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Recycled Piranesis and an impossible Pantheon: The Grand Tour paintings from the Ebony Bedroom at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 25, 2012

In late August my sister and I took our mother for a birthday day out, which included an afternoon visit to Charlecote Park National Trust property in Warwickshire. Charlecote is a lovely 16th-century red brick property, set on an estate which has been home to the Lucy family from the 12th century right up to the present day, and we very much enjoyed exploring its grounds in beautiful sunny weather. Late in the afternoon, my mother and I looked round the rooms of the property itself, and ended our visit in the Ebony bedroom – so called after the grand ebony-wood bed which dominates the room.

What really caught my eye, though, was not the bed but the set of paintings on the walls, brought back to Charlecote Park by George Lucy (master of the house from 1744 to 1786) after a Grand Tour undertaken in the late 1750s. There are fourteen of them in total (although the volunteer guide in the room told us that there had once been twenty), depicting romantic scenes of semi-ruined monuments from ancient Rome. But as we chatted about them to the guide, he mentioned that no-one who worked at the property today knew exactly what the monuments depicted were. Well, I did. I could see straight away what several of them were, and knew it wouldn’t take me long with access to the right books to identify the others. And it seemed such a pity for the subjects of the pictures to go on being unidentified when I could so easily sort that out. So after I had returned to Leeds at the end of the weekend, I wrote to the House Steward offering to identify the monuments shown if she could send me some pictures of them to work from. She kindly obliged, and I got to work.

At first, I simply focused on identifying the monuments shown in the paintings. Most I recognised immediately, while others could be tracked down fairly easily, just as I had suspected. Of the fourteen pictures in the house, half showed scenes from Rome itself, including well-known monuments such as the remains of the Forum, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the round temple in the Forum Boarium and the Pantheon. Three more showed tombs and aqueduct arches along the roads leading out from Rome into the Campagna; a further three ventured to Tivoli (twenty-five miles east of Rome) for the so-called ‘Tempio della Tosse‘ and two views of the Anio falls; and one final picture showed the supposed tomb of Virgil just outside Naples.

But I quickly realised as I jotted down the names of the monuments that some of the scenes looked awfully familiar. Following a hunch, I tracked down some engravings of the same monuments by Piranesi, and sure enough, I found that at least five of the Charlecote paintings had clearly been modelled directly on his work. A good example is the image of the so-called ‘Tempio della Salute’ (Temple of Health) near to the Via Appia, about 3 miles south-east of Rome – today recognised not as a temple at all, but as a second-century monumental brick-built tomb. Below is the Charlecote Park image and the Piranesi equivalent:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

Image taken from Wikicommons.

It’s not just that these two images are very similar in their composition, surrounding scenery and figures – including the goats! The real give-away to their relationship lies in the two distinctive triangular shadows shown on the side of the monument in each. These could not have been cast by any real structure, since nothing appropriate stands nearby. Rather, they were probably added by Piranesi to his engraving to evoke monuments from other parts of Rome like the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and create the sense of a wider landscape of ruins around this structure. (This is very typical of the way Piranesi worked – his views of ruined monuments were often romanticised, presenting the monument itself with the accurate eye of an architect, but freely embellishing the context.) The presence of the exact same shadows on the Charlecote Park painting is enough to show that its artist must have used Piranesi’s engraving as a model, creatively recycling it (shall we say?) as the basis for a gouache colour painting.

Piranesi was not the only influence I could detect behind these paintings. The Charlecote painting of the tomb of Virgil, for example, likewise shares the same composition and figures as this image, also from the 18th century. But it’s no great surprise to find that Piranesi’s engravings were the single greatest source of inspiration for the Charlecote artist. George Lucy’s visit to Italy would have taken place right at the height of Piranesi’s career and just when his engravings were first taking Rome by storm. His drawings attracted great admiration in their own right, and helped to drive an already growing interest in Rome’s monuments to even greater heights. So of course contemporary Roman artists were busy replicating them (and others like them) for English gentlemen like George Lucy to buy and take home as a souvenirs. The blatant copying by direct contemporaries seems rather shocking to us, but this was a world which lacked even the concept of copyright. And perhaps having colour paintings of Piranesi’s images instead of the rather severe black and white originals even seemed like the superior option, rather than the cheap knock-off alternative?

