Saturday, 25 January 2014

Alma-Tadema - Roman Visions

Victorian Britain (1837-1901) was more than a little obsessed with the Roman era - from their Queen, who was named after the Roman Goddess of Victory, to the expanding British empire which bore similarities to that of Rome's, to the copious number of Romanesque artworks produced in the United Kingdom during that time. Of all the painters dealing with Roman themes none was more popular than Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) - a prolific painter who specialised in depicting (somewhat romanticised) scenes of everyday life in the classical world. While some of his work seems a little kitsch these days, some of it is wonderfully evocative and brings the ancient world to life. In homage to this true Romanophile, here follows some of my favourite Roman-themed works by Alma-Tadema.

Click on image to enlarge

The decorative marble floor and brightly painted wall in the image below is typical of ancient Roman architecture - but only the wealthy (and their slaves) lived in homes like this. In Rome itself most people lived in apartments. As we can see the sea in the background, Alma-Tadema perhaps intended to depict a villa in a wealthy seaside town, such as Herculaneum (destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE).
"An Oleander" (1882)

The arm band in this image probably represents a snake, which had sacred connotations in ancient Rome - snakes were associated with prosperity and fertility: Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town at 297.
"Roman Potter" (1884)

Below is a depiction of Vespasian, emperor of Rome from 69-79 CE, at the triumph of his son Titus (emperor from 79-81 CE), who sacked Jerusalem during a Jewish-Roman war in 70 CE. Vespasian is leading the procession - he wears a white toga with his head covered as was customary in ritual offerings to Jupiter (as well as many other Roman Gods). Titus is behind him holding the hand of his own daughter Julia. Behind Julia is her uncle Domitian (emperor from 81-96 CE). Jupiter's temple is in the background. The spoils of military victory were often dedicated to particular Gods in their temples, which may explain the menorah.
"The Triumph of Titus" (1885)

The ladies below appear to be watching a triumphal procession - not the triumph of Titus however, as the colosseum as depicted (known as the Flavian amphitheatre in its own time) was not completed until 80 CE.
"The Colosseum" (1896)

Communal baths were famously popular in ancient Rome. By the fourth century CE there were almost 1000 public bath buildings in Rome alone. Throughout the empire almost every town had at least one public bath. Entrance fees were typically low and many people went to the baths daily. Men and women bathed separately, either in different buildings, or, if the bath was shared, women would typically attend in the morning, while men went in the afternoon: Shelton, As the Romans Did at 310.
"A Favourite Custom" (1909)

The tepidarium was the warm room within a Roman bath building. Warm air was piped into the floors and walls. Other rooms in Roman baths included the caldarium (hot room) and the frigidarium (cold room).
"In the Tepidarium" (1881)

When making an offering to Venus at her shrine it was customary to have the head covered and to wear white - Alma-Tadema may have had this in mind when portraying what is probably intended to be Venus' priestess on the left.
"Shrine of Venus" (1889)

Garlands and wreaths of flowers were typical features of many Roman festivals.
"Preparations for the Festivities" (1866)

Devotees of Bacchus honoured the God of wine, drunkenness, ecstasy and madness in a celebration known as a Bacchanal. Bacchanalia included ritual drunkenness and dancing. Mark Antony is perhaps the most famous of Bacchus' devotees.
"Bacchanal" (1871)

The painting below may be intending to depict the Vinalia - a wine-growing festival which particularly honoured Jupiter and Venus. Previous vintages were sampled and offerings made to ensure good weather and a successful wine crop in the future.
"The Vintage Festival" (1871)

Many religious festivals included theatrical events. Mimes and pantomimes were immensely popular, especially as they included women (who were not permitted in the more high-brow Greek dramas), nudity, violence and sex: Shelton, As the Romans Did at 346-347. One assumes that perhaps this respectable mother and child are going to see a Greek comedy, which were also popular in ancient Rome. 
"Entrance to a Roman Theatre" (1866)

The painting below depicts the brothers Geta and Caracalla in an arena, probably the Colosseum, given how large it is. Games in the arena were a common feature of many religious festivals, including the Floralia - the conspicuous presence of so many flowers suggests that it is this event that Alma-Tadema intended to depict. Geta and Caracalla were (briefly) joint emperors of Rome until Caracalla infamously murdered his younger brother in 211 CE. This act, as well as, inter alia, the murder of many of Geta's friends and the senseless massacre of an allied German force have caused him to become known as one of the most bloodthirsty and despised emperors in Roman history. He was assassinated by the imperial guard in 217 CE.
"Geta and Caracalla" (1907)

The painting below depicts the terrifying manner in which Claudius became emperor of Rome in 41 CE. The praetorian guard made Claudius emperor after murdering his nephew - the infamous Caligula - along with Caligula's wife and young daughter. Claudius ruled until his own death in 54 CE - it is believed that his wife (and niece) poisoned him to secure power for her own biological son, the much reviled Nero. 
"A Roman Emperor AD 41" (1871)

References - most of the information above is sourced from my own general knowledge, with information checked against  some of my previous blogposts as well as Shelton, As the Romans Did; Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town and the Encyclopaedia Britannica

WWritten by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.

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