New perspectives on Rome’s multi-temporal cityscape

The city of Rome has been identified as an ‘eternal city’ since the poet Tibullus labelled it so back in the first century BCE, and also by subsequent visitors as a multi-temporal city in which past and present offer an intoxicating mixture. Visiting the city as it is now, two millennia later, is to encounter a multiplicity of past Romes, overlying each other and competing for attention as you traverse the city, from the classical past through the heritage of the church and the visions of early-modern visitors such as historian Edward Gibbon, who was quite overwhelmed by the experience of standing in the Forum where Cicero had once stood, writing in his memoirs that ‘at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City’ (Memoirs of my Life, p. 141).

Last month, while visiting the École Française de Rome for a workshop on the application of a modern political concept – Weber’s model of charismatic leadership – to the politics of the ancient world, I was able to do some sight-seeing of my own, and see how Rome’s museums and archaeological sites are using new approaches to connect visitors with the classical past and those who rediscovered and interpreted it, and how contemporary art contributes to this conversation.

Not all Rome’s monuments are as visible as the Forum. One remnant of ancient imperial Rome is invisible from street level, buried underground and forgotten until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. The Domus Aurea is the only remnant of the enormous palace built by the emperor Nero during his short time in power, and swiftly dismantled by his successors after his death in 68 CE. It survived the destruction of other parts of the palace complex when it became the foundations for the public baths commissioned by the emperor Trajan – the Colosseum itself, that most recognisable of classical ruins, had already been built over the palace’s ornamental lake by the Flavian emperors, starting soon after Vespasian cemented his power. To visit the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is already to take a journey back in time, but the current hard-hat tours of the underground site use a range of audio-visual technology to give visitors a multi-temporal experience and to reveal its hidden past. As you enter, the bare brick walls of the vaulted cells supporting Trajan’s building become a screen for images of Nero’s Rome, and of the palace as it is imagined to have been in its brief heyday.

Domus Aurea video projection
Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea projected on to the Roman walls

But further inside the ruin it becomes difficult to imagine the dark galleries and passages as a light-filled golden palace, even though there are tantalising glimpses of the frescos that decorated those parts not adorned with marble, long since lost. But new technology is here to help – one chamber is now equipped with Oculus Rift headsets so that you can experience different layers of the building’s past through a virtual reality recreation.

Virtual reality room in the Domus Aurea
Virtual reality stations await visitors within the Domus Aurea

After seeing the frescoes lit by the flickering torches of the palace’s Renaissance explorers, who thought they’d found a cave, you are tumbled back in time to the full sun-lit glory of the original rooms. Then you can walk out and look across the city to the other parts of Nero’s palace on the Palatine, with no Colosseum in sight. Don’t forget to look back at the building you’ve just left… After returning to the present, and putting your hard hat back on, it perhaps becomes easier to visualise the remaining rooms, including the astonishing octagon with its dome, as they once were.

The competing layers of the classical past are further overlaid by the city’s Christian heritage, as Gibbon noted; he was inspired to write Decline and Fall by hearing Franciscan friars singing in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Memoirs, p. 143). The classical and Christian past come together in the Vatican Museums, home to a remarkable collection of antiquities, assembled over centuries from finds within Rome and gifts to the Pope. At the moment, the feeling that you are viewing antiquity through a past sensibility, when walking through its galleries and courtyards, is heightened by the museum’s celebrations of the anniversaries of the birth and death of the German art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who for the latter part of his career held a range of curatorial roles at what would become this museum. In a display spanning the whole museum, key objects across the collection, those that attracted Winckelmann’s scholarly and aesthetic attention, are marked by a large Gothic W, and his interpretations of objects and critiques of others’ views are posted on accompanying sign boards.

Belvedere Hermes and giant Winckelmann W
The Belvedere Hermes tagged as part of the Vatican’s Winckelmann display

We are encouraged to see what Winckelmann saw in the Vatican’s collections, although given the enduring influence of his aesthetic response to classical art, many visitors may already be primed to see greatness where he once saw it; of this statue, now known as the Belvedere Hermes, but then thought to represent Antinous, Winckelmann commented that ‘the head is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful youthful heads of antiquity’. Given that art historians and archaeologists of the present are often more concerned with escaping or revising Winckelmann’s views on ancient aesthetics rather than with embracing them (as is Sarah Bond in this critique of the ‘whitewashing’ of ancient sculpture), the effect of the Vatican’s intervention is to reassert a very traditional perspective on aesthetic value, as well as to highlight antiquarian debates about the identification of the subjects of statues. The placement of major works in the collection already accords with Winckelmann’s evaluation of their artistic importance – the octagonal courtyard where the Belvedere Hermes stands is crowded with letters and signs – but the reminder that we might ourselves be seeing the classical past through mediating filters such as Winckelmann’s aesthetic is an important one.

