Art of China

Andrew Graham-Dixon has done several series for the BBC about the art of various places – one of the more recent was about China and we watched it earlier this year. He covered the art of this vast and long-lived culture in chronological order, so the series also provided an overview of the history of China. Even though it was chronological the three programmes also covered different themes – starting with the art of & for death (and religion), then art concerned with the natural world and finally art influenced by the world outside China.

The first programme started with prehistoric art – even pre-China art. The first objects Graham-Dixon looked at were a collection of bronze masks (of varying sizes) which had large staring eyes as their most prominent feature. These objects were buried in a way that suggests they were once used for ritual purposes but then were no longer necessary – as if the culture/religion/tradition that they were associated with had been superseded but they were still given respect for their previous significance. There doesn’t seem to be any continuity between this culture and what later became China as we know it.

The next objects were more bronzes, but these were associated with the cultures that lead up to China proper – the Shang and Zhou bronzes. These are mostly ritual vessels for food and drink that would be buried with people – perhaps also used in the burial rituals themselves. These vessels are highly decorated, with a distinctive style. Concurrent with the vessels is the development of the Chinese writing system, which is an influence on a lot of later Chinese art. Graham-Dixon showed us some of the actual oracle bones which have the first writing on them – annotations as to the question asked of the oracle, the answer given and the eventual outcome. This last makes them a critical historical resource for this period as the questions the kings asked tended to involve matters of state. I’ve read about these more than once, but never seen one so this was pretty cool to see πŸ™‚

The programme then moved on to China proper with the First Emperor, who is the emperor who was buried with the terracotta army. This is a particularly extreme example of taking everything with you when you go, and Graham-Dixon also pointed out that this was the First Emperor planning to conquer the afterlife as he’d conquered the known world in this life! The following dynasty (the Han) also provisioned their tombs with all the items they needed for the next life, and this has lasted through to the modern day to some extent. Graham-Dixon visited a place that makes paper models of everyday objects for funerals, like computers and cars and so on – these are then burnt to transfer them to the afterlife for the deceased to use. The last section of the first programme looked at Buddhist art of the afterlife. This depicts a completely different class of thing. Instead of physical items and provisions the art is concerned with transcendence and joy, or with damnation.

The second programme looked at the period of history from the Song Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, which is in many ways a golden age of Chinese art. The two primary media of art in this era were ceramics and painting. Chinese painting is made using the same techniques as Chinese writing and the same tools. A scholar of the time was both writer and painter. Nature features heavily in the paintings, although the scholars rarely painted whilst in front of the thing they were painting. The natural scenes (whether real or imaginary) were intended to summon up a mood – often melancholy or isolation. The most iconic pieces often come from scholars who had retreated from court or official life – who felt disaffected or displaced by a change in regime for instance after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty conquered China. The Yuan to Ming transition also displaced many court officials who were loyal to the preceding dynasty.

The art style of this era was heavy on symbolism and meaning. To illustrate this theme Graham-Dixon talked about the last Yuan Emperor, who came to the throne unexpectedly after several preceding heirs had died. He’d been brought up as an aesthete not a ruler and as his empire began to crumble around him (due to his lack of administrative skill) he tried to reverse the situation by commissioning and painting pictures of good omens and good fortune. Unsurprisingly this didn’t work out so well, and more time spent on administration might’ve been a better bet πŸ˜‰

The third and final programme covered the last dynasty of Chinese Emperors (the Qing) and modern China. The theme of this programme was that the art of the period was influenced by the outside world, primarily the West. In some ways this was a manifestation of the early Qing dynasty resting on their laurels – they “knew” they were the most sophisticated culture in the world, so looked to the outside world for trinkets and art. Forward momentum in the sciences was lost at just the time that the West was beginning to go through the Industrial Revolution. There were still obvious ways in which the Qing art was continuous with the previous traditions & Graham-Dixon spent a bit of time talking about the Forbidden Palace (first built in the Ming Dynasty) and also the way the ceramic art traditions continued & changed in the Qing era. For the latter he particularly pointed out how the elegant simplicity of Ming ceramics gave way to brightly coloured and decorated Qing ceramics which were often rather garish in comparison.

