Every once and awhile, while teaching or going through my image collection, I’ll come across something and I’ll think: ‘that should be on the blog’. So here’s a recent one, a detail from the early 13th century mosaic of the Deisis in Hagia Sophia, of St John the Baptist. The subtlety in the range of colour and use of the tesserae (the little bits the mosaic is made up of) is really remarkable. I can’t wait to get back to Istanbul. Maybe 2019.
The wife of the Emperor Augustus, Livia, had a large room decorated in frescoes depicting a lovely garden in their villa at Prima Porta in Rome, which was constructed around the 40s CE. All four walls are sumptuously decorated with scenes of trees, bushes, and birds flying and alighting on branches. Lemons, roses, and pomegranates predominate (see image below). Two thousand years old, they are a celebration of the love of nature and the pleasures of gardens.
Another detail from the fresoes of Livia’s garden at Prima Porta (see above).
One of the most eye-opening and sensuous sculptures in the world is in the Museo Nazionale delle Terme in Rome: the Hellenistic marble sculpture of a Hermaphrodite (see below for other view). A gender-bending icon, it’s probably the most photographed artifact in the museum. There are a few versions of this work. The first, and probably the oldest version is in the Louvre. Another version, also ancient, was found in 1781 and is in the Villa Borghese. This one was discovered in 1880, and probably dates from around the 2nd century CE.
Here’s the Hermaphrodite from the other side.
In February of the year 1885, excavators working along a slope of the Quirinale Hill in Rome came upon this over life sized bronze statue of a heroic figure. A month later, another statue was uncovered, the Bronze Boxer (see below). Both were incredible finds, both rare bronzes from the 2nd or 3rd centuries BCE.
Detail of the sculpture above.
This is a detail of the famous statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus from around 12 BCE, called the Via Labicana Augustus, named after its find spot. The work shows Augustus as a priest, specifically Pontifex Maximus, a title that the popes of Rome would later adopt. It represents an important concept regarding the imperium: that the emperor is both a political and religious head of state.
Detail of a Cupid and Psyche statue in marble in the Capitoline Museum, Rome.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian followed the controversial reign of the much-hated Nero. The new emperor quickly moved to institute a new set of laws around 70 CE, the Lex de imperio Vespasiani. These new laws were inscribed on bronze plaques so they could be publicly displayed, including this very rare surviving one.
A detail of a beautiful figure in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
In the background of this shot of a pigeon enjoying the waters of a fountain, are the twins Romulus and Remus and their She-Wolf mother, a legend of the founding of Rome. The sculpture’s are found on the Capitoline Hill of Rome (see post below).
On the Capitoline Hill in Rome, in front of the Senate building, is a huge statue that’s an allegorical figure of the River Tiber. He holds, as many aquatic allegories do, a rudder. There’s a pendant to him as well, a similar allegorical figure representing the Nile River, thus they signifyed the great scope of the Roman Empire. But the Tiber figure didn’t always signify the Tiber. Originally, during ancient times, it represented the Tigris River, thus, like the Nile, it alluded to the farthest reaches of the Empire. It was only later that the recumbent figure’s symbolism was changed, when Michelangelo moved the figures to their present location in his refurbishing of the Capitoline Hill structures. By then, the Renaissance, the Tigris didn’t have any particular significance for Romans. It had been absorbed into Muslim lands centuries before. Indeed, it was only then that the She-Wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus were added to the ensemble to make it clear that the figure now symbolized Rome’s famous river (see post above).
This marble statue is likely a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original done in bronze. The original probably dates from around 225 BCE, commissioned by King Attalus of Pergamon (in present-day Turkey) to commemorate his victory over an army of Gauls. The Gaul, dying of his wounds, is wearing a torque around his neck, a distinctive type of jewelry worn by the Gauls. It’s now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.