~ This Day in Ancient History
ante diem iii nonas decembres
- Rites in honour of the Bona Dea: essentially private rituals for Roman women only held in the house of a consul or praetor and attended by the Vestal Virgins and assorted upper class wives. The actual date does not appear to have been 'fixed' and the relationship of this rite to the 'official' sacrifice to the goddess on May 1 is unclear. In any event, this ritual was 'crashed' by P. Clodius (dressed as a woman) in 62 B.C. with all sorts of nasty spinoffs, not least of which was the Julius Caesar's divorce from his wife Pompeia.
- 313 A.D. -- death of the retired emperor Diocletian
::Friday, December 03, 2004 5:46:46 AM::
~ Classical LeBrun
Lots of art-related stuff today, it seems (see below) ... here's an item from the International Herald Tribune on the restoration of LeBrun's Classical images in the Louvre's Galerie d'Apollon:
Polyhymnia, the lovely muse of poetry, had lost a hand, her companions were fingerless or without toes; their skins and gold-leafed drapery looked cracked and diseased. The canvas under the earth-goddess Cybèle's troupe was peeling from the wall. The figure of Charles Le Brun, the court painter who conceived the marvels on the vault above him, had receded behind the grime that coated the portraits and paintings. The Sun God himself had lost all his light.
This was the Galerie d'Apollon three years ago. To rescue it, the Louvre Museum extracted some €5 million from the French oil-giant Total and put 32 restorers and a phalanx of advisers to work.
Now, after a superb renovation that has left Le Brun's gallery glowing rather than glittering, its old splendors are again on display. The harmonious unity bestowed on this space is a triumph of restorers' craftsmanship. Sixty-meters long, about 200 feet, with a 15-meter-high vault, its decoration took a variety of artists two centuries to complete. Begun in 1663, the spectrum was dominated at one end by the great Classical proponent of line, Le Brun, and at the other by the masterly Romantic colorist, Eugène Delacroix.
This dazzling hall - with its tapestries, paintings, sculpture, gilded ornament and cases of jewels - is the richest space in the Louvre, a reminder of the museum's past as a royal palace. Built sometime in the 16th century, the gallery caught fire in the fateful year of 1661, when Cardinal Mazarin died and Louis XIV, age 23, announced that he would rule alone. Louis Le Vau's new façade and Italianate vault for the gallery became part of a vast reconstruction project for the entire Louvre. It was intended to underscore the ambition to turn Paris into the center of cultural and political enlightenment, the new Rome.
For the vault, Le Brun designed a celebration of the king as Apollo. The general allegory, its richness of detail notwithstanding, was obvious. The god of the sun, in regulating the seasons, months and hours, brings the earth to fruition. Years of war and civic disorder seemed finally over, and Le Brun's exuberant handling of this ancient mythological theme still seems to reverberate with the conviction that the young king heralded a new beginning, a Golden Age.
In the design of the large sculptures Le Brun went far beyond the Farnese gallery in Rome. Louis XIV's master sculptors - Regnaudin, the Marsy brothers and Girardon - divided the new vault evenly between them. Their 118 figures, clustered into 36 groups and modeled in stucco, are among the most astonishing objects in the gallery. As cherubs they add wit; as winged figures, they hover overhead, proclaiming the fame of the king; as captives they slump over their fetters; or, as muses or river gods, they sit on the cornices setting off the beauty of the scenes painted behind them. Unified by design, they are distinguished by the temperaments of the artists who fashioned them.
The sculptures, most of the medallions displaying the months, and much of the gilded ornament were complete by 1677. Le Brun the painter, who either worked straight on the plaster or on canvas that was then glued to the ceiling, was less fortunate. He had only finished four large works, including the wonderfully stormy "Neptune" on the south wall, when the Sun King suddenly got bored with the Louvre. After 14 years of labor, Le Brun and his entire team were pulled out to begin work on the new royal obsession, Versailles.