As the Qing dynasty continued their relationship with the European nations changed in character – from cultural exchange as equals to occupied nation. Graham-Dixon covered the history of the 19th Century with the Opium Wars, and the destruction of Chinese sites by British colonising armies. This rather shameful period of British empire building did lead to developments in Chinese art and not just destruction. In particular Shanghai was one of the towns where the British forcibly established a trading base, and the art produced in the town became a hybrid style between Chinese & Western. Instead of painting on scrolls or long wall hangings as was traditional artists began to paint pieces designed to be framed and hung on walls. The traditional pallet of blacks & greys (and perhaps red) began to be replaced by bright colours. The subject and the style, however, remained traditional.

By the end of the imperial period in the late 19th Century & early 20th Century some Chinese artists were training in Paris and using western techniques and styles in their paintings – but still painting Chinese subjects. Some of these artists embraced the “old-fashioned” traditional techniques of Western art and painted large representational oil paintings – for instance Graham-Dixon showed us one that depicts a key scene from a Chinese hero’s story, yet it wouldn’t look particularly out of place in a gallery of early 19th Century art. Other artists embraced the new modern art movements that were coming to life in 20th Century Paris.

The rise of Communism in China put an abrupt stop to this flirtation with Western styles and techniques. Mao’s suppression of intellectuals in general also had a particular focus on rejecting Western influences. Artists who had produced un-Chinese art were persecuted and sent to labour camps, their paintings and sculptures destroyed. Since the change from Maoist communism to the current pseudo-capitalist communism there has been a bit of a relaxation of that attitude. Graham-Dixon finished the programme by talking to current artists and looking at their work – most are consciously looking both to their roots as inheritors of a long artistic tradition, and to the modern globalised world.

I enjoyed this series – good to see both the sweep of Chinese history from another angle, and to learn more about the themes & purposes of the art of the country.

Travels with Vasari; Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives

Travels with Vasari is a two-part documentary we’ve had on the PVR for the last 4 years or thereabouts. It’s presented by Andrew Graham Dixon and is about Vasari, and Renaissance Italy. Vasari was an artist in Italy in the 16th Century but nowadays he is much more famous for the book he wrote called “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. Dixon explained that this is the first work of art criticism and art history as we know those subjects today, and that Vasari can be credited with inventing them. The two programmes had a little bit of Dixon talking about Vasari himself (his life, some of his art) but mostly it was a tour round Italy looking at examples of the works that Vasari wrote about. The book was organised as a sort of progression throughout the Renaissance towards what Vasari thought was its crowning glory – the paintings of Michaelangelo. As his subject was the lives of the artists he obviously provided some biographical details for each one as well as discussing their art – but in many cases he stretched the truth or invented things out of whole cloth (for instance casting one artist as a murderer, yet investigative work in the 20th Century showed that said artist died 4 years before his putative victim …).

A good series, I’m not sure why we left it so long before watching it. It also reminded me that somewhere I have a book covering the broad sweep of the history of art via a series of example paintings, and while at one point I was going through it at a rate of a painting a day, I don’t think I ever finished. Must dig that back out again.

Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives was two biographical programmes about two of the great British radicals. Bragg started the first programme by reminding us that while Britain has never had a successful revolution, and it’s flirtation with being a republic ended by inviting the monarch back, nonetheless there have been some notable radical thinkers born in our country. The first programme looked at the life of John Ball – a name that isn’t necessarily familiar to everyone, but I think most people will’ve heard the phrase “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” which is one of Ball’s. John Ball lived during the 14th Century and was instrumental in leading what is now known as the Peasants Revolt. The subject of the second programme was Thomas Paine, an 18th Century radical who was born in England but participated in the American War of Independence (on the American side) and the French Revolution. He wrote several influential pamphlets – like “Common Sense” which was influential in the decision of the fledgling US to declare independence, and “Rights of Man” which was in part a defence of the French Revolution.

Bragg told the stories of these two men as separate tales, but linked them together and to William Tyndale (who he’s previously made a programme about) by the way that their great influence was derived from their use of English to communicate their ideas. And not just English (which was radical enough in Ball’s time all on its own) but plain English that was understandable by everyone rather than just some intellectual elite.

Interesting programmes about two men I didn’t actually know much about beyond their names.

Other TV we watched last week:

Episode 2 of Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century – Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

Episode 2 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Episode 2 of Lost Land of the Tiger – three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Episode 1 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn’t always agree with what was being said (for instance I’m not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it’s only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could’ve been.

