Category Archives: Antiquity

MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO NAZIONALE DI NAPOLI

Piazza Museo 19, Napoli 80135

Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, uno dei primi costituiti in Europa, può vantare il più ricco e pregevole patrimonio di opere d’arte e manufatti archeologici in Italia.

LA FÊTE À SAINT CLOUD

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In a recent exhibition* and catalogue, La Fête à Saint-Cloud by Jean-Honoré Fragonard was adduced as a late example of the fête galante genre.

Antoine Watteau formulated the fête galante in the 1710s. The genre consists of figures in contemporary dress and/or commedia dell’arte characters performing the tropes of pastoral poetry while diverting themselves in lushly-landscaped parks. Like the mythic Arcadia, the fête galante’s overall mood of ease and pleasurable sociability is shadowed by a vague melancholy or longing–a sense that the depicted Golden Age must pass, or has already passed.

To be sure, Fragonard’s picture fulfills enough of the genre requirements to be classified as a fête galante, but one with amplifications and qualifications. Whereas Watteau and his followers usually worked in small- to medium-sized formats, La Fête à Saint-Cloud is the expansive centerpiece (2.16m x 3.35m) of an interior decoration scheme for the salon of a Parisian hôtel particulier.

Fragonard’s content also deviates from the generic norm. Not only are contemporary fashions and entertainments depicted in La Fête à Saint Cloud, the fête itself is a representation of an historical event, an annual fair held in September in the park of Saint Cloud. The various spectacles and diversions, including theatrical performances, marionette shows, games, concessions, and the water features for which the park was famous, are all depicted with great accuracy. (Fragonard’s earlier Fête à Rambouillet also overlays a depiction of an historical fair with fête galante imagery.)

Not only does the historicity of the painting’s subject matter run counter to Watteau’s deliberate balancing of equally indeterminate mythic, pastoral and modern elements, Fragonard suggests that the fête galante has been literalized in actual events such as the Saint Cloud fair. Whereas Watteau’s galants embark on a journey to an imaginary destination, in Fragonard’s picture, they have already arrived at a fully-colonized reality. At that moment, when the reification obtains, the fête galante genre ceases to exist, its social function having been absorbed completely into the general culture. La Fête à Saint Cloud is, therefore, not a fête galante genre picture, but documentation of a cultural production derived from the genre.

Since the late 18th century, La Fête à Saint Cloud has hung in the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Paris residence of Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, duc de Penthièvre.** The mansion was confiscated by the revolutionary government upon the duke’s death in 1793 and, in 1811, Napoleon authorized its sale to the Banque de France. The bank makes the painting, still in its original setting, available to over 10,000 visitors per year.

De Watteau à Fragonard: Les Fêtes Galantes, Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, 14 March – 21 July 2014.

** No documentation concerning either a direct commission from the artist or a purchase from a third party survives, but that is consistent with the artist’s casual approach to business. Of the 550 known paintings by Fragonard, only 5 are documented–an unusually low figure for a prominent artist of the period.

EXTREME HELLENISM: THE PERGAMON ALTAR

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Pergamon was one of the many kingdoms carved out of the eastern parts of Alexander the Great’s empire. By the year 200 B.C., the Attalid Kings had transformed Pergamon into a major outpost of Hellenic culture and religion, symbolized by the city’s acropolis, on which stood temples and the second largest library of the classical world. In the years 165 – 155 BC, the Pergamenes raised the final structure on the acropolis, a colossal altar, dedicated to Zeus.

In emulation of the Athenian Parthenon, the Pergamon altar was decorated with a narrative frieze. Designed by the sculptor Phyromachus, and executed by a large workshop of marble carvers, the frieze depicts the Gigantomachy, a subject frequently used by the Greeks to distinguish their enlightened civilization from the depravity and barbarism of everyone else (iIn the case of Pergamon, the mythic narrative served to commemorate recent military victories over the Macedonians and Celts). At 113m long, the Gigantomachy frieze is the second longest sculptural program executed in the classical period (the Parthenon frieze is 160m long). Although the Parthenon and Pergamon friezes share a common medium and approximate length, the latter departs from the model of the former in almost every other way.

