Treasures of Ancient Rome; Treasures of the Louvre

We seemed to go through a phase of only ever discovering TV series after the first episode had already aired, so there’s a few things on our PVR waiting for episode 1 to be repeated. Treasures of Ancient Rome is one of these, and we decided just to watch the other two episodes anyway and come back to the first if we get hold of it. The series premise is Alastair Sooke talking about the art of Ancient Rome, putting it in its historical context. As a presenter Sooke comes across as very enthusiastic and keen to share all his excitement about the subject – reminded me a bit of Dan Cruickshank in that sense (who we call “the Gosh! guy” in our household because he frequently starts his explanation of what you’re looking at with “Gosh!”).

This second episode was about the art of the height of the Roman Empire – running from the Emperor Augustus through to Hadrian. Sooke showed us six or seven representative pieces ranging from a (very large) cameo to Trajan’s column. Along the way we also were treated to Sooke reading relevant excerpts from a translation of Suetonius’s book The Twelve Caesars – which is the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors, all written with lots of scandalous detail. Sooke also spoke to some modern artists who use the same techniques as were used to create the pieces of art he showed us.

The title of the episode was Pomp & Perversion and the programme was looking at both the propaganda and the private art of the Emperors (and others). The propaganda was most clearly shown by Trajan’s column. It’s decorated with a spiralling mural all the way up the length of the column commemorating a victory of Trajan’s – there’s a museum where they have replicas of the reliefs set out so you can see them properly. I’m pretty sure the expert Sooke was talking to got an Asterix reference in when he was talking about it – pointing to the leader of the conquered tribe with an upraised hand he said “you can see him here saying “these Romans are crazy!”” 🙂

There were many examples for the debauchery side of the theme – for instance the Warren Cup. This is a silver drinking cup on display in the British Museum, it’s very well made and must’ve been a high status item. And it is decorated with two explicit scenes of gay sex. A different aspect of the Roman Empire’s reputation for debauchery was represented by one of the many copies of a statue of a man being flayed alive. It was mythological, but even so it says something about a culture if your garden ornaments are that gruesome.

There was also a segment of the programme where Sooke met a modern priest of the cult of Antinous. Antinous was a young man who was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian, and who drowned in the Nile at the age of 19 leaving the Emperor grief-stricken. A cult sprang up after his death, which was apparently on a par with the size of Christianity at the time (bear in mind this is 130AD so Christianity isn’t that big yet). Sooke didn’t say, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the grief of Hadrian had more than a little to do with the spread of the cult – a way of currying favour. The modern priest of the cult was explaining that in more recent times (18th & 19th Centuries I think he mentioned) having statues of Antinous or being a member of the cult was a good way for European aristocrats to covertly indicate they were gay.

I think my favourite of the art that Sooke showed us in this programme is one I haven’t mentioned yet – a fresco that would’ve adorned the walls of a room in the Empress Julia’s villa (wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius). It was for a smallish room with no windows, a place that was a respite from the summer heat, and it was a painting of a garden with trees & flowers & birds. It looked like it would be very peaceful to sit & look at. (And a contrast to the rest of the things in the programme!)

By chance we managed to pick two very similarly titled programmes, both about art for Tuesday & Wednesday. The one we watched on Wednesday was Treasures of the Louvre which was presented by Andrew Hussey, who was another presenter I’d never heard of before – he’s the Dean of the University of London in Paris Institute, and a writer & historian. The programme was an hour & a half, and in that time it managed to fit a tour round the highlights of the Louvre, a potted history of France from the 15th Century onwards & a history of the buildings of the Louvre. Quite a lot but it didn’t feel rushed although it was very obviously only the highlights.

Hussey started with the oldest painting in the Louvre which is from the 15th Century – it’s a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion, surrounded by saints (including Saint Denis with his head in his hands …). But for the purposes of the programme the most important part was that it had a small picture of the Louvre in the background. Which doesn’t look anything like the buildings that’re there today – the Medieval Louvre was a fortress (and Hussey said his preferred etymology for the word Louvre is that it comes from a word for fortress). The foundations of the old Louvre are visible in the basement of the current building, when we visited a couple of years ago I took a photo of them.

