Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the

Modern City of Ancient Rome


AUTHOR: Elizabeth Prettejohn
TITLE: Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the Modern City of Ancient Rome
SOURCE: The Art Bulletin 84 no1 115-29 (2002)

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous,empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit].Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of he now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. --Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," 14, 1940(FN1)

In late twentieth-century revisions of the "modernist"
historiography of nineteenth-century art no concern was more prominent
than that of the representation of urban modernity, and perhaps no text
was more frequently invoked than Walter Benjamin's vast, though
fragmentary, study of nineteenth-century Paris.(FN2) Yet this art
historical project tended to limit its scope more narrowly than Benjamin
himself did: to focus exclusively on the literal representation of
contemporary Paris in visual art and, moreover, to concentrate on the
same canonical artists--the French Impressionists and their immediate
successors--whose aesthetic status was guaranteed precisely by the
"modernist" art theory ostensibly under revision. Thus, the sociological
or social-historical study of nineteenth-century Paris tended to
overwhelm the theoretical questions about both the urban and the modern
that were raised in Benjamin's study. Among the ideas suggested with
tantalizing brevity in Benjamin's work on Charles Baudelaire was the
interlocking of notions of modernity with those of antiquity.
Nonetheless, it may still seem heretical to argue that the
representation of ancient Rome in the work of the Dutch-born but
London-based painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) can be seen as a
significant exploration of urban modernity. Alma-Tadema's imaginary
visions of Imperial Rome have ordinarily seemed the reverse of modern in
every sense. In subject matter they turn relentlessly away from the
modern world to present perhaps the most archaeologically precise
re-creation of classical antiquity ever attempted in painting. In
political terms they seem all too easy to associate with the
conservative ideology of British imperialism in the later nineteenth
century. In style they remain faithful to the visual illusionism and the
dissimulation of the physical métier usually seen as characteristic of
"academic" art and resolutely opposed to "avant-garde" experimentalism
in later nineteenth-century art practice.
Yet among Alma-Tadema's Roman subjects we can find counterparts for
all of the basic kinds of urban subject matter as art historians have
classified them with respect to French Impressionism. Alma-Tadema's
representations of the great Roman building projects under Augustus and
Hadrian can be compared to depictions of Baron Haussmann's modernization
of Paris (Figs. 2, 3, 4). For the cafés, theaters, and racetracks of
urban entertainment in modern Paris we have, in Alma-Tadema's work, the
baths and amphitheaters of urban entertainment in ancient Rome (Figs. 7,
8); in such pictures we find crowds as vast and anonymous as those of
modern urban experience, as well as Roman women whose social and moral
status is as ambiguous or problematic as that of many female figures in
contemporary French painting. Like the Impressionists' Paris,
Alma-Tadema's Rome has its urban parks, while the suburban resorts and
beaches frequented by Parisians at leisure find counterparts in the
scenes of villa life on the Bay of Naples, populated by Roman
holidaymakers (Figs. 5, 9).(FN3)
But what is the significance of this observation? Should we see the
shared subject types simply as emanations of the late nineteenth-century
Zeitgeist? Or can we reinterpret (and revalue) Alma-Tadema, no longer as
a painter of escapist or imperialist fantasies, but instead as an
important modern painter of urban life? And if that case can be made,
what would it mean that the urban life in question is not of one of the
capitals of modernity but of ancient Rome?

Alma-Tadema's first explorations of classical antiquity relate not
to the urban magnificence of Imperial Rome but rather to the small-town
environment of Pompeii, which he first visited in 1863.(FN4) On the same
journey from Antwerp, where he had been trained at the Belgian Royal
Academy of Fine Arts and in the studio of the historical painter Henri
Leys, he stopped in Paris, where he encountered the work of the French
néo-Grecs, in particular that of Jean-Léon Géréme.(FN5) His work of the
next decade synthesizes the néo-Grec example with his own Dutch and
Flemish training and with the material evidence from the Pompeian
excavations to produce a form of genre painting highly suited to the
representation of everyday life in a small town. A Pompeian picture such
as Entrance to a Roman Theater of 1866 displays the social life of a
town where the inhabitants are personally known to one another (Fig. 1).
In a chance encounter at the entrance to the theater, two pairs of
figures greet each other. They are clearly acquaintances but not social
equals. The woman of the couple on the left has dyed red hair and gaudy
jewelry; she and her husband are a shade too eager to greet,
deferentially, the more reserved and more simply dressed woman who
approaches with her small son. Thus we can gauge the slight but crucial
difference in class between the parvenu couple and the more patrician
family. Every detail is archaeologically as well as socially precise:
for example, the boy wears a bulla, or circular ornament, around his
neck, a characteristic accessory for Roman children of high rank. To the
right a man helps another patrician woman to descend from an elaborate,
and elegantly decorated, cisium, a light, two-wheeled carriage used for
rapid transport over short distances. Further figures in the right
background take a lively interest in these proceedings, evincing the
nosiness of small-town life rather than the impersonality of city
dwellers. Through the arch on the left we are given a fascinating
glimpse of the interior of the theater from a sidelong perspective,
looking crosswise toward the farther tiers of seats, where the audience
is beginning to gather. The theater is sumptuously decorated but small
and intimate.(FN6) With close scrutiny we can make out the faces and
gestures of each individual, however tiny in scale, within the theater.
The town, then, is made up of specific and characterful individuals,
quite unlike the big-city crowds of Alma-Tadema's later amphitheater
scenes, in which figures become blobs of paint in an overwhelming mass
of color (for example, Fig. 8).
Scenes of small-town life, displaying the distinctive coloring of
Pompeian wall decoration with its rich reds, dominate Alma-Tadema's
production for the decade after his first visit to Pompeii. It was not
until the middle of the 1870s, after he had settled in London, that
Alma-Tadema turned his attention to the metropolitan environment of
Rome; perhaps he was attracted by the wave of excavations initiated in
the capital city after Italian unification.(FN7) In the pair of pictures
An Audience at Agrippa's of 1875 and After the Audience of 1879,
Alma-Tadema creates a distinctively urban environment (Figs. 2, 3).
Although these works are similar in dimensions to the Pompeian pictures,
the spaces represented within them are far more expansive: the depicted
architecture is now metropolitan in scale. In contrast to the modest
archway in Entrance to a Roman Theater, a marble arch of vast
proportions soars above the head of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the
emperor Augustus's son-in-law and political henchman, and the atrium
beyond can accommodate a truly urban crowd of retainers and clients,
massed together so that individual faces and actions are not
discernible. Moreover, the Roman location is announced with utmost drama
by the life-size statue of the emperor Augustus, a meticulously painted
re-creation of a recent archaeological find, unearthed in 1863 in the
excavations of Livia's house at Prima Porta. The idealized facial
features and heroic anatomy of the sculpted Augustus, as well as his
supremely confident gesture of command, present him as a symbol of
godlike authority, in contrast to the smaller and frailer figure of
Agrippa, the powerful human representative of the emperor whose power is
merely delegated. The political relationship between Augustus and
Agrippa and its impact on the Roman urban environment are important
concerns in these scenes. The extravagant marble setting alludes to the
building program financed and administered by Agrippa under Augustus's
rule; as the Roman historian Suetonius put it, Augustus "could justly
boast that he found [Rome] built of brick and left it in marble."(FN8)
Through the screen of columns at the rear of the atrium in the first of
the two pictures, Alma-Tadema gives us a tantalizing sunlit glimpse of
Agrippa's most famous building project, the Pantheon, with its vast dome
(Fig. 2). It was not until the early 1890s that archaeologists
established definitively that the extant Pantheon was a Hadrianic
building that had replaced Agrippa's earlier structure.(FN9) Perhaps,
though, Alma-Tadema knew of doubts about the building's date by the time
he executed the second of the two Agrippa pictures, for the familiar
dome and portico of the Pantheon have vanished from the background (Fig.
3). Such details, along with the inclusion of the recently discovered
Prima Porta Augustus, indicate just how up-to-date was Alma-Tadema's
ancient Rome; the pictures always incorporated the most modern
information about the physical environment of the ancient city.
Archaeological quibbles aside, the inclusion of the Pantheon in the
first Agrippa composition is a specific allusion to the building program
of Agrippa and Augustus, the transformation of the Roman urban
environment that is represented more generally, in both pictures, by the
gleaming expanses of marble. We might, then, read the Roman setting of
both pictures as a deliberate ancient parallel to the modernization of
Paris carried out in the decades preceding the pictures, with Agrippa
playing the role, in relation to the emperor Augustus, of Baron
Haussmann to the emperor Napoléon III. Haussmann's rebuilding, much
emphasized by twentieth-century historians of French Impressionism,
transformed Paris into the paradigmatic modern city, just as Agrippa's
transformed the brick structures of Republican Rome into the vast
marble-clad spaces of empire. But how are we to interpret this
historical analogy? The pictures obviously celebrate the beauty and
sumptuousness of the brand-new, that is, "modern," urban environment.
The crisply cut surfaces of white Carrara marble are still unsullied by
stains or signs of wear, while the sculptural embellishments and the
darker mottling of the Cipollino marble columns in the background are as
gorgeous as they are opulent. The play of light that permits the relief
of the white marble statue against the white marble walls is a painter's
tour de force, designed to take the spectator's breath away. All of this
might suggest an optimistic view of urban regeneration in ancient Rome,
applicable by analogy to modern projects such as Haussmann's in Paris,
or to urban developments in London and other modern capitals.
Yet the subject matter of the two pictures presents an unsettling,
indeed, an unpleasant contrast to the sparkling visual splendor of the
Roman physical environment. This is a hierarchical society based on
despotism and fear, from top to bottom of the social order. The
emperor's gesture authorizes Agrippa's power, while the retinue of the
latter preserves a deferential distance and the scribes at the
foreground table bow their heads, shaven to indicate their status as
slaves, in attitudes of groveling submission. In the right foreground of
the first picture we see a pair of petitioners who may come from the
subjugated eastern provinces (Alma-Tadema's early biographer, the German
Egyptologist and historical novelist Georg Ebers, describes the old
man's costume as that of "an Oriental prince"). They carry a jug and
bowl of silver plate, luxury objects of great costliness in ancient
Rome, either as a gift for Agrippa or perhaps, as Ebers suggests, to
pour a libation before him as if he were a god.(FN10) The young Roman in
a white toga seems to be offering his advice on the conduct of the
interview. In the sequel picture we see no more of the eastern prince
and his daughter, nor of their gift; the individuals have been absorbed
back into the anonymity of the urban crowd. This is highly unusual for
nineteenth-century pictures in narrative sequence, which ordinarily take
great care to wrap up the story neatly.(FN11) The suggestion, perhaps,
is that in this Roman world of absolute power there is no
accountability, no reliable sequence of political causes and effects.
The visible results of the audience, in the second picture, include a
heap of gifts on the tiger-skin rug of the foreground, but there is no
clue as to whether these bribes have gained favor. There is little sign
of satisfaction among the crowd of suppliants, relegated after the
audience to the external space beyond the parapet on the right. This is
not just an urban crowd but the crowd of a capital city that comprises a
multiplicity of ethnicities; the skin colors range from the fairest
Germanic type to black. All of them, though, look up at the statue of
Augustus in awe, or perhaps terror.
The disappearance of the foreground petitioners is only one of many
minute discrepancies between the two scenes: for example, the pilaster
acquires fluting and runs further down, the roundel turns into a richly
sculptured rectilinear relief, moldings gain decoration, and the
scribes' wooden table petrifies into marble. Taken together, these
changes increase the opulence of the architectural environment and
further emphasize the predominance of white marble; we seem to see the
progress of the urban building program accelerating before our very
eyes. Even the statue of Augustus is not identical. In the second scene
he is accompanied by a little Eros who was absent from the first scene
(although the figure is found on the Prima Porta statue itself). This
might be described as a playful detail, but imperial play in the Roman
world can amount to the arbitrary display of power.(FN12) The Roman
Empire of the Agrippa scenes is one of great material beauty, one that
generates urban magnificence. Nonetheless, it is hierarchical, corrupt,
and ruthless, as unpredictable in human terms as the architectural
details that change from scene to scene. Can we, then, read the scenes
as critical of the political shift from republic to empire that
accompanied the urban shift from brick to marble? That would accord well
with Georg Ebers's observations on Alma-Tadema's sympathy for the
ancient working classes and his fascination with their material
circumstances.(FN13) In a notice published in 1875, the year before the
first Agrippa picture appeared at exhibition, the critic John Ruskin
described Alma-Tadema as a "modern Republican."(FN14) That is, Ruskin
interpreted the visual egalitarianism of Alma-Tadema's representations
of the Roman material world as an analogue for nineteenth-century
political egalitarianism. But can we be sure of the message? Despite the
ruthlessness of the social order depicted in these pictures, they
persist in dazzling the spectator with the material beauty of the
imperial city of Rome.