Meanwhile, one painting must be based on an image by an artist considerably earlier than Piranesi. That is the Charlecote Park image of the Pantheon, which looks like this:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

The Pantheon can never have looked quite as it is shown in this painting, as some fine-detail architectural history (gleaned in particular from this excellent article by Tod A. Marder) and other contemporary images reveal. Firstly, during the medieval period, the left-hand end of the Pantheon’s front portico was engulfed in adjoining buildings, and a single central bell-tower was built on top of the pediment. A drawing by Van Heemskerck dated 1532-36 shows it in this state:

Image from here.

Between 1626 and 1633, pope Urban VIII had the central bell-tower removed, and two new ones, popularly known as le orecchie d’asino (the asses’ ears), built onto either side of the pediment. He also had the front left corner of the portico repaired, but otherwise left the medieval buildings butting up against it at the side in place. A drawing by Stefano della Bella dated 1656 shows the results of his work:

Image from here.

The medieval buildings were then finally demolished in 1662 on the orders of pope Alexander VII. He also had the portico fully repaired in 1666-7, and two columns still missing from the side replaced using ancient columns found near S. Luigi dei Francesci, probably originally from the baths of Nero. But the asses’ ears remained in place, and were not removed until 1883. Piranesi’s engraving of the Pantheon from a century later, in 1761, captures very nicely what it looked like after Alexander VII’s intervention:

Image from here.

Meanwhile, the Charlecote Park version of the Pantheon shows it without either the adjoining medieval buildings or the asses’ ears. But this is impossible, since the asses’ ears were added before the medieval buildings were removed. In fact, the Charlecote painting seems to show a yawning gap where those buildings had been, before the repairs at this end of the portico were completed on the orders of Alexander VII. This makes me suspect that this image of the Pantheon was originally created while that work was underway in the 1660s, but that the artist deliberately chose to omit the asses’ ears. Not a very surprising choice, given how much everyone seems to have hated them!

Presumably, that original image was then reworked around a century later to create the Charlecote painting, which clearly fits in right alongside the rest of the set in stylistic terms. I can’t track down an exact original model for this particular image, but it would have been very odd indeed for somebody painting the Pantheon in the 1750s or ’60s to think to show the left-hand end of its portico in a semi-ruined state, give that it hadn’t looked like that for almost a century by then. You have to wonder, though, how the decision to depict the Pantheon in this way, rather than as it actually looked in the 1750s, came about. Did the artist choose to depict the Pantheon stripped of later additions or repairs, because he (or she) had found that customers generally preferred Roman ruins which looked as though they had simply crumbled away gently for centuries, untouched by human hands? Or was it simply an accident arising from whatever original image he or she was working from? Similarly, did George Lucy actively choose a painting which showed the monument in this light – or, conversely, did he even notice that it didn’t look quite like the Pantheon as he had actually seen it?

There are all sorts of further questions I’d like to answer about these paintings, for that matter. Another one would be how closely the geographical settings of the paintings match up with the places which Lucy actually visited while he was in Italy. Did he, for example, go down to Naples and see the supposed tomb of Virgil for himself? I’m also interested to note that Lucy’s visit to Italy seems to have taken place in the late 1750s, but (as far as I’m aware at the moment) Piranesi’s engravings of the Porta Tiburtina and the Nymphaeum of Alexander Severus first came out in 1761. These were clearly the sources for two of the Charlecote paintings, which that ought to mean the latter couldn’t have been painted until 1761 or later. But I’d need to do some library work to double-check that this really was the original publication date for the Piranesi engravings, and not just the date of a reissue. If correct, though, it might mean that George Lucy bought the paintings via agents after he himself had returned home – so perhaps he never even knew about the Piranesi images which they had been modelled on.

Recycled or not, though, this is a fantastic set of paintings which say a lot about the tastes and sensibilities of 18th century Grand Tourists – and the people who catered for them! I’m very glad to have come across them on a summer’s afternoon, and I hope I will have the chance to delve deeper into their history very soon.

Posted in art, classical receptions, history, rome | 7 Comments »

Blackpool, Caligula and controversial anniversaries

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 31, 2012

As I explained in my last post, my current research is all about the emperor Augustus, and especially the approaching bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014. So at the moment I am particularly tuned in to noticing when other similar anniversaries crop up – and today seems to be absolutely groaning under the weight of them. The ones I’ve spotted so far are:

The last is of particular interest to me, of course. Not only is it a bimillennium in its own right, but I think it’s also a rather good example of how anniversary commemorations are all about the values of the societies which hold them, and not anything inherent in the anniversary itself or the historical significance of the event in the context of its own time. The bimillennium of Augustus’ birth was marked with multiple events all over the world: not just the Fascist commemorations in Italy, but exhibitions, lectures, publications and more in the rest of Europe, the US and Australasia. By contrast, Caligula’s big anniversary seems to be attracting relatively little attention. Adrian Murdoch (amongst others) has been involved in making a documentary about him, currently screening in Australia and New Zealand, which is clearly timed to coincide with the anniversary. There is a panel about him today at the SF convention Chicon 2012 entitled ‘A Bimillennial Celebration of Caligula’ (see pocket programme, p. 37). And I’ve also found a post about him at The History Blog and an article at History Today. But that seems to be all – and it is definitely pretty low-key by comparison with Augustus (likewise Vespasian, who got a whole exhibition in Rome for his bimillennial birthday in 2009).

