Recensie: Twaalf keizers in de verbeelding

05 oktober 2021 , door Roel Salemink
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Hoe ziet macht eruit? Mary Beard schreef een prachtig geïllustreerd boek over de blijvende invloed van de eerste reeks Romeinse keizers op de westerse cultuur en op hoe macht wordt verbeeld. Als je aan een keizer denkt zie je bij wijze van spreken Caesar of Nero voor je zoals ze zich 2000 jaar geleden lieten afbeelden. In de kunsten werden en worden de keizers steeds weer opnieuw heruitgevonden, denk bijvoorbeeld aan de film Gladiator met Joaquin Phoenix als de in en in slechte Commodus. Roel Salemink las Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Lees bij ons de eerste pagina’s en bestel je exemplaar.

What does the face of power look like? Who gets commemorated in art and why? And how do we react to statues of politicians we deplore? In this book—against a background of today’s ‘sculpture wars’—Mary Beard tells the story of how for more than two millennia portraits of the rich, powerful, and famous in the western world have been shaped by the image of Roman emperors, especially the ‘Twelve Caesars,’ from the ruthless Julius Caesar to the fly-torturing Domitian. Twelve Caesars asks why these murderous autocrats have loomed so large in art from antiquity and the Renaissance to today, when hapless leaders are still caricatured as Neros fiddling while Rome burns.

Beginning with the importance of imperial portraits in Roman politics, this richly illustrated book offers a tour through 2,000 years of art and cultural history, presenting a fresh look at works by artists from Memling and Mantegna to the nineteenth-century American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, as well as by generations of weavers, cabinetmakers, silversmiths, printers, and ceramicists. Rather than a story of a simple repetition of stable, blandly conservative images of imperial men and women, Twelve Caesars is an unexpected tale of changing identities, clueless or deliberate misidentifications, fakes, and often ambivalent representations of authority.

From Beard’s reconstruction of Titian’s extraordinary lost Room of the Emperors to her reinterpretation of Henry VIII’s famous Caesarian tapestries, Twelve Caesars includes fascinating detective work and offers a gripping story of some of the most challenging and disturbing portraits of power ever created.

Published in association with the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

N.B. Eerder publiceerden we voor uit Beards Hoe wij kijken. Met gelovige ogen, en bespraken we de volgende boeken van Mary Beard op SPQR, Laughter in Ancient Rome, Confronting the Classics, De ontdekking van Arcadië (met John Henderson).


The emperor on the mall
An introduction

A Roman Emperor and an American President

For many years, an imposing marble sarcophagus was a fixture, and a curiosity, on the Mall in Washington, DC, standing on the grass just outside the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building (Fig. 1.1). It had been discovered in Lebanon, one of two sarcophagi found together on the outskirts of Beirut in 1837 and brought to the United States a couple of years later by Commodore Jesse D. Elliott, the commander of a squadron of the US navy on patrol in the Mediterranean. The story was that it had once held the remains of the Roman emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled between 222 and 235 CE.

Uit: Mary Beard, Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Roman sarcophagus
1.1 Visitors in the late 1960s reading the information panel in front of the Roman sarcophagus outside the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall in Washington, DC: the ‘Tomb in which Andrew Jackson REFUSED to be Buried’.

Alexander has not remained a household name, despite a rather florid Handel opera, Alessandro Severo, woven around his life, and an overblown reputation in some parts of early modern Europe as an exemplary ruler, patron of the arts and public benefactor (Charles I of England particularly enjoyed comparison with him). A Syrian by birth, and a member of what was by this date a decidedly multi-ethnic Roman elite, he came to the throne aged thirteen, after the assassination of his cousin Elagabalus—whose legendary excesses outstripped even those of Caligula and Nero, and whose party trick of smothering his dinner guests to death under piles of rose petals was brilliantly captured by the nineteenth-century painter, and re-creator of ancient Rome, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Alexander was the youngest Roman emperor ever up to that point, and most of the twenty or so surviving ancient portraits of him (or believed to be of him) depict a rather dreamy, almost vulnerable, youth (Fig. 1.2). Whether he was ever as exemplary as later ages imagined is doubtful. Nonetheless, ancient writers saw him as a relatively safe pair of hands, largely thanks to the influence of his mother, Julia Mamaea, the ‘power behind the throne’, who plays a predictably sinister role in Handel’s opera. In the end, while on military campaign together, mother and son were both assassinated by rebellious Roman troops; whether the soldiers’ anger was provoked by Alexander’s economic prudence (or meanness), his lack of martial skills or the influence of Julia Mamaea depends on which report you believe.

Uit: Mary Beard, Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Portrait bust of Alexander Severus
1.2 Portrait bust of Alexander Severus from the line-up of Roman emperors in the ‘Room of the Emperors’ in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The identification of individual emperors is rarely certain, but the incised pupils in the eyes of this statue, and the treatment of the close-cropped hair are typical of sculpture of the early third century, and there is a plausible match with some of Alexander’s images on coins.

