Archive for November, 2009

Roman interior decoration

November 21, 2009

We’ve just got back from the Scuderia del Quirinale, which is currently holding an exhibition on Roman art. Now this morning, had somebody else said that to me, I’d immediately be thinking of white statues of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes. It’s a different Sam who stands before you now; a Sam who laughs at his earlier naivety. Roman art also includes pictures of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes.

The exhibition’s split into 2 parts; the first being dedicated to what we’d call interior design I suppose, and the second being more the type of thing you’d expect to find in a gallery (portraits, still lifes etc). Both had some wonderful exhibits, but it’s the first part that seems to have made the greatest impression on me. You see, I’ve read books which have told me about the bright colours of Roman interiors, but whatever, in my head the classical world has always been characterised by white marble buildings.* Finally though, today’s museum trip has allowed me to dispel the last remaining vestiges of this image of pristinity. With examples dating from throughout the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, Roman houses of the period were anything but bland.

In these days of cream Dulux and a tastefully displayed Van Gogh print, it would be difficult to imagine matching 1 or 2 of the themes with a 3 piece suite and some curtains but, and I’ll bide my time before springing this on Rose, the idea of having the adventures of Ulysses painted on a massive scale directly onto our living room walls has now been firmly planted.

If anybody gets a chance to pop in, the exhibition’s on until January and it really is worth a visit.

*Actually, reaching that stage of visualisation was difficult enough. After having seen one too many Harryhausen films as a kid, that white marble filled my ancient Greece and Rome in the form of ruins housing fearsome plasticine monsters.


Augustus and his celestial message

November 17, 2009

“I found Rome a city of brick and I left it a city of marble.”  So proclaimed Augustus in his Res Gestae (“Achievements” – a rather selective overview of the first Emperor’s feats penned by the man himself).  The fabric of Rome became a placard on which he could emblazon his message of personal and imperial grandeur; the building schemes he proudly boasted of were designed to reinforce the place of the princeps at the forefront of the Roman people.

As well as this, the literary world was heavily patronised.  It’s easy to over-emphasise the importance of literature in the ‘propaganda’ onslaught – as artefacts and monuments have decayed, events and actions been forgotten, and other cultural interests slipped in or fallen out of popularity, it’s not out of the question that somebody today might only have learnt about Augustus because of an interest in the poetry of the first century BC.  A typical Roman would have seen the building works etc on a daily basis without giving so much as a thought to their favourite of Horace’s Epodes.  Still though, with big hitters such as Virgil making epic poetry from the deeds of Augustus, as much political prestige as possible was being squeezed out of the literary world.

The final of the big three tools with which Augustus could spread his message was money.  This worked in the obvious sense of donatives to the public and the soldiers, and by the more subtle means of imprinting coins with a message to glorify Empire and Emperor.  The idea of putting an individual on a Roman coin was relatively new – it first occurred under Julius Caesar – but it was an innovation that the Romans ran with.  Brutus is supposed to have reacted to Julius’ coins with disgust at the kingly implications, yet during the civil war against Octavian and Antony, coins were created and embossed with an image of the great liberator himself.  Augustus would have had no second thoughts about using his own picture.

I found out the other day about a more surprising piece of propaganda, and one which people live with the legacy of today every time they turn to the last few pages of their paper.  The star sign Libra was apparently introduced into astrology* under Augustus (Virgil writes in the Georgics that it happened on the 23rd September of 63BC).  Before that, the constellation was simply seen as a part of Cancer and in fact the two main stars in the constellation are still known as Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, Arabic for pincer of the south and north respectively.  Scales as a symbol of justice are used today; this is yet one more legacy from the Greco-Roman World.  This constellation was no more than a way to proclaim the just nature of everybody’s favourite leader.

So anyway, the question I’m putting to you is this: has anybody heard of any other examples of creative propaganda from Augustus or any of the other Emperors?

*Actually reintroduced.  The Babylonians and Egyptians had used it but for some reason it fell out of favour.

