Classically Inclined

September 8, 2014

On emperors and exhibitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been hard-pressed to miss the recent flurry of #Aug2K tweets as I live-tweeted my way through the Commemorating Augustus conference at Leeds, ably organised by Penny Goodman. The occasion for all the Augustus excitement is the bimillenium of his death – two thousand years ago in August, the first ever emperor carked it. (Penny has a blog post on how we know the precise date.) The conference was one of those wonderful assortments of people working on things that you’d not think fitted together but that actually each reflect on each other in really interesting ways. I particularly loved the panel my talk belonged to, which had three very different ways of reading Senecan and pseudo-Senecan texts plus a bit of a riff on Flavian coinage. But this is not the only Augustan honorific I’ve seen – I also managed to get over the Channel in time to see the Moi, Auguste exhibition at the Paris Expo before it closed. This show had travelled from Rome with some alterations – Mary Beard saw both versions and wrote about the comparison back in April. Having not seen the Rome version, I’m not in a position to comment, but I do have some thoughts about what I saw.

Obviously, the experience was hugely enhanced by being a classicist, and by going with a classicist – one sneaky reason for the quick trip across was to coincide with a good friend of mine who spends most of the year in the US but was in Europe for the summer. Statues and catching-up coffee – what’s not to like? This meant that when we saw the simply spectacular marble frieze of a naval battle (presumably Actium) featuring a centaur in Hercules’ lion-skin to represent Antony… oh, how we laughed. Honestly, it’s hysterical if you’re familiar with the political polemic of the period, in which Antony tries to associate himself with Heracles for his political benefit, and his enemies describe him as a centaur who can’t control his base physical desires. If ever a student asks whether we aren’t asking too much in expecting an audience to automatically associate a politician with his propaganda, the photo of this frieze is coming out. Subtle it ain’t – and it was expected to be understood long after it had been put up.


December 28, 2012

Bronze at the British Academy

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:19 am
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I was very glad that I managed to get to see Bronze at the British Academy before it closed at the start of December. There had been a lot of buzz about the exhibition, and I wanted to see how the attempt to combine ancient and modern material worked in tandem with my own obvious interest in the Greek and Roman artefacts on display.

The Dancing Satyr - The Royal Academy of Arts

The Dancing Satyr – The Royal Academy of Arts

To my great personal satisfaction, the exhibition opened with a statue of a dancing satyr from the fourth century B.C. – one of the few surviving examples that we have, because it spent until 1998 in the sea and thus didn’t get melted down in the time between then and now. This is the fate of most classical bronzes – they get shipwrecked, buried or melted for reuse, so the ones that do survive are particularly interesting, especially given the artistic habit of imitating bronzes in marble sculpture. These imitations obviously aren’t as vulnerable to utilitarian impulses, but marble as a medium also has more limitations – many a marble statue from this period leans against a suspiciously convenient tree trunk to stop the piece losing its structural integrity. So to see this dancing satyr stretching out its limbs in all directions, fully in the spirit of the dance, was absolutely breathtaking. (There’s a video that discusses the statue here.)

I rather suspect that the choice of the objects in the show would have struck me as a lot cheekier if I had a wider range of subject knowledge in this field. I draw this conclusion from the brilliant statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus, fully bedecked in toga and in oratorical pose. He looks like every Roman orator stereotype going, and standing next to a number of other sorts of standing figures (including a brilliant Nigerian piece of work and a Giacometti), that is what a visitor to the gallery would suppose he was, given the information on his exhibition label. But wait! For those of us who shelled out for the audio guide, it is revealed that our man is in fact a freedman, an ex-slave, whose statue had been put up by public subscription in the theatre in Herculaneum. Not for one moment would you guess this from anything about the statue – I presume it’s all in the inscription discovered with it. But the exhibition isn’t about to point out to the majority of its guests that this statue actually subverts many of the assumptions that it automatically invites us to make. (Anybody walking too fast past Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young without examining its elements too closely might be drawn into making a similar mistake. And the inclusion of Jasper John’s Beer Cans just made me laugh.)


May 2, 2012

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 1:16 pm
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At the weekend, I dropped into the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – partly as a fairly safe bet on somewhere to stay dry, partly because I wanted to see the Staffordshire Hoard before it gets moved, and partly because I hadn’t been in yet and it seemed rather sad not to have popped my head in at some point during my time here. Which, incidentally, was a great pleasure, not least because they have one of the copies of Rossetti’s Persephone and Sandys’ absolutely amazing Medea (on the left), both of which are beautiful pieces of pre-Raphaelite classical reception, and which are going to get at least one more visit before I decamp. Especially the Sandys, which, incidentally, was considered an affront to public taste when it was first painted. (Classical myth continues to provide contraversial material for artistic minds to turn their hands to, as the recent furore over Derrick Santini’s Leda and the Swan photo demonstrates – do be aware that the link may not be safe for work!)

Anyway, at the back of the museum there is an all-purpose ‘ancient stuff’ room that puts Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, ancient Crete, the Holy Land and various other old things on show (Egypt has its own room), and I thought I’d have a nose around from professional curiosity. The first thing I had to keep in mind was the audience of the objects – the good people of Birmingham, not the classical scholar. That said, I did find the labels rather frustrating, in that they didn’t include information like provenance or find site. This was particularly irritating for a group of small statues that used Hercules iconography (lion skin, raised arm with hand holding club) but in rather cruder workmanship than I’ve seen use that iconography before, making me wonder about where in the empire these things had been made and what sort of context they’d been used in, especially since the label referred to the Roman practice of assimilating local gods to Hercules in northern Europe.

