The cast of the Venice Tetrarchs is at once extremely prominent and all too easy to overlook. It’s prominent because of its prime location: nicely displayed on a corner, and visible from both the first and the last bays. We might call it the alpha and omega of the Cast Gallery, one of the first things people see when they come in but also the last item in the chronological narrative implied by the gallery’s arrangement. The reason it tends to be so overlooked, I think, is that — compared to the rest of the collection — it’s just a bit weird.
Whenever I do tours of the museum for sixth formers, I always ask what makes this cast different from every other cast in the museum. I’ve never yet got the answer I was looking for, which is that it’s the only purple cast (the point so obvious that it tends to be missed). The cast is painted purple because the original sculpture is made of porphyry, a hard igneous rock that in ancient times was mined in Egypt. Many of the students do find other things that are weird about it, though , pointing out that the figures are quite short and stocky. They’re also dressed differently from any of the other casts. They’re obviously not nude, unlike the vast majority of the statues of men in the gallery, and the style of military dress is very different from that on the cast Prima Porta, which stands nearby. In short, the Tetrarchs look worryingly un-classical for what is the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
The guiding principle of the Museum is that ‘every cast tells two stories: one ancient and one modern’. The ancient story of our Tetrarchs begins in or around the year 300 CE. The style of our Tetrachs is both wholly typical of the period: there’s a very similar set in the Vatican, and parallels with the porphyry head of a Tetrarch found at Gamzigrad (not the sound of me sneezing — it’s in Serbia). They’re also revolutionary. Previous emperors had looked distinctive — a portrait of Tiberius is not one of Augustus and the two can usually be distinguished quite easily, even without recourse to counting the locks of hair on their heads. In the Tetrarchy, however, emperors all look alike, their images forming a cohesive whole. Stability is the overriding theme: one legitimate emperor is just like another, the portraits seem to say. Only the beards, presumably a marker of seniority, distinguish them. I’ve personally always found that the image backfires a bit and that the four emperors look like their huddled together out of fear of the very scary world that was the later Roman Empire. Presumably, however, their hugs are are intended to show that they’re not presently engaged in civil war (the fact that this was deemed a necessary point to make tells you a lot about what the Roman Empire had been like in the later third century). These figures also have their feet firmly on the ground: no contrapposto for them, they’re not showing off their pretty Polykleitan bodies, they’re standing like men who don’t want to be knocked down. Their bodies and their identities are subsumed into the same iconography and the imperial purple of the porphyry, whose mass and sheen plaster can’t really imitate even when painted.
If the ancient story is visible in the materiality, then the modern story can be seen in the placement. Ancient historians have a somewhat unusual sense of the word ‘modern’, and I therefore have no problem in saying that the modern story begins in the year 1204 during what is somewhat misleadingly called the ‘Fourth Crusade’ — misleadingly because the Christian soldiers took a break from killing Muslims and killed one another instead. The appalling climax of this intra-Christian Crusade was the sack of Constantinople, during which many pieces of art were destroyed — including a Bronze version of the Hercules by Lysippus.
The Tetrarchs fared somewhat better and were taken to Venice, or at least the vast majority of them were — the heel of one was left behind, only to be rediscovered in Istanbul in the 1960s. If you look at our cast, you’ll see that the heel is missing from the cast in the Museum.
The cast of the Tetrarchs is quite a recent addition to the collection here in Cambridge. It was purchased in 2003 from the Institute of Classical Archaeology LMU Munich. Obviously, I don’t know exactly what went through the minds of curators then, but I can hazard a guess about the reasons why it seemed like a good idea to acquire in the early years of this century. The work of historians in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s meant that late antiquity was beginning to occupy a much more prominent place than it had for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some credit should also go to one the founders of this very seminar, Jaś Elsner, whose 1991 PhD thesis was published in 1995 as Art and the Roman Viewer and did a great deal to make a theoretically sophisticated account of later Roman art accessible and most of all interesting to undergraduates and specialists in other fields. Art and the Roman Viewer begins with a passionate defence of later Roman art against charges of ‘decline’ — it know seems astonishing that anyone had to say this as late as the 1990s. I think it would be very hard to find anyone in 2015 who would deny that later Roman art is worthy of inclusion in museums such as ours. And now the Tetrarch Group, one of our newest casts, stands next to Farnese Hercules, one of our oldest. Their Janus-like gaze in two directions, challenging that we constantly rethink our conceptions of what constitutes the ‘classical’.