Do We Really Need the Moon? – a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; A Night at the Rijksmuseum; Horizon: Little Cat Diaries

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens is a series we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while now – it’s presented by Helen Castor who has written a book with the same title & premise. She’s looking at the history of seven Queens of England, in medieval & Tudor times. Some of these Queens ruled in their own right, some were wives of Kings but all of them exercised power. The second episode will be about the woman who was actually referred to as a she wolf, none of them were entirely popular with their subjects. Castor’s thesis is that this is all down to the people of that time regarding power as male, so these women were slandered & put down for behaviours that would’ve been regarded as normal for a King. In this series she’s very much presenting the stories from the women’s point of view – J wasn’t so keen on this in the one we watched the other night. He thought she was too partisan, tho I think she was just obvious with her partisanship, everyone’s got biases after all.

The first two-thirds or so of the first episode covered the Empress Matilda who was never crowned, but was very nearly the first woman to rule England in her own right. Her story starts off fairly normally for a woman of the time, she is the daughter of Henry I (and granddaughter of William the Conqueror) born in 1102AD and at the age of 8 she’s married off to Henry V King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. She lives in Germany from then until her husband’s death nearly 16 years later when she’s 23. She wasn’t heir to the English throne at first because she had a brother, William. However he died when the ship he was travelling in from Normandy to England ran aground just outside the harbour – Castor told us that everyone on the ship was drunk when they left (it was the Prince & his entourage most of whom were teenagers) and so not paying enough attention. In the cold November water there was no way rescue could get there before they died. With the death of her brother Matilda was now the only legitimate child of Henry I, and as yet she had no children of her own. Once her husband died Henry I married her off again quickly, to try to get grandsons soon enough that they could inherit when he died.

Matilda’s second marriage was to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. This marriage didn’t go down well with her – it was her father’s choice, both for strategic reasons (the County of Anjou bordered Normandy so was a useful ally to have) and dynastic reasons. But Geoffrey was much younger than Matilda, and very much lower status (she was an Empress after all, he was merely a Count). The couple were estranged quite quickly, but Henry I subsequently enforced a reconciliation that appears to’ve worked out – the couple had two healthy children, and even better both of them were boys.

More than once before his death Henry I had had his nobles swear allegiance to Matilda as his heir. Castor told us that there was no precedent for whether or not a woman could rule the country, as the Norman invasion had effectively reset the clock. If Henry I had managed to live long enough for one of his grandsons to grow up he would probably have named him heir, but he died long before this could happen. When her father died Matilda was in Anjou (and not on good terms with her father) so couldn’t get to England quickly. She did actually set out, but on arrival at one of the castles in Normandy she delayed her journey – this might’ve been due to complications of pregnancy as she was pregnant with her third child at this point. Castor said that a contemporary chronicler just says she remained there “for certain reasons” which is maddeningly opaque.

The delay in Matilda reaching London gave her cousin Stephen of Blois time to seize power. This is where J thought Castor’s biases were most apparent – she presented it as “and of course this worked because Matilda was a woman”, however as J points out if a male heir had delayed that long then someone else might’ve seized power. Power vacuums tend to be filled, after all. It’s just that as Matilda was a woman it was easier for Stephen to rally support to his side.

What followed was 20 years or so of civil war, a period that is called The Anarchy (we listened to an In Our Time episode about it a while ago). Stephen was the anointed King, by virtue of his coronation ceremony, but Matilda was the legitimate heir, by virtue of blood and the oaths sworn to her father. At one point, in 1141, Matilda had the upper hand and had even captured Stephen. She was preparing for her coronation in London, having got the Church and several of the powerful nobles on side. But the chronicler (who was very much on Stephen’s side) writes that she became too arrogant and unwomanly, and so the people of London rose up and chased her out of the city. Again Castor was quite sure that Matilda was only regarded as arrogant because she was a woman, and that the same behaviour in a man would’ve been perfectly fine. It’s hard to tell, tho, as all the chronicles that still exist are on Stephen’s side. Stephen was also freed not long after this, so it was back to square one. In the end Matilda had to give up her ambition to rule in her own right, but she secured the crown for her son Henry as Stephen had no heir.

The last third of the programme was about Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who never ruled England in her own right but did do the actual ruling of the country for a while as well as have a powerful influence on the politics of the realm at other times. Eleanor was born & brought up in Poitiers, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, and she inherited the Duchy on her father’s death. She was married first to Louis VII, King of France, and this was not a happy marriage. Eleanor pronounced Louis “more monk than man”, but the couple did eventually have two daughters (which wasn’t good enough, as girls definitely couldn’t inherit the Kingdom of France). Louis & Eleanor went on Crusade to the Holy Land as part of the Second Crusade, and during this expedition their marriage broke down almost completely (this is between daughters 1 & 2).

