see bronze in an ancient site like this – where bronze survived antiquity without being melted down, it is almost exclusively kept in museums. This, although modern art, provided a small glimpse into a missing element of the ancient city. Beyond that, it made me look at Pompeii in a completely different way than I have before. I don’t want to say I am blasé about the remains of the city – I do still feel the same awe as I did the first time I stepped into the Forum as a high school student – but there is a certain amount of complacency when one has worked in the same place year after year. This exhibit of sculptures made me look again at familiar places, in a way that made me appreciate the artistry not just of the art work, but of the buildings, the scenery, and the way they worked together, giving me an entirely new impression of a city I have been in love with for decades.



The Legacy of Venus

A number of months ago I had the chance to go to the V & A for the exhibit ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ Whilst the exhibit as a whole was about more of the artist’s works than just Venus, both she and the similarly inspired by antiquity painting of Primavera were certainly a focal point of at least half of the collection on display. The artwork ran the gamut from Botticelli’s own paintings to modern works, fashion, dance, and performance art.

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What struck me about this collection of artwork is the enduring legacy of the image of Venus. It occurred to me that whilst I have previously written about Venus in her guise as a goddess of love in the graffiti of Pompeii, and her special role as the patron deity of Pompeii known as Venus Pompeiana, I have paid much attention to the image of Venus that was so prevalent both in antiquity and in the modern world.

The number of images (whether painting, mosaic, or statue) are far too numerous for me to catalogue here. What I am intrigued by, however, is the most recognisable form of Venus, in which she is depicted with emerging from the sea, usually from a shell, at the moment of birth. This is the image that Botticelli used in his painting, and is one that can be traced back to the walls of Pompeii.


In the peristyle of the eponymously named House of Venus in the Shell (II.iii.3), this is the precursor to the famous  painting of the Italian renaissance. But it isn’t the only such image that survives antiquity. A second century AD mosaic from Zeugma in Turkey depicts Venus (here as the Greek Aphrodite) in her shell, surrounded by ikhthyokentauroi (consider them the fish version of centaurs) identified as Aphros (Sea Foam) and Bythos (Sea Depths), obvious references to her birth story.


A late third century AD wall painting from Rome, found in the lower levels of the Case Romane del Celio, also depicts Venus in her shell, surrounded by erotes in small boats.


Of course Venus was not just depicted in painting, or by Romans, as is evidenced by this third century BC terracotta statue from Greece.


This image of Venus has endured for thousands of years, and Botticelli was not the only painter of the modern era that choose Venus as his subject. He will probably remain, however, the most famous. I have a number of theories as to why this version of Venus is so popular – her fantastical birth, the ability to depict her nudity as she wouldn’t be fully clothed in the sea – but one of the modern interpretations I saw at the V & A may hold the key to understanding this legacy of Venus.

David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

Here, the shell has moved to the forefront, and is used to shield the viewer from the genitalia of Venus. Concha, the Latin for shellfish or mollusc, has been used as a slang or derogatory term for a woman’s vagina in numerous languages and cultures. I cannot help but wonder, if in this context, the shell depicted in the many images of Venus’s birth across the millennia hasn’t been a nod to her sexuality, her guise as the goddess of (physical) love, and in fact has little to so with her birth story per se. Perhaps this is why this version of Venus has so long been the obsession of artists.


Graffiti or Art?

Graffiti has a completely different connotation in the modern consciousness than it appears to have had in the ancient world. Despite common admonitions against defacing a structure, particularly a tomb, in some Latin inscriptions, the prevalence of graffiti and dipinti on the city walls of a place like Pompeii or Herculaneum suggests this was largely ignored. That urge to simply write your name in a surface, which I have discussed before, evolves over time, eventually becoming the spray painted tag that was, in the seventies and eighties, seen as the blight of urban landscapes worldwide.

The practice of spray painting graffiti has also evolved, from the simple act of tagging to elaborate street art. This came to my attention in two ways recently, and made me think again about the concept of graffiti and the way it intersects with art, subversive art though it may be. A few weeks ago I was at the Godiva Festival in Coventry, where there were a number of local artists creating a temporary mural. This mural, however, was not painted with brushes, but with spray cans.

20160702_151654.jpg    20160702_151754.jpg
In the last week, I’ve again come across a sanctioned act of street art that usually would be considered vandalism. In promoting the new Star Trek film, the wall of a building in Clerkenwell has been covered with images of the actors, using the same method of spray painting.