With most of the ceiling panels and one end-wall on the vault yawning empty, it must have been scant comfort to Le Brun that his own vast Alexander cycle - another homage to the king - was finally hung on the unfinished side walls of the Apollo Gallery. But he might have been gratified that the Royal Academy of Painting, which he had worked so hard to create, moved into the abandoned site shortly after his death in 1690.
Determined to finish it, the academicians of succeeding generations pressed its aspirants to paint, as their "reception pieces," works after Le Brun's designs for the empty spaces. By the end of the 18th century, one of Le Brun's paintings had succumbed to the damp, but the medallions of the seasons were completed and five large works, including Lagrenée's impressive "Winter," had been added. There was still much to do: The great central space remained blank, and, by the 1820s, the gallery's structure was so fragile that it was encased in scaffolding to keep it from sliding into the Seine. Forgotten for a generation, it gathered dust and damp in silence.
Enter Félix Duban, an architect and restorer who, after the revolution of 1848, organized a complete refurbishing of the decrepit gallery and had the vision to complete it. As in the 17th century, this was part of a grandiose project. The Louvre would now be given its final form by balancing the Grande Galerie on the Seine with a new connection, on the north side, to Catherine de Medici's Tuileries gardens.
Duban then commissioned paintings for the remaining gaps of the gallery: a "Triumph of Cybèle" for the end wall, and an "Aurora" to replace the destroyed Le Brun. For the enormously tricky central panel, where Apollo in his sun-chariot was to be the focus of the entire work, he turned to the revolutionary painter of "Liberty Leading the People," Delacroix.
Joseph Guichard had a detailed drawing by Le Brun for his "Cybèle," and for the "Aurora" Charles Muller worked from an engraving. Delacroix, who had nothing, had to invent. For inspiration, though respecting the intentions of Le Brun, he traveled to Antwerp to study the works of the incomparable colorist Peter Paul Rubens.
Some thought Delacroix was an illegitimate son of Talleyrand, and he had politics in his veins. The famous "Liberty" had been his response to the revolution of 1830. The dramatic fury and contrast of light and dark in his "Apollo Slaying the Python" appears as a political commentary on yet another revolution: that of 1848. The work was so large that it had to be painted in two independent parts on a folded canvas.
Duban finally had the walls completed with a series of portraits of the artists, sculptors, architects and monarchs who had contributed to the gallery. These echoed the series of "Hommes Illustres," servants of the state, who had hung in the gallery before the fire of 1661. The portraits, designed by 20 different artists, look like paintings; in fact, they are vastly more expensive tapestries, so fine they fool the eye.
There have been restorations of the gallery since the 19th century. But it is to the model of Duban that the latest restorers turned to guide them, and through him that they have achieved such remarkable unity. Granted, the 18th century "Castor" is a little wooden. And Guichet's "Cybèle" is somewhat stiff compared with the perfect fluidity of Le Brun's "Night." Nevertheless, the gallery throws up extraordinary surprises. One of these is the subtlety of Le Brun's color, another is the harmony between Delacroix's "Apollo" and most of the works around it.
Ten years after Duban's restoration, the gallery had become a museum space. Now it also is the home of the crown jewels. Cardinal Mazarin, whose biggest quarrel with death was that it would separate him from his treasures, left the king the 55-carat "Sancy" diamond. The 140-carat "Regent," mined in India and one of the biggest and purest in existence, eventually joined the "Sancy" in the coronation crown of Louis XV. A recent acquisition, the emerald-and-diamond necklace and earrings given to Marie Louise by Napoléon for their marriage in 1810, gleams nearby.
Repeating history, the restorers have moved on to Versailles. They are tackling Le Brun's masterpiece, the Hall of Mirrors, and even more spectacular delights will no doubt be revealed in 2008.
::Friday, December 03, 2004 5:34:18 AM::
~ Degas' Spartans
I'm a big fan of Degas, so when there's piles of press coverage of an exhibition which also deals with a bit of ClassCon (which actually involves what is possibly my least favourite Degas work ... granted, it is "early"), you know it will be mentioned here. Here's the incipit of coverage from the Telegraph:
When looking at a painting in a museum we normally ask ourselves a standard set of questions. Who painted it? What is the subject? When was it painted, and where?