While the halls of the Vatican Museums resist change, the Roman cityscape surrounding the Vatican is not timeless, but subject to renewal and to new interventions. In Largo Goldoni, a small square on one of Rome’s prime luxury shopping streets, the installation of Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture Foglie di Pietra (‘Leaves of Stone’), raises questions about the relationship between the city and nature and about change over time.

Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017
Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017

The sculpture was placed there in 2017, with sponsorship from Roman fashion house Fendi, outside whose flagship boutique it stands, an intriguing location for a work by a sculptor who emerged from the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. In this monumental work, two bronze trees support apparent sculptural fragments in their branches; one stone fragment recalls the reuse of Roman decorative elements in Renaissance buildings, while a huge marble block contains a Corinthian capital entwined in tree roots, suggesting both the grandeur of Rome and the temporal distance of its classical past.

Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots
Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots

The sculpture contains familiar elements from Penone’s artistic practice (there’s still time to catch a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which closes 28/4/19), especially his interest in natural materials and fragmentation. Its placement in the Roman cityscape underscores Penone’s interest in revealing change over time through natural processes; at the installation of the sculpture, he commented:

“In Foglie di Pietra, archaeology and ruins, history and biology are grafted one on the other, creating a permanent bond between nature and culture, and celebrating a deep synthesis between the flowing of natural and human time where a sense of longing and a romantic nostalgia for lost civilizations are brought to the surface.”

Penone’s complex construction materialises the experience of the encountering the multi-temporality of Rome and incorporates it into the fabric of the city. Even outside the formally curated spaces of its museums and monuments, artistic interventions like Foglie di Pietra negotiate Rome’s continuing relationship with its classical past and the long reception history of that past.

  • Gibbon, Edward (1990), Memoirs of my Life, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin).
  • Winckelmann, J. J. [1764] (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity, tr. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Los Angeles: Getty Publications).
  • Coulson, S and Lilley, C. (2018) Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood (Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

From Issus to Lepanto: battle scenes and temporality in the history of art

Artistic depictions of historical events involve a certain amount of temporal flattening. In some cases, visual artists can select a critical moment in the unfolding of an event, in which a specific snapshot of that moment can stand in for the whole, just as a playwright or poet might select the most critical and decisive period to stage or describe. Important moments could also be selected for their exemplary value, with battle itself becoming a metaphor for broader patterns of change. A recent visit to Munich for a workshop on ancient and modern political thought, hosted by  gave me the opportunity to visit the city’s Alte Pinakothek, where the impressive collection of early modern art includes a painting that has become emblematic of anachronism, Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht. But this turned out not to be the only work of art on display in Munich’s museum quarter to tackle the display of battle at epic scale, or to have been given a significant role in the construction of the history of art.

Altdorfer's Alexanderschlacht
Schlacht bei Issus, or the Alexanderschlacht, by Albrecht Altdorfer (1529). Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) painted the Alexanderschlacht in 1529, one of a series of paintings of battles commissioned by William IV of Bavaria. His depiction of the encounter between Darius and Alexander at the Battle of Issus, the decisive victory of the Macedonians over the Persians in 333 BC, has become the archetype of the anachronistic depiction of past events, partly for its compression of time in the depiction of battle. Several of its temporal devices have been identified as anachronisms in themselves, with the historiographer Reinhart Koselleck arguing that the depiction of the ancient forces in modern dress exemplifies a lack of understanding of the difference between past and present. The banners held by each side to note their casualty numbers suggest the complex temporality of the work; at the moment depicted there are already many warriors lying dead on the ground, but the battle continues and the dead have not yet been counted. The banners anticipate the end of the battle which is still taking place. The dramatic sky marks the battle as a cosmically significant encounter.

In our research into anachronism and antiquity, we’ve come to see Altdorfer’s work as a more complex and sophisticated engagement with the past than Koselleck’s interpretation suggests. Along with the other paintings of the Bavarian Historienzyklus, it shows a decisive moment in the history of an empire, with lessons for its viewers in the present facing the cultural and political challenges of their own times.

Aegina temple pediment
Panoramic view of the current display of the West pediment of the temple at Aegina, Munich Glyptothek. Picture credit: Vitold Muratov.

But Altdorfer is not the only example of complex temporality in the artistic depiction of battle. While his masterpiece represents one way in which single pictures could tell stories that contribute to a larger narrative, other depictions of historic or mythical battles, ancient and modern, can be seen nearby in Munich. The Munich Glyptothek contains sculptures from the pediments of the temple of Athena from Aegina, discovered in 1811 and acquired in 1812. The display of these sculptures was central to the design and construction of the Glypothek building, intended to showcase a developmental story of classical art. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that the arrival of the Aeginetan sculptures expanded the knowledge of Greek art (as the even more controversially removed Parthenon sculptures had done in Britain); the expansion of knowledge, to him, justified the removal of these works from their context.