And that makes sense. Augustus’ rise to power and overthrow of the Republic may be a little controversial (to say the least!), but thanks to the efforts of Horace, Virgil, Velleius Paterculus, Suetonius and co. he still occupies a place in the public imagination as a well-intentioned bringer of peace and stability, and champion of the arts. Commendable stuff. Caligula celebrates his birthday with a friendCaligula, on the other hand, is mainly known for wussing out of the conquest of Britain, demanding that people worship him as a god and eating a child born of his own incestuous relationship with his sister. Most of those sorts of stories are clearly lurid exaggerations if you actually look at the sources – e.g. everyone ‘knows’ that he made his horse a consul, but even the gossip-hungry Suetonius only actually claims that people said he planned to do this. Well, I could say that about David Cameron, and there would then be exactly as much evidence that he planned to make his horse (or perhaps Rebekah Brooks’ horse?) a consul as there is about Caligula. It doesn’t amount to much in either case unless they have actually done it. Still, Caligula clearly did rule badly enough, and in particular execute enough prominent people, to find himself at the sharp end of the first ever assassination of a Roman emperor after only four years in power. So he’s not exactly someone you want to run the risk of appearing to celebrate (unless you are a bunch of SF fans having a bit of fun, apparently!). Safer to just stay away from that particular anniversary altogether.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Blackpool city council have a history which they are so keen to celebrate that today they seem to have invented a suitable anniversary for it. According to their city council, tonight will mark the centenary of their proud history of Blackpool illuminations. But a man on the Today programme this morning (whose name I didn’t catch) assured us that the illuminations actually date back to 1879 – and indeed Wikipedia confirms this. From the same page, I can see that there is a case for claiming 2012 as the centenary, since 1912 clearly saw a rather more spectacular event than had been attempted in 1879 (though in May, not late August). But even the 1912 event was a one-off, and regular illuminations didn’t start until 1925. In other words, there are multiple dates here which could be claimed as ‘anniversaries’ of one sort or another, and of course what the council is really trying to do is simply take advantage of one of them in order to drum up interest in the lights. (It’s clearly worked, too – this item has been all over the news today.) Given the arbitrary nature of time, none of these dates is really any more closely connected to the first illuminations than any other. But the debate on the Today programme this morning showed that any anniversary does need to have a convincing air of authenticity about it to make it ‘work’ as a mythic point of connection with the past. Rather like Father Christmas – or indeed Christmas itself – these things only exist if we believe in them.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, classical receptions, history, roman emperors | 4 Comments »

Counting down to Augustus’ bimillennium

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 19, 2012

Two years from today will mark the bimillennium of the emperor Augustus’ death, which took place on 19th August AD 14. I have been busy so far this summer getting started on a new research project all about that event, so today seems like a good day to say a little bit about it.

We have a real fascination with ’round-number’ anniversaries in western culture. Examples from this year alone have included the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and of course the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On one level, of course, the apparent roundness of 60, 100 or 200 years is completely arbitrary. It relies on dating and numbering systems which we have invented, and we all know rationally that the 19th August 2014 bears no closer relationship with 19th August AD 14 than does the 18th August 2014, the 20th August 2014, or indeed any other modern date. But the basic similarity between two dates which are separated by a perfect round number like 2000 has a strong psychological effect. We even use phrases like ‘on this day in history‘ to speak of anniversary dates as though they somehow occupy the same day as the original event, in spite of the many years which have actually passed between them. The coincidence in the dates creates a sort of short-cut or wormhole effect, making us feel as though we are closer to the original event on its anniversary day than at any other time. This makes anniversaries into powerful tools for connecting with the past, looking at its relationship with the present, and thinking about the dialogue between the two.

