by Roderick Conway Morris

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Storming the Heavens

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 7 April 2009
Vatican Museums, Rome
Portrait bust of Julius Caesar, 1st century BC



Julius Caesar lent his name to monarchs - both the titles 'Tsar' and 'Kaiser' derive from it - for the best part of two millennia. He himself did not aspire to kingship, but the title of divinity, something he achieved shortly before his assassination on the Ides of March 44 BC.

As the recognized descendants of the goddess Venus and the Trojan prince Aeneas, Caesar's family occupied a stratospheric position in Rome's republican social hierarchy, but at the time of Julius's birth in 100 BC, they had done nothing of note in living memory. He himself achieved little until he was in his late thirties.

The rest was to be history, as is demonstrated in 'Caesar: the man, the deeds, the myth', curated by Giovanni Gentili, which triumphantly manages to deliver on all three of its subtitles at the Chiostro del Bramante (until May 3).

In the first rooms of the show we encounter the man and other leading protagonists of his age - Cicero, Crassus, Lepidus - in the form of portrait busts, which acquired new levels of expressiveness during this period. Surprisingly, there are only two certain surviving portraits of the man himself, the 'Chiaramonti Caesar' from the Vatican (on display here) and the 'Green Caesar' (now in Berlin). The latter takes its name from the rare green marble in which it is carved from a quarry in Egypt, where it was probably commissioned by Caesar's adopted son, the future emperor Augustus, who was to make his benefactor's legacy, financial and political, into a form of government that was to endure until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Caesar won a number of significant victories during his career, all noted here, but it was his conquest of Gaul (and Britain) that guaranteed his military immortality. Far from being a 'just war', even by Roman standards, the Gallic Wars were acts of aggression, pursued by their intitiator primarily for personal glory and booty. According to the ancient author Plutarch, the conflict cost over a million Gaul lives, with a further million sold into slavery, while vast tracts of the region were devastated.

The Gauls were formidable warriors, one of them represented here by a uniquely intact statue from the 1st-century BC, the 'Vacheres Warrior', from the Provencal Alps, wearing chain-mail (an invention of Celtic metalworkers). But Gaul as a country was a Roman concept, its lands inhabited by diverse tribes, whose traditional sport was fighting each other, a pastime that left them fatally vulnerable to the more disciplined, technologically advanced and better commanded Romans, even though it is reckoned that the Caesar's legions - who, according to their general 'could storm the heavens' - never numbered more than 50,000 men.

Despite the turbulence of the period and renewed civil war fought in arenas scattered across the Roman empire sparked by Caesar's unauthorized crossing of the Rubicon with his forces returning from Gaul, this was a most productive era artistically, reflected in the opulent range of art and artifacts displayed here.

The defeats of the fabulously rich Mithridates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor, brought vast quantities of finely-wrought objects in the form of booty. And Rome's involvement with Egypt fueled an outbreak of Egyptomania and the import of a host of luxury goods from that region. The cutting of jewels, hard stones and cameos reached new levels of sophistication creating stunningly beautiful pieces. There are excellent examples of these here, along with the finely fashioned silver that would have adorned the table of wealthy men such as Caesar, including the famous Arcisate Treasure from the British Museum.

A collector of jewels and cameos, Caesar displayed them in cabinets in the Temple of Venus he built in his new forum, part of his grand plan to transform the center of Rome. The temple's statue of his divine forebear, modeled in that traditional Roman material terracotta and based on a celebrated marble 'Venus Genitrix' by the 5th-century Greek master Callimachus, has not come down to us, but a precious 2nd-century AD copy from the Louvre is on show here.

The extent of Caesar's influence on imperial Rome's town plan is sometimes underestimated. The exhibition (and in more detail in Paolo Liveri's essay in the catalog) elucidates the lasting impact Caesar had on the architecture of the city. But his grandest engineering scheme - to divert the Tiber to expand the continuous area of the city center, which would have meant that the river would now flow past the edge of St. Peter's Square - remained for ever on the drawing-board.

Other achievements are also covered: notably Caesar's role as a lawmaker, illustrated by an impressive bronze slab setting out his new municipal legislation (unearthed near Herculaneum), and his reform of the calendar (in the year before his death), which after 1,600 years was only 11 days out, requiring only some small Gregorian tinkering to put it back on course.

One of the most persistent myths regarding Julius Caesar was that a large bronze globe on top of one of the city's Egyptian obelisks contained his funerary ashes. It was peppered with holes in 1527 when, during the Sack of Rome, mercenary arquebusiers used it for target practice. Replaced with a cross when Sixtus V moved the obelisk to the center of St. Peter's Square, it has now been loaned by the Capitoline Museums.

In the middle ages, Caesar was less prominent than other classical figures, such as Alexander the Great and the Roman general Scipio Africanus. It was during the Renaissance that his fame was revived, a process that culminated in the literary field with Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'. The development of Caesar's image in illuminated books, painting, sculpture and other media is traced in the last sections of the exhibition. This includes an entertaining compilation of film clips from silent movies to the present.

Some of the finest artworks date to the early days of Caesar's rediscovery. The Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano's mid 15th-century high-relief profile (from the Louvre) is an imaginative, extraordinarily refined study of the mature dictator. Mantegna's 'The Triumphs of Caesar', a series of huge canvases painted in Mantua in the 1480s and '90s, unprecedented in their tumultuous re-evocation of Caesar's Rome, are represented here by copies from Prague, produced by Rubens's studio.

It was Caesar who put Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt, she bore him a child and spent two years in Rome, where she became an instant fashion icon. While the 'Malleus Maleficarum' (The Hammer of Witches), the late 15th century witch-hunters' manual composed by two Dominican inquisitors, declared Cleopatra, the most wicked woman that ever lived, she was fast becoming to Renaissance artists (and presumably their patrons) one of the most fascinating and delectable. The tragic Egyptian queen continued to cast a spell over painters and sculptors throughout the following centuries, as illustrated by a series of works here.

At the Paris Salon of 1874 she achieved a kind of Orientalist apotheosis in Jean-Andre Rixens's splendid 'Death of Cleopatra' which, despite its bold eroticism, was bought by the French state. And in the age of cinema, a succession of screen goddesses has continued to upstage the once deified Roman dictator.

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024