13719686_1041100062664883_6895285799633115194_o (1)


star trek 1

As part of the promotion, at completion of the mural, the actor Idris Elba turned up, and, in true graffiti style, added his tag to the painting.


For obvious reasons (I think), I found this intriguing as a process. In essence, the idea of recording your presence as an act of writing has come full circle in this one image. The technique of modern graffiti and tagging (spray paint) is used to create an image, a (for lack of a better way to describe it) proper painting, and then is signed, not by the artists, but by one of the people depicted.

Unpeopling the Past

A few weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled across a temporary exhibit at the British Museum of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome: ‘Light, time, legacy.’ Painted during a year long stay in the Eternal City from 1780 to 1781, this exhibit is a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the collection’s bequeathal to the British Museum upon the artist’s death in 1816. Towne apparently had some success during his lifetime despite failing to be elected to the Royal Academy on eleven occasions, but was largely forgotten after his death, until his works were re-discovered in the early twentieth century. The works held at the British Museum are not necessarily remarkable as far as eighteenth century landscapes go, but there is a use of light and perspective that I find captivating (beyond the subject matter itself, which of course if irresistible to a Romanist). There is a softness to his paintings that I find evocative of the evening light in Italy (and, in fact, he often wrote the time on the back of his paintings), of the texture of the stones the ancient Romans used to build their monuments, and one obviously endemic to the use of watercolour as a medium. What did strike me, though, as I wandered through the gallery, was the noticeable absence of people in his paintings.

The Roman Forum (1781)
View of the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill (1781)
The Baths of Titus (1781)
The Temple of Minerva at Sunset (1781)

Where the odd person is present, such as those with a cart in The Roman Forum, or the lone figure on the edge of the wall in The Baths of Titus (now identified as the Baths of Trajan), it appears to be a device used to add scale, so that the sheer size of the structures is not underestimated by the viewer. Overall, whether a figure is present or not, there is a feeling in each work of abandonment – that these relics of the ancient world are left in isolation, removed from the current world, and in many cases, slowly being reclaimed by nature. The Temple of Minerva at Sunset is a particularly good example of this, though I must say it did not appear much different the last time I was in Rome.

What immediately sprung to mind, when viewing painting after painting with almost no human trace, was the way archaeological sites are represented. A number of years ago, Jeremy Hartnett wrote about this practice in the early photography of the ruins of Pompeii. (I actually reviewed the volume it appears in for BMCR.) This chapter focuses on Vittorio Spinazzola, the director of excavation from 1910 to 1923, who was a pioneer in using photography to document not only the ongoing clearance of the site, but also the ruins once they were exposed. Hartnett wrote of the new use of photography in excavation for its importance as a means of documentation, where each image was concerned not only with ‘showing what came out of the ground, [but also] they explained how it was brought to light and by whom’ (p. 247). This is clear in a photo from the excavation of the House of Paquius Procolus (I.vii.1):


This photo shows the workman, clearing debris, whilst being supervised under the watchful eye of Spinazzola himself (in the dark suit at the top). Part of the aim of the photographic documentation, and one that anyone with field experience is familiar with today, is to preserve a record of how any particular area is being excavated. In addition, Spinazzola was interested in showing the extent of the work being carried out. The photo below is striking, not just for the length of the area being cleared along the Via dell’Abbondanza, but also for showing how much of the ruins had yet to be uncovered just a century ago (you can just see the upper levels of the amphitheatre in the distance).


What actually brought these photos to mind in viewing the exhibit of Towne’s watercolours, however, is the way in which the excavated areas were documented after the last of the volcanic detritus had been cleared. The workman are gone, Spinazzola himself is absent, and what remains is a street or a house, devoid of any human life.


The streets, wrote Hartnett, ‘are presented as empty, antiseptic spaces, made as whole as possible (with fountains even gushing water in some shots) but then left pristine and uninhabited’ (pp. 265-6). He argues that this was a conscious choice for which photos of the excavation were published, that has had a lasting impact not only on how both scholars and the public view the ancient world, but also on how we present it ourselves. I am sure I am not the only one who has stood in Pompeii (or Rome, or Athens, or anywhere else) and impatiently waited for the tourists to move along, so that I could photograph my own monuments with no human interference. The fact is that I have thousands of photos from Pompeii, and all are of an abandoned, empty, cityscape devoid of human life. This image of an empty space, of a quiet street, or of the abandoned Roman Forum or Colosseum, as presented by Francis Towne, other artists, and many historians and archaeologists, could not be further from the reality of the past. I was struck by this when I first read Hartnett’s work, and was reminded of this when wandering the galleries of the British Museum. The irony here is that the people are, after all, what has always drawn me to the past. Removing life from representations of the past, whether in photo or painting, suddenly seems the antithesis of our work.


