Posts Tagged With: British Museum

Damnation

About a month ago I managed to escape from the library long enough to pop into a small temporary exhibit at the  British Museum – Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome. It focuses on the practice of damnatio memoriae, where (mostly) bad emperors were condemned by the Senate, and had their name and likeness removed. In some instances, this was done by one emperor in order to remove a rival. Caracalla’s destruction of his brother Geta’s memory is the most obvious example, and one that featured heavily in the exhibit. But it was also a practice engaged in by the people after to removal of a particularly hated ruler. Pliny the Younger, writing after the damnatio memoriae had been issued for Domitian, said ‘How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.’ (Panegyric 52.4-5). As I expected, the collection on display included some re-modelled or damamged portrait busts, a lot of coins that had one face rubbed out, and a few monumental stone inscriptions with lines chiseled out. What surprised me was to see a graffito, imitating a monumental inscription, and bearing the same erasure that a lapidary text would suffer. (The original graffito is not on display, but there is a large reproduction).

 

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Found in a guardhouse of the nightwatch in Trastevere in Rome, the original text says:

CIL VI 3075
Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Alexandro III / co(n)s(ule) |(centuria) Auli Terentius / Felix devotus numini / eorum feci(t) sebac{c}i/aria m(ense) Mai{i}o / salvis commanipu/los.
‘To the emperor our lord Alexander, consul for the third time, Terentius Felix member of the division of Aulus, devotee of the protective gods of the imperial family, performed the [night watch] rota of the month of May with all his companions safe.’

The graffito includes what looks like an altar, with the text inscribed on the base, and surmounted with a statue of Victory holding a palm, and busts of Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamaea, on either side. When Alexander was assassinated in AD 235, this death marked the end of the Severan Dynasty and the start of nearly fifty years of civil wars and upheaval, in which twenty-six of the next twenty-eight emperors were also assassinated. After his death, his memory was condemned. The graffito was then defaced – the images of him and his mother were both crossed out, and his name was struck through in the first line of text. The damage done to the graffito is clearer in a line drawing:

 

20161014_150317

 

Although the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae at the time of his death, this was lifted in AD 238, when Alexander Severus was instead deified. What is particularly interesting about that is that it potentially allows the execution of the damnatio memoriae on the graffito to be dated to a three year period. Furthermore, I find the act of defacing a graffito in this manner unusual in and of itself, and would surmise that it has only happened because it isn’t just a random scribbling, but one that was specifically made to replicate a monumental inscription. I have written about this practice before, but never have I come across a text that was defaced after a Senatorial decree. This, I think, puts a whole new twist on the concept of a damnatio memoriae, and how it was viewed or enacted by ordinary Romans.

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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.

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The Roman Forum (1781)

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View of the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill (1781)

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The Baths of Titus (1781)

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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):

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

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In the Eye of the Beholder

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Putti manufacturing perfume. House of the Vettii, VI.15.1

Like many of my fellow classicists, I have recently been to the British Museum to see the latest exhibit of ancient art ‘Defining Beauty: The body in ancient Greek art’. The exhibit makes use primarily of objects (both Greek originals and Roman copies of lost Greek works) already in their collections with the addition of a few pieces on loan – most notably perhaps the rather inspiring Belvedere Torso normally held in the Vatican Museums. The curation of the items focuses not just on beauty in the traditional sense – beginning most obviously with the Crouching Venus – but also on more general aspects of the body and physicality: motion, musculature, nudity, athleticism, proportion, divinity and mortality, sexuality, the grotesque, and wisdom. Each gallery focused on a particular aspect of how the human body could be realised, and to what ends.

As I wandered through the exhibit, I started thinking about the day to day reality of the human form and and the timeless desire to strive for the ideal, if not for beauty itself. To that end, I thought to look to the evidence that might survive in Pompeii which might equally illustrate the view of the body – not through the art – but through the texts. The are, of course, many ancient sources that prevail upon both men and women to tend to their own attractiveness – whether by staying clean and sweet smelling (Ovid Ars Amatoria III.193-199), using make up and ointments (Ovid Ars Amatoria III.200-204; Juvenal Satires VI.461-473) or fixing your hair (Martial Epigrams XIV; Ovid Ars Amatoria III.163-164). Archaeological evidence survives in abundance as well: combs and hair pins, jars of make-up and creams, tweezers, mirrors, scrapers and smoothers, and unguentaria filled with perfumes and oils. The use of some of these items is attested in three graffiti, one from a shop, and two from the Palaestra, which identify men who work as barbers or hairdressers.

CIL IV 743 =  ILS 6428b    shop VIII.4.12-13
A(ulum) Trebium / aed(ilem) tonsores.
‘Aulus Trebius, barber, for aedile.’

CIL IV 8619a
Aristo / to(n)sori.
‘Aristo, barber.’

CIL IV 8741
P(ublius) Corneli/us / Faventi/nus / tonsor.
‘Publius Cornelius Faventinus, barber.’

There are numerous graffiti that speak to the physical qualities of the addressee, but what I found surprising is that they are rather general, calling more for beauty and youth than any specific physical attribute or characteristic.

CIL IV 9171 = CLE 2059
Sic [t]ib[i] contingat semper florere Sabina / contingat / forma{e} sisque puella diu.
‘So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.’

CIL IV 1234 = CLE 232
Pupa qu(a)e bel(l)a s tibi / me misit qui tuus es(t) val(e).
‘Girl, you’re beautiful! I’ve been sent to you by one who is yours. Bye!’

CIL IV 8807a
Ceio et mul/tis pupa / venust/a.
‘Girl, you look lovely to Ceius and many others.’