The particular way in which an anniversary is commemorated is far from neutral, though. They usually speak volumes about contemporary interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the societies which celebrate them. And the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938 offers a very vivid example of that. Famously, Benito Mussolini used it to boost his own political status and promote a particular vision of Italy’s national identity and future. Mussolini’s political position was comparable to Augustus’, in that both had transformed quasi-democratic constitutions into effective dictatorships with themselves at the head – and in both cases they had done it in Rome. But Augustus had managed to pull it off to widespread contemporary acclaim, while being the head of an extensive empire to boot – and Mussolini wanted in on that. He made every possible effort to signal the parallels between them, and the bimillennium, with its strong sense of connection between past and present, was a perfect opportunity for doing so. The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including an exhibition (see poster to right), the clearance of Augustus’ Mausoleum and reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, academic publications, the issuing of stamps, coins and more. All of this was designed to push the association between Mussolini and Augustus, while also encouraging contemporary Italians to develop a sense of national pride and a belief in the virtues of hard work which would neatly serve his imperialistic agenda.

Not all anniversaries are quite so blatantly politicised, of course, but they all inevitably say something about the society which commemorates them. So it is with that idea in mind that I want to use the forthcoming bimillennium of Augustus’ death to explore what he means to people today, some two thousand years after he died. Part of my plan is to hold a major conference on and around the date of the bimillennium itself, which will take as its prompt the format we usually use for thinking about someone who has just died: the obituary. The conference will look at the close of Augustus’ life and his death, consider his life as a completed whole, evaluate his impact and think about the legacy he left behind. But because we are ‘writing’ this obituary two thousand years later, we will also examine that legacy as it has played out over a period of two whole millennia, trace evolving evaluations throughout that period and think about what is at stake when we formulate our own judgements of Augustus’s life and career. Once the conference is over, I’m hoping to publish an edited collection of papers arising from it, while in parallel I will also be researching and writing a monograph of my own on the subject of the bimillennial commemorations, and what they reveal about Augustus’ position in contemporary thought and culture.

The monograph will look at both of Augustus’ big bimillennia: his birth on 23rd September 1938, and his death on 19th August 2014. No matter how sternly I try to steer myself away from the silly word-play, I can’t help but think of these as the ‘natal bimillennium’ and the ‘fatal bimillennium’ respectively, and I’ve a feeling those terms are going to stick now. Certainly, they’re quicker to say or type than ‘the bimillennium of his birth’ and ‘the bimillennium of his death’. Anyway, I’m planning to explore how both were / will be celebrated, as a means of identifying the main ideas and values associated with Augustus in each period, and exploring how he (as a symbol of those ideas and values) gets used and abused for contemporary purposes. This should be a good way of assessing the historical significance of Augustus two thousand years after his life-time, and will also offer the opportunity to trace smaller-scale changes in how people have thought about Augustus between the two anniversaries in 1938 and 2014.

One thing I have certainly already discovered is that the natal bimillennium was commemorated by far more people and in far more places than just Mussolini in Italy. I’ve uncovered exhibitions, competitions, plays, lectures, academic publications and more – so far mainly in the USA and UK, but that is partly simply because I have started by running my searches in English. I’m sure more will emerge once I move on to French, German, Spanish and so forth. Some of these events intersected with Mussolini’s, and there is certainly an interesting story to be told there about the degree to which academics in what would soon become Allied countries were and weren’t prepared to cooperate with him in the run-up to the war. It’s rather more than you might expect with the benefit of hindsight.

Meanwhile, people’s reasons for being interested in Augustus outside of Italy in 1938 seem to have hinged around a sense of his impact on the development of western civilisation. There is a great deal of talk of achievements such as the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous empire which formed the roots of modern Europe, the essentially Latin (as opposed to Hellenistic) character of that empire thanks to his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and the patronage of literature and the arts. Although scholars in this period were willing to criticise the means by which he achieved sole power at Rome, there is also a strong sense that the ends justified the means, and even a willingness to write apologiae for his more unpalatable acts – for example by claiming that Rome was hardly a democracy before his rise to power anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if he then transformed it into a monarchy!

Yet in the middle of it all there is Ronald Syme, about to effect a profound change in contemporary views of Augustus. At the time of the natal bimillennium he was going round beginning practically every book review he wrote with sentences like “A memorable and alarming anniversary looms heavily upon us” (that one’s from The Classical Review (1937) 51: 194), and proceeding to criticise other people’s efforts to assess Augustus’ career. Responding more astutely than anyone else around him to the tide of political developments in continental Europe, he was about to raise serious questions about that balance between means and ends. Few people since have been willing to argue that Augustus only did it all for the greater good.

