Eight Paintings of the Classical World

The Long Vacation is now a few weeks old, and this week the Faculty is hosting Year 12 students for the Sutton Trust Summer School . They’ve chosen a good week to try Latin as the sun has finally come out! If you close your eyes you could be in Italy… almost. Meanwhile I thought I would share some of my favourite classically inspired paintings. An entirely subjective selection, of course.

(1) The Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David (1799).

"The Sabine Women", by Jacques-Louis David

This scene, more so than all the business with Romulus and Remus’ auguries and the ploughing of the sacred city boundary, is the moment, in essence, when Rome the state was founded. You can find the story in Livy 1. The fledgling city of Rome was in need of wives and mothers, so Romulus seized the women of their Sabine neighbours. Understandably cheesed off, the Sabine king Titus Tatius led an army against Rome and the war culminated in a fierce battle in the valley that would eventually become the Forum Romanum. Here we see Romulus on the right frozen in the act of throwing his javelin at Tatius on the right. Only the dramatic intervention of the Sabine Women, led by Hersilia in the centre, brought the two sides to peace, and a decision to join together into one city.  What I love about this painting is the way David creates a moment of tableau-like stillness in the middle of all the frenetic movement, but also a moment of doubt. Will Hersilia reconcile the two warriors, or will Romulus throw his spear?

(2) Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889).
"Cicero Denounces Catiline" by Cesare Maccari

Maccari painted this fresco for Palazzo Madama in Rome, which had recently become the seat of the new Italian Senate. The scene is the Roman Senate House, the year 63 BC, and Cicero, on the left, is haranguing the dastardly Catiline, alone on the right, with In Catilinam 1. Anyone who’s studied the speech has got to love this (especially the way Catiline is turned into a sulky Heathcliff-type). The Kingdom of Italy had only been in existence for less than 2 decades and it’s fascinating how the idea of the Republican Senate is being used as a touchstone for the new 19th century Senate. I feel that the fresco captures the essence if not the actual fact of In Cat 1 – Cicero has been transformed into an image of authoritative and wise old age – a senator indeed  – while the setting evokes a generalised sense of ‘Senate House’ not really corresponding to either the Curia in the Forum or the Temple of Jupiter Stator where the speech was actually delivered. It’s definitely Cicero’s view of the affair, and I can’t help wondering how Catiline would have portrayed it…

(3) Penelope is Woken by Euryclea, by Angelica Kauffman (1772)."Penelope is Woken by Euryclea", by Angelica Kauffman

Odyssey 24 – Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, the Suitors have been slaughtered, and the faithless maids, and poor Penelope, sent to sleep by ‘some god’, is the last to know. Kauffman’s Penelope, dressed in white, almost glows, while from the shadows a statue of Athene, Odysseus’ protector, watches over her. The old nurse Eurycleia has been dying to tell Penelope about Odysseus’ return since book 19, but he has only permitted her to do so now and her anticipation is palpable. Kauffman transforms a handful of lines of the poem – sandwiched in the narrative between all the bloodshed – into a window onto Penelope’s private, female world and the tension is beautifully balanced between wanting not to disturb her peace, and desire for her to hear the good news.

(4) Casa Aurea by Gianbattista Piranesi (1770s)."Casa Aurea" by Gianbattista Piranesi

It’s a cliche, but Piranesi’s engraving is I think a definitive encapsulation of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’. This view of the Basilica of Maxentius predates any modern archaeological excavation in the centre of Rome. By adopting an artificial viewpoint, and dramatically extending the perspective, Piranesi shows the Basilica (wrongly identified by him as Nero’s Golden House) as an almost incomprehensible mass of masonry beneath which the tiny figures of his present scrabble around at their everyday business, dwarfed by and all but oblivious of the ruins. Piranesi’s engravings travelled across Europe, and for many in Britain, for example, these would have been the first pictures of Rome they saw. No wonder so many 19th century tourists reported that the actual ruins were a disappointment.