The Parthenon frieze is carved in low relief. Its placement high above the ground, ensuring that the idealized civic ritual it depicts would be viewed from a dignified distance. At Pergamon, all of that is inverted: the frieze is carved in extemely high relief, with certain figures approaching sculpture in the round. Its over 100 scenes wrap around the lowest part of the altar’s base, sometimes spilling over on to the actual architecture, involving and immersing the viewer in epic mayhem. The drama of the battle is amplified by the over-life sized figures, whose bodies are splayed out wherever possible and by the churning, multi-layered compositions. The sense of turbulent motion pervading the frieze is primarily caused by the the deeply cut drapery folds of the goddesses garments that cling to their bodies as they rush into battle. The entire frieze is soaked in histrionic emotionality, a hallmark of Hellenistic art.

At the height of the classical period, sculptural representations of violence, like the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs of the Parthenon metopes (above), were over-laid with sense of decorum and restraint. At Pergamon, the gods charge in and brawl with the giants, dealing out all manner of graphically depicted punishment. The goddesses are particularly athletic and ferocious. Phoebe uses lit torches as spears; Aphrodite kicks a giant in the head; Nyx hurls an urn filled lining snakes at the fallen giant, the Fates and the Furies jump into the scrum and drag giants away by the hair. The Parthenon iconography informs potential enemies that, Athenian reason and civilization will always prevail. On the outskirts of the Greek world in a time of political uncertainty, the Pergamon frieze grandly and bluntly warns of the annihilation awaiting anyone who threatens the city.

The great altar of Pergamon was excavated, with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, in the late 19th century by German archaeologists. It was then reconstructed and installed in the Berlin museum that bears its name. The Turkish government has requested the altar be returned to Pergamon, despite the fact that, unlike the Elgin marbles, its removal to Germany was perfectly legal. Having just spent millions of euros reinstalling the altar, it is not clear if the German government will buckle under pressure as quickly as did the British Museum trustees.

ROMAN ENGINEERING III: DRAINS AND SEWERS

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 3.67.5

The Cloaca Maxima, The underground system of drains and sewers lines, was the unseen marvel of Rome, worthy of literary commemoration. Pliny the Elder composed this dramatic paean to the Great Sewer:

Hills were tunneled into the course of the construction of the sewers, and Rome was a “city on stilts” beneath which men sailed when Marcus Agrippa was aedile. Seven rivers join together and rush headlong through Rome, and, like torrents, they necessarily sweep away everything in their path. With raging force, owing to the additional amount of rainwater, they shake the bottom and sides of the sewers.

Sometimes water from the Tiber flows backwards and makes its way up the sewers. Then the powerful flood-waters clash head-on in the confined space, but the unyielding structure holds firm. Huge blocks of stone are dragged across the surface above the tunnels; buildings collapse of their own accord or come crashing down because of fire; earth tremors shake the ground – but still, for seven hundred years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the sewers have survived almost completely intact (Natural History, 36).

Writing under the Empire, Livy described the system as one “for which the new magnificence of these days has scarcely been able to produce a match” (Ab Urbe Condita, I.52.6).

The Cloaca Maxima, begun by the last Etruscan king, Tarquinus Superbus, in the 6th century BC, was a canal designed to drain the marshy valleys that lay between the hills of Rome. By the time Frontinus had assumed the post of curator aquarum in A.D. 97, its concrete and masonry tunnels channeled rainwater and waste water used in the baths, fountains, and latrines and trash beneath the Fora and around the hills, and stood among extensive drainage networks in the valleys of the Circus Maximus and the Campus Martius. The joint exit is just south of the ancient Roman bridge now known as Ponte Rotto. One of the maintenance entrances to the system is found behind a door at the eastern stairs of the Basilica Julia at the Roman Forum. Parts of the Cloaca Maxima were still in use as sewers in the early 20th century.

