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Byzantium and Babylon 6 February 2009

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Ethics , 5 comments

Ceiling mosaic in the Chora church, Istanbul: Theodore Metochites presenting church to enthroned Christ. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

I saw two exhibitions in London this last Saturday. One was the Royal Academy’s much-hyped Byzantium show (ever-present Caffe Nero is apparerently the show’s official coffeeshop partner). There were some nice bits on display, sure, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the exhibition as a whole. It had more the feel of an introductory textbook on Byzantine art (albeit with shiny and three-dimensional originals) than a show that actually had something new to say about Byzantine contributions to the contemporary world (which the sponsors – three foundations supporting Hellenic heritage – clearly had hoped for). It also rehearsed one of those links between Classical Antiquity and Byzantium that I find quite tendentious, i.e. the supposed link between Fayoum mummy portraits and Byzantine icons. A prominent display case juxtaposed the two artforms. Yet clearly this ‘link’ only makes sense from an art historical viewpoint. If we want to take into account the varied use (functionally, spatially, and chronologically) of these objects, the link seems completely superficial and perhaps even irrelevant (at least to me). True, the Fayoum portraits are pretty much the only thing that we have left from the Classical tradition of panel painting, a much revered artform in Antiquity, but I don’t think that the juxtapostion helps us much further in trying to understand the use of icons or indeed mummy portraits.

The other show was the smaller but much more focused Babylon exhibition at the British Museum. This aimed to provide a cultural history of the image of Babylon in later cultures. One room was dedicated to different reconstructions of the Tower of Babel, demonstrating the power of the past to be a mirage for contemporary society. The show’s last room was dedicated to the use and abuse of Babylonian history and screened a powerful video of the current state of archaeology in Iraq. This gave the exhibition an extremely relevant and contemporary angle. The visitor is then led into one of those museum shops that we have come to expect as intricate parts of those big and flashy travelling exhibitions. There, I couldn’t help to feel that the show came down just a tiny notch. Isn’t this kind of commercialisation of the past (‘heritage = consumption’) part of the cultural baggage that has fueled much of the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq?

Cambridge and British-American Concordia 14 January 2009

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Juxtapositions , 2 comments

I’m writing this from the Classics Faculty Library at Cambridge, where I’ve taken up residency for the next six months, thanks to the generous support of EliteForsk. My reason to write, however, was a recent piece in The Independent that revealed the design of Tony Blair’s congressional medal, awarded in 2003 but still not presented to the awardee. One side of the medal (or to put it in numismatic terms, the obverse) is a Clintonesque portrait of Blair, but the other side of the coin (the reverse, unfortunately not depicted in the online edition) has some further Classical resonance: It features two firmly clasped hands, seemingly signifying British-American concordia. The image above is one second century example. The motif is truthfully a numismatic shorthand for another kind of scene, where two whole figures are shown shaking hands, such as this early third century example celebrating the marriage of Caracalla and Plautilla.

Roman Sculpture as “Hunting Trophy” 12 August 2008

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Making of the Archaeological Record , add a comment

Sometimes you come across interesting things while doing research on an entirely different subject (as also recently noted by Mary Beard). For example, I quite like this rather odd case of Classical reception that I came across the other day. The small image to the right shows a Roman portrait head of a woman, datable to the late Antonine period. It is today in the Aust-Agder Museum in Arendal, Norway and is published in a volume on Greek and Roman Portraits in Norwegian Collections by Siri Sande (1991: 76, cat. no. 62). The most striking thing about the portrait is the large inscription incised on its throat: ‘Carthago 1864’. This makes it very clear when and where the portrait came into the possession of the modern owner! As their website makes clear, the Aust-Agder Museum is devoted to the history of seafaring, so I would assume that this head has made it to Scandinavia through a Norwegian seaman, working in the Mediterranean in the 19th century. From an archaeological perspective, I really like this inscription, especially because if you’re going to mutilate or vandalise antiquities, it’s nice to be able to firmly date your actions…

Augustus Redux in Stockholm 26 April 2008

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Travel , add a comment

An excellent new book (with an accompanying exhibition) on the use of Classical architecture and motifs in my hometown Aarhus has just been published (Nørskov 2008, in Danish). Having recently read this, I was very attuned to similar examples of Classical reception on a brief trip to Stockholm (and the very hospitable Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies) last month. Not only is Stockholm a very beautiful city, small reminders of Classical antiquity can be observed almost everywhere. I also enjoyed Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, a small but interesting collection that is still displayed as it was when originally set up in the 18th century.


Vasa, Stockholm. Photo: TMK, March 2008.

Interestingly, the Vasa Museum was where I came across the most interesting example of the use and abuse of ancient history. The beakhead of the ship, that was built in the 17th century and sank on its maiden voyage, was decorated with representations of twenty Roman emperors, ranging from Tiberius to Septimius Severus. The full list includes, more or less, all emperors (both ‘good’ and ‘bad’) of the first and second centuries AD: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus and Septimius Severus. However, one major figure is notably absent: Augustus. By excluding the founder of the principate, the patron of Vasa, Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus placed himself in his place and took the role of Augustus Redux. All in all, a reminder of the power of the (Mediterranean) past in the construction of power and regal authority in early modern Scandinavia. (more…)

Classics and Civic Identity at the Old Poznan City Hall 25 November 2007

Posted by Troels in : Classical Reception,Travel , 1 comment so far

The reception of Classical antiquity has become quite a hot topic in recent years. It helps that there are lots of examples of the use and appropriation of Classical themes and motifs in modern art and architecture that can be studied through this approach. The field of reception studies has also increasingly been accepted as part of Classics ‘proper’ (see e.g. Beard & Henderson 2000; Bang 2005). I have a lot of sympathy for this interest in Classical reception, although I occasionally feel that it contributes more to a communal sense of nostalgia (i.e. longing for a time when the public still appreciated the ‘true’ value of Classics, and Latin was taught as the first foreign language in schools, etc.) rather than ‘enlivening’ the subject and rendering it relevant in the present. It is perhaps because of this that I often find that the most interesting examples of the use (and occasional abuse) of Classics are those that you come across (almost) at random and in contexts where you hadn’t expected them.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the extremely interesting decorative programme of the Old City Hall in Poznan when I visited this summer. Across the facade of its loggia runs a series of portrait roundels of various Classical authors, scientists, politicians, a Byzantine emperor and even a rebel slave. What is interesting here is perhaps not so much the presence of well-known Classical figures in itself (the building as it stands now goes back to the 16th century and was built by Italian architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro) – but rather the selection of who were placed on the building’s facade and how this selection contributed to the construction of a civic identity in Renaissance Poznan. It’s an interesting and rather ecclectic bunch: the Gracchi, plebeian heroes, Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Republic, Archimedes, Greek mathematician and engineer, Vitruvius, Roman architect, Virgil, national poet of Rome, Homer, ‘author’ of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Justinian I, Byzantine emperor and patron of the Agia Sophia, Horace, Roman poet, Spartacus, leader of a slave rebellion, and the philosopher Heraclitus. Taken together, these luminaries and what they stand for, must have represented the body politic of this Central European city in the 16th century. (more…)