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Aesthete or imperialist? Hadrian's afterlife in art: to mark the opening of the British Museum's exhibition on the Emperor Hadrian, Caroline Vout traces the way that our image of him has been shaped by artists since the 18th century.


Long before the opening of its summer exhibition, 'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict', the British Museum was giving Hadrian maximum exposure. In April, one of the key exhibits from its own collection, a spectacular bronze head of the emperor, which had been fished out of the Thames in 1834 (Fig. 1), was winging its way from Bloomsbury to Northumbria. (1) Stopping first at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, and then at Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend, Hadrian could be brought up to speed on 'the Roman wall', one of his most famous legacies. 'This is a great moment', said Nell MacGregor, the museum's director. 'I thought it profoundly moving to see him there.' (2)

Sporting his usual short beard and carefully curled hair, Hadrian stares across millennia. Originally the head would have been part of a colossal statue, presumably in a forum in London--the human face of Roman rule, a 'hotline' between Britain and the rest of the empire. It mattered little perhaps that few had caught a glimpse of him when he visited the island in AD 122. For how could one man match the majesty of this bronzed beauty, and the hopes and fears that it evoked? MacGregor's optimism is not unrehearsed. To most people in antiquity even, this was Hadrian.

Not that Hadrian is exceptional in this regard. Hundreds of portraits of Rome's rulers were displayed throughout the empire. With each replication, the emperor in question was turned from man to model, and equalled Roman power or imperium. Few people could have known what he was really like or how he measured up to the awe-inspiring image. But they would have had fun imagining. In this process, he is made more charismatic, whether more seductive or dangerous.


When an emperor died, if his reputation merited it, he was accorded apotheosis. Again his images aided and abetted his worship. Hadrian was one such ruler--even if (if not because) the ancient sources claim that his deification was contested. At this point, any speculation about the real Hadrian (for example, his feelings for his young male lover Antinous, whose images were subsequently also erected throughout the empire) was redirected to speak to his place on Olympus. (3)

So strong was this 'image as emperor' formula that subjects sometimes harmed imperial portraits, just as centuries later people would rip the images of Stalin and Saddam from their pedestals. Is this how our bronze head of Hadrian ended up in the Thames? Some 70 years earlier, British rebels under Boudicca had pulled down a bronze statue of the divine Claudius and thrown its head, now also in the British Museum, in Suffolk's River Alde. (4) What better way to pour cold water on Britain's relationship with Rome than to cut it off at the head and throw that head in the river?

We cannot know how Hadrian's head ended up in the sludge. It lacks the obvious signs of hacking visible on that of Claudius. But its rediscovery has us think, as the ancients were made to think, about what to make of the man behind the mask, about how to relate to him. Is he good or bad? Cultured or warlike? Divine or human? For an emperor who was famed for travelling more than any other, it is especially rewarding to see him on the move again.

At the same time as this Hadrian was being taken on his latter-day tour, London's National Gallery fielded an exhibition of paintings by the 18th-century Italian artist Pompeo Batoni. (5) Most visitors were there to see his 'Grand Tour' pieces, mighty canvases that elevate English aristocrats by associating them with classical culture, often by including versions of Rome's best-known antique sculptures, such as the Farnese Hercules or the Vatican Cleopatra or Ariadne. (6) But it is a rather different kind of canvas that attracts us here: one of Batoni's earlier paintings, Allegory of the Arts (Fig. 2). (7) Five fleshy females vie for our attention: standing on the right is Poetry, her identity advertised by the lyre in her hand and the volumes of Homer and Virgil at her feet. Music is behind her with twin flutes, and further back, at the apex of the composition, a figure usually assumed to be Architecture. Painting takes centre stage, more earthy somehow than the overtly classicising Poetry, yet in dialogue with her nonetheless, as she adds the finishing brush strokes to an image of Mercury, god of eloquence. Seated in the foreground and clasping her hand is Sculpture, a tinted version of the neoclassical nudes which she inspires. In her hand is a hammer and on the floor to the left, a drill and chisel. The piece she has been working on is a head of Hadrian (Fig. 4).

It is odd to see something so recognisable, positioned with deliberate casualness at the corner of the canvas, especially when--by contrast--the females depart from the standard source book that Batoni usually used for his allegorical figures, Cesare Ripa's influential emblem book the Iconologia, first published in 1593. (8) Batoni's Hadrian is a marble version of the kind of portrait head that turned up in the Thames, blank, white and yet strangely animate, as though tickled by the silk skirts of his maker. He is the only three-dimensional male in the frame, yet is just a head and a neck and does not need a body to signify. His features are as iconic as the authors across from him and epitomise the high points of classical production and learning while stressing that knowledge is power, now as it was for Hadrian.