Eleanor’s close friendship with her uncle (the ruler in Antioch) caused scandal, and then to make matters worse when Louis prepared to leave Antioch & move on with the Crusade Eleanor refused to accompany him. She tried to get a divorce from him at this point, citing their relationship to each other (which was within the prohibited seven degrees) – Castor pointed out this was Eleanor trying to use the same sorts of laws that powerful men used to get rid of no longer convenient wives. But unfortunately for Eleanor she didn’t have the same sort of power as a man would and her husband’s desire to remain married trumped her desire for an annulment. The couple were reconciled, at least to a degree that meant that after their return to France they had a second daughter. Not long after this tho they were estranged again, and this time Louis was willing to divorce. 8 weeks later, Eleanor married Henry, son of the Empress Matilda & Geoffrey of Anjou (not yet King Henry II of England). Castor said that Eleanor & Henry must surely have met when Henry visited the French court not long before Eleanor divorced, but there’s no record of this.

So now Eleanor is married to the King of England, and this marriage was initially much more successful. The couple had 8 children over 15 years, with three sons surviving to adulthood. Between his own inheritance & Eleanor’s own lands Henry ruled over a pretty big empire stretching from the Pennines to the PyrΓ©nΓ©es. After Henry’s mother’s death (Matilda definitely exercised power via her son after he took the throne) Eleanor became more important in the politics of Henry’s realm. By this time she’s 43, and she lived in Poitiers again ruling the Duchy of Aquitaine in Henry’s name. Unlike her mother-in-law who never got to rule, because Eleanor was ruling in a man’s name she didn’t have the same problems of being regarded as un-womanly. (And possibly she was better at acting in a suitably “feminine” fashion while exercising power.) Castor noted that the sorts of stories that surround Eleanor during this time focus on tales of courtly romance (this is the time & the place for the troubadors), which are suitably feminine subjects even tho there’s no evidence that any of the stories actually happened.

Once Henry II & Eleanor’s sons were teenagers they began to want to share power with their father, but he made promises and never actually delegated any power. It struck us while we were watching this that Henry II probably couldn’t win here – either he delegated power to them, and then they got too powerful & weakened his own rule, or he didn’t and then they got annoyed & rebelled which is what they did. This wasn’t unusual in itself – sons taking up arms against their father – but what was unusual was that Eleanor sided with her sons against her husband. Castor read excerpts from a letter written to Eleanor by a bishop that said she was going to bring about the ruin of all of society due to these actions! The rebellion ultimately ended in victory for Henry II – it seems Eleanor was the brains of the operation and after Henry managed to capture her the rebellion soon ended with the sons begging for mercy.

Henry II was merciful to his sons, but Eleanor lived in captivity for the next 16 years until Henry’s death. One of the first things Richard the Lionheart did when he inherited the throne was send word that his mother should be freed. She’s now about 65, and freeing her wasn’t just an act of filial affection it was a necessity. Richard needed someone to rule the country in his name while he was off on Crusade, and Eleanor was just the person for the job. She ended up holding the reigns of power for longer than anyone anticipated because Richard was captured on his way home from Crusade. She also outlived Richard, and when his younger brother John inherited she was instrumental in smoothing his way to power. She eventually died at the age of around 80, and was buried next to her husband despite their differences in life.

The next programme in the series is going to be about the wives of Edward II (Isabella of France) and Henry VI (Margaret of Anjou) who played pivotal roles in their husbands’ reigns.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been shut for 10 years while being refurbished. A Night at the Rijksmuseum was Andrew Graham-Dixon acting a bit like a child in a sweetshop while being allowed to go behind the scenes just before the re-opening of the museum earlier this year. The programme was part about the renovation & the history of the museum, and part about what the contents of the museum are & how they’re organised. So mostly “look at the pretty things” which is always hard to write about.

The original building was built in the 19th Century, designed by a Catholic architect and it reminded me a bit of the V&A Museum in style and a bit of a cathedral. Graham-Dixon said that when it was originally built the resemblance to Catholic religious architecture was a bone of contention for many of the staunchly Protestant Dutch. The new additions have kept a similar sensibility, but with a more modern style (and the architect this time was Spanish which seems about as historically inappropriate as a Catholic amongst Protestants!). The interior of the original building has also been refurbished and restored to its former glory – including parts that were whitewashed over by a particularly modernist director in the 1950s.