CIL IV 2310b
Euplia hic / cum hominibus bellis / MM.
‘Euplia was here with two thousand handsome men.’

CIL IV 8870
A(n)ser ab(i) Amo(e)na[e] / loco.
Gosling, leave my beauty alone.

Two more specific texts talk of beauty in terms of light – twinkling eyes, radiance – but again, provide somewhat elusive concepts of what might make someone physically appealing.

CIL IV 6842 = CLE 2057
Si quis non vidi(t) Venerem quam pin[xit Apelles] / pupa(m) mea(m) aspiciat talis et [illa nitet].
‘Anyone who has not seen the Venus painted by Apelles should take a look at my girl: she is equally radiant.’

CIL IV 1780
Quid faciam vobis, ocilli lusci.
‘What shall I do for you, twinkling eyes?’

A series of others similar in content and construction debate the attractiveness of blonde versus brunette – perhaps demonstrating that even in antiquity blondes were thought to be more fun:

CIL IV 9847
Candida me docuit nigras o[d]isse / puellas odero si potero si non / invitus amabo.
‘A fair girl taught me to scorn dark ones. I will scorn then if I can; if not… I will reluctantly love them.’

CIL IV 1520 = CLE 354
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit(!) Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Pompeian Venus Fisica wrote this.’

Besides hair colour, there is one graffito that addresses the ethnicity of a chosen lover, suggesting that where others may reject one on based on the colour of skin, the writer relishes in the idea of it:

CIL IV 6892 = CLE 2056
Quisquis amat nigra(m) nigris carbonibus ardet / nigra(m) cum video mora libenter {a}ed{e}o.
‘He who loves a dark-skinned girl burns on black coals; when I see a dark girl I gladly eat blackberries.’

There is one admonishment to women that suggests that engaging in too much grooming may be a detraction:

CIL IV 1830 = CLE 230
Futuitur cunnus pirossus multo melius [qu]am glaber / ea[d]em continet vaporem et eadem v[ell]it mentulam.
‘It is much better to fuck a hairy cunt than a smooth one: it both retains the warmth and stimulates the organ.’

And finally, a warning that just because a woman is beautiful on the outside, that does not mean she is worth being pursued:

CIL IV 1516 = CLE 955
Hic ego nu[nc f]utu(i)e formosa(m) fo[r]ma puella(m) laudata(m) a multis se lutus intus {e}erat.
‘Here I’ve screwed a beautiful girl, praised by many, but inside there was a mudhole.’

Beauty did, of course, cause envy. This is apparent in the opening section of a curse tablet, wherein a woman is calling upon the gods to destroy a rival. This is done by condemning features of her physical appearance, so that she would no longer be attractive to the man for whom they both vie.

CIL IV 9251 = I² 2541, Inside tablet A
Facia / capilu cerebru flatus ren[es] / ut ilai non sucedas n[e?] / qui ilaec INL in odium / ut ilic ilac odiat como[do] / aec nec acere ne ilai qui qua acere posit ulo[s] / filios.
‘I consecrate to the infernal gods her face, her hair, her mind, her breath, her vital organs, so that you cannot gain possession of her; may he be hateful to her and she to him; even as she shall have no power over him, so may he be completely unable to give her children.’

Despite the large number of texts and images relating to gladiators, they are never described physically, but for their wins and losses or for their ability to seduce women. Liaisons between gladiators and women of all social standing are frequently alluded to in the ancient literature, often indicating the desirability of the men is due in part to their physicality, and strength, and in part to the allure of the bestial and forbidden. Two gladiators record their multiple (in theory) successes in this arena.

CIL IV 4356 = ILS 5142d
T(h)r(aex) / Celadus reti(arius) / Cresce(n)s / pupar{r}u(m) dom(i)nus.
‘Celadus the Thracian, Crescens the net-fighter, lord of the girls.’

CIL IV 4397
Suspirium / puellarum / Celadus t(h)r(aex).
‘Celadus the Thracian, the girls’ desire.’

CIL IV 4345 = ILS 5142b
Puellarum decus / Celadus t(h)r(aex).
‘Celadus the Thracian, pride of the girls.’

CIL IV 4353 = ILS 5142e
Cresce(n)s retia(rius) / puparum nocturnarum mat[tin]ar[um] aliarum / ser atinus medicus.
‘Crescens the net-fighter, doctor of girls in the night, in the morning, and at other times.’

There is also a suggestion of the sexual interest in gladiators by high-born women in a graffito documenting the sale of two gladiators to the wife of Decimus Lucretius Valens.

CIL IV 8590
Ven[i]vit / mul(i)eri / D(ecimi) Lucreti Vale(ntis) / Onus(tus) eques I / r(ationis) / Saga / t(h)r(aex) / m(urmillo) / I / XX.
‘Sold to the wife of Decimus Lucretius Valens: Onustus, horseman of prime quality, Sagatus, Thracian murmillo, prime quality.’

He was a magistrate well-known for the games he gave, but it was highly unusual for an editore to own gladiators, as the standard practice was to rent them as needed for specific events. It has been suggested, therefore, that this text does not represent an actual sale, but is a jibe, with venio used as a double entendre, to indicate that Valens’ wife preferred to spend time abed with these fighting men instead of her husband.

The graffiti then, unsurprisingly, perform the same function as they usually do, in that they offer a typical glance into the reality of the idealised forms of the ancient art. The texts, though frustratingly general, reiterate the desire for beauty in the physical form that is so clearly realised in the tangible shape of statuary and vase painting. For Romans, the visual ideal was as important as it was for the Greeks, not just in the form of copied artworks, but for the average person, scribbling messages in the streets of Pompeii.

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