For the most part, we can answer these questions ourselves (and without thinking too much about them) simply by looking at the picture and reading the label. But there is another series of questions that isn't always easy to answer unaided. How was the picture painted? What materials did the artist use? In what sequence did he use them?
The working methods of many artists - Monet, for example - are fairly straightforward. But to understand how more experimental artists worked, we often need the help of conservators, who use X-rays and infrared photography to retrace every step in the creative process before attempting to restore a picture.
Rarely have the results of their research into an artist's painting techniques been more illuminating than in the National Gallery's latest exhibition in its Art in the Making series, devoted to Edgar Degas.
Asking how Degas worked goes right to the heart of what his art is about, for he is one of the most technically complex artists of the 19th century. Working by instinct, he actually preferred the unfinished and unresolved picture to one that was highly finished and fully realised. Asked once why he had no settled style, he replied: "I'd be bored to death."
One of the very few generalisations you can make about Degas's working method is that he invariably started a picture with a drawing, over which he added a thin layer of monochrome underpaint - a broad tonal wash called the ébauche. In this show, you can see what this first stage in a picture's evolution looked like in the yellow-grey ébauche (on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago) for the National Gallery's famous canvas, Young Spartans Exercising, of about 1860.
If he judged the ébauche successful, Degas then began to add colour. In this case, he may have been dissatisfied with the composition, possibly because a temple-like structure in the middle distance created a third and unnecessary focus of visual interest between the girls on the left-hand side of the picture and the boys on the right.
He therefore started over, working out his new conception in a small compositional study in oil. This became the basis for the picture as we now know it - a flat landscape in which the empty space between the gaggle of adolescent Spartan girls and the boys they taunt suggests an unbridgeable gulf between the sexes.
The coverage of the changes in the New Statesman is more extensive but for some strange reason it's hidden behind a subscription thing (I did manage to connect to it initially for free, then couldn't return ... maybe you'll get through). If you're not familiar with the painting, here's the official page from the National Gallery (I won't put it online here for fear of filters etc.). You might also want to read Martha Lucy's take on the painting in an article in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (or perhaps not ... art interpretation article often set off my 'pretentious' genes and I end up gagging or spewing coffee or both ... how someone can write phrases like "the finitude of its formal contours" or sentences like, "And if the classical nude represents pure form, intellect, rationality—a Cartesian rejection of the corporeal—then the evolutionary body figures the subject as hopelessly bound to his corporeality," and keep a straight face is beyond me.
::Friday, December 03, 2004 5:28:54 AM::
~ Pompeii: The Last Day
Wow ... I've never seen hype for a docudrama come out this far in advance ... from a press release at Yahoo:
POMPEII: THE LAST DAY, a new Discovery Channel special that vividly brings to life the final tension-filled hours surrounding one of the worst natural disasters of all time -- the eruption of mighty Mount Vesuvius -- will premiere Sunday, January 30, 9 PM (ET/PT), Jane Root, Executive Vice President and General Manager for Discovery Channel, announced today. Tim Pigott-Smith (Alexander), Jonathan Firth (Victoria and Albert) and Jim Carter (Shakespeare in Love) star in this exclusive two-hour special that interweaves dramatic reconstructions, with expert investigations and elaborate special effects.