(5) The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, by Jacques-Louis David (1789)."The Lictors Bring Brutus the Bodies of his Sons" by Jacques-Louis David.

Another David. Whatever, I’m a fan. David shows us the house of Lucius Brutus, a few hours after that founder of the Republic has watched his own sons be executed for treason. David was commissioned by King Louis XVI to paint the scene, but, completed as it was in 1789, it became strikingly topical. Brutus’ wife and daughters are stricken by the sight of the corpses; Brutus, however, separated from them by shadows, is grim and still, clutching the death warrant. Nothing, not even family, comes above preserving liberty? Or is Brutus’ wife right to grieve at a Brut-al act?* When narrating this story and measures like it in Book 2, Livy allows himself a rare authorial comment: ‘I can’t help wondering, myself, whether the precautions taken at this time to safeguard liberty even in the smallest details, was not excessive.’

(6) The Death of Virginia, by Taras Shevchenko (1836)."The Death of Verginia", by Taras Shevchenko

Poor Verginia – killed by her father to save her from the advances of the evil tyrant Appius Claudius (consult Livy 2) – has been made to symbolise many things, and here Shevchenko places her mortally wounded body on a vertical axis with a tablet of laws representing the Twelve Tables. Appius took power as part of a panel to codify these laws, and Verginia and the knife held up by her centurion father Verginius stand as witnesses to his tyranny and hypocrisy. In a similar way to David above, Shevchenko illustrates the high personal cost of defending liberty, something the artist would experience personally when he was exiled from his beloved Ukraine and forbidden to write and paint after Tsar Nicolas I judged his work to be inflammatory.

(7) Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1868)."Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends" by Lawrence Alma Tadema

What I think is great about this painting is the way Alma Tadema plays games with the idea of viewing art. Fifth century Athenians are here given a tour of the Parthenon ‘marbles’ as if they were 19th century visitors to the British Museum, with Phidias right there to answer their questions. At the same time this is not the frieze as we know it, but freshly painted and in situ. I especially love the way the guy on the right in yellow is gingerly holding onto the rope and doesn’t seem confident of his balance on that rickety board. Part of the joke is that once completed, the frieze was barely visible from the ground – so this really is a once in a lifetime experience.

(8) The Leap of Marcus Curtius, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1850)."The Leap of Marcus Curtius" by Jean-Leon Gerome

"The Leap of Marcus Curtius" by Jean-Leon Gerome (detail)

Livy (in book 7) tells us that a chasm opened up in the Forum, and it was discerned that it would only close if fed with the Romans’ greatest strength. The young Marcus Curtius identified this strength with the bravery of Rome’s young men, and volunteered to leap into the chasm and close it up. Over the past 2000 years the mysterious chasm has acquired, in art, flames and hellfire. In Gérôme’s version Curtius seems to yell as he and his horse make their leap of faith; his posture and the upswirl of his bright red cloak transform him into an athlete in the ultimate jump.

*My virtual contribution to the Common Room pun jar. I make no apologies.

7 thoughts on “Eight Paintings of the Classical World

  1. Great post Hannah! #7 is especially wonderful. Can I add my favourite ever pair of classical paintings (conveniently on display in the Fitz): the Siege of Troy paintings by Biagio d’Antonio da Firenze, c.1490-5 (http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/id/object/132 and http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/id/object/134 – or go and see them in Gallery 6, first floor!). They’re a truly wonderful pair of comic-strip style paintings, with all the characters’ names written on their horses’ bridles like merry-go-round horses, and Troy full of Italian Renaissance buildings – spot the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Florence Duomo!

    • Thanks :) Yeah those are pretty awesome. I suppose my selection was pretty unashamedly late 18th-19th century…

      • Nothing wrong with that…with the honourable exception of Biagio d’Antonio, 18th- and 19th-century classical paintings are generally by far the best :)

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