Most previous interpretations have taken it for granted that
Alma-Tadema's visions of Imperial Roman magnificence function as a
simple analogy to British imperial rule in the later nineteenth century
and, moreover, that the visual splendor of the former constitutes
endorsement for the rightfulness of the latter. Even the most detailed
published analysis of a picture by Alma-Tadema, Louise Lippincott's
monograph of 1991 on Spring (Fig. 4), takes the imperialist sympathies
of the work as a given rather than as a possibility to be tested by
analysis.(FN15) Lippincott uses an interpretative method that has been
overwhelmingly predominant in studies of Alma-Tadema, a method most
succinctly described in the title to an exhibition of the artist's work
held in 1973 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: Victorians
in Togas. That is, the pictures are interpreted as if they were about
the contemporary Victorian world, with the figures masquerading in Roman
costumes on a Roman stage set.(FN16)
Lippincott's monograph is the most thorough published example of
this approach, and it identifies many convincing parallels between the
Roman procession in Alma-Tadema's picture, first exhibited in 1895, and
the festivals and public spectacles of late Victorian England. The
imagery of the picture is compared in turn to Queen Victoria's jubilee
celebrations, to the May Day festivals of the later Victorian period, to
social events such as weddings that featured bridesmaids and flower
girls, and to spring festivities in Victorian girls' schools.(FN17) It
was commonplace during the Victorian period itself to compare modern
public spectacles to those of ancient Rome. Lippincott quotes a
Victorian text on seasonal festivals, Robert Chambers's The Book of
Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the
Calendar, published in 1863:

Amongst the Romans, the feeling of [spring] found vent in
their Floralia, or Floral Games.... Nations taking more or
less their origin from Rome have settled upon the 1st of May
as the special time for fêtes of the same kind. With ancients
and moderns alike it was one instinctive rush to the fields,
to revel in the bloom which was newly presented on the meadows
and trees; the more city-pent the population, the more eager
apparently the desire to get among the flowers....(FN18)