A Discovery Channel/BBC co-production that ranked as the highest rated history program ever shown by the BBC when it aired October 23, 2003, POMPEII: THE LAST DAY was hailed by critics as "an involving and evocative account" (The Guardian), "a triumph ... gripping" (Sunday Express), and "documentary making of the highest order" (Daily Mirror). More than ten million viewers watched the program.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire -- the greatest empire the world has ever known -- was shaken to its very core by the worst natural disaster the ancient world had ever experienced. In less than 24 hours, the entire city of Pompeii, and at least 5,000 of its citizens, were buried under 75 feet of volcanic debris -- victims of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Based on scientific evidence unearthed in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, as well as the written firsthand account of Pliny the Younger, POMPEII: THE LAST DAY follows the fate of several citizens of that city, who awoke on August 24 in the year 79 A.D. in the shadow of a mountain they did not know was also a simmering volcano. Among them are Julius Polybius [Jim Carter], a prosperous bakery owner, who's mulling over a possible move into politics. Stephanus [Jonathan Firth], an arrogant social climber, leaves his wife Fortunata [Rebecca Clarke] to run his laundry business while he takes his slave-lover to a hotel for a tryst. And Celadus [Robert Whitelock], a renowned gladiator, is out on the streets with one of his comrades, enjoying their popularity status among an adoring public.
Stationed across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii is Pliny the Elder [Tim Pigott-Smith], scholar and admiral of the Roman fleet, who watches as the volcano begins to spew 4 billion tons of pumice, rock and ash skyward -- and launches a valiant rescue effort that could cost him his life.
From choices come consequences, and Celadus, Stephanus, Julius Polybius, Pliny, their families and their friends are now facing an unfolding disaster with no precedent. What each person does next will ultimately determine their fate. [...]
::Friday, December 03, 2004 5:11:39 AM::
~ Ptolemy and Claudius up for Auction
Interesting item in the New York Times about some items coming up for auction:
You may think the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra ended with their suicides in 30 B.C. It didn't. Their grandson, Ptolemy of Mauretania (1 B.C.-A.D. 40), had a worse fate: the Emperor Caligula invited him to Rome and murdered him. He was the last known descendant of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greeks originally from Macedonia who ruled Egypt from 305 B.C. to 30 B.C.
In its sale of antiquities on Thursday, Sotheby's New York is auctioning a fine bronze Roman portrait bust of Ptolemy at about age 15. It is seven inches tall. The presale viewing begins today and ends on Tuesday at 1 p.m. Sotheby's estimates it will sell for $300,000 to $500,000.
Cleopatra VII, who ascended the Egyptian throne as a teenager, and Mark Antony had at least three children, including the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Cleopatra Selene married Juba II, king of Mauretania, a kingdom on the northern coast of Africa. This fertile land of forests, elephants and camels was not the Mauritania of today in Northwest Africa, but a Roman-dominated state on the Mediterranean Sea, now part of Morocco and Algeria.
Around 1 B.C. Cleopatra Selene and Juba II had a son, Ptolemy of Mauretania. They sent him to Rome for schooling. "It was very common for a prince in a client kingdom to be sent to Rome to receive a Roman education and be taught Roman ways," said Florent Heintz, an antiquities specialist at Sotheby's. "I suspect the bust was made when he was in Rome and purposely made to look like one of the sons of Augustus."
Ptolemy returned home in A.D. 21 and ruled Mauretania jointly with his father until his father's death about A.D. 23. Ptolemy then became the sole ruler of Mauretania. He was considered a client king of Rome and was expected to prove his allegiance.
He got his chance in A.D. 24, when he helped the Romans' multiyear effort to quell a rebellion being led by the Berber Tacfarinas, a former Roman soldier. Ptolemy defeated Tacfarinas, who then committed suicide. The Sotheby's catalog quotes the Roman orator Tacitus, writing in his "Annals": "And now that this war had proved the zealous loyalty of Ptolemy, a custom of antiquity was revived, and one of the senators was sent to present him with an ivory scepter and an embroidered robe, gifts anciently bestowed by the Senate, and to confer on him the titles of king, ally and friend."
About 16 years later Caligula invited Ptolemy to Rome and received him with great honor until, the Roman historian Suetonius reported, Caligula "suddenly had him executed for no other reason than when giving a gladiatorial show, he noticed that Ptolemy on entering the theater attracted general attention by the splendor of his purple cloak."