Pasta outside Castello San Angelo

November 8, 2009

The Barilla pasta magnets on currently displayed proudly have prompted this week’s post.  They’re a new addition to our kitchen after we were given them during the celebrations of international pasta day last Sunday.  I imagine that for anybody else reading this, your own celebrations were fairly low-key, but for those of us in Rome, Milan and Naples, Barilla saw to it that we were fed bowl upon bowl of free pasta.

In Rome, the celebrations were held in the Giardinni San Angelo next to Castello San Angelo.  To look at this castle, you’d struggle to find any suggestion of the work of ancient Romans, and as far as I know, you’d eventually have to give up on the fruitless quest; there are no signs at all.  However, originally the castle was built as the tomb of Hadrian.  His statue still stands in the gardens and his name is given to the nearby piazza Adriana, but the building itself has been drastically altered.

The original building was designed by the Emperor himself who had always held a considerable interest in architecture.  It was a grand, white marble structure, and if the Pantheon is any guide (another project the Emperor was involved in) it would no doubt have been a fabulous building. It was known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian until the sixth century, but before we look at why the name was changed, it’s time for some background.

After the Roman Empire in the west had fallen, Rome had become something of a ghost town.  The papacy continued to operate from there, but otherwise the city’s halcyon days of political and cultural significance were behind it.  Hobbes described the papacy of the time as “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave.”  Pope Gregory I began to change all of that, however, and under his guidance, the city was successfully portrayed as a destination for pilgrimage.  With the tourist trade dollar flooding in, Gregory began to claw back the glories of old Rome.

However, none of this rejuvenation could happen until the plague that was coursing through Rome had ended. That supposedly happened after Gregory saw a vision of St Michael above the Mausoleum and the name was changed accordingly.  After that, pope after pope added to and reinforced the building to make it the Vatican’s defensive stronghold.  During the 1527 sack of Rome, one pope remained holed up in there for months.  It was this period that saw the Castle become the building we recognise today.  (And incidentally, it was also in this period that Hadrian’s remains were removed elsewhere and later destroyed in a fire).

As we sat next to the castle munching on our trofie al pesto, I noticed an inscription explaining that the park we were sitting in had been created by another figure from Italian history, namely Mussolini.  Whilst you see his building work etc on a daily basis over here, it came as a surprise to see something carved in stone explicitly naming him as responsible for the Gardens.  Rather than rewriting history, however, the inscription was left as it was; as yet one more layer of history serving as a backdrop to contemporary Rome and all of its pasta-based events.

roman numbers

November 8, 2009

Sunday evening? Already? Well that still leaves time for a quick entry on Roman numerals. This is a cut out and keep entry written with you in mind Rose. Read it, and you’ll finally be able to work out the date on that aquarium.

Firstly then, the real basics. I is the smallest whole number. It represents one unit. If you place 2 equal units next to each other, you add their value together. II = 2 therefore, and III = 3. The next symbol is V, which represents 5 units. If you put a number to the left of a bigger one, you subtract the smaller number. i.e. IV = V (5 units) – I (one unit) = 4. If the numbers are written the other way around (big number followed by smaller), you add them together: VI = V + I = 6.

The next symbol we need to know is X, which means 10. Using the principles above, XX must equal 20, IX 9 and XI 11. As a point of interest, these numerals seem to have developed from counting on fingers. I was supposed to represent 1 finger, V the shape made by the thumb and fingers when you hold them all out and X is 2 hands crossed over.

The other symbols we need are L for 50, C for 100, D or I‘backwards C’ for 500 and M or CI’backwards C’ for 1000.

A few more principles to work with:

1. A line above the number multiplies by 1, 000: II = 2, Ī Ī = 2,000

2. ‘backwards C’ to the right of I’backwards C’ multiplies the figure by 10.

E.g. I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 5,000, e.g. 2 I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 50, 000.

3. C in front of the I (repeated as many times as ‘backwards C’ follows) doubles the number. E.g. I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 5, 000 but CCI’backwards C’’backwards C’ = 10, 000

A bit of a drily technical post I’m afraid, but I hope it helps.