ROMAN ENGINEERING II: Paved Roads

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 3.67.5

At the zenith of the Roman Empire’s power and prosperity, over 400,000 km of roadways (viae) connected its cities, 85,000 km of which were paved. In the 2nd century, 29 military roads led out of Rome alone. In 20 BC, Augustus set up the miliarium aureum (golden milestone), near the temple of Saturn, in Rome. All roads were considered to begin from this gilded bronze monument, on which were listed the distances to all the major cities in the empire. Constantine called it the umbilicus Romae, and built a similar—although more complex—monument in Constantinople, called the Milion. Milestones along the roadside marked distances; the modern word “mile” derives from the Latin milia passum, which amounted to 1,000 paces.

Initially designed for the movement of troops, the main roads (viae munitae) were wide, had gutters and walkways on both sides, and a smooth surface of concrete poured over paving stones (the concrete has eroded over the millenia, leaving only the stone, giving the false impression of a bumpy ride).

roman-roads-map
Red = Major Roman roads; blue = rivers

The primary sources concerning Roman road laying are Vitruvius’s directions for making pavements and a passage in Statius’s epic poem, the Thebiad (1st c.), in which he describes the repairs of the Via Domitiana, a branch road of the Via Appia, leading to Naples. The following paraphrases both texts:

After the civil engineer looked over the site of the proposed road and determined roughly where it should go, the agrimensores went to work surveying the road bed. They used two main devices, the rod and a device called agroma, which helped them obtain right angles. The gromatici placed rods and put down a line called the rigor, trying to achieve straightness by looking along the rods and commanding the gromatici to move them as required. Using the gromae they then laid out a grid on the plan of the road. Using ploughs and spades, the laboratores excavated a fossa (trench) down to bedrock. The depth varied according to terrain. The road was then constructed by filling the ditch with layers of rubble, gravel, sand and stone. When within one meter of the surface, the bed was covered with gravel and compressed. This flattened pavimentum could be used as the road, or it could be completed with a statumen of flat stones, set in cement and crowned for drainage.

ROMAN ENGINEERING I: Aqueducts

In his history of early Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus credits the success of the empire not the heroics of Aeneas, republican rectitude, or the virtues of the emperor, but to unglorious feats of civil engineering:

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Roman Antiquities, 3.67.5

The citizens of the great cities of the Roman Empire viewed public amenities like baths, fountains, latrines and sewers as indices of civilization that distinguished them from barbarians. Those amenities were dependent on an abundant and regular supply of clean water, usually in excess of local supplies. Water from distant elevated regions were brought into the city via aquaeductus (aquae = waters; ductus = led, directed), or aqueduct. At itThe aqueduct system consisted mainly of underground pipes and tunnels, but occasionally to maintain the correct elevation and grade, or to ovecome a topographical obstacle like a ravine or valley, the water had to be carried above ground over bridges.

The overland aqueduct spans are the product of two building technologies invented by the Romans—the arch and concrete. Unlike the Greek post and lintel system, the arch supported much greater weights and spanned longer distance. Whereas the Greeks essentially piled cut stone into stacks to make walls and columns, the Roman mixed rubble with quicklime and water into concrete, which could be moulded into whatever shaped the tensile strength of the aggregate would bear. The combination of the arch and concrete made the gigantic structures of the empire possible, including the aqueduct, which is a sequence of arches, or arcade, made of concrete covered with stone or brick revetment. The aqueduct system, in turn, quadrupled the water supply into Rome, enabling its rapid expansion and causing its population to rise due to the health benefits of fresh, running water.

Water traveled along a deep trench at the top of the arcades, which was often covered to prevent evaporation and contamination. Deep valleys and ravines could be spanned and rivers traversed by bridges composed of superimposed arcades, without fear of wind sheer or currents. Some of the more elaborate spans, such as the Pont-du Gard in Provence have roads and walkways added at different levels allowing them to serve as roadway bridges as well as aqueducts. In the city, the aqueducts were incorporated into the city walls, the arch openings serving as gateways. The attic story of the Porta Maggiore in Rome carried water from two separate aqueducts, the Aqua Anio Vetus and the Aqua Claudia, both of which originated near Agosta, some 67km away. The Aqua Claudia, begun by Caligula and finished by Claudius in A.D. 47 delivered 185,000 cubic meters of water everyday, 20% of the city’s supply.