Was Caligula simply jealous or was it something else? "Suetonius was a colorful ancient historian, but at the same time Caligula was crazy enough to do it," said Richard M. Keresey, the worldwide director of antiquities at Sotheby's.
Mr. Heintz said: "I think it was plain politics. We also know that Ptolemy was very rich by this point and Caligula might have wanted his money."
Fine ancient Roman bronze portraits of boy princes don't often come on the market. "The last time I saw one this good was in the 1960's, when Sotheby's London sold a portrait bust from the Gallatin collection," Mr. Keresey said. "The Met bought it. As far as bronze heads in general, in 2000 we sold the head of an athlete that had been in a Venetian collection since the 16th century, for over $4 million. It was a Roman copy of a fourth-century B.C. head by Lysippos. The Kimbell Museum bought it."
Ptolemy's bust is individualized, with an upturned nose, wide-set eyes with deeply incised pupils, a mop of hair radiating in waves, and thin, slightly parted lips. He looks neither Egyptian nor African. "Remember, the Ptolemies were Greek," Mr. Keresey said.
The provenance of the bust is as mysterious as the reason for its subject's murder. It was reportedly unearthed in the main square of Uppsala, Sweden, in the mid-19th century. "How a Roman bust made in the early first century A.D. that represents a North African king found its way to Sweden is not known," Mr. Heintz said. Was it early Viking loot from Gaul? Did a Swede buy it in Rome in the 18th century? "There was a strong tradition among aristocrats in Sweden to collect antiquities in the 18th century," Mr. Heintz said.
After the bust was excavated, a Swedish count, Gustav Hamilton, bought it in the 1860's and treasured it until he died in 1914. It passed down in his family to the current owners.
Poor Ptolemy. If only he had waited a year to visit Rome it would have been under the rule of his cousin Claudius, and he probably would have lived.
Coincidentally, Christie's 206-lot sale of ancient jewelry on Thursday includes a three-inch-long Roman onyx cameo portrait of Claudius that once belonged to George Spencer, Fourth Duke of Marlborough (1738-1817).
"It is extraordinary to have a cameo of this scale," said G. Max Bernheimer, the antiquities specialist at Christie's. "You can be sure it was an imperial one." Claudius wears a laurel wreath and a breastplate decorated with a Gorgon head. He became emperor at the age of 51 and is depicted realistically, with a prominent nose, small chin and wrinkles.
"Claudius deliberately chose not to follow the idealizing portraiture of his predecessors, to separate himself from Caligula," Mr. Bernheimer said. The estimate is $300,000 to $500,000.
In ancient times Greeks and Romans considered themselves superior to the peoples they dominated, and their artisans were not above making caricatures of foreign rulers like Cleopatra, especially when one seduced an emperor. (Cleopatra was mistress to Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.)
Christie's antiquities sale next Friday has a Roman silver cup with two handles (a skyphos) dating from the first century B.C. to the early first century A.D. The four-inch-tall cup is decorated with figures in relief that may be caricatures of Egyptians. One side depicts an overly endowed grotesque male nude poking one foot at the head of a crocodile, as if to tease him, in a landscape of reeds, presumably alongside the Nile. The reverse side shows a male nude provoking a hippopotamus.
Mr. Bernheimer said that he did not know what the scenes meant, but that they might be one artisan's humorous view of exotic Egypt. The estimate is $600,000 to $800,000. The presale viewing for both sales at Christie's begins tomorrow.
Of course, I've tracked down an image of the bust of Ptolemy at Sotheby's (larger version available at the official page) and the cameo at Christies (ditto):
::Friday, December 03, 2004 5:00:04 AM::
~ AWOTV: On TV Today
10.00 p.m. |DTC| Ancient Ancestors: Princess and the Pauper
The discovery of thousands of skeletons in the heart of London astonished archaeologists. It looks like hundreds of people were struck down by something deadly and dumped in a mass pauper's grave, along with the body of a young Roman in a sarcophagus.
DTC = Discovery Times Channel
::Friday, December 03, 2004 4:39:45 AM::