December 1, 2023


The fine suplement crafters

Review: It’s good to be king. It’s better to be Caesar.

The prolific classicist Mary Beard, a professor at the University of Cambridge, has created books on Pompeii, the history of Rome, the Colosseum and the Roman triumph, amongst numerous other textbooks and tutorial articles. She also engages with preferred perceptions of the classical earth through her website, published by The Situations Literary Complement, and her preferred Twitter account. In Twelve Caesars: Photos of Electricity From the Historic Globe to the Modern day, an engaging, erudite and enormously useful guide, she analyzes the reception and adaptation of ancient Roman imperial portraits in Western European and American art from the 15th century to the existing.

Her matter is related to anyone who has wondered why a statue of Benjamin Franklin by Francesco Lazzarini—commissioned in 1789 for the Library Organization of Philadelphia— reveals him clad in a toga. And why in September 2021, just as Beard’s book was published, the equestrian statue of the Accomplice common Robert E. Lee was taken off from its foundation on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va.

Mary Beard’s intriguing e-book asks its readers to be curious about, and important of, redeployments of the visuals of Roman emperors from the Renaissance in Italy to 20th-century The united states.

The idiom of the bronze equestrian statue potentially would seem generically triumphal to modern American viewers, but it is as reminiscent of ancient Rome as the toga. This inventive design and style descends from well known surviving antecedents like the next-century bronze equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius that was mistakenly considered in the Renaissance to depict the fourth-century Christian emperor Constantine. (Even though Beard does not go over this case in point, misidentifications of imperial portraits are a key theme of her reserve.)

Beard’s interesting e book asks its viewers to be curious about, and vital of, redeployments of the photographs of Roman emperors from the Renaissance in Italy to 20th-century The usa. What options do artists and patrons make? How may possibly historic Roman imperial portraits be been given (and misunderstood) by afterwards audiences? What do images of Roman emperors convey to us about the afterwards cultures in which they ended up reproduced?

The opening vignette of the ebook provides a marble sarcophagus, allegedly employed for the burial of the emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled in 222-235 A.D. It was discovered in Lebanon in 1837 and introduced to the United States by Jesse Elliott, an American navy commander. Elliott donated it to the nation in 1845 and hoped that Andrew Jackson could possibly opt for to be buried in it. Jackson declined vehemently, producing that as a patriotic American and lover of republican values, he did not want an imperial burial.

Beard illustrates the tale with a photograph of two guests at the sarcophagus in 1965 looking at a label about Andrew Jackson’s refusal. Beard can make fast get the job done of this legend: Not only did the marble sarcophagus not belong to Alexander Severus (who was likely buried in Rome, not in Lebanon) there is no indication that the sarcophagus belonged to any Roman emperor. But all those details matter less than the position that the historical Roman “imperial” sarcophagus served in fashioning American presidential identity in the 19th century, and as a reminder of the power of American democracy for readers to the National Mall in the 20th century.

Beard’s e-book is complete of these evocative and sometimes startling examples (among them, an historical marble head of Julius Caesar dredged from the bed of the Hudson River in 1925). The chapters can stand on your own, as they address discrete subject areas these kinds of as “Coins and Portraits,” “The Twelve Caesars” (on sets of photographs of emperors, this kind of as the silver gilt dishes identified as the Aldobrandini Tazze) and “The Most Popular Caesars of Them All” (on Titian’s 16th-century paintings of Roman emperors shown in Mantua, Italy). This division and the target on illustrations or photos replicate the book’s origin in the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Wonderful Arts that Beard delivered at the Nationwide Gallery in London in 2011 Twelve Caesars is an up-to-date and expanded variation of the lecture substance.

Beard’s examination ranges confidently across media—paintings, sculpture, tapestry, coins—and eras, with most of the investigation focusing on the 15th via 17th centuries.

Soon after this initial team of chapters, Beard shifts to assessment of individuals reuses of Roman imperial iconography that were being not always good. These involve tapestries established for Henry VIII that seem to be ambivalent about royal electricity (whether or not the royal patrons were mindful of it), as well as portraits that express classes about imperial vices. Beard also devotes a chapter to portraits of imperial girls, exhibiting how they were being utilized traditionally: For instance, illustrations or photos of Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, served in the historical past of art as an exemplar of familial devotion and loyalty, in contrast to individuals of the young imperial Agrippina, mom of the infamous emperor Nero. The author also presents a gory medieval manuscript painting of Nero calmly observing his mother’s dissection in purchase to see her womb, no greater illustration of nervousness about maternal ability.

It is tricky to visualize any one other than Beard writing this ebook. Her granular understanding of historical Roman historical past, literature and art, bridged with an encyclopedic comprehending of the visual tradition of neoclassicism in art, creates a ebook of terrific curiosity to scholars, college students and a typical audience. Beard’s examination ranges confidently throughout media—paintings, sculpture, tapestry, coins—and eras, with most of the analysis concentrating on the 15th by way of 17th generations.

Her assessment is insightful and groundbreaking. She reattributes a silver gilt dish at the Victoria and Albert Museum that was involved with Domitian, noting that the scenes proven on section of the dish arrive from the everyday living of Tiberius. Beard also points out that the generic “scenes from the lifestyle of Julius Caesar” depicted on tapestries designed for Henry VIII are really illustrations of “Pharsalia,” the epic poem by the to start with-century poet Lucan.

A caveat related to the ambitious array of materials is that the chapters can overwhelm the reader with their degree of element. Beard is each detailed and precise, with the final result that some sections of this e-book (specifically these describing reconstructions of lost monuments) involve sustained concentration (and rereading) in get to follow.

Beard ends her e book with a photograph of the current milieu of the Roman “imperial” sarcophagus that Jackson declined to use for his tomb. It lies in the Smithsonian’s storage in Maryland, obscure once more immediately after its short moment in the sun as a image of American democracy.