There is nothing arbitrary about Hadrian's appearance. As Roman emperors go, he was amongst the most cultured--without the nerdiness of a Claudius or the affectation of a Nero. The Augustan History, for example, written probably in the 4th century, attributes to him an expert knowledge of arithmetic, geometry and painting, not to mention singing and flute playing. He wrote poetry and had a passion for architecture, as the Pantheon in Rome still so powerfully attests. He is thus the physical embodiment of Batoni's personifications.


More than this, however, his was an expertise with an immediate relevance to art-collecting aristocrats. By 1740 when Batoni was painting, several famous sculptures, including the Capitoline Antinous (now identified as Mercury or Hermes), the Albani Relief of Antinous, still in the Villa Albani on Rome's Via Salaria, and the Furietti Centaurs, today in the Capitoline, had already been discovered in excavations at Hadrian's villa at Tivoli. (9) The last of these, unearthed in 1736, are probably copies of Hellenistic bronzes but were signed by Greek artists working in the Roman period in Asia Minor. Since then, tens of other marbles have been found there, many of them Roman versions of classical Greek works, such as Polyclitus's Wounded Amazon, the caryatids from the Erechtheum in Athens and Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos. But the centaurs led the charge: paving the way for Hadrian's reputation as the consummate collector of Greek sculpture.

As this reputation grew, the villa's sculpture became especially prized amongst the aristocrats that Batoni was painting. A canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows an unidentified young man pointing for affirmation towards a cast of the Albani Relief of Antinous, which was displayed from 1763 in the newly built Villa Albani (Fig. 10). (10) The owner of the villa, Alessandro Albani, even commissioned a fresco for the wall to the left of the relief showing Hadrian and Antinous surveying the site of Tivoli, plans in hand, as it was taking shape around them. This image of the villa's construction in antiquity reminded the viewer of its ruined state today, as well as of Albani's own villa, which had been purpose-built for his collection. It underlined the relationship between present and past and equated him with the emperor. (11)

Hadrian owes his inclusion in Batoni's painting to this growing status as patron of the arts. As the art historian J.J. Winckelmann, who worked for Albani, mused in the first edition of his famous Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums or History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764, 'if it had been possible to restore to art its former glory, then Hadrian was the man who lacked neither the knowledge nor the effort'. (12) It is figures such as Hadrian who turn Greek statuary into 'art' as we know it. His image lends the pursuit and the collecting of the arts in the 18th century an ancient, imperial seal of approval.

But what was the real Hadrian like? Can we reconcile this beacon of civilisafion with an emperor whose attempt to mark the extent of empire with 'the Roman wall' may have landed his head in the Thames? A penetrating answer is provided by a painting by the Dutch artist Lawrence AlmaTadema, Hadrian in England: Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884), a large canvas--approximately 220 x 167 cm--which he divided and adjusted after exhibition at the Royal Academy (Figs. 5-7). (13) The painting shares in the Pompeian reds and ochres that colour Alma Tadema's domestic scenes, but omits the shining marble with which he usually signals Roman opulence: an inscription in honour of Hadrian is scratched in wood rather than engraved in marble, on what appears to be a recycled tray of the kind carried by the potter in the section in Paris. Mercury makes an appearance here too, on the square column behind the women, but this time as the god of trade rather than of eloquence. There are parts of the empire and parts of the empire. And this is Romano-Britain, not Rome or Naples.

Hadrian dominates the canvas--his height and width further enhanced by the niche that frames him. While his wife, Sabina, makes polite conversation on his right, carrying the obligatory bouquet that marks a queenly visit, Hadrian appears uncomfortable--strangely absent despite his presence. He is not of this world, the paper in his hand more reminiscent of an official decree than a shopping list. The seller is attentive and nervous. It is as though he, and we, are witnessing the arrival of a god, an epiphany. Either that or a statue--not unlike the bronze statue of Sophocles that is the centrepiece of one of Alma-Tadema's earlier paintings, A Sculpture Gallery in Rome at the Time of Augustus (Fig. 3).

Like that painting, Hadrian in England is an image of ancient art-collecting: Hadrian, the consummate collector seeks his souvenirs. But local pottery fills the niche occupied by the sculpted superstars, Sophocles and the Laocoon, and is inevitably paltry in comparison. He is arguably collecting artefacts of empire, obsessively, as one might slaves or provinces. In this setting, it is he, if anything, that is the artwork. The presence of the staircase in the foreground forces us to look up at him--approach him even, in the hope that he will meet us halfway. Originally--before the painting was divided--the potter on the Paris panel, approached him up these same stairs, pausing with a tray-load of new items. He knows better than to raise his head. The bareness of his torso contrasts with the sumptuous robes of Hadrian and the women, to highlight that he is a worker and a Briton. He might also be a slave--or so the similarity of the bracelet he wears around his upper arm with those worn by a slave in another of Alma-Tadema's pictures suggests. (14) Certainly, his extraordinary similarity to the potters in the other sections stresses that he is one of a clan. By implication, so are we, no matter how much we might aspire to be otherwise. As we share his low level and potential viewpoint, our sense of localness swells within us. We too are inevitably remote from, and more real than, the exotic emperor. Whatever we produce, this man will buy it up. Are we so admiring that we will sell our souls to him?

