Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘rome’ Category

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 »

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 »

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 »

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), dir. Nathan Juran

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 27, 2011

Two weeks ago, I helped to run a conference entitled Animating Antiquity on the interplay between the Classical tradition and the films of Ray Harryhausen. In order to get myself in the right mood beforehand, I watched or rewatched a couple of his films in the days before the conference. 20 Million Miles to Earth was one I hadn’t seen before, but was recommended to me by a couple of people on the grounds that it features an enormous alien creature on the rampage in Rome. Fantastic!

In basic terms, it’s a ‘monster on the loose’ film, of which Harryhausen had already done a few – e.g. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea. He clearly enjoyed them, as they gave him the chance both to pay tribute to one of his major inspirations, the 1933 King Kong, and to indulge a passion for destroying things in spectacular fashion on-screen which he often talks about in his interviews. But this one developed in a new direction by using a European setting – something which Tony Keen has rightly pointed out to me was clearly very popular in this period, and apparently also a reflection of Harryhausen’s growing personal interest in the European film industry, cemented by a move to the UK in 1960.

The ‘monster’ in this particular case is from Venus, and gets a very sympathetic treatment, entirely in line with Harryhausen’s consistent statement that he actually thinks of his models as ‘creatures’ rather than ‘monsters’. It has been brought to Earth against its will from Venus (hence the ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ of the title), only becomes ‘monstrous’ (in the sense of incredibly large) because of the effects of Earth’s atmosphere on its physiology, and is portrayed as merely curious about its surroundings and trying to survive amongst them until it is provoked into violence by people attacking it. Much as with King Kong, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for it, and this makes the whole film a great deal more captivating than it would otherwise have been.

Nonetheless, by the end of the film the creature has grown to something like 30 feet tall, is thoroughly enraged, and is having a jolly good rampage around the city of Rome. Here, Harryhausen’s love of destruction comes into full play, as we watch it fighting an elephant, causing havoc in the Tiber, knocking down temples in the forum and finally climbing up to the top of the Colosseum, where it is eventually shot and falls dead to the ground. My absolute favourite moment in all this was the Tiber sequence, which showed the creature breaking through the middle of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, followed directly by a shot of it standing in front of the Ponte Rotto:

This struck me as a very good example of how clever Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins always was – something I also noticed and commented on regarding Medusa’s temple in my review of Clash of the Titans. Already in 1957 he was doing exactly the same thing I’d spotted in 1981 – using ruins for their value as ruins, rather than trying to hide their brokenness. The genuinely ruined Ponte Rotto comes into its own by playing the ‘after’ role in the bridge destruction scene, helping to add to the magic by looking like a real bridge which actually has been destroyed, and saving Harryhausen the trouble of having to model the destroyed Ponte Sant’Angelo into the bargain. You’d have to know the topography of Rome fairly well to make that kind of connection, and it’s abundantly clear that Harryhausen did – as I could also see from the generally very logical path followed by the creature through the city from the Giardino Zoologico to the Castel Sant-Angelo and onwards to the Forum and Colosseum. The final scenes in the last two settings are absolutely infused with the same love of ruinous structures, too, either in their real-life guises or (when they’re being torn down by the creature) lovingly modelled in miniature form.

Meanwhile, the European setting and largely American main cast throw up some contrasts which reveal a lot about American self-perception in this period. The echoes of the Second World War resonate pretty strongly in the final sequences, what with Rome’s iconic monuments being attacked and American tanks and military cars racing around the city to liberate them once again. The American characters, and particularly the heroic leading man, are also cast throughout as dynamic, brave, intelligent and scientifically competent, against Italian characters who come across as useless, corrupt and foolish. It’s an Italian kid after a few lire who sets the creature free in the first place, and Italian farmers, police authorities and soldiers who variously enrage it by attacking it with pitch-forks, guns and flame-throwers. Meanwhile, the all-American hero insists on trying to capture the creature alive so that it can be studied for the Advancement of Science!, has the technical know-how to do so by stunning it with an electric shock, and leads a successful capture operation that rests on radio communications, helicopters and smooth teamwork. Interestingly, there is also one Japanese scientist amongst the Americans, showing that the image of the Japanese as masters of technology was already well-established. And Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart might have been pleased to know that amongst all the sciencey-science stuff, we actually get an on-screen explanation of why the creature is immune to bullets – apparently because it breathes via a network of tubes throughout its whole body, rather than a heart and lungs which might be fatally