Duos Annos


It is now two years since I began my Leverhulme Trust funded project looking at social networks in Pompeii. Over the past year, my research has taken me off into a slightly different direction, particularly looking at some very specific aspects of political life in the ancient city, for which the way names are used is a fundamental component. Looking back at what I wrote to commemorate the first anniversary, I am pleasantly surprised by the increase in traffic, comments, and followers for this blog. To date, the site has been visited more than 18,000 times (more than twice the number of the first year), which is, frankly, astounding. I am sure this is in no small part due to the support of Blogging Pompeii and Napoli Unplugged, amongst others, who have frequently shared my posts, for which I am most grateful. I hope that the many people who come here continue to find my work interesting, as I certainly enjoy writing these posts.

And as such, as before, the five most popular posts published in the last year:

5. Losing my Religion (249)

4. Fools & Fakes (275)

3. Samnites in Pompeii (290)

2. Alma Tadema’s Imagined Connections (425)

1. Pompeii & Rome (441)

Go Figure*

I recently discovered the eclectic and all together fantastic collection of Classical and classically inspired objects that make up Sir John Soane’s Museum. It was, for the sheer size and arrangement of the artifacts, overwhelming. As such, I plan to return another day to explore the permanent collections more thoroughly. My primary objective on this occasion, however, was to see the temporary exhibit ‘Drawn from Antiquity.’ The exhibit focuses on the use of ancient sculpture as the basis for life-drawing over the course of the last five hundred years. Sculpture, particularly the many nudes that survived antiquity, was a more than adequate replacement for a live model, either when it was considered unseemly, or as an initial introduction, prior to the use of the real life human form. If one considers particularly the athleticism often depicted in male statues (which indeed, was in part the inspiration of the recent British Museum exhibit ‘Defining Beauty‘), sculpture was an ideal representation of the musculature of the human form. This exhibit then, brings together a collection of works that focus particularly on the artist at work, whether in a studio or museum, and thus demonstrate the use of ancient sculpture as the model for life drawing. One excellent example of this, shown below, illustrates the use of a combination of classical sculpture, skeletons, and what appears to be a corpse as the artists’ models.

Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort 'The Practice of the Visual Arts' (1578) British Museum.
Jan van der Straet and Cornelis Cort ‘The Practice of the Visual Arts’ (1578) British Museum.

This sort of practice is, in fact, the inspiration for Soane’s own collection of architectural fragments, casts, sculpture and other items which he kept in his home and used to educate his architecture students at the Royal Academy of Art.

This got me thinking a bit about the practice of drawing generally, but more specifically about the tendency to draw the human figure, whether a simple stick figure or a fully articulated representation of the human form. Pompeii, of course, in addition to the thousands of textual graffiti adorning the city’s walls, also hosts a large number of figural graffiti. These range from elaborate drawings like that found in the House of the Ship Europa (so named, in fact, for the graffito of the ship), to small doodles that are not readily identifiable as depicting an human or animal:

Man or bird? Langner 241,  III.4.b
Man or bird? Langner 241, III.4.b

Although some of the figural graffiti include some text, usually in the form of a single name or numerals, the majority are nothing but a drawing, and thus not something I often get to look at. The tendency to draw in antiquity is, however, well documented in Martin Langner’s Antike Graffitizeichnungen, which demonstrates that practice was widespread both in terms of geography and subject matter. He attempts to classify the images into typologies, which, for the most part work, but the ambiguity and differences in the skill level of execution to sometimes render this subjective. Regardless, what quickly becomes apparent when flipping through his catalogue is that there is a desire to replicate the human form, whether or not one can do so accurately.

Langner 633, IX.11.3
Langner 633, IX.11.3

This figure is of particular interest for its crudity. An argument has been put forward by Katherine Huntley that some of the figural graffiti from the Vesuvian region can by used to study childhood development. Her premise is that developmental psychology has shown children conceptualise and draw in a specific manner as they are developing which is ubiquitous across language, culture, and time, and therefore can be applied to the identification of the type of drawing typical of children as a method for identification. She outlines six stages in development of drawing beginning with scribbling, progressing through basic or pre-schematic, schematic, visual schema, visual realism. She attributes this human figure from the exterior of a bar to the third (schematic) stage when drawing begins to become more complex and multiple elements are combined to form a composite image such as this one, which combines a diagonal cross and an oval to create a more complex figure.