With Syme, our actual experiences of 20th-century dictatorships, and another half-century of western democratic nations positioning themselves against first Communist and then Middle Eastern dictatorships under our belts, I’m pretty sure the bimillennium of Augustus’ death will be marked quite differently from that of his birth. After all, we are basically talking about a guy whose biggest achievement was to overthrow the Roman Republic and install himself as an absolute monarch. Not a very palatable story in the early 21st century. But we can still engage with Augustus without needing to eulogise him. We can certainly cast all sorts of light over our contemporary political landscape by examining the combination of brute force, rhetoric and careful public image-making which he used to persuade contemporaries to accept – and even welcome – a trade-off between their security and their civil liberties. Some good documentaries could be made exploring his political techniques, their parallels in the modern world, and what the degree of similarity or difference tells us about our own system.

But I will just have to wait and see what, if anything, actually happens for the bimillennium – apart from my own conference, of course. In the meantime, I am busy getting stuck into the planning for that – contacting key speakers, arranging a suitable venue, and putting together some funding applications. I’ve got some very exciting people lined up already, who have promised some very interesting papers, and I’m starting to feel pretty pleased by how everything is falling into place. But I suppose I need to wait until the ‘behind-the-scenes’ details are fully organised before I am in a position to announce it all formally. I can certainly say that any major developments will be covered on this blog, and that I’ll be circulating an open call for conference papers at least a year before the event itself.

And if there is anyone else out there planning something of their own for Augustus’ ‘fatal bimillennium’, do get in touch. (A comment on this post will reach me, or further contact details can be found here.) I certainly want to know about anything which museums, TV production companies, publishers or Classical societies might be doing to mark the event. Half of what I want to do over the next two years is engage with those sorts of activities, get a sense of what you are doing and why, and maybe contribute myself if that’s appropriate. And if there are other academics developing research work of their own around the forthcoming bimillennium, I’m keen to hear about that too. Maybe you’d like to contribute a paper at my conference, or if you’ve been planning a conference of your own, perhaps we could join forces? I would certainly much rather collaborate on one big conference than have two competing events happening in different places on the same day. I’ve started this project off by myself so far, and I have my own clear ideas about what I want to do. But it also feels to me like the sort of thing which has a great deal of what funding bodies call collaborative potential – both within and beyond academia. I’d certainly smile if Augustus’ real bimillennial legacy in 2014 was to inspire a project that was all about cooperation and sharing.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, classical receptions, history, politics, roman emperors, roman history, rome | 6 Comments »

The Olympic torch – from Hitler to Headingley

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 26, 2012

The Olympic torch was carried down my road in Headingley, Leeds on Sunday. I have next to no interest in sport, but the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations reminded me that although I similarly have very little interest in the royal family per se, I am fantastically interested in rituals, commemorations and what they reveal about our collective interests and priorities. So, on the same basis, I turned out to see the torch go by.

There’s been some interesting debate recently about the particular ritual of the Olympic torch relay. Mary Beard has been pointing out since the run-up to the Beijing games in 2008 that this ritual was invented by Hitler, and using that fact to support her view that it is silly, a waste of money and should be dropped. Since then, other commentators have picked up Mary’s point and she herself has regularly reiterated it.

But all traditions have to be invented at some point, as Mary well knows, and they also change and evolve in response to contemporary needs.

My colleague Elizabeth Pender is working on the ideals and values associated with the Olympic games at the moment, and pointed out to me over lunch recently the huge contrasts between the way the Chinese used the torch-carrying ritual four years ago for the Beijing Olympics and the way the UK is using it now. As she said, the Chinese approach was distinctly imperialistic. They sent it all around the globe, on the longest route it had ever followed – an instant claim to Chinese pre-eminence. The torch-bearers were Chinese athletes and other notable cultural figures (actors, musicians, directors etc), making the relay into a display of the physical prowess and cultural achievements of their people, while of course they famously ran surrounded by uniformed security guards – an unmistakeable symbol of China’s strength, discipline and ability to suppress dissent. And all of this provoked considerable controversies along the route, as the torch-relay became the focus of protests against China’s human rights record, anger with the heavy-handed security guards, and a general sense from commentators that this wasn’t quite in keeping with the supposedly peaceful, non-political ideology of the Olympic games.

That’s the context in which Mary Beard first started voicing her opposition to the torch relay, and in the face of that particular iteration of it I can see her point. The claims to national pre-eminence inherent in the Chinese rally certainly bear close comparison with the ceremony invented by the Third Reich.