Hadrian was the only 'good' emperor that Alma-Tadema painted, preferring to dwell instead on the failings of Claudius or Caligula, the cruelty of Vespasian or the heady excesses of Caracalla and Heliogabalus. It has been argued, surely rightly, that the bloody beauty depicted in these examples puts the pluses and minuses of Victorian British imperialism under the microscope. (15) So too this canvas, as it gives us the choice of identification with either the workman or the emperor-tourist. The paleness of the potter's skin and the contouring of his body draw the gaze away from the imperial couple. It is difficult not to side with the colonised here rather than the conqueror-collector, so much so that the Queen of Holland is said to have objected to the figure. As we do so, we know our place--as British and modern: our identification with Hadrian beyond the canvas and with the cultured Romans in A Sculpture Gallery is questioned.

For us, as for most of those who lived in the Roman Empire, Hadrian is his image: his wall, the sculptures of his wife and of Antinous, his own bearded portrait. They mesh with the literary evidence that survives to give us quite an insight into the real man--but one that is made more powerful by what it allows us to imagine. Batoni and Alma-Tadema both offer us invitations to see ourselves in Hadrian. In the 1760s the Villa Albani was, like the Colosseum, a highpoint of the Grand Tour, as aristocrats got inspiration to rival its owner for the accolade of 'the Hadrian of their century'. (16) Who is he today? The World Monuments Fund and the North of England Civic Trust oversee award schemes that carry his name for different aspects related to art and architecture.

But for Alma-Tadema, these associations are complicated by the realisation that Hadrian is a Roman emperor and that we, for all of our aspirations, are as related, if not more related, to the potters. Is this what imperialism feels like? And if so, what do we think about the wall? While it is usually the British Museum's statue of Hadrian in civilised Greek costume that is produced to illustrate his endeavours (Fig. 8), most of his extant images show him in military dress. (17) The likelihood is that this is how he appeared in 2nd century London. In this context we need to ask whether the beard he sports is that of a Greek philosopher or that of a Roman soldier. While the British Museum's statue has recently been exposed as a modern pastiche, a genuine example from Hierapytna in Crete shows him stamping on a barbarian (Fig. 9). (18)


All of this demands that we tread carefully in embracing Hadrian. Civilised and cultured he may have been, but then so too was Nero. For all of its talk of 'life, love and legacy', the British Museum is perhaps wise to call their show 'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict'. How far is his reputation as a 'renaissance man' an 18th-century invention?

I would like to thank Robin Osborne for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

(1) British Museum: P&EE 1848. 11-3 1.

(2) As cited in Melanie Read, 'Hadrian's Historic Return to his Wall after 2,000 years', The Times Online, 18 April 2008.

(3) For a scholarly yet accessible account of Hadrian's reign, see Anthony Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London, 1997, and for Antinous, see Royston Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous, London, 1984.

(4) British Museum: P&EE 1965. 12-1 1.

(5) Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Bjorn Kerber, Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and National Gallery, London, 2006-07.

(6) For the rediscovery and reputation of these sculptures, see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven and London, 1981, pp. 229-32 (Hercules) and pp. 184-87 (Cleopatra/Ariadne).

(7) Bowron and Kerber, op. cit., pp. 17-18.

(8) Ibid. p. 17.

(9) Haskell and Penny, op. cit., pp. 143-46 ('Capitoline Antinous' and Albani relief) and pp. 176-79 (centaurs). Also important here is William L., MacDonald and John A. Pinto, Hadrian's Villa and its Legacy, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 291-92.

(10) The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Rogers Fund, 1903 (03.37.1).

(11) See Caroline Vout, 'Winckelmann and Antinous', The Cambridge Classical Journal, vol LII, 2006, pp. 139-62.

(12) J. J. Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alerthums, Dresden, 1764, p. 407.

(13) Edwin Becket and Elizabeth Prettejohn, eds., Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1996, pp. 224-28.

(14) Ibid. p. 228.

(15) Elizabeth Prettejohn, 'Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the Modern City of Rome', The Art Bulletin, vol. LXXXIV, 2002, pp. 115-29.

(16) Leopoldo Cicognara, Storia della scultura dal suo Risorgimento in Italia al seculo di Napoleone (2nd edition), Prato, p. 10.92.

(17) British Museum: inv. no. 1861.11.27.23. For the article in The Guardian, 9 June 2008, visit http://arts. story/0,,2284520,00.html

(18) Archaeological Museum, Istanbul: 585, inv. No. 50.

Caroline Vout is a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her book Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome was published by Cambridge University Press last year. In 2006 she curated 'Antinous: the Face of the Antique' at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
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