Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 2, 2001Volume 29, Number 17

This sculpted image of Caligula is one of a small number of likenesses of the third Roman emperor that was not destroyed or disfigured after his assassination.

Exhibit shows how Roman
history was 'rewritten' in art

Caligula, Nero and Domitian -- ancient Roman despots whose actions were so monstrous that their likenesses were disfigured or reworked into images of more revered individuals after their deaths -- are the focus of the newest exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Titled "From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture," the show features 50 works of art showing Roman rulers both as they wanted to be portrayed and as their images were treated after their condemnation. The works hail from such noted collections as the Vatican Museums, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the American Numismatic Society.

The exhibit, which is on view through March 25, was organized for Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum by Eric Varner, associate professor in Emory's Department of Art History. Susan B. Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art, is in charge of the exhibition at Yale.

According to Varner, "From Caligula to Constantine" offers a rare insight into the process called damnatio memoriae, by which the Roman "visual landscape" was transformed in such a way as to rewrite Roman monumental history. "These practices eerily recall the treatment of images in the former Soviet Union and other modern totalitarian states," he says.

The opening section of the exhibit recreates a public space in Rome, with a wall drawing of the Forum of Augustus and a columned structure featuring four portraits of Caligula, who became Rome's third emperor at age 24. When Caligula was assassinated after a four-year reign characterized by depravity and megalomania, most of his likenesses were destroyed. Those that were not were reworked into likenesses of his predecessor, Augustus, or his uncle and successor, Claudius. Coins minted during Caligula's reign continued to be used after the damnatio memoriae, but were deliberately defaced. Examples of the latter are on view in the show and may be examined in detail by visitors using an interactive image database.

The show also includes coins and sculpted portraits of Nero, who was proclaimed an official enemy of the people after his suicide, and of Domitian, whose terrorization of the Senate ended with his assassination. Images of the latter in the show include a larger-than-life-size torso in armor, which was part of a statue designed to celebrate the emperor's military leadership and strength on the battlefield. The head was removed and the torso was so mutilated that it could not be reused -- "an economically costly act expressing profound dissatisfaction with the regime and military achievements of Domitian," notes Varner.

The many imperial women in Rome who suffered damnatio memoriae are represented in the exhibit by Plautilla, who married Caracalla, the son of the emperor Septimius Severus, and was executed on her husband's orders a decade later. One of her marble portraits, from the Vatican Museums, suffered damage to the eyes, nose and mouth, depriving her "of any metaphorical ability to 'see' or 'speak' to the inhabitants of the Roman Empire," notes Varner.

One of the highlights of "From Caligula to Constantine" is the recreation of a Roman house, featuring a pool, household shrine and an atrium, where images of the ruling emperor and the family's ancestors would typically be displayed.

An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, which was made possible in part by support from Delta Airlines, The Jim Cox Jr. Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. At the Yale venue, the exhibition and programs are funded in part by The David T. Langrock Foundation, The Robert Lehman Exhibition and Publication Fund, and a donation from Jan and Frederick Mayer, Yale B.A. 1950.

Several special programs are being offered in conjunction with "From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture." This week's events include:

* The annual Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Lecture, "Evidence: Altered Statues and Altered States in Imperial Rome," by Karl Galinsky of the University of Texas on Friday, Feb. 2, at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow.

* An Art à la Carte talk, "The Consequences of Fiddling: The Emperor Nero and His Portraits," by Susan B. Matheson, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 12:20 p.m.

Watch the Yale Bulletin & Calendar for news of other upcoming activities.

The Yale University Art Gallery, corner of Chapel and York streets, is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday. An entrance for people using wheelchairs is located at 201 York St., with an unmetered parking space nearby on York Street. For information on access, call (203) 432-0606. For general and program information, call (203) 432-0600 or visit the museum's website at www.yale.edu/artgallery.


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