But the way the relay has been used in the UK this year is a vivid example of just how flexible and adaptable rituals like this can be. Here, the torch relay has explicitly and deliberately been used to foster and demonstrate localism and inclusiveness, on an entirely internal stage. Far from travelling round the globe, this year’s torch is being taken instead into the heart of as many communities across the UK as possible. The 8000-mile route has apparently been designed to pass within an hour’s journey or less from 95% of the population, so that there are actually huge numbers of people (including Mary Beard) having the same experience as me – of the torch going down their very own road. At that point, no matter how little interest you have, it becomes churlish to sit inside deliberately not looking out of the window – and so you get sucked in in spite of yourself, included in the whole experience, and drawn together with your immediate neighbours and fellow citizens across the country. The torch-bearers are local people, too – out of 8000 in total, 700 are athletes, but the other 7300 have been put forward by their local communities and chosen on the basis of their personal achievements and / or contribution to the area. And this has been really effective. I’ve heard very little criticism of this particular form of Olympic torch relay, but instead all sorts of heart-warming local news stories showing the torch being photographed at distinctive local landmarks and people turning out to cheer and enjoy the atmosphere as it goes by.

Nonetheless, the “don’t you know the torch relay was invented by Hitler?” meme itself remains very much alive. In fact, it seems to have become this year’s torch-relay comment piece de rigeur. And I am pleased to see this sort of conversation about the relay going on. The discourse which rituals like this provoke, whether anti or pro, is to me all part of their wider cultural value – and of course we should always think to ask where our traditions come from, and what that adds to or detracts from their value, as part of the ongoing process of deciding whether or not we want to perpetuate them.

I think this particular response to the torch relay, though, also reveals a distinct measure of what I think of as ‘ritual anxiety’ – that is, an uneasiness around the whole idea of ritual activities. It’s something I see in relation to all sorts of other ritual occasions and commemorative events, and particularly strikes me on Valentine’s Day, when a whole army of people emerge every year to complain that we shouldn’t need a special day devoted to something we should be doing all the time, that it is meaningless, too commercialised, misogynistic etc. But it also crops up in relation to Christmas (goods in the shops too early, probably not really the date of the historical Jesus’ birth), Easter (it’s a pagan festival really!, no it’s not), and almost any other ritual or commemorative occasion you can name.

A lot of this sort of commentary seems to spring from discomfort with the arbitrary, invented character of these events. We are asked to treat a particular day as special when we know that it isn’t really inherently different from any other day, or to take particular actions and rituals seriously when we know full well that they don’t have any concrete outcome – and indeed that someone just like us simply invented them at some point. None of that sits well with a modern mind-set that demands rational grounds for doing things. Then, of course, there is our awareness that rituals of all kinds have a long history of being used by repressive regimes, ideologies and religions as tools for boosting their own prestige and indoctrinating cowed and ill-educated populations into their preferred ways of thinking. That certainly doesn’t look palatable to the populations of modern liberal democracies, and is exactly what the ‘invented-by-Hitler’ meme conjures up.

But sometimes I think that the modern urge to respond cynically and suspiciously to rituals risks underestimating their social and emotive value, as well as the ways in which they can be re-appropriated by the masses of ordinary people participating in them. Few people in the UK are really so severely rationalistic as to eschew Christmas altogether, even if we don’t believe in its religious symbolism, or indeed belong to another religious tradition altogether. In the end, most people recognise that it’s a good excuse to connect with other people via a common experience and have a bit of fun, and that there is enough flexibility in the festival to access those parts of it separately from its religious content. In fact, Christmas is a very good example of a festival which has been widely re-appropriated, and is now as much a secular festival celebrated out of generalised nostalgia for the past (Victorian Britain, pagan midwinter festivals or whatever) and for the sake of present-day shared identity, as it is a religious one.

Similarly, with the Olympic torch relay, arguably what is more important than the invention of the ritual under the Nazis is the choice that was made to repeat it for the next Olympic games, held in London in 1948. It was at that point, in fact, and not in 1936, that it became a tradition rather than just a one-off event – and also that the London Olympic organisers established it as a flexible ritual, which did not have to be celebrated in the same way every four years. That is re-appropriation, and to me already renders the actual origins of the relay rather insignificant – and that is to say nothing of the constant re-invention and re-working of the ritual which has continued unabated over the subsequent 64 years.