All this happened more than a century after those first, and more familiar, Twelve Caesars. But Alexander was still an emperor very much in their style, even down to the seedier stories and allegations (the slightly too close relations with his mother, the danger of the soldiers, the outrageous predecessor and the brutal assassination). In fact, modern historians have often seen him as the last in the traditional line of Roman rulers, which had begun with Julius Caesar; and one sixteenth-century printmaker and publisher, by some creative counting and strategic omissions, managed to double the original Twelve and end up with a diagram of imperial succession that placed Alexander conveniently as emperor number Twenty-Four. What followed his murder was very different. It was decades of rule by a series of military adventurers, many holding command for a couple years only, some of them barely setting foot in the city of Rome, despite being ‘Roman’ emperors. It is a change of character in Roman power nicely symbolised by the frequent claim—true or not—about Alexander’s immediate successor, Maximinus ‘the Thracian’: on the throne for three years between 235 and 238 CE, he has gone down in history as the first Roman emperor who could not read or write.
The story of the sarcophagus makes a vivid introduction to some of the twists and turns, debates, disagreements and edgy political controversies in my wider story of Roman imperial images, both modern and ancient. Alexander’s name was found nowhere on the coffin that he was supposed to have occupied, nor were there any other identifying marks on it; but the name ‘Julia Mamaea’ was clearly inscribed on the other one. For Jesse Elliott, that made almost irresistible the connection between the pair of coffins he had acquired and the unfortunate young emperor and his mother. They had been murdered together and then must have been buried side by side, in appropriately imperial grandeur close to Alexander’s birthplace, in what is now Lebanon. Or so he managed to convince himself.
He was wrong. As sceptics were soon pointing out, the assassination was supposed to have taken place some two thousand miles from Beirut, in Germany or even Britain (a geographical link that appealed to the court of Charles I, even if the murder did not); and, anyway, one ancient writer claimed that the body of the emperor was taken back to Rome for burial. If that were not enough to scotch the idea, the ‘Julia Mamaea’ commemorated in the inscription was firmly stated to have died at the age of thirty, making it impossible for her to have been Alexander’s mother—unless, as one of Elliott’s own junior officers later tartly observed, she had ‘given birth to her son, when she was but three years old, which is, to say the least, unusual’. The woman who had once occupied the coffin was presumably one of the many other inhabitants of the Roman Empire with that same common name.
Besides, none of the people engaged in these debates appear to have realised that there was at least one rival candidate for the burial place of the imperial couple; or if they did realise, they kept quiet about it. An elaborate marble sarcophagus over four thousand miles away in the Capitoline Museums at Rome—celebrated in a notable engraving by Piranesi and well known to keen eighteenth-and nineteenth-century tourists—was supposed to have been shared by Alexander and Julia Mamaea, shown reclining together in imperial splendour on its lid (Fig. 1.3). There was even a connection with the blue-glass ‘Portland Vase’, which is now one of the highlights of the British Museum—famous for its exquisite white cameo decoration, and also for being attacked by a drunken visitor in 1845. If the story is true (a big ‘if’) that this vase was rediscovered in the sixteenth century actually inside the sarcophagus, then maybe it was the original receptacle that had once contained the emperor’s ashes (even though lodging a small vase of ashes inside a vast coffin obviously designed to hold an intact, uncremated body seems a little odd). In this case, the burial place just outside Rome is a better fit with some of the historical evidence. But overall, as the more scrupulous nineteenth-century tourist guidebooks conceded, this identification too was a combination of wishful thinking and outright fantasy.

Uit: Mary Beard, Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. An alternative candidate for the last resting place of Alexander Severus.
1.3 An alternative candidate for the last resting place of Alexander Severus. Piranesi’s 1756 engraving of the sarcophagus, in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, shows the figures of the dead reclining on the lid, with scenes from the story of the Greek hero Achilles carved underneath.

Unfounded as they were, the imperial associations of Elliott’s sarcophagi lingered longer. That is largely because of the strange and slightly gruesome history of these trophies after they arrived in America. Elliott did not intend them to become museum pieces. That of ‘Julia Mamaea’ he planned to re-use as the last resting place of the Philadelphia philanthropist Stephen Girard; but, as he had long been dead and interred elsewhere, it passed into the collection of Girard College, and in 1955 was loaned to Bryn Mawr College, where it still stands in the cloister. After an abortive attempt to have ‘Alexander’s’ re-used for the remains of James Smithson (illegitimate child of an English aristocrat, scientist and founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution), Elliott presented it in 1845 to the National Institute, a major collection of American heritage housed in the Patent Office, in ‘the fervent hope’ that it would shortly contain ‘all that is mortal of the patriot and hero, Andrew Jackson’.
Despite his failing health (he died a few months later), President Jackson’s reply to the letter from Elliott outlining this offer was famously robust: ‘I cannot consent that my mortal body shall be laid in a repository prepared for an Emperor or King—my republican feelings and principles forbid it—the simplicity of our system of government forbids it. Every monument erected to perpetuate the memory of our heroes and statesmen ought to bear evidence of the economy and simplicity of our republican institutions and the plainness of our republican citizens . . . I cannot permit my remains to be the first in these United States to be deposited in a Sarcophagus made for an Emperor or King.’ Jackson was in a difficult position. The accusations levelled against him of behaving like a ‘Caesar’—in a style of autocratic populism that a few of his successors have copied—may have had added to the intensity of his refusal. He was certainly not going to risk an imperial burial.
No practical use found for it, in the 1850s the sarcophagus went from its temporary lodgings in the Patent Office to the Smithsonian, where it remained on display outside on the Mall until finally demoted to storage in the 1980s. But even when the archaeological connection with Alexander Severus had been universally debunked (this was actually a typical East Mediterranean product of the Roman Empire, and could have belonged to anyone with enough ready cash), Jackson’s rejection of it, as ‘made for an Emperor or King’, remained part of the object’s history and mythology. In the 1960s, his words were incorporated into a new information panel placed next to the sarcophagus itself, headed ‘Tomb in Which Andrew Jackson REFUSED to be Buried’ (as the couple in Fig. 1.1 are attentively reading). It stood, in other words, as a symbol of the down-to-earth essence of American republicanism and its distaste for the vulgar bric-a-brac of monarchy or autocracy. Whatever taint of ‘Caesarism’ might have clung to Jackson, it is hard not to be on his side, against Elliott’s ‘fervent hope’ of acquiring a celebrity occupant for his celebrity sarcophagus.



© Copyright, Princeton Universiy Press

pro-mbooks1 : athenaeum