The abundance of flowers in Alma-Tadema's picture certainly recalls
the Floralia, described in ancient texts such as Ovid's Fasti. In those
texts the festival was distinguished by immoral and lascivious behavior,
but Lippincott sees Alma-Tadema's picture as sanitizing the Floralia for
the benefit of Victorian audiences. As she concludes, "Imperial
civilization--a mix of the best of ancient Rome and Victorian
Britain--appears in its finest moment.... Such an optimistic vision of
imperial civilization accorded well with late Victorian thinking about
the beneficial effects of Britain's global dominance."(FN19) The setting
is indeed imperial, as the grandeur of the white marble architecture
immediately indicates, and Lippincott notes that Alma-Tadema has copied
the lofty inscription on the rear arch from one on the Arch of Trajan at
Benevento, finished under Emperor Hadrian.(FN20) The processional route
lined with the most lavish of buildings is one that would be suitable
for an imperial triumph or victory procession.
However, when it comes to reading the archaeologically specific
details of the picture, a task that Lippincott approaches in a more
serious manner than virtually any other writer on Alma-Tadema, a
different story begins to emerge, one in which hints of the erotic
improprieties of the ancient Floralia reassert themselves. Satyrs,
mythological creatures renowned for their sexual appetites, seem to have
infiltrated every part of the picture: two of them appear as silver
statues, borne on either side of the procession and each with an infant
Dionysus (god of wine) on his shoulder; others frolic with maenads as
decorations on the tambourines and on the roundels atop the standards; a
marble satyr plays panpipes on the carved capital of a fluted pilaster
high on the right; and what seems to be a real-life satyr, with goatlike
features, plays panpipes in the center of the procession itself. A
building in the left foreground bears a frieze representing the battle
of Lapiths and centaurs, which Lippincott describes as "an actual rape
scene."(FN21) Finally, there is the inscription in gold lettering that
hangs from the central standards. At least for spectators with sharp
eyesight and good Latin, this is identifiable as a copy of the
fragmentary inscription to Priapus, the fertility god, once attributed
to the Roman poet Catullus.(FN22) Thus, in Lippincott's reading of the
picture, we find two different levels of meaning, addressed to different
sections of the Victorian audience. For the general audience there is
the joyful but decorous scene of the spring festival, a celebration of
British imperialism by analogy with the Roman scene presented here. At
the same time, spectators erudite enough to decipher the details can
discover titillating subtexts, hints of lasciviousness and disorder. But
how can these two levels of meaning work together, as a coherent
historical representation? The first apparently uses historical
representation as a straightforward affirmation of imperialist ideology.
But the second would seem to contradict or undermine that project by
calling attention to the disreputable aspects of the same Roman
To borrow the terminology of Hayden White's influential study of
nineteenth-century historiography, Metahistory (1973), pictures such as
Spring appear to employ an "ironic" method of representing their
historical content: what is affirmed in the scene as a whole, the glory
of empire, is simultaneously ridiculed or negated by its own
details.(FN24) We have already seen such a procedure in the Agrippa
pictures, where the visual beauty of the Roman environment is undermined
by the hints of corruption and despotism in the narrative details.
Perhaps the most spectacular case can be seen in one of Alma-Tadema's
most famous pictures, The Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888 (Fig. 5). Here
the bizarre discrepancy between the decorative prettiness of the showers
of pink rose petals and the utter depravity of the subject matter--the
emperor Heliogabalus in the act of murdering his own guests at a
banquet--constitutes a visual equivalent for the rhetorical trope of
catachresis, a flagrant misuse of a hedonistic style that is manifestly
inappropriate for its unpleasant content.(FN25)
In none of these pictures can we find a view of the Roman Empire
that justifies the frequent claim that Alma-Tadema's work endorses
British imperialism by historical analogy. Without exception,
Alma-Tadema's Roman emperors are politically corrupt, morally depraved,
or both; his imperial crowds and festivities are invariably licentious,
cruel, or both.(FN26) Can we then argue that the pictures present a
wicked Roman Empire as a contrast to virtuous Victorian imperialism, as
a warning against the excesses to which imperial power might be tempted,
or even as a critique of imperialist ideology? Such possibilities should
not be dismissed out of hand, for as Lippincott demonstrates, the
Victorian habit of invoking ancient Rome as the most significant
precursor to modern empire was deeply entrenched. However, the internal
contradictions that we have associated with the tropes of irony and
catachresis suggest that we are misconceiving the pictures' project if
we try to pin down their messages to any one of these alternatives. As
certainly as the signs of imperial glamour are undermined by hints of
corruption or decadence, so are those elements of critique subverted, in
turn, by the splendid visual display of the Roman settings and
accoutrements. An adequate account of the pictures cannot neglect either
side of this dilemma.(FN27)
Something similar is true of the broader analogy we have been
accustomed to seeing, in the pictures, between Victorian modernity and
Roman antiquity. The phrase "Victorians in Togas" is ordinarily used
with a palpable note of condescension, as if the Victorian appearance of
the pictures somehow diminished their credibility as representations of
Roman antiquity. But the na"iveté is ours, if we believe that a
representation of the past can magically conjure the represented era
without any participation of the representing one, and even more so if
we thought that our own conceptions of the Roman past were somehow more
"objective" than those of the Victorians--or that, if they were, they
would be nearly so interesting. Alma-Tadema's pictures do not succumb to
such errors: they are frankly Victorian, and that is precisely what
gives them their power and, indeed, their sophistication as
representations of ancient Rome. The pictures' Victorian aspect has
something significant to say about ancient Rome, just as their Roman
aspect has something significant to say about nineteenth-century
modernity. An adequate interpretation needs to account for both.

The Rome of Spring is a fantasy city, composed of fragmentary
facades, porticoes, parapets, and arches, assembled to form an urban
space of almost impossible complexity. It does not correspond to any
documented location in historical Rome but seems instead to typify the
visual character of the city at the height of its urban development.
Through the arch in the left background we glimpse yet more colonnaded
facades, so that the city seems to unfold infinitely into the distance.
The austere tastes of early twentieth-century artistic modernism
abruptly rejected the clutter and finicky detail of this Roman world.
Nonetheless, its overwhelming visual abundance has much in common with
literary and sociological characterizations of modern urban experience
from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In "The
Metropolis and Mental Life," first published by the German sociologist
Georg Simmel in 1903, the modern city dweller is subject to a
bombardment of sensory stimuli that has no parallel outside urban
experience. The shifting configurations of the crowds amid the vast and
complex spaces of the city environment mean that visual experience is
constantly changing, in abrupt contrast to the more consistent and
leisurely character of experience in the small-town or rural

Lasting impressions, impressions which differ only slightly
from one another, impressions which take a regular and
habitual course and show regular and habitual contrasts--all
these use up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the
rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in
the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of
onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions
which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the
street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic,
occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast
with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory
foundations of psychic life.(FN28)