Meanwhile, in Leeds the torch relay has been quite an event. The City Council and local newspapers have been busy promoting it, as have local businesses and organisations. When the torch arrived in Headingley itself, it called in first at the area’s best-known landmark – the Carnegie Stadium, which is home to both the Leeds Rhinos rugby club and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and where it was greeted by local MP Greg Mulholland. There was a big rugby game on at the stadium anyway, so taking the torch there was clearly a good way to involve lots of people in the relay. But the management also opened up the gates for free entry while the torch passed through, and stated explicitly on their website that “Headingley Carnegie Stadium are looking forward to extending a special welcome to families who’ve never been to the ground before.” So for them it was an opportunity to draw people in to an aspect of Headingley life which they might not previously have been involved with before – presumably with the hope that they would like it and come again.

I didn’t think very many people would be watching on my road itself, assuming that surely most people would go to see it in the stadium or along the main shopping street instead, but boy was I wrong! I could tell things were gearing up from about an hour before the torch arrived, when I looked out of the window and saw a lady living opposite hanging out some bunting, and by half an hour before the torch came past there were already rows of people lining what is normally a fairly quiet suburban road. At that point I got out there and started taking a few photos and chatting to people, and you could really feel a sense of palpable excitement along the street. The chap standing next to me had walked down from Far Headingley with his slightly reluctant son (who would rather have watched it on TV), and was keen to point out that we would never get the chance to see an Olympic torch relay going through our area in real life again. In other words, he wanted to feel that he was an active participant in a unique moment of our communal history – which seems also to have been one of the main attractions of the Diamond Jubilee. By the time the torch came by, the son was looking just as interested and excited as everyone else.

There were of course plenty of people there to promote their businesses or make money out of the crowds, from big Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB floats with blaring music and cheer-leaders to a lady selling Union Jack (yes, I know) flags and a local ice-cream van which turned up towards the end. But hey, that’s all part of our society too. And meanwhile there was some surprisingly touching camaraderie – like the police motorbike riders, who were technically there to clear the crowds gently out of the path of the procession, mainly spending their time cruising past and high-fiving everyone. I know it’s a huge cliché, but I took the opportunity to get chatting to my next-door neighbours, who moved in a couple of months ago but whom I hadn’t spoken to yet – and of course found that they were lovely people whom I was really pleased to get to know.

The torch-bearer along my stretch was Susan Marley, who has campaigned extensively for cystic fibrosis research. I could tell it was her because she was the only woman out of five torch-bearers for the Headingley route – which, given that these people were put forward by their local community, is a bit disappointing, actually. Don’t the people of Headingley feel that more of their women are worth celebrating? Still, I was pleased to cheer her on, and she looked like she was really enjoying her well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

The actual passage of the torch was incredibly quick in comparison to the time spent waiting for it, of course. But the real attraction was never the torch itself anyway. It was the sense of being part of a something exciting with nationwide resonances, but happening right outside my house and involving my own local community – just as the organisers had always designed it to be. I’m glad the torch relay provided a focus for that, I’m glad I took part – and I don’t think that the connection with the Third Reich detracted from it. What I saw showed me that the ritual has transcended its origins – and that taking part in something which doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny can still be really enjoyable and worthwhile.

If you live in Leeds and would like to know more about the relationship between the ancient and modern Olympics, my colleagues Emma Stafford and Elizabeth Pender will be giving lunchtime talks on that subject on Thursday 28th June and Thursday 26th July as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes series at Leeds City Museum. Both are free to attend, and details of the first talk, on ‘Olympic Beginnings: preparing for the Games, then and now’ are available here. If you can’t make it to the talks themselves, you can listen to them afterwards as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes podcast series.

Posted in classical receptions, cultural identity, greek history, history, leeds, rituals and festivals, urban geography | 8 Comments »

Leeds Roman Terminalia walk

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 7, 2012

We’re going back a looong way here, to something which I actually did in late February. I half-wrote it up at the time, but then it got lost under a pile of other things and never posted. The Jubilee weekend finally gave me the time to finish the job.

Thursday February 23rd was the date of the Roman Terminalia, the annual festival of Terminus, who was the god of boundaries. A Leeds-based group of psychogeographers had decided to celebrate it by walking around the circuit of bar stones which marked the medieval / early modern city boundaries, and I went along to join them. Psychogeography is all about experiencing (mainly urban) landscapes from a personal, emotional and sensory perspective. It looks for a subjective geography of the city, informed by an individual viewer’s memories, experiences and associations, and actively sets out to explore urban landscapes in unusual ways in order to bring out ways of relating to urban space which most of us miss in the rush of day-to-day living. So I think that for most people in the group, the walk was a way of experiencing Leeds’ past and present urban landscape in a different way, helping them to see it and engage with it from an unusual angle, and particularly prompting thoughts about the many different kinds of boundaries – both physical and conceptual – which exist in our cities today.

