Art Sleuth By Jean Bundy
With the unimaginable Russian invasion into Ukraine, ‘Twelve Caesars, Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern’ by Mary Beard becomes a poignant read to understand where contemporary power-mongering originated for the West’s aesthetic canon to process. Beard writes, “Inside and outside royal palaces, and for a wider audience, images of the power of Roman emperors have always gone hand in hand with the portrayal of their vices—and with the hint of the systematic corruption of the imperial regime of which those vices were a symbol (212).”
After reading ‘Twelve Caesars,’ you’ll never walk through a museum, library, or park without questioning the alleged democratic themes exuding from statues, or pondering whether the visage staring at you is who is described on the plinth. Beard regales, “for hundreds of years after the European Renaissance, images of Roman emperors—on museum shelves and far beyond—roused intense passions. Recaptured in marble and bronze, in paint and on paper, turned in waxwork, silver, and tapestry, displayed on the backs of chairs, or porcelain teacups or stained-glass windows, emperors ‘mattered’….questioned as dubious role models or deplored as emblems of corruption (274).”
Since the fall of Rome, emperors have been misconstrued, re-chiseled, relabeled, and mythologized in fine art, theatricals and Kitsch. Beard writes, “Except for the tiny images in coins, there is hardly a single surviving ancient imperial portrait that comes with a reliable name attached (42).” However, we do have Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-122 AD) to thank; He was Hadrian’s librarian and author of ‘The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.’ According to Beard, “These ‘Lives’ were among the most popular history books of the European Renaissance…detailed physical descriptions of the individual rulers were found, and many of the anecdotes about them that provided inspiration for artists over the centuries (37-38).”
Beard relates, “A tradition of portraiture at Rome went back long before Caesar…[who] was the first to go beyond this and to engineer the widespread replication of his image (49).” She muses, “Julius Caesar is one of the most easily recognized of all Roman rulers in the art of the modern world, in painting, sculpture and ceramics, cartoons and films as well as in fakes and forgeries (62).”
Walk through any museum’s Greco-Roman section and you’ll find cases of Roman coins. Most visitors, including myself, bypass these tiny treasures and head straight to the colorful paintings. It may surprise you to learn that silhouettes imprinted on coins are the most accurate visual descriptions of emperors. Beard reports, “Every Roman emperor, no matter how short his reign, issued coinage because he needed ‘his’ cash to pay ‘his’ soldiers (74).” Beard continues, “Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, these miniature heads were far more than aids to the identification of large-scale portraits…Coins also provided an important model for re-creating emperors on paper, in paint, and in stone, as well as a template for modern portraiture (77, 83).” Coins were collected, worn as jewelry and medallions, and pressed into furniture. During the Renaissance, coin-shaped paintings, often with heads in profile and lettering or flourishes on the circumferences, appeared on walls and ceilings (93-94).”
Romans were the first to allow “a marble head to stand for the whole body.” They also took pride in statuary as “images of ancestors were displayed at the funerals of the elite and were part of the furniture of their houses; statues of prominent individuals, bigwigs, and benefactors, had for centuries stood in the public squares, temples and market places of the Roman World (49).”
Since the Renaissance, statesmen have been portrayed in Roman dress. Beard writes, “It is hard to escape the awkward fact that to be represented as a Roman in the modern world is almost bound to carry with it whiffs of autocracy…portraits could act as a mirror of—or a template for—the gentleman (105,111).” World travelers encountering art depicting renowned politicians, generals, or monarchs in actual or allegorical Roman dress is very common. Beard tells about Prince Albert, who commissioned a statue of himself
in imperial garb as a birthday present for his wife, Queen Victoria. Not pleased, she had the sculpture relegated to a back passageway at their Isle of Wight digs. Another statue with a longer toga and sandals was accepted and placed in Buckingham Palace.
Caesars were woven into tapestries, and Henry VIII had over 2500 throughout his residences as wall hangings and bedspreads. While paintings featuring Roman-esque costuming were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, others like author William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) questioned the brutal spectacle of these paintings.
This becomes important in contemporary Russia, where statues depicting Putin as a faux Roman emperor dot the landscape. The role of these self-serving monuments will be something humanity, and the art world will be unpacking for decades.
Mini Sleuth: ‘Twelve Caesars,’ Mary Beard on Amazon; thank you, Jodi Price at Princeton Univ. Press.
Jean Bundy, MFA, Ph.D., is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She is a VP at AICA-Int. and serves on Governance for Pictor Gallery NYC.