The start of the transformation of the Louvre from fortress to museum (via palace) was brought about in the 16th Century by Francis I who ruled France roughly contemporaneously with Henry VIII in England. The Renaissance is beginning in France & Francis rebuilds the Louvre as a fitting palace for a “modern” King – his part of the building is the short end of the U shape of the building I think. He also was a patron of the arts & of artists, and encouraged Leonardo da Vinci to move to Paris when he was an old man. The Mona Lisa came with him & was the first acquisition of what is now the collection of the Louvre.

The Louvre was used as a palace until the French Revolution. As well as showing us different works of art Hussey told us about the King & Queen watching Huguenots get murdered in the courtyard in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He also talked about the various building projects, including linking the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace with the half-mile long Grand Gallery. (Which is where the Renaissance era paintings are today.)

Hussey also told the amusing story of Louis XIV decamping to Versailles because he didn’t like the Parisiennes & the Parisiennes didn’t like him. Because of this move the Louvre was no longer the Royal residence, and so artists could move in – to learn from the works displayed there and produce their own. After the French Revolution the Louvre remained a working place for artists, and also took on the role of public museum. Hussey told us that the galleries were open for the first 6 days of the week for artists only, who were free to take paintings off walls, put chalk marks on paintings(!) etc. For the next 3 days it was open to the public, and on the final day of the 10-day revolutionary week it was closed to everyone for cleaning & necessary repairs. The government at this time also declared all art to be publicly owned so the collections of the Louvre grew.

After the Revolution came Napoleon, who started new grand plans for both acquisition of art & for the buildings. He also commissioned grand paintings of his coronation & other state occasions to properly display his splendidness. During his reign the Louvre started to gain the Egyptian artifacts & also other spoils of Napoleon’s military victories (like The Wedding at Cana, which is a painting I particularly liked when we visited the Louvre). The building works on the Louvre now got to the stage where the plan was for the original Louvre at the end to be linked on both sides to the Tuileries Palace enclosing a vast courtyard.

During the next few changes of regime the museum collections grew. Particularly notable was the formation of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities during the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy. Champollion was put in charge of this – as the man who first deciphered hieroglyphs he was a very significant figure in early Egyptology. The next important moment for the buildings was the destruction of the Tuileries Palace at the end of the Second Empire. It was burnt down because it was the residence of the Emperor, but thankfully the Louvre itself was not.

Hussey skipped fairly briskly past the two World Wars to come to the second half of the 20th Century. As part of the post-war politics (I think) the Mona Lisa was sent off on a tour of the US – Hussey showed us footage of the painting being shipped to the US & from the Presidential reception for the painting. He said they treated it almost like a head of state, which is a bit mind boggling. The Louvre began to get a bit run down, and as part of sprucing it up and rejunvenating it the glass pyramid was built. Controversial at the time it seems to me to be better than the car park that Hussey told us was previously there. And which I presumably saw, I’m sure I must’ve been to the Louvre when I went with my parents to Paris in something like 1985 or 1986 – and the pyramid wasn’t finished till 1989. Maybe it was a building site? I really can’t remember though. And for the final segment of the programme Hussey talked about a bit of the building that wasn’t even open when we were there in Sept 2011 – the new Islamic Art galleries.

I really haven’t done the programme justice in this recap – I’ve skipped over most of the artworks that Hussey talked about in favour of talking about the history (because I find that easier to summarise!) and even with that I’ve missed out a lot of detail. A programme well worth watching if you want an overview of a large chunk of French history & art history – and an overview of highlights of the Louvre collection. It made me want to go back & see (some of) the things I didn’t look at last time – we spent a couple of days in the Egyptian Galleries but only saw a few key things in the rest of the museum, so there’s lots left to see.



To break up the walls of text I thought I’d start interspersing some posts with photos that I’ve taken – sometimes new, sometimes not (this one was taken in Paris in Sept 2011), sometimes singly, sometimes in batches.