Putting Some Color in the Emperor’s Cheeks

Visitors to Washington, DC always remark on the grand public buildings around the National Mall, which look like they were taken from Athens or Rome.  Monumental, temple-like structures house museums and offices, their exteriors often decorated with imposing statuary representing ancient Greek and Roman gods or allegorical virtues, in gleaming white marble.  The problem is, these buildings and their accompanying statuary are historically incorrect, as a new exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum demonstrates.

Employing a combination of research, technology, and artistic skill, “Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour” displays 120 works of sculpture from the ancient world, all of which were once painted and still retain some degree of their original color, even if only on a microscopic level.  These are accompanied by modern recreations showing what they may have looked like when they were new. In mounting the exhibition, scientists and conservators used electron microscopes, infrared, lasers, and other equipment for a close-up examination of the surface of these works.  They were then able to extrapolate the appearance of these sculptures, before they lost their surface decoration.

To our contemporary eyes, the end result is somewhat shocking, as you can see in this short clip.  A 1st century A.D. marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula is given the color treatment, and the effect is startling.  Instead of a distant, cold figure, we get a more realistic sense of this particularly cruel and insane member of the imperial family.  At the same time however, the colored surface paradoxically flattens the effect, so that the painted Caligula looks more like a giant porcelain doll than the unpainted Caligula, where we have to use more of our imagination to get a picture of the man.

It should not surprise us that sculptures like these were originally brightly painted, when we look at the buildings in which they once stood.  If you recall my article from last week on the just-completed restoration of the Domus Augusti, the home of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome, rather than a stark, stone environment, the walls of the imperial villa were covered with lively frescoes of landscapes and flowers in rich colors.  The colorful statuary featured in this new exhibition in Copenhagen would have looked perfectly at home in just such a space.

It’s interesting to imagine what Washington would have looked like if the buildings and sculptures which make up the monumental core of the city were decorated with something close to historic authenticity.  Keep in mind however that in trying to evoke the world of Ancient Greece and Rome here in the capital of their new republic, the Founding Fathers and those who came after them were not concerned with completely recreating the past, as if they were about to shoot a movie or stage a play.  Just as the Houses of Parliament and other government buildings in Westminster are a pastiche of British medieval architecture and design, looking back to the foundation of parliamentary rule, so too many of our equivalent structures here in America are adaptation rather than complete recreations.

No doubt a time traveler from Rome or Athens in the 1st century A.D., visiting Washington today, would ask why everything has been left unfinished.  They would comment on the lack of colorful decoration which they would have expected in official buildings and public monuments of their own day.  Yet while it’s certainly fascinating to see in this exhibition just how colorful the ancient world truly was, personally I would prefer that we leave the Lincoln Memorial exactly the way that it is.

Head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.) Museum of Archaeology, Munich

Composite of original and restored marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.)
Museum of Archaeology, Munich

 

The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio

 

 

 

>Of Interest To My Readers – One Hopes

>Gentle reader, I have some suggested events and reading material for you this morning:

- If you are in the Washington area, I encourage you to join me and drop by the Young Conservatives Coalition’s “Reaganpalooza” this Saturday at the Teatro Goldoni bar-restaurant on K Street. You must RSVP on the event website, and there is a $5.00 entry charge at the door. This year marks what would have been President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, and there will be numerous events around the country this year to reflect on his life and legacy. This event in particular will be a fun and stylish evening in celebration of the great man, as well as a fantastic opportunity to meet new acquaintances – and of course, if you spot me in the crowd please do come up and introduce yourself!

- Hearty congratulations to my friend Matthew Alderman of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame, whose art will be featured in the forthcoming new edition of The Roman Missal. Fifteen of Matt’s illustrations will be included in the publication, which is available now for pre-order. Those of my readers of a priestly vocation know that the new translation will be coming into effect this Advent, so why not order your copy today? And of course drop by Matthew Alderman Studios to see the wide range of past, present, and future projects by this gifted young man.

- Congratulations also to the ever-gracious Diana von Glahn from The Faithful Traveler, who along with her producer-husband David and their crew will be accompanying Philadelphia’s Cardinal Rigali on pilgrimage to the Holy Land next month, and filming their adventures for a new series on EWTN. Regular readers know that I much enjoyed the first season of The Faithful Traveler, and that Diana’s example encouraged me to start my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project. I am looking forward to seeing the results of their filming.

- Some amazing sculptures dating from the early 3rd Century A.D. were found yesterday during archaeological excavations on the Via Anagnina, in the outskirts of Rome, as shown in this slideshow released to the Italian press. They include a statue of a male god (probably Zeus), and a number of portrait busts believed to represent members of the Severan Dynasty, the family of the Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, which ruled Rome from the murder of the Emperor Commodus in 193 A.D. – he of “Gladiator” fame – until the year 235 A.D. The statues were found together in a cache, carefully buried in the grounds of a villa belonging to a wealthy supporter of the imperial clan, though why they were hidden this way is unknown. They have now been taken to the National Museum in Rome for conservation and study before being put on display.

And finally:

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Eulalia, patroness of Barcelona, who was martyred in the city on February 12, 303 A.D. under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The city’s Cathedral is dedicated both to her and to the Holy Cross, and her tomb is a magnificent shrine located directly beneath the high altar. Readers may not be aware however, that the story of her martyrdom produced one of the most striking Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the later 19th century.

As it happens, yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the English Royal Academician John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), who continued to develop Pre-Raphaelite painting into the 20th century through a mixing of the ideals of the Brotherhood with classical and Impressionist styles and techniques. Probably Waterhouse’s most famous painting is his 1888 masterpiece “The Lady of Shalott”, now in the collection of the Tate Britain museum. This is a haunting image and one which, in reproduction, I suspect a number of my readers may have hung on their wall at one time or another.

Earlier, in 1885, Waterhouse painted a disquieting work of particular interest to me and to other Catalans: his “Saint Eulalia”, which is also now at Tate Britain. It depicts the pious legend that, after the teenaged martyr was killed and her body left exposed in Barcelona’s Roman Forum, as a warning by the Emperor Diocletian against those who would practice Christianity, a miraculous snow fell, modestly covering her body. No doubt, it is not exactly a pleasant image, but nevertheless it is certainly a most arresting one. We are accustomed to seeing tidied-up images of the early martyrs, but the stark realism of what actually happened to them should give all of us pause, and an opportunity for reflection on our own level of faith.

“Saint Eulalia” by JW Waterhouse (1885)
Tate Britain, London