The refurbishment was “only” supposed to take a few years, 2 or 3. Apparently the obstacle that caused the biggest slippage in the project time was the bike tunnel. Prior to the museum being shut there was a bike route that ran through a tunnel through the building, and the original plans for the refurbishment altered this route. However people objected, petitions were organised etc etc – but somehow this wasn’t discovered to be a problem till after the plans were finalised and work had begun. So the architect had to re-design that part of the building and that cost significant amounts of time & money.

While it was shut the curators not only had the chance to completely overhaul their vision of how the collection should be displayed, but also to do conservation & research on the paintings & other objects. In a particularly overenthusiastic segment of the programme Graham-Dixon was shown the work they are & have done on X-raying & 3D-imaging of the paintings in the collection. It was kinda neat, but I didn’t really understand the levels of excitement over being able to see the brush strokes more clearly. That was the 3D-imaging, the X-ray stuff was more obviously exciting to this non-artist because you could see how the composition of a painting had changed while it was being worked on.

The objects used to be organised by type, but the new layout organises them by date. There are 8 main galleries which each cover a hundred years of Dutch history. So you have the paintings and the objects all mixed in together. It being Holland there’s a lot of maritime related stuff – paintings of ships, models of ships, cannon from ships … even the English Royal Coat of Arms from the prow of a ship the Dutch captured from us in Charles II’s time. And there’s also another wing of the museum with Asian related objects – the Dutch have traded with the Far East for several centuries, in particular they were the only Western nation allowed to trade in Japan during the Sakoku Period.

This was a fun programme to watch, but it did feel awfully like a piece of advertising for the Rijksmuseum. Kinda did the trick, I’d quite like to go to it some day, but a bit odd as a BBC programme.

Little Cat Diaries was a half-hour follow up to the previous Horizon programme The Secret Life of the Cat (post). It went into a little bit more depth about 4 of the cats that were in the first programme. As it was only half an hour this still wasn’t terribly much depth on each! There was a bit about the cat that was the best hunter (the family don’t really feed him much cat food because he eats so much of the wildlife), there was a bit about the cat that roamed furthest (his family said it was a bit like being at a parent/teacher evening & being told your child did well). And a bit about a stray cat who was spotted in people’s houses when they were filming their own cats (and he was subsequently captured & re-homed with one of the households he was visiting).

The bit that was most interesting for me was the short segment on whether one’s cat returns one’s affection. They set this up by talking to the previous & current owners of a cat that had run away – the previous owner said something along the lines of “as she got older the cat seemed to get less keen on the children, but when I got the dog it was the last straw. The cat walked in, saw the dog, the dog started to go for her and she left and never came back!”. I was left thinking that there are ways to integrate pets into a household, and that was Not It πŸ˜‰ However the interesting bit was that there is research being done on whether cats are attached to their owners. This is based on a 70s experiment that shows that babies are attached to their mothers – if the mother leaves the room while a baby is being distracted by a stranger the baby is concerned, and obviously pleased to see the mother return. If you do the same experiment with a dog & its owner, the same is true. Cats however don’t get nearly as bothered by either absence or return of their owner. Of course that doesn’t actually test if a cat loves its owner, just that a cat doesn’t associate their owner with security in the way a dog does (or a baby does its mother). But still, interesting πŸ™‚

Ice Age Art: A Culture Show Special; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

There is an exhibition that’s just started at the British Museum about Ice Age Art and to tie in with this there was a Culture Show special covering both the exhibition and Ice Age art in general. The presenter was Andrew Graham-Dixon – we’ve watched a few of his programmes before including something about the art of Spain, and also something about the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum a couple of years ago.

The two themes of the programme were firstly an emphasis on just how old all of these objects are, and secondly how these people were people just like us and much more sophisticated than the stereotype of a “prehistoric caveman” would lead us to expect. The programme looked at these themes by showing us some of the objects in the British Museum exhibition (and talking to the curators etc about them) and by showing us some of the cave paintings – particularly some in Northern Spain.