This characterization of the swift tempo of city life has seemed
especially congruent with the vision of urban modernity captured in the
rapid, summary brushwork of Impressionist painting.(FN29) Yet the
heightened precision of Alma-Tadema's technique might be another kind of
response to the bewildering array of visual stimuli in the urban scene.
As Simmel puts it, "Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced
upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan
existence."(FN30) Not only the minute specificity of detail, but the
complexity of the perspectival planning in Alma-Tadema's pictures can be
seen to present the urban environment in such terms. The most exacting
calculations must have been required to fit together the sharply
receding planes of the facades, the jutting entablatures, sloping
pediments, and thronging figures of Spring.
Alma-Tadema's compositions constantly emphasize the unexpected
vistas and views that the urban environment may provide. Vertiginous
spatial recessions and extreme scale discrepancies between foreground
and background figures or objects not only suggest spaces of
metropolitan scale but also introduce an element of strangeness. Rather
than encountering a complete scene from a safe distance, the spectator
is constantly made aware of the singularity or oddness of the point of
view (Figs. 7, 8, 9). Moreover, a single canvas may incorporate multiple
viewpoints, as if to stress the "discontinuity" experienced by the urban
spectator in Simmel's account; in Spring the viewer shifts from looking
downward at the foreground to glancing up at the high pediments and
parapets.(FN31) The pictures always give the sense that the city extends
endlessly beyond the borders of the current scene, as in the glimpse
through the archway in the background of Spring, or the views through
the background atrium to further buildings in the Agrippa pictures.
Never do we see a whole building or room. Instead, we are given oblique
views into architectural spaces that, although they may be of vast
proportions, are only fragments of larger complexes, seemingly cut off
arbitrarily at the edges. It is difficult to make sense of the
foreground space of the Agrippa pictures: Is this an interior courtyard,
or do the foreground gates open directly onto the city street? Is this a
public building or the entrance to an exceptionally magnificent private
dwelling? The arch is cut off on the left before it reaches its support,
and there is no way of telling what lies beyond it to the left. Most
unpredictable of all is the way the environment changes between An
Audience at Agrippa's and After the Audience (Figs. 2, 3). What seems to
be the same place viewed from the same position proves, on closer
examination, to have changed in numerous ways, and for no apparent
Despite the minute archaeological specificity of every detail,
Alma-Tadema's architectural assemblages do not "reconstruct" the
topography of ancient Rome as it was known to scholars and
archaeologists. On the contrary, the compositions seem calculated to
defamiliarize the Roman environment, so that the urban motif of
constantly encountering the unexpected predominates over antiquarian
accuracy. A picture of 1878, In the Time of Constantine (Fig. 6), is
remarkable for the number of major Roman monuments it manages to include
within tiny dimensions--merely 121/2 by 63/8 inches (32 by 16
centimeters). There is perhaps something playful about this
miniaturization of Roman monuments famous precisely for their vast
scale, yet this is just one aspect of the defamiliarization process. On
the extreme right edge is the most abbreviated slice of the Colosseum,
just identifiable from its distinctive curvature: Rome's most famous
building is reduced to a sliver. Through the sun-dappled leaves of the
tree and beyond the foreground statue of the Spinario,(FN33) we can make
out the distinctive roundels of the Arch of Constantine, truncated at
the left edge. Beneath the arch we glimpse the dome of the Pantheon in
the distance. The intervening space is crowded with porticoes
reminiscent of the Roman Forum, together with a grandiose fountain that
recalls the eighteenth-century Fontana dei Cavalli Marini in the
Borghese Gardens.(FN34) The intrusion of the anachronistic structure
proves disconcerting, but so does the spatial disposition of the scene
as a whole. We are offered glimpses of a variety of the monuments most
familiar to tourists, yet the views are not only fragmentary and
occluded but also topographically nonsensical. It is as if the map of
ancient Rome had been taken to pieces and reassembled in a novel form.
The antiquarian's knowledge has given way here to the unpredictable
views and glimpses that characterize urban experience.
In other pictures the ruined interiors of Rome's great buildings for
public entertainment are "reconstructed" in vivid detail and repopulated
with vast crowds of urban revelers, but again the compositional
organization introduces the sense of the unexpected. Thermae
Antoninianae of 1899 shows a meticulously planned reconstruction of the
natatio, or swimming bath, of the Baths of Caracalla, every detail of
which has been researched from the latest available sources (Fig.
7).(FN35) Yet the spectator encounters this vast space from an odd
position, from behind a colossal column that monopolizes nearly
one-third of the picture space. Beyond the foreground column and
figures, seemingly very close, a swift perspective recession makes the
spectator strain to discern the frolicking figures of nude
bathers--female in the nearer pool, male beyond the marble boat in the
middle ground. Farther still, at the extreme rear of the enormous space,
the figure of the emperor Caracalla himself is just visible at minuscule
scale, entering from the doorway on the right. The composition forces
the spectator to act as voyeur, peeping around the foreground column on
the left to discern gamboling figures and catching a tantalizing glimpse
of a familiar statue--the Lysippan Apoxyomenos, identifiable by means of
the gesture of scraping an outstretched arm--high up in a niche on the
right.(FN36) Throughout the scene, impediments and occlusions teasingly
excite the desire to peep. The three large-scale female figures in the
foreground might be interpreted as mediating between the spectator and
the distant scene, but they, too, partake of the anonymity of the urban
crowd. There is no indication of what they are gossiping about, and even
their social status is indeterminate. The figures have often been read
as typical "Victorians in Togas,"(FN37) but the lolling pose of the
central figure scarcely suggests conventional Victorian respectability.
Although the marble boat divides the women's section from the men's pool
behind, the proximity of male and female bathers contravenes Roman as
well as Victorian notions of decorum. Mixed bathing apparently persisted
in Imperial Rome despite a succession of edicts aimed at prohibiting it,
but Roman writers and later historians agree that respectable Roman
matrons never frequented mixed bathing establishments.(FN38) We might,
then, read the three foreground women as courtesans or prostitutes, but
we have no other basis for such a reading. This again corresponds to a
frequent motif in the modern literature on the city: signs of social and
moral identity may become confusing or illegible in the anonymity of the
urban crowd.(FN39)
A similar spatial disposition occurs in another scene of urban
public entertainment, Caracalla and Geta of 1907 (Fig. 8). Again the
foreground figures, representing the emperor Septimius Severus with his
family in the imperial box, are large in scale and appear close to the
viewer but again we may hesitate to interpret them as "Victorians in
Togas," mediating between the modern spectator and the ancient scene. In
the long description written for the picture's first exhibition, the
artist details the power struggles within the family that will result in
the brutal murder of Geta (standing at the front of the imperial box
between his two sisters) by his brother Caracalla (leaning against a
column behind the seated figures of the emperor and empress).(FN40)
Thus, we might think Caracalla the wicked brother and Geta the innocent
victim, but in this Roman world morals are more complicated. Alma-Tadema
notes that it was Geta who delighted in the bloody sports of the
amphitheater, which revolted Caracalla, and the positions of the two
figures confirm this: Geta is absorbed in watching while Caracalla turns
away from the spectacle. As in Thermae Antoninianae, we are invited to
peep at something sensational but partially hidden. This time the view
is through the interstices of four colossal columns, and it reveals a
scene of violence rather than lasciviousness. To the left and right of
the figures of Geta and his sisters we glimpse bears emerging from the
trapdoors in the floor of the arena. Awaiting them are the tiny figures
of the human bear-baiters, armed only with whips and waving red cloaks
to excite the beasts; the pole-vaulters seen to the far left are also
whipping up the beasts' frenzy; the dazzling spectacle will soon turn
into a scene of horrifying bloodshed for the delectation of the vast
urban crowd. Again the extreme scale contrasts help to suggest the vast
space of the amphitheater. The perspective illusion by which the distant
scene springs away from the imperial box in the foreground is partially
lost in a reproduction, but in the painting itself the effect is
startling; we perceive the plunge into space with a feeling almost of
vertigo. The curving sweep of tiered seating is cut off abruptly at the
edges so that we see a fragment, only one-seventh of the total extent of
the amphitheater: this is a space too huge to represent or to comprehend
in a single view. In the distant seating, Alma-Tadema has represented,
by his own count, twenty-five hundred individual figures. Allowing for
the figures obscured by the columns and extravagant garlands of roses
and the remaining six-sevenths of the amphitheater, the total crowd must
have numbered thirty-five thousand, which Alma-Tadema's description
assures us is consistent with the latest archaeological estimates of the
building's capacity. The represented moment is one of tense
anticipation, the crowd quiet and controlled; we can only guess how they
will react when the bloodletting begins: the densely packed amphitheater
may erupt into mass hysteria. The simmering tensions of the sport seem a
fitting counterpart to those among the imperial family in the
foreground, and no less brutal. As in the other pictures we have
considered, hints of extravagant violence and depravity coexist with a
visual spectacle of exceptional sumptuousness and magnificence.
If we were to read the amphitheater scene in Caracalla and Geta as
an analogue for public entertainments in the modern city, it would be an
excessive one. Not even the sternest Victorian moralist would have
claimed that modern sporting events or theatrical entertainments were
tantamount to the cruelty of gladiatorial combat, or that the political
intrigues of modern capital cities were as crude as the crimes of
Caracalla. Yet it is precisely as an image of excess that ancient Rome
has its power. Not only in literary visions of terrifying urban
alienation, but often in more sober sociological descriptions modern
urban life is characterized by its utter unlikeness to other kinds of
experience. It cannot, then, be represented in terms of the familiar,
the ordinary, or the everyday; only an excessive image can be adequate
to the exceptional character of the modern city. Its analogues must be
sublime realms, like the hell of James Thomson's poem "The City of
Dreadful Night" (1874), or the Rome of imperial luxury and depravity.
In a sense, this is only to state the obvious: Rome was the most
common paradigm for the urban long before modern urban theory or modern
literary and artistic representations of the city.(FN41) Indeed, the
description of the Roman crowd in Juvenal's third Satire stresses
bombardment of the senses as a distinctively urban experience
approximately two millennia before Simmel. But the updating of this most
commonplace of tropes to characterize the city, specifically, of
modernity is worth noting. In his unfinished study of nineteenth-century
Paris, Walter Benjamin noted the frequency of references to Rome in
writings on the modern city of Paris. Victor Hugo constantly refers to
Roman sites and monuments when describing those of modern Paris. Maxime
Du Camp, contemplating the city from the Pont Neuf in 1862, suddenly
recognizes that modern Paris is as well worth literary documentation as
the Rome of the Caesars would have been, had the ancient writers thought
to carry out such a project. These are fairly conventional examples of
historical analogy, in which Rome functions as a stable point of
reference for the notion of the city and can thus validate Paris's claim
to be the representative city of modernity (as Rome is that of
antiquity). However, Benjamin hints that Baudelaire could envisage a
closer reciprocity between antiquity and modernity: "Modernity [for
Baudelaire] designates an epoch, and it also denotes the energies which
are at work in this epoch to bring it close to antiquity." This is not
simply a matter of the inevitable chronological process by which the
Paris that is modern will one day be as ancient as Rome (Hugo had
imagined such a possibility in his poetic cycle À l'arc de triomphe, in
which modern Paris is imagined as a ruin three thousand years hence).
Rather, the status of antiquity is present within modernity itself,
independent of any notional lapse of time: "For [Baudelaire] antiquity
was to spring suddenly like an Athena from the head of an unhurt Zeus,
from an intact modernism."(FN42)
Benjamin notes that Rome was the crucial ancient city for
Baudelaire, but he does not elaborate.(FN43) Possibly for this reason,
the many more recent studies that have taken up Benjamin's analysis of
Baudelaire have largely neglected the element of antiquity to
concentrate on the simpler conjunction between modernity and the city,
with an overwhelming emphasis on Paris as the paradigm.(FN44) But this
results in a banal, indeed circular, account of the tie between
modernity and the city: the city seems specially representative of
modernity only because we attend primarily to representations of modern
cities. Perhaps, though, we can understand the city as "modern" in a
substantive, rather than merely a chronological, sense.(FN45) The
experiences it offers "with each crossing of the street" (in Simmel's
words) are always new, unpredictable and unanticipated. These are the
"shock" experiences that Benjamin finds repeatedly in Baudelaire's
writings.(FN46) In the small town, we may rely on past experience, on
habits or traditions to guide our actions and responses. But past
experiences cannot prepare us for the urban "shock"; we have no choice
but to react now. Thus life in the city is always "modern" in the sense
that it must be lived from the present moment forward. This accounts for
the disturbing and unsettling aspect of urban life, but also for its
libidinal fascinations. In the city every moment offers a new shock for
which nothing can prepare the urban dweller, but every moment also
offers unexpected visual pleasures that promise (although they may never
deliver) future delights.
Alma-Tadema's Rome may then be described as a "modern" city. The
pictures present the marble spaces at their most "modern" and also their
most citylike, as they might look when they were both newly built and at
the height of the city's urban development. They do not "reconstruct" a
Rome of the past, as we know it through the hindsight of scholarly
research. Rather, their compositions are organized to give the sense of
prospectively experiencing the city, as if it were present in modernity.
The juxtapositions and vistas, presenting themselves with the urgency of
the urban "shock," cannot be predicted from past experience. Even scenes
we have seen before, like that of Agrippa's audience, may prove
unexpectedly different when we encounter them again (Figs. 2, 3), and
the monuments with which tourists are most familiar appear from
surprising viewpoints or in startling juxtapositions (Figs. 6, 7, 8).
Moreover, visual experience, as in modern accounts of urban life such as
those of Baudelaire or Simmel, does not offer reliable clues to
underlying meanings. Displays of urban magnificence, the panoply of
costumes, flowers, and variegated marble do not reliably inform us about
the crimes of Heliogabalus or Caracalla, the cruelty of the
amphitheater, or the licentiousness of the baths. Conversely, these
distasteful political or moral implications fail to impede the sensuous
pleasures that the urban scene offers in superabundance.
The examples cited by Benjamin demonstrate the potency of reference
to Rome as an analogy for the modern city. Alma-Tadema's pictures of
ancient Rome suggest that the analogy can also work in the reverse
direction: the late nineteenth-century notion of the city's modernity
provides a novel perspective on the perennial fascination with Rome as
the ultimate paradigm for the urban. In an interview published late in
his lifetime, the artist used a vivid phrase to describe the
introjection of the modern into the ancient world of his pictures: "I
endeavour to throw into each something of that life which I best
know--the ever-throbbing life of the great city which lies around
us."(FN47) Both Henry James, in a novel with a modern setting, and
Walter Pater, in one set in ancient Rome, drew on the same urban
analogy. At the beginning of The Golden Bowl of 1904, James places his
character the Italian Prince Amerigo on a bridge to survey modern London
(as Maxime Du Camp had surveyed modern Paris from the Pont Neuf four
decades earlier): "The Prince had always liked his London...; he was one
of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of
the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the
Tiber."(FN48) And Pater, in Marius the Epicurean of 1885, offers a mock
apology: "Let the reader pardon me if here and there I seem to be
passing from Marius to his modern representatives--from Rome, to Paris
or London."(FN49)
In this array of comparisons the perspective constantly shifts: the
contemplation of the modern city may conjure the ancient one, as it does
for James or Du Camp, or the attempt to envisage the ancient city may
bring to mind the modern one, as in Alma-Tadema or Pater. It is as
though the complexity of the city, whether ancient or modern, exceeded
our powers of conceptualization: a single image will not suffice. The
exceptional character of the urban emerges, in each of these examples,
from a shock experience: from the unpredictable intrusion of the image
of Rome in the contemplation of the modern city, or from the sudden
irruption of modernity into a representation of the ancient past.