I was interested enough in the psychogeographical side of the experience – I am both a scholar of urban space and an interested resident of Leeds after all. But linking it with the Roman Terminalia was the absolute the icing on the cake from my perspective. And it’s not just that that lent a Classical veneer to what would otherwise have been an interesting walk around the city centre anyway. It’s that I have specifically conducted research into and published work on Roman urban boundaries – it’s covered briefly in chapter 3 of my book, and a fuller paper on the topic will hopefully come out some time in the next 18 months. So for me, this walk was a way of experiencing for myself a reworked version of the religious practices which surrounded those boundaries in the Roman era, and perhaps achieving a better understanding of what boundaries meant in the Roman world as a result. It was like the subject of my research coming to life and manifesting itself in my own city. Basically, this event couldn’t have been more Relevant To My Interests unless perhaps we had done the walk all dressed up as characters from Doctor Who.

The fullest description of the Roman Terminalia is given by Ovid at Fasti 2.639-84, although references to rites in honour of Terminus specifically, and other religious rituals connected with boundaries more generally, crop up in a number of other sources too. Marking and commemorating boundaries seems to have quite an obsession with the Romans, in fact – and that is hardly surprising. Boundaries are fundamental to so many things – property rights, security, territorial control, spheres of power and privilege, social identities, and basic practical categorisations and definitions. In a polytheistic society it would be odd if they were not the objects of religious ritual – especially given that in many cases, religious sanction was their primary practical guarantor. In a world where few people had access to effective legal protection or redress, the religious authority of boundaries must have been the main thing which made people respect them, and thus also the fields, territories, concepts or spheres of social action which they defined. Indeed, although records showing the courses of physical boundaries clearly existed (see e.g. Tacitus on public documents showing the course of the pomerium at Rome), in a semi-literate society, annual ceremonies in which people physically went to their boundaries, observed where they ran and made offerings in their honour would also have been a very effective way of keeping them ‘alive’, and stopping them from being forgotten or ignored.

Ovid’s account of the Terminalia focuses mainly on the rituals carried out by ordinary farming families, marking and celebrating the boundaries between their own and their neighbour’s properties. He describes the offerings of garlands, cakes, grain, honeycombs, wine and sacrificial animals which they make at the boundary markers – but refers also to Terminus’ much wider remit, guaranteeing the boundaries of cities and kingdoms too, and ensuring peace between the peoples on either side. Ovid also mentions the public sacrifice of a sheep carried out on the same day at a shrine of Terminus which stood at the sixth milestone out from Rome along the via Laurentia. This shrine in itself was important because it was believed to mark one of the places where the boundary of the original rural territory controlled by archaic Rome intersected with the roads leading out from it. It was one of a series of similar places around the fifth or sixth milestones of some of the other roads which did the same job, and, according to Strabo (Geography 5.3.2), all received sacrifices on the same day as a means of marking and commemorating the boundary.

It’s unclear whether circular processions ever linked these shrines to form a huge ceremonial ring around the city, or whether the boundaries of the city of Rome received the same treatment on an annual basis either. We have references to ad hoc circular processions around the urban boundaries at times of threat – for example, one described by Lucan (1.592 ff = 1.642 ff. in this translation) which was supposedly undertaken while Caesar marched towards Rome in 49 BC, or another in the Historia Augusta (Aurelian 18-20) carried out during the Marcomannic wars of the AD 270s, when the Romans suddenly came face to face with the real possibility of a barbarian sack for the first time in several centuries. It’s also quite possible that the routes followed by the runners in the Lupercalia, and the procession in a triumph, were connected with the supposed original boundary of the city of Rome, believed to have been marked out by Romulus. But there doesn’t actually seem to have been an official annual beating-the-bounds style ceremony around Rome’s urban boundaries, as far as we know.

Still, Leeds was never a Roman city anyway, so I’m pretty sure we can do whatever we like – including reinterpreting ancient Roman religious ceremonies to suit our own needs and interests.

The basic format for the Psychogeography walk was to go clockwise around the city, visiting the locations of each of Leeds’ six bar stones, making Terminalian observances in accordance with Ovid’s description and generally thinking about boundaries as we went. I managed to find a map online of the six bar stones in relation to 15th/16th-century Leeds, as follows:

More about the bar stones, and our walk around them, after this jump

Posted in classical receptions, history, leeds, roman cities, roman religion, rome, urban geography | 5 Comments »

“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

Posted in doctor who, history, reviews, television | 2 Comments »

 
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