There was also a segment of the programme where Graham-Dixon met with an experimental archaeologist who makes replicas of some of these objects using the same techniques and types of tools that the originals were made with. I found this particularly fascinating, and it was astonishing how long it took – he was saying that the smaller pieces took about 80 hours each, but a larger piece might take on the order of 400 hours or more. He (and several of the other people interviewed) was saying that the time it took together with the skill & artistic talent shown in the pieces we’ve found imply that being an artist was a specialised profession in the hunter-gatherer societies of the time.

And they were also saying that art was clearly important to these societies – you don’t put that much effort and resources into something you don’t think much of. Perhaps it tied into their religion(s) – in particular the female figures seem to be biased towards representations of fertility, which might have religious significance. Perhaps it was also a means of communicating between groups of people, or over time – the subjects of the art are normally the natural world, the animals that they would hunt and that they shared their environment with. And in a world where people were significantly outnumbered by animals, and where they depended so much on the environment around them for survival, close observation of nature would be a necessity and showing each other what they’d seen would be important. This then shows up in the art – the detail & life-like rendering of animals in some of the pieces is astonishing.

On the subject of people being outnumbered by animals – at one point Graham-Dixon said that the population living outside Africa during this era was something like 100,000, less than the medieval population of Paris. And if the numbers of people are astonishingly small, the time spans are astonishingly large. The range of dates for cave-paintings or objects are from 40,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago – the whole of “history” is small compared to that. And these objects are as ancient to the ancient Greeks as they are to us, to all intents and purposes.

I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition at the British Museum even more after seeing this programme πŸ™‚

In an attempt to clear some stuff of our PVR (which is why we’ve had a bonus TV night or two this weekend in addition to our normal Wednesday night) we started watching one of the series we’ve got recorded in HD. Rome: A History of the Eternal City is a look at the history of Rome from a religious perspective, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore who we’ve previously seen present a programme on Jerusalem. This first episode covered ancient Rome from foundation through to just before the conversion of the Empire to Christianity – a large amount of ground to cover in an hour!

The programme opened with some scenes from modern Christian Rome – the crowds coming to watch a statue of the Virgin Mary being paraded around the city first by boat and later through the streets. Montefiore then pointed out that this pageantry had roots in pagan Rome, and explained that Rome has always been a sacred city. He then went on to re-tell the Roman foundation myth – the story of Romulus and Remus, twins who were suckled by a she-wolf after they were abandoned at birth. As adults they were to found a city, but fell out over where it should be sited – both saw omens from the gods indicating that their preferred site was the favoured one. The dispute was only resolved when Romulus killed his brother, and founded the city of Rome on the Palatine hill. The archaeological and historical evidence is that Rome grew out of the union of villages in this region, but from very early in its history it was a sacred area. The dead could not be buried inside the walls of Rome, and soldiers could not bear arms there. This sacredness extended even below ground, and Montefiore visited the sewer that had existed since ancient times (and is still part of the sewer system today). This originally drained the Forum, which flooded frequently, and also symbolised the purification of the city. There were rituals about washing things away in the sewers, including the body of at least one Emperor.

We then had a (fairly brisk) trot through the history of ancient Rome, with an emphasis on how the secular and the religious intertwined. He talked about how the priesthood influenced decisions during the early period when Rome was a monarchy – we got a demonstration of how the omens were read in the liver of a sheep (this being a modern sheep the liver wasn’t particularly blemished, I imagine a less healthy sheep would give more interesting (but less good) omens). Even once Rome was a republic many of the same religious ideas were still present – that the city was sacred, and that they had some divine right to conquer. The Senate even finished off a temple planned during the reign of the last King – it was a replacement of secular power that didn’t affect the religious life of the city. The Romans worshipped many gods & goddesses & would incorporate foreign ones into their worship. The programme noted in particular the Magna Mater, originally a foreign goddess, whose worship & priesthood was brought to the city after omens suggested that she was the only way to save the city from Hannibal during the Second Punic War. The arrival of the Magna Mater was in a ceremony very reminiscent of the modern day procession of the Virgin Mary that the programme opened with.

At the point where the Republic turned into an Empire there were also changes to the religious landscape. Over his reign Augustus gradually set up the Imperial cult – partly by deifying Julius Caesar, and then adding “son of a god” to his own titles. And by setting up altars around the city which emphasised the divinity of the Imperial family, and encouraged people to make sacrifices to him. This was alongside the other gods & goddesses, but still served to help the political elevation of the Emperor as sole ruler.

An interesting programme, although I think that many of the details have escaped me – in part because it covered so much in just an hour.