Wounded warrior
Wounded warrior, from the Aeginetan west pediment, c. 500-490 BCE. Munich Glyptothek.

The west pediment shows a battle between Greek and Trojan heroes with the goddess Athena at the centre; fragmentary imagery on his shield suggests that the Greek hero is Ajax, associated with Aegina and an appropriate figure for this temple; on the east pediment, Heracles battles the Trojans. The original reconstruction of the west pediment had the opposing groups aiming at each other within the pediment, across the figure of Athena who appeared between them, as if the sculptural group represented a single episode in a battle. In a revised version, on display since the museum’s reopening after it was itself severely damaged in World War II, some of the figures aim outwards, confounding attempts to read the pediment as a single scene, and involving the onlooker in its action. The surviving parts of the sculpture appear in their fragmentary form, rather than as a complete work. (A painted cast of one of the more complete figures, Paris as an archer, suggests what the impact of the original polychrome presentation might have been, and some attachments such as Athena’s staff have been added.)

The sculptures themselves mark a significant moment in the development of classical Greek art, with the two pediments standing each side of a major stylistic shift. Those of the west pediment, dated to 500-490 BCE, mark the end of the severe archaic style, while those of the east pediment, from a few years later, have the distinctive features of the new classical style. Looking at these figures with their static expressions might evoke an anachronistic response in modern onlookers, unused to the conventions of representation in archaic art. The figure of the wounded soldier from the west pediment is particularly ‘strange’, as the museum’s catalogue notes, with his carefully posed body and apparent smile, typical of archaic sculpture. The warrior is pulling an arrow from his chest, an injury likely to be fatal, but his expression does not hint at the trauma of his immediate situation, while his hair remains unruffled. Hegel appears to have had a similar response to the Aiginetans. His lectures on aesthetics pronounced that ‘in the Aeginetan sculptures facial expressions and the posture are precisely what is relatively spiritless’ (Hegel 1975: 786), and that the faces are not a ‘true representation of nature’.

Nearby, the Museum Brandhorst houses another depiction of an epochal conflict, in the Lepanto cycle by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Like the Aiginetan pediments, the desire to display this large work as a comprehensible whole influenced the design of a new museum building; the Lepanto canvases are displayed in a large oval gallery built for them. The cycle was commissioned for the 2001 Venice Biennale, which marked the chronological turning point between the millennia with a curated exhibition ‘The Plateau of Humankind’; the depiction of a Venetian naval encounter nods to the exhibition’s location. But the following year they made a first visit to Munich, where they were exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek.

Cy Twombly's Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Cy Twombly’s Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich

Like Altdorfer’s paintings and the Aegina pediment, Twombly’s Lepanto paintings depict a conflict that has gained in cultural significance over time, in this case the 7 October 1571 battle between the Holy League forces of the Venetian and Spanish empires, and the Ottoman empire, fought near Nafpaktos (Lepanto was its Venetian name) in the Gulf of Corinth. Twombly created a series of canvases that suggest the opposition of conflicting forces and the progression of their encounter, rather than a single image. But as the texts for the current display note, Twombly depicts a ‘supratemporal conflict’ in which he does not take sides.

Twombly’s twelve canvases feature two distinctive colour schemes and orientations. Paintings I, IV, VIII and XII show a bird’s eye view of the battle, while the others offer a more conventional view, with intensifying colour suggesting a narrative of intensifying action, the turquoises of the sea contrasting with the reds and oranges of the burning boats.

Twombly Lepanto II
Cy Twombly, Lepanto II (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Thematically, the battle of Lepanto was a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, one of the last major conflicts to be fought between galleys powered by oar rather than sailing ships. Twombly emphasises the role of oars in the minimalist outlines of his boats; boats and barges with oars are a recurrent symbol in his later work, sometimes recalling Greek myth in suggesting the transition between life and death. Just as the casualty figures for the Battle of Issus were not known while it was being fought, neither the historical significance of this battle as a technological turning point nor its significance in the conflict between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire were apparent while it was being fought. Unlike the two earlier more explicitly figurative depictions of war, Twombly’s cycle need not be read historically, but purely aesthetically, as the contrast of colour and the variation of intensity.

Whatever the historical forces that led to these three depictions of battle all being displayed in the Museumsviertel of Munich, they offer the contemporary visitor the opportunity to survey the use of the past across different genres of art and from different societies, and to contemplate the stories that historians have used them to tell.

References

  • Hegel, G.W.F. (1975) [1835] Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Koselleck, R. (1985) [1979], Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. K. Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Prettejohn, E. (2012) The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek sculpture and modern art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris).
  • Wünsche, R. (2007) [2005], Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).