But the lack of labels did give me an amusing surprise. One of the cases had a series of rather nice clay lamps on show, in three groups from the first/second century A.D., the third/fourth centuries and the fifth/sixth centuries, to show the change in design and shape over time. I cast my eye over these quite quickly at first, but after a circuit of the gallery came back to have another look. Where, to my surprise, among the representations of gladiators, lions and locusts, I found an oil lamp decorated with a copulating couple. Now, this in and of itself is hardly a unique object; lamps were frequently decorated with saucy pictures of one variety or another, and regular readers may recall that the ‘sex room’ in the Times Square Pompeii exhibit made something of a feature of four poorly preserved examples. But I will admit to being a little startled when I realised what I was looking at, as this particular piece of household erotica was quietly hiding in the middle of an otherwise entirely decorous display. I suppose that in and of itself might be a case for not overlabelling things – there’s an extra bonus for those who make the effort to look carefully.

May 30, 2011

A further thought on slavery and the Pompeii exhibit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:53 am
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I had a further thought about the Pompeii exhibition in Times Square over the weekend, specifically about the comparative absence of slavery.

My feelings about slavery are very different to those of the vast majority of the American audience who will see the current incarnation of this exhibition. I come from a British environment, where the inheritance of slavery is more or less invisible unless you specifically explore the Empire’s participation in the slave trade in the colonies, which was abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made the practice of owning slaves itself illegal). We never had slaves in England itself on the same scale as America, and as such we do not have a similar legacy. We have no equivalent of Jim Crow, of segregation, of the Montgomery bus boycotts, of Martin Luther King. I have had to internalise these things and remind myself that this is the cultural world my students inhabit, even if it is not mine.

When I teach, I am very aware that the word ‘slavery’ has a certain resonance, certain implications, that I have to break down at once. I have to tell my students explicitly and with no messing about that Roman slavery is a very different beast, it’s not race-based, it has more fluidity to it than ante-bellum American slavery, and that they have to rewire their brains to work with this material. It’s hard, it’s delicate, and it takes at least fifteen minutes of focused, careful explanation to lay the groundwork for tackling the subject for the rest of the semester.

I can’t ignore the subject when I’m teaching. The topic is too interwoven into every topic, every source, that I want to use with my students. But Discovery don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, or of taking fifteen minutes of carefully prepared discussion to make sure that their visitors are absolutely clear on the differences between Roman and American ante-bellum slavery. They can’t afford to take the risk that something will be misunderstood when the topic in hand is such a loaded one for American culture. As they don’t have the luxury of giving their popular audience the kind of in-depth instruction that making this distinction requires, they simply elide as much of slavery as they can.

I still don’t think that you can give an accurate picture of Roman society without talking about slavery and acknowledging its role. But given the audience that Discovery is targeting, and the practical challenges you face when you educate people about something this tricky and delicate, I can see why they decided to gloss over this potential minefield.

May 27, 2011

Pompeii in Times Square

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 1:11 pm
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Yesterday I took myself off to see Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at the Discovery Channel building in Times Square – it’s only a couple of stops on the subway, and being a professional classicist I thought it would be remiss of me not to go and have a look. I even treated myself to the audio guide. I will admit that I was expecting to raise my trained classical eyebrow and feel ever so slightly superior, but I am delighted to report that I actually got a great deal out of visiting the exhibition.

This is mainly because of the simply superb set of artefacts that the curators have gathered, many of which I had never seen, and some of which have become totemic for teaching and learning about Pompeii. (Sadly no photos were allowed, so you will have to make do with scavenged links.) The exhibition starts with a two minute survey film, including the pleasing factoid that Latin contains no word for volcano, that gives a brief summary of the eruption and its context before releasing you into part one of the exhibition, focusing on daily life. There is then a chamber which attempts, in a somewhat hokey way, to do a reconstruction of the day of the eruption, showing a video of the increasing piles of ash and pumice on buildings and so forth, ending with the pyroclastic surge – from which, with a dramatic cloud of smoke, you are ushered into the room where the body casts are laid out. The final portion of the exhibition contains more daily life material, but it also focuses on the historical timeline of Vesuvius’ activity, and mentions the current concerns about what will happen if the volcano erupts again.

As I say, I have few bones to pick on the general presentation front – Discovery have been very careful not to repeat too many Pompeii Myths, and there’s no mention (for instance) of the old “rich lady found in the gladiator barracks” chestnut (exploded inter alia by Mary Beard here). The objects are laid out clearly, well lit and well spaced, and while some objects are replicas of originals, there are also plenty of actual finds to enjoy. Speaking personally, I found myself wanting to know more and more about The House of the Golden Bracelet, which provided most of the frescos displayed in the exhibition – including this gorgeous garden piece, depicting birds flying and nesting in a garden surrounded by trellis work. What intrigued me about this work, the first thing you see when you come through from the film, is the prominence of Egyptian motifs – there are two sphinxes at the bottom of the right hand panel, and a wee Egyptian style godlet at the bottom of the left hand panel. Plus you have those fascinating circular things hung at the top of the frames of the left and right panels, repeated in other garden frescos from the house, in contrast with the Greek dramatic mask in the central panel. I really wanted to know more about the Egyptian element here, especially given the more ‘traditional’ elements, but frustratingly the guide and explanatory notes didn’t touch on it – although they did note the presence of ducks and lilies in the fountain from the same house as showing Egyptian influence, which I thought was far less compelling.

Anyway, the House of the Golden Bracelet clearly had a cracking interior designer, and I’m going to follow up what I can. Especially the portrait of the Greek poet and librarian Euphorian – how they identified him I do not know, but I want to find out more. (more…)

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