When the water reached the city it emptied into a castellum, a large cistern on a hill; from there ceramic or lead pipes directed the water to the various access points. In ancient Rome, water was free and no one had to walk more than 150 feet to the nearest public fountain. Waste waters from latrines and baths and rain water emptied into the cloaca or underground sewer system which emptied into the Tiber at a point just south of they city. The 260 miles of aqueduct supplying Rome were overseen by the curator aquarum, appointed by the Emperor.

IN LIVING COLOR: Greco-Roman Polychrome Sculpture and Architecture

Unadulterated whiteness is an essential component of Winkelmann’s interpretation of classical statuary and the search for the flawless, snow-white marbles by Neo-classical sculptors indicates that artists who measured the success of their work by the degree to which it adhered to classical conceptions of beauty felt that anything other than a clean, monochrome finish was an unthinkable violation of <i>le goût grec</i>. The restrained good taste of this late 18th-century conception of antiquity is compelling and still very much with us.

It is also completely wrong. In the early 19th century, a preponderance of irrefutable, archeological evidence forced Europeans artists, critics and collectors to accept the disturbing proposition that ancient sculpture and architecture was not only painted, it was polychromed in garish, high-key, saturated colors.

Ancient texts about art production had alluded to sculptors “painting figures,” leading some scholars to suspect that ancient sculpture was painted, but the conclusive evidence for polychromy was discovered by French architect and archaeologist Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, while he was excavating the archaic temple precincts in Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte. Archaic Greek art had been largely ignored in the early modern period, when the taste for classical and Hellenistic art prevailed. Methodical digging at the sites in southern Italy, Sicily and, later, the Athenian Acropolis itself, unearthed fragments of kouroi and kore statues, and deposed stones from Doric temples that retained traces of polychromy.
While working in Paris in the late 1820s, German architect Gottfried Semper became aware of Hittorff’s controversial theory, and after returning to Germany to assume the seat of Professor of Architecture in Dresden, he published his Vorläufige Bemerkungen (1834), wherein he argued that Archaic Greek architecture was polychromed so that it would visually accord with the quality of light he observed in the Mediterranean.
Hittorff promulgated an even more noxious threat to the Neo-classical model in his monumental study, La Restitution du temple d’Empédocle à Sélinonte, ou l’architecture polychrôme chez les Grecs (1851), where he fully proved that archaic art was polychromed, providing 30 colored plates in support of his work, thus putting the evidence before the general public for the first time, and he speculated that his theory could be extended to the classical period, a hypothesis that later generations or archaeologists subsequently confirmed to be true.

Over the last 100 years, the application of modern scientific technologies to the polychromy question has yielded a wealth of detailed information proving the near universal use of fill or partial polychromy in ancient sculpture, all of which Hittorff and Semper surmised merely by looking and thinking. Microscopic traces of colored paint have been found on masterpieces of greco-roman sculpture, such as the Augustus of Primaporta, that have been known and on view for centuries.
These discoveries led to the collaborative exhibition of polychrome reconstructions of well-known sculptures, called Bunte Götter (The Gods in Color),which traveled to 13 cities between 2003 and 2010. The initial encounter with the show’s loud, garish, even lurid, color-corrected figures was shocking, even visceral. The art of the Greeks, who invented philosophy, politics, aesthetics, history and logic, has, according to the restorers and curators more in common visually with the Simpsons and Pokémon than it does with Wedgewood. The familiar characters from AH101 all look like they just got back from Burning Man. The Chios Kore shared a wardrobe with Stevie Nicks and the Peplos Kore, previously assumed to be a sensibly-dressed maiden who wore flats, made the scene in Miami and Ibiza wrapped in a high-key, patterned yellow beach towel. H.W. Janson said that the deified Augustus was clad in body armor, when, in reality, he wears a skintight, Dolce & Gabbana spandex t-shirt with magenta and azure highlights. Janson didn’t mention the lipstick. When compared to the MDMA-induced Trojan archer or Cheshire Lion, Jeff Koons’ white sculptures look, well, Neo-classical.