Other elements of the progression of drawing (whether by child or adult) can be seen in the layering of elements. In the figure below, hair exists underneath the cap, in a manner that suggests one aspect (hair) was applied before the next (cap), thus creating a final product that was logical in its conception, but is unrealistic in its execution. This occurs in full figure illustrations

Langner 254, V.2.4

as well. This figure, viewed in profile, depicts both arms despite the side-on perspective. This too, is a common occurrence in drawings created by those of either lesser skill or age.

Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 711, Grand Palaestra, II.7

What is interesting to me, however, particularly in the context of the Soane exhibit which inspired me to look at figural graffiti, is that many of the images actually recreate standard ancient portrait types. The majority of the facial illustrations are similar to the portrait busts popular in Roman (and to be fair, Greek) sculpture. They depict a head and shoulders, often but not always in profile. Some are of course, rendered more expertly than others,

Langner 206, VI.16.35
Langner 206, VI.16.35

This particular example adds lines around the neck and shoulders, attempting to give a three-dimensional appearance to the graffito as if it was, in fact, a sculpture rather than a scratched drawing. The final example is an illustration of a gladiator. It is in gladiators and other athletic figures that there is an attempt to depict the human form more accurately, that is, in conveying musculature, movement, and often clothing and weaponry.

Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7
Langner 770, Grand Palaestra, II.7

Here, there is a curvature to the calf, knee, and thigh that is indicative of muscular legs. The bent leg emphasises this. Likewise, the left shoulder and upper arm is similarly muscled, and the bent elbow, combined with the hold on a short sword demonstrates an awareness on behalf of the artist of movement, the form of the body, and the way athletic figures were depicted in other media, especially sculpture. This image, and others like it, seem to indicate that like their more modern counterparts, those living two thousand years ago also drew from antiquity.

*The inspiration for this post lays in part with Sophie Hay and her recent habit of tweeting figural graffiti to illustrate her current mood.

Post No Bills

Last night, BBC4 aired a documentary entitled ‘A Brief History of Graffiti.’ Presented by art historian Richard Clay, the programme explored not just the technical definition of graffiti (scratched, or inscribed texts or images such as those found in Pompeii), but all manner of markings left behind by someone who wanted to leave some trace of their existence. I’ve written before about the ubiquitous nature of recording one’s presence across millennia and thousands of miles. This habit is one hardly limited to the ancient Romans that are the focus of my research, and this programme illustrated this point over and over again.

When one defines graffiti as broadly as possible, as a man-made mark of some kind – painted, scratched, stenciled, written or figural – it quickly becomes clear that the claim that graffiti can be found wherever humans go is a truism. For the purposes of this programme, that ranges from the 30,000 year old cave paintings of southern France to modern street art in New York City. What remains the same is the urge to do this: what one NY graffiti artist referred to as an ‘innate human impulse’ to leave some trace behind. This is true of all the work profiled, whether the graffiti of local rivalries in Pompeii, the words of the revolutionaries of the Commune du Paris of the 1870s on the walls of the catacombs, or the images of the architect turned stencil artist Blek le Rat, whose work has inspired a whole generation of artists.

The element that has perhaps changed over time, again and again, is the attitude towards leaving such marks. A figure of a gladiator complete with sword, shield, and number of victories was inscribed on a wall inside a house in third century Lyon. This suggests a level of not just acceptance but permission for such a thing to appear. This is contradicted in the reaction to what Dr. Clay refers to as the industrialisation of graffiti, that is, the development of lithography and mass produced posters, in nineteenth century France when ‘défense d’afficher’ begins to appear on buildings. This attitude of viewing graffiti as subversive, revolutionary, vandalism, and a challenge to the status quo continues through the twentieth century, but certainly has no real effect on the production of graffiti. Indeed, despite this, street artists who once were at the vanguard of the underground movement, known for acts such as painting entire NYC subway cars, are now shown in galleries, painting on canvas, and selling their art. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ongoing exhibit of Terrains Vagues at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which developed a specific space for collaborative work by a number of graffiti artists.

What struck me again, repeatedly, throughout the programme, and indeed as I continue with my own research on inscriptions, is this need to record one’s place in the world, as however fleeting as that might be. I find something oddly comforting in the idea that this is an element of human nature, a shared need to leave one’s mark. It makes me want to buy some paint and find a blank wall to make my own.