There is a paradox in the effort to represent the modernity either
of the ancient or of the present-day city: by virtue of the painter's
action the depicted scene freezes in time, relinquishing its pure
modernity in favor of the duration that characterizes the work of
art.(FN50) Tempted though we may be to shift our point of view, we can
never see around the column in Thermae Antoninianae (Fig. 7); the moment
of urban modernity is doomed to stand still. The same, of course, is
true of the Impressionist pictures that attempt to catch the moment
while it is still in movement; in them we may seem to see a still more
fleeting slice of time, but it is nonetheless one projected into
eternity, and thus away from the immediacy of pure modernity, by the
basic conditions of picture making. However, Alma-Tadema's Roman
settings pose the problem more urgently, for Rome is the "Eternal City"
as well as the quintessential one. In addition, the compositional logic
of Alma-Tadema's pictures turns on the pleasurable friction between the
ephemeral and the lasting: between the graying head of the human Agrippa
and the ageless features of the marble Augustus (Figs. 2, 3), between
the triviality of the gamboling figures and the obduracy of the marble
column in Thermae Antoninianae, between the momentary balancing act of
the dog being taught to "sit up and beg" and the permanence of Rome's
most famous monuments in In the Time of Constantine (Fig. 6).
In all of these scenes, well-known sculptures that have survived
from antiquity are important compositional elements. Sculptures and
other works of ancient art had always been prominent accessories in
Alma-Tadema's pictures. In works of the 1860s and early 1870s they are
generally small in scale and appear in domestic interiors or dealers'
shops, demonstrating the acquisitiveness of Roman art collectors and
characterizing the city as a place of commerce and exchange.(FN51) In
the two Agrippa pictures, the Prima Porta Augustus has a clear narrative
function, but its compositional prominence and the stunning display of
white-on-white bravura painting give it a visual impact that threatens
to overwhelm its own political and moral message. After the mid-1870s,
the depicted works of art tend to lose their narrative specificity and
to move into the public spaces of urban Rome: the Spinario in In the
Time of Constantine, the Apoxyomenos in Thermae Antoninianae, and the
statue of a gladiator in Unconscious Rivals (Figs. 6, 7, 9). The
sculptures are no longer private property or articles of commerce, as in
the earlier pictures of connoisseurship and art dealing. Instead they
seem to characterize the city itself as a kind of museum or repository
for works of art. As in a museum collection, they can be moved around
the city at will. The Apoxyomenos, for example, was unearthed in
Trastevere, not at the Baths of Caracalla, where Alma-Tadema places it
in preference to the many sculptures that were in fact found in the
ruins of the baths.(FN52) Other sculptures appear in a number of
pictures by Alma-Tadema, relocated to different environments and seen
from various angles. A seated gladiator (now in the collection at
Palazzo Altemps) that appears complete in an outdoor setting in The
Voice of Spring of 1910 (private collection) is represented in
fragmentary form within a grand building, perhaps a palatial villa on
the Bay of Naples, in Unconscious Rivals of 1893 (Fig. 9).(FN53) The
gladiator, with the huge scale of his legs and hands, and, more
piquantly, the giant baby seated atop the column on the left (based on a
statue of Cupid playing with a mask of Silenus in the Musei Capitolini),
and both in their marmoreal whiteness, contrast abruptly with the
slender, delicate women who, as the title hints, may be rivals for the
affections of the same man. Perhaps the red-haired woman is looking at
him over the marble parapet, but the details of this romance have been
lost forever along with the flesh-and-blood Romans. Only the works of
art, the durable white marbles, have outlasted antiquity to become part
of the museum collections of modern Rome. Thus, the statues introduce a
special version of the programmatic tension between the transience of
modern life and the durability of art, for it is the statues, not the
ephemeral living figures, that are identified with the modern experience
of the city of Rome.
After Alma-Tadema made several visits to Rome in the 1870s, his
interest in ancient works of art increased dramatically, and with it his
interest in the art of later ages displayed in the Roman collections.
The Amazon, a roman à clef published in 1880 by Alma-Tadema's Dutch
friend Carel Vosmaer, describes a series of visits to Roman galleries,
and the novel seems to reflect the shared explorations of the writer and
artist, who were in Rome together in 1878. Vosmaer uses the fictional
discussions between the artist Siwart Aisma (based on Alma-Tadema) and
his mentor Dr. Quirinus van Walborch (at least partly a self-portrait of
Vosmaer himself) to advance a vision of Rome as a vast art collection:

"It is as if the things of beauty, which are now in other
places, have only taken up their abode there for a time, while
their true home is in Rome. We bring everything back to that
centre, which has been the heart of the world these eighteen
hundred years. When we enter Rome--no matter whence we
come--we feel that we are passing from the provinces into the
city, the Urbs."(FN54)

The rich eclecticism of the Roman environment seems to transcend
geographic as well as chronological boundaries, as Rome becomes the
symbolic capital of an empire no longer political but aesthetic,
gathering all varieties of the beautiful under its sway.
Vosmaer's fantasy of a Rome that contains all the world's art might
be compared with a later imaginary Rome, the famous digression in
"Civilization and Its Discontents" (1930), in which Sigmund Freud
imagines how the "Eternal City" would look if its entire material past
survived intact:

Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire
Nero's vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we
should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was
bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the
original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of
ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra
Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And
the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction
of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view
or the other.(FN55)

This describes a city that carries every trace of its antiquity into
a moment of pure modernity that can be experienced through the shifting
viewpoints of modern urban experience. But Freud immediately declares
the failure of his "phantasy": "it leads to things that are unimaginable
and even absurd." One of the reasons he adduces for this failure is that
the city, unlike the human mind, suffers irrevocable losses: buildings
that have been demolished or replaced by other structures can never be
restored, unlike mental events that have been forgotten but may be
recovered through analysis. Thus, the reassuring aspect of the survival
of so much of ancient Rome is in perpetual counterpoint to a disturbing
sense of loss. By extension, the ease with which we can assimilate
classical antiquity into a comforting sense of our own cultural heritage
is always threatened by the knowledge that the ancient world was long
ago destroyed. Freud's introductory reference to the "Eternal City"
proves to have been ironic; what distinguishes the city, in Freud's
account, is precisely the impossibility of its survival.
Vosmaer's fantasy of a Rome filled with all the things of beauty is
happier, and at first thought Alma-Tadema's painted visions of Rome seem
to function similarly, as reparative or compensatory images whose visual
plenitude staves off any sense of cultural loss. They make good the
depredations of history to give us a Rome that appears both whole and
eternally modern. In the Time of Constantine (Fig. 6), while it does not
attain the comprehensiveness of Freud's fantasy, gratifies a desire to
see all of Rome's important monuments all at once. It is nominally set
at a late stage in Roman antiquity, as the title indicates, but perhaps
the inclusion of the modern fountain shifts the scene into the realm of
Roman "eternity." The fountain also appears in an urban park (probably
the Borghese Gardens, where the fountain is in fact sited) in several
paintings of 1877-78, together with ancient sculptures of the kind that
still grace the Borghese Gardens.(FN56) We might be tempted to interpret
these as scenes of the modern Roman park until we notice the figures in
ancient dress that populate the landscape. The combination of ancient
and modern elements is absurd, like Freud's fantasy, but it also hints
at the imaginative possibility of a timeless Rome in which the relics of
different ages may coexist harmoniously.
Yet everywhere in Alma-Tadema's pictures are signs of loss as well
as of plenitude. Magnificent architectural assemblages are abruptly cut
off to stress that we are seeing only a fragment of the Roman past, and
that we can never know what lies beyond the borders. Obstructions such
as the massive column in Thermae Antoninianae (Fig. 7) or the garlands
of roses in Caracalla and Geta (Fig. 8) hide evidence behind them. The
glimpse of deep blue sea and the fragments of villa architecture visible
at the end of the barrel vault in Unconscious Rivals (Fig. 9) suggest
that the scene is set on the Bay of Naples, the favorite holiday resort
of wealthy Romans in the Imperial period. But we are unable to
"reconstruct" the architectural space from the fragment that appears in
the picture; there is no clue to what lies beneath the foreground
parapet, and thus we shall never quite fathom the intrigues in which the
women appear to be engaged.
Even individual artifacts evince a peculiar doubleness; they
simultaneously display comforting signs of survival and disconcerting
traces of loss. The statues are copied from extant examples in museums,
with their fractures mended and signs of wear made good. In comparison
with a photograph of the seated gladiator in Alma-Tadema's research
collection, the statue painted into Unconscious Rivals has been rendered
perfect.(FN57) Not only has the artist supplied the missing left hand,
but he has also repaired the worn places on the other thumb and the
forward heel. At the same time, he cuts the statue violently apart,
severing the portion we see from the rest of the figure, notionally
beyond the frame. There is another paradoxical sign of loss in the
sculptures' pristine whiteness, for as nineteenth-century archaeologists
and classicists increasingly acknowledged, ancient sculptures were
originally polychrome. The statues are restored to perfection of form,
but they remain forever denuded of their color.
In the previous section we interpreted the gaps and occlusions in
Alma-Tadema's compositions as signs of the unpredictability of
modernity. They are equally signs of the unrecoverability of antiquity.
The phrase "Victorians in Togas" trivializes the interplay between these
two poles of Alma-Tadema's project. If we see the pictures merely as
records of nineteenth-century mores enlivened with fancy-dress costumes,
then they are only of antiquarian interest as revealing a "Victorian"
historical moment now long outmoded. We miss the ways in which they
engage with the problem of representing modernity as substantive, as
lived experience. Equally, if we pretend that the pictures aim simply to
"reconstruct" ancient Rome using the best available evidence, they are
no more than episodes in the history of archaeological research. We then
lose the sense of exploring the fascinating unreliabilities and
incompletenesses of the archaeological record as it has survived for the
present day. In either case, the pictures appear merely as historical
documents, interesting only for what they can tell us about "the
Victorians." By so relegating these artworks to the antiquarian category
of the "Victorian," are we not engaging in a historical representation
of astonishing crudeness, in comparison with the complexity of the
pictures' own explorations of the interplay between antiquity and
modernity? As this paper has argued, the pictures place notions of
modernity and of antiquity into shocking proximity. By depicting ancient
Rome as both a modern city and an enduring work of art, as the site both
of the reparative functions of historical representation and of
irrevocable cultural loss, Alma-Tadema's paintings produce an urban
vision that can stand for both the exceptional character of the city of
modernity and the paradigmatic role traditionally ascribed to Rome. In
our own scholarly explorations of the modern representation of classical
antiquity, we would do well to keep such a complex range of
possibilities in play.
Elizabeth Prettejohn is coauthor of the exhibition catalogues Sir
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1996) and Imagining Rome (1996); author of The Art
of the Pre-Raphaelites (2000) and Interpreting Sargent (1998); editor of
After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England
(1999); and coeditor of Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance,
Modernity (1999) [Faculty of Arts and Education, University of Plymouth,
Earl Richards Road North, Exeter, Devon EX2 6AS, England].
I would like to thank Edwin Becker, Martin Beisly, Peter Brown, Anne
Hill, and Peter Trippi for help with the illustrations. I thank
Professor P. E. Easterling for inviting me to give an early version of
this paper at the Triennial Conference of the Joint Committee of the
Greek and Roman Societies; Andrew Hopkins for inviting me to present an
intermediate version at the British School at Rome; Michael Koortbojian
and others in the audience on that occasion, who contributed many useful
insights. Although I take issue here with Richard Jenkyns's approach to
Victorian classicism, it is his work that initiated the rapidly growing
scholarly interest in this kind of art. I am most grateful to Stephen
Bann, Rosemary Barrow, Charles Martindale, and Vanda Zajko for their
astute comments on the final text.
1 Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Entrance to a Roman Theater, opus XXXV, oil on
canvas, 1866. Private collection (photo: Sotheby's, New York)
2 An Audience at Agrippa's, opus CLXI, oil on panel, 1875. Kilmarnock,
Scotland, Dick Institute (photo: East Ayrshire Council, Museums and Arts
3 After the Audience, opus CXCVI, oil on panel, 1879. Private
collection, courtesy of Christie's, London
4 Spring, opus CCCXXVI, oil on canvas, 1894. Los Angeles, The J. Paul
Getty Museum (photo: © The J. Paul Getty Museum)
5 The Roses of Heliogabalus, opus CCLXXXIII, oil on canvas, 1888.
Private collection (photo: © Christie's Images Ltd. 2002)
6 In the Time of Constantine, opus CXCII, oil on mahogany panel, 1878.
London, William Morris Gallery
7 Thermae Antoninianae (Baths of Caracalla), opus CCCLVI, oil on canvas,
1899. Private collection/Bridgeman Art Library
8 Caracalla and Geta, opus CCCLXXXII, oil on canvas, 1907. Private
collection (photo: by courtesy of Sotheby's Picture Library)
9 Unconscious Rivals, opus CCCXXI, oil on panel, 1893. Bristol Museums
and Art Gallery

1. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (completed
1940, first published 1950), in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans.
Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1973), 263.
2. The surviving texts have recently been edited and published in full:
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin
McLaughlin, based on the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann
(Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).
Before this edition appeared it was usual to consult the portions
collected under the title Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of
High Capitalism.
3. This list of subject types follows the chapter structure of Robert L.
Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1988); cf. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern
Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (London: Thames and
Hudson, 1984); Clark's four chapters concentrate on Haussmann's
rebuilding, the urban prostitute, the environs of Paris, and public
entertainment. A different, and grimmer, repertoire of urban subjects,
concentrating on representations in journalism and print media, is found
in Lynda Nead's recent study of mid-19th-century London; see Nead,
Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century
London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
4. For Alma-Tadema's life and work, see Becker et al.; Vern G. Swanson,
The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence
Alma-Tadema (London: Garton, in association with Scolar Press, 1990);
and R. J. Barrow, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (London: Phaidon, 2001).
5. Jon Whiteley, "Alma-Tadema and the néo-Grecs," in Becker et al.,
6. Its depiction appears to be based on a photograph of the Odeon, or
Small Theatre, at Pompeii, taken from the same viewpoint and preserved
in the artist's photographic collection, although the date of the
photograph's acquisition is unrecorded (Portfolio 149, no. 12086).
Alma-Tadema's collection of some 5,300 photographs of ancient and later
artifacts, classified into 167 portfolios, is preserved in the Main
Library, University of Birmingham, Heslop Room.
7. See John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, vol. 3,
The Eighteenth Century in Germany, and the Nineteenth Century in Europe
and the United States of America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1908), 246. In 1875 Giuseppe Fiorelli, the innovative director of the
Pompeian excavations when Alma-Tadema first visited Pompeii, took up the
Roman directorship of Museums and Excavations. On the impact of
Fiorelli's new techniques of excavation and display, see A. Michaelis, A
Century of Archaeological Discoveries, trans. Bettina Kahnweiler
(London: John Murray, 1908), 159-60; and A. H. Layard, "Pompeii,"
Quarterly Review 115 (Apr. 1864): 329-31.
8. Suetonius, "Augustus," 28. See the catalogue entry by Rosemary Barrow
in Becker et al., 192-94.
9. Michaelis (as in n. 7), 333-34.
10. Georg Ebers, Lorenz Alma Tadema: His Life and Works, trans. Mary J.
Safford (New York: William S. Gottsbergen, 1886), 74. As Ebers concludes
(75-76): "how fully [the picture] expresses the idea of the boundless
power of a great citizen of greater Romel Long treatises upon the
influential position of a man like Agrippa cannot teach what this
picture silently, yet with indelible distinctness, impresses upon the
mind of every beholder."
11. See the account of the two pictures by Elizabeth Prettejohn in
Imagining Rome: British Artists and Rome in the Nineteenth Century, ed.
Michael Liversidge and Catharine Edwards, exh. cat., Bristol City Museum
and Art Gallery, 1996, 143-46.
12. Arguably, the Cupid with dolphin might be interpreted as a sign of
Augustus's divine descent (via Aeneas) from the goddess Venus (mother of
Cupid and born from the sea); I am grateful to Rosemary Barrow for this
13. Ebers (as in n. 10), 27-31.
14. John Ruskin, "Notes on Some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in
the Rooms of the Royal Academy: 1875," in The Works of John Ruskin, ed.
E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, library ed., vol. 14 (London:
George Allen, 1904), 272.
15. Louise Lippincott, Lawrence Alma Tadema: Spring (Malibu, Calif.:
Getty Museum Studies on Art, 1991).
16. The most eloquent proponent of this approach, and its originator as
a scholarly method (although it appears more casually in earlier
criticism), is Richard Jenkyns; see his two influential books, The
Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980) and
Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance
(1991; London: Fontana, 1992).
17. Lippincott encounters difficulties, however, when she claims that
the same kind of parallel cannot be drawn between Alma-Tadema's spring
festival and the Socialist May-Day processions of the early 1890s. On
the terms of her methodology, the Socialist processions must be equally
valid parallels and, indeed, the most conspicuous ones at the particular
moment when the picture was painted; see Lippincott (as in n. 15),
16-39, 85-87. Lippincott rejects any relation to the Socialist May Day,
seemingly, because she decides a priori that Alma-Tadema must have been
a political conservative ("His politics were conservative and
imperialist"; ibid., 7); there is as far as I know no evidence one way
or the other about Alma-Tadema's political sympathies in later life,
although in earlier years contemporaries clearly considered him liberal
or progressive (see above at nn. 13 and 14).
18. Robert Chambers, quoted in ibid., 23-25.
19. Ibid., 81.
20. Ibid., 47. It does not, of course, necessarily follow that
Alma-Tadema meant the scene to be interpreted as occurring within
Hadrian's reign (117-38 C.E.), as Lippincott seems to assume; it could
just as easily be dated to the (widely divergent) periods of origin of
any of the other elements in it. It is perhaps best interpreted as
showing a typical Rome at the height of its urban development.
21. Ibid., 67.
22. Ibid., 68-69. For the fragment, see R.A.B. Mynors, ed., C. Valerii
Catulli carmina (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 106. For further
details on the inscription, see Rosemary Barrow, "The Scent of Roses:
Alma-Tadema and the Other Side of Rome," Bulletin of the Institute of
Classical Studies 42 (1997-98): 192-96.
23. For a similar difficulty in the interpretation of Roman subject
matter in Victorian painting, see Elizabeth Prettejohn, "'The Monstrous
Diversion of a Show of Gladiators': Simeon Solomon's Habet!" in Roman
Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945, ed.
Catharine Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 157-72.
24. See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in
Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1973), 31-38; White's discussion of Jakob Burckhardt (chap. 6) is
particularly interesting in relation to Alma-Tadema's historical method.
25. For a more detailed interpretation of The Roses of Heliogabalus, see
Barrow (as in n. 22), 198-202.
26. The emperors depicted by Alma-Tadema were: Claudius, cowering in
fear as the Praetorian guard declare him emperor (in three versions:
Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, 1867, untraced; A Roman Emperor, A.D. 41,
1871, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; and Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia!
1880, Akron Art Museum; the corpse of the previous emperor, Caligula,
murdered for his crimes, also appears in the two later versions),
Vespasian celebrating the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the
Temple (The Triumph of Titus, 1885, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore),
Heliogabalus, famous since Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
as the most depraved emperor of all (The Roses of Heliogabalus, Fig. 5),
Caracalla before the murder of his brother Geta (Caracalla and Geta,
Fig. 8) and parading through his luxurious baths (Thermae Antoninianae,
Fig. 7, and Caracalla: A.D. 211, 1902, untraced). Only Hadrian appears
in a relatively neutral representation, in Hadrian in England (1884,
subsequently cut into three pieces now in the Royal Collections, The
Hague, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris);
even here, the emperor is shown inspecting a pottery that evidently
exploits its laborers. Most of Alma-Tadema's scenes of public festivals
portray Bacchanalia, celebrations practiced in urban centers even though
they were outlawed by an edict of 186 B.C.E. because of the debauchery
and violence they encouraged; the principal examples are The Vintage
Festival of 1870 and A Dedication to Bacchus of 1889 (both Kunsthalle,
Hamburg), and many other pictures include Bacchanalian cult elements.
27. An alternative approach to the seeming interdependence, in
Alma-Tadema's work, of ideas conventionally considered opposite or
polarized might draw on Jacques Derrida's notion of the "undecidable."
See, for example, Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy," in Dissemination
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); and Sarat Maharaj, "Pop
Art's Pharmacies: Kitsch, Consumerist Objects and Signs, the
'Unmentionable,'" Art History 15 (Sept. 1992): 334-50 (Maharaj's
"undecidable" between fine art and kitsch in Pop art is suggestive in
relation to the visual excessiveness of The Roses of Heliogabalus).
28. Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," in The Sociology of
Georg Simmel, ed. and trans. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950),
29. See, for example, Herbert (as in n. 3), 50-57; and Clark (as in n.
3), 238-39.
30. Simmel (as in n. 28), 413.
31. I am grateful for this observation to the anonymous reviewer for the
Art Bulletin.
32. For Alma-Tadema's compositional techniques, see Elizabeth
Prette-john, "Antiquity Fragmented and Reconstructed," in Becker et al.,
33. The principal version of the statue of a young boy removing a thorn
from his foot is a bronze, described as early as the 12th century by
writers on Rome and transferred to the Palazzo dei Conservatori by 1500
(it is still in the Musei Capitolini). Alma-Tadema represents a marble,
which should perhaps be read as a copy of the bronze. However, by
placing it on a high plinth Alma-Tadema may be alluding to the salacious
details of the early 13th-century description of the bronze by Magister
Gregorius, who noted that it was placed on a column so that its genitals
could be seen from below. See Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste
and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1981), 308.
34. The identity of the fountain, which appears with slight variations
in a number of pictures of about 1877-78, including Roman Gardens
(Museum Mesdag, The Hague), has been questioned, but it is clearly
inspired by the Borghese Gardens fountain (Unterbergher and Pacetti, ca.
1790); see Jennifer Gordon Lovett and William R. Johnston, Empires
Restored, Elysium Revisited: The Art of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exh.
cat., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.,
1991, 71.
35. The capital of the colossal column in the background reproduces one
found at the Baths and illustrated in a book published shortly before
the painting was done: Rodolfo Lanciani, The Ruins and Excavations of
Ancient Rome (Boston, 1897), fig. 209. The extravagant marble boat in
the middle ground was not mentioned in Lanciani's book, as has sometimes
been claimed (for example, in Swanson [as in n. 4], cat. no. 392), but
it may have derived from even more recent research by that archaeologist
(mentioned in a review of the picture in the Times, Apr. 29, 1899, 14).
Extensive 19th-century excavations in the natatio had raised questions,
particularly about the vaulting system; see Fikret Yegul, Baths and
Bathing in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992),
146-60. Alma-Tadema leaves the question open by cropping the scene at
the top.
36. The statue of an athlete scraping himself after exercise is
represented as a Roman marble copy of the Greek bronze original by
Lysippos, which according to ancient texts had been brought to Rome and
dedicated by Agrippa, and in which Emperor Tiberius took an erotic
delight (Pliny, Natural History 34.62). The marble (now in the Vatican
collection) was found in 1849 in Trastevere (not at the Baths of
Caracalla) and identified as a copy of the Lysippan original mentioned
in ancient sources; see Michaelis (as in n. 7), 71-72. Excavations at
the Baths of Caracalla did, however, yield other famous statues, among
them the Farnese Hercules (unearthed in 1546), also thought to be a
Roman copy of a Lysippan original; see Haskell and Penny (as in n. 33),
229-32. Alma-Tadema is perhaps imagining that a whole suite of copies of
Lysippan originals was made for the baths.
37. See, for example, Jenkyns, 1992 (as in n. 16), 337.
38. See Yegul (as in n. 35), 32-42.
39. See Benjamin, 35-40.
40. Alma-Tadema writes: "I imagined that on the occasion of Caracalla's
nomination as Antoninus Caesar [in 203 C.E.] the Emperor [Septimius
Severus], amidst other rejoicings, would have given a gala
representation at the Coliseum; and this finally settled my choice of
subject." The emperor is seated next to his second wife, Julia Domna,
who is passing letters in aid of her campaign to win a similar honor for
her son Geta. Alma-Tadema describes Caracalla as "wildly cruel" and
relates the story of his massacre of the Alexandrian youths for the
slight crime of writing derogatory graffiti, as well as his murder of
Geta "in his mother's arms" the year after his accession to the throne
(211 C.E.). "Yet we are told that he won the sympathy of the public in
youth, by the distress he showed when forced to witness any act of
cruelty during the games." The text of Alma-Tadema's description,
written for the picture's first exhibition at the gallery of the London
dealer Arthur Tooth in 1907, is reprinted in Victorian Paintings, sale
cat., Sotheby's, London, June 8-9, 1993, 66-70. For further discussion
of the subject and its textual sources, see Barrow (as in n. 22),
41. See Catharine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Duncan Kennedy, "A
Sense of Place: Rome, History and Empire Revisited," in Edwards (as in
n. 23), 19-34.
42. Benjamin, 81-90 (quotes on 81 and 87 respectively). Jürgen Habermas
refers to the same complex of ideas: "In this way, modernity is rescued,
not from its infirmity surely, but from triviality; in Baudelaire's
understanding, it is so disposed that the transitory moment will find
confirmation as the authentic past of a future present"; Habermas, The
Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick
Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity, 1987), 9. Although the phrase "modernity is
rescued, not from its infirmity surely, but from triviality" is apt,
Habermas, by assuming that the antiquity of modernity is a matter of
validation through the passage of time, perhaps misses the more
searching implications of Benjamin's analysis. Friedrich Nietzsche
explored the Baudelairean problematic from the perspective of a
professional classicist: "This is the antinomy of philology: antiquity
has in fact always been understood from the perspective of the
present--and should the present now be understood from the perspective
of antiquity?" (from "We Philologists," 1875). See James I. Porter,
Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2000), 15.
43. Benjamin, 89-90. In "Theses on the Philosophy of History," too,
Benjamin (as in n. 1) makes significant reference to Rome, but as in the
Baudelaire essay he does not elaborate exactly why Rome, in particular,
is "charged with the time of the now."
44. For an overview of some of the theoretical issues, see John Tagg,
"The Discontinuous City: Picturing and the Discursive Field," in Grounds
of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field
(Basingstoke, Eng.: Macmillan, 1992), 134-56. Habermas discusses the
conjunction of antiquity and modernity only briefly; see Habermas (as in
n. 42), 8-11.
45. I adapt these terms from Habermas's slightly different usage,
Habermas (as in n. 42), 5-8.
46. Benjamin, 113-20. For the idea of a modernity lived forward from the
present, see Paul de Man, "Literary History and Literary Modernity," in
Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism,
2d ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 142-65.
47. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, interview in Review of Reviews (New York),
June 1894, quoted in Lovett and Johnston (as in n. 34), 27.
48. Henry James, The Golden Bowl (New York: Scribner, 1904), chap. 1
(the quoted sentence begins the novel).
49. Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean (London: Macmillan 1885), chap.
50. This idea derives from de Man (as in n. 46), 151-65. A parallel
difficulty arises with the attempt to theorize a work of art that is
purely aesthetic in Kantian terms, since the utter freedom from
determination of the aesthetic (in Kant's terms) conflicts with the
intentional character of the artist's activity; see Elizabeth
Prettejohn, "Leighton: The Aesthete as Academic," in Art and the Academy
in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Rafael Cardoso Denis and Colin Trodd
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 46-48. The
preoccupation with modernity in much of Western art since Kant's
Critique of Judgment (1790) may be bound up with efforts to work through
the theoretical incompatibility of the notion of the purely aesthetic
with the practice of art making. See also Prettejohn, "The Modernism of
Frederic Leighton," in English Art 1860-1914: Modern Artists and
Identity, ed. David Peters Corbett and Lara Perry (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 2000), 31-48.
51. For analyses of this kind of picture, see Becker et al., 182-89.
52. See n. 36 above.
53. I am grateful to Michael Koortbojian for identifying the sculpture.
54. Carel Vosmaer, The Amazon (1880), trans. E. J. Irving (London: T.
Fisher Unwin, 1884), 74-75. See Elizabeth Prettejohn, "Lessen aan Alma
Tadema: Beeldende kunst, archeologie en estheticisme in Carel Vosmaers
roman Amazone," Jong Holland (The Hague) 12, no. 4 (1996): 16-21.
55. Sigmund Freud, "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1930), in The
Penguin Freud Library, vol. 12, Civilization, Society and Religion,
trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, ed. Albert
Dickson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), 258.
56. See n. 34 above.
57. Alma-Tadema's photographic collection (as in n. 6), Portfolio 70,
no. 9618. For an illustration, see Becker et al., 41.

Becker, Edwin, et al., eds., Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exh. cat.,
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1996.
Benjamin, Walter, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of
High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1983).