The emperors’ new clothes

Beard emerges with a portrait of the emperors’ afterlives as vivid as the busts themselves

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I used to give gallery talks on Italian art, especially the paintings of Titian. Everyone’s favourite canvas was always his Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery with its lapis lazuli sky and cheetah-drawn carriage and throng of revellers who are too drunk to care. People rarely asked what was going on between the two main characters. It’s obvious that the wine god is experiencing love at first sight. The question I received most often was rather: who is the man with the snakes at the right of the picture?

Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard (Princeton University Press, £30)

The simple answer is that he’s a member of Bacchus’s throng. The more complicated one is that he represents an early copy of — or at least a response to — an ancient sculpture of Laocoön, the priest who warned the Trojans about the horse, excavated in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Laocoön played no part in the myth of Bacchus and Ariadne, but the rediscovery of his statue inspired such awe in the abilities of ancient artists, that Titian felt compelled to incorporate him into his picture anyway.

The Bacchus and Ariadne came to mind while I was reading Mary Beard’s new book on images of the Roman emperors. One of the phenomena Beard addresses is why the faces and attributes of the first eleven rulers of the Roman principate — plus their predecessor Julius Caesar — have so often been copied and reproduced in works of art and ephemera, even where their relevance to the main subject is at best tangential.

Looking at where some of the emperors have turned up, it can be difficult to avoid the suspicion that their value lies mainly, like Titian’s Laocoön, in the intellectual kudos associated with the classical world. Why anyone would want to wear a pair of boxer shorts inspired by Emperor Nero otherwise is really a question for Sigmund Freud.

The beauty of Beard’s book is that it pushes beyond this reasoning to examine what else determined the choice of specific emperor images as models for later portraits and decorative schemes. Working loosely in the tradition of Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky, two of the pioneering classicist art historians of the twentieth century, Beard strives to view the ancient world through the eyes of those who later turned to it for inspiration for everything from palaces to candlesticks and novelty chocolates.

The book started life as a course of lectures delivered in Washington DC a decade ago, and retains the feel of a series, each chapter self-contained, but regularly referring back to objects discussed previously to present them from a different perspective. The effect is cumulative, so that what sometimes appears at first to be an interesting diversion gradually becomes part of a larger argument. Practically every other page carries at least one colour plate — no production costs have been spared — so the reader feels caught somewhere between the university lecture hall and the museum, which is not a bad place to be.

If the emperors are the protagonists, the collectors and mania that Roman art has inspired in them takes an important role as the supporting cast. You can’t help being bemused by their zeal. “I should exchange the Caesars for some comforts,” wrote one eighteenth-century visitor to Powis Castle in Wales, perturbed by the ostensible lack of carpets and beds.

It would be safe to say that Beard’s sympathies are less with the inexhaustible “gullible milords”, who fell over themselves to purchase often dubious antiques, and more with the wearied tourist; she herself admits to experiencing fatigue at passing row upon row of emperor busts.

Beard strives to view the ancient world through the eyes of those who later turned to it for inspiration for everything 

It is surprising what some people have gone in for. When Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte, commissioned Canova to produce her portrait, he used as his model an ancient sculpture in Rome’s Capitoline Museums identified as “Agrippina”. Sitting back almost casually, one arm resting on the back of her chair, the Roman matron looks deep in thought.

It isn’t obvious which of the two most famous Agrippinas she is supposed to represent, if either, but as Beard observes, it doesn’t matter insofar as both the Elder and the Younger had ghastly sons. The first was the mother of Caligula, the second, the mother of Nero. Critics, recognising the ancient prototype, suggested that Canova had purposely taken a shot at Napoleon. Madame Mère was content with the artwork nonetheless, so much so that she was most displeased when the sixth Duke of Devonshire purchased it for Chatsworth in 1818.

It is a point of curiosity when the fate of the contemporary subject somehow echoes that of the ancient model. In the decade after he painted his Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian produced a portrait series of eleven Caesars for Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, which later entered the collection of England’s King Charles I. When van Dyck painted Charles’s portrait in the 1630s, he put him in the guise of the king’s favourite of the eleven Romans, Otho. One of the “Four Emperors” of AD 69, the loose-living Otho was hampered by civil war, but committed suicide to avoid execution.

The stand-out emperor of Beard’s book is undoubtedly Vitellius, Otho’s successor who, though similarly short-lived as a ruler, enjoyed an unusually vibrant afterlife in the modern period. A bust known as the Grimani Vitellius showing a louche-looking man with a characterful fat face and bulbous nose became the favourite of everyone from Paulo Veronese to Jim Dine. While some artists embraced him as the epitome of the ancient gourmand, others simply liked the look of haughty nonchalance that his face lent their own characters. Doubt has since crept in over the identification of the bust. It is a bit deflating to see it labelled now as simply an “unknown Roman” dating to a century after Vitellius died.

Beard presents an impressively wide range of works of art, from the antique to modern kitsch. I didn’t always agree with her interpretation of them. An exquisite painting entitled The Remorse of Nero by the nineteenth-century painter John William Waterhouse, for example, prompts a comparison with an image of “a moody modern teenager”.

It is a point of curiosity when the fate of the contemporary subject somehow echoes that of the ancient model

Looking at the youth reclining on his front in a red toga, head in hands, gazing into the distance, I see less moodiness in his eyes than introspection and sorrow. Reading art is naturally a highly subjective exercise, but there were a few cases like this in which I found myself curious to read a little more about what led Beard to the interpretation she offered.

This does not detract from the strength of the narrative. Beard’s discussion of the problems of matching emperors’ faces in art to descriptions in written sources, especially Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, is particularly enjoyable. As she notes, there is often ambiguity in the Latin itself, ore paulo pleniore being translatable as “quite a full face” or “a disproportionately large mouth”, each of which summons a very different image of Julius Caesar. Separating out what was real and what perpetuated through literary or artistic tradition is as fascinating as it is fraught with challenges.

Beard wades boldly into muddy territory and emerges with a portrait of the emperors’ afterlives that is as vivid as the busts themselves. The book leaves little room for doubt as to how influential the role of later artists and buyers has been in adding muscle to the sinews of emperors passed down from the ancient world. The twelve Caesars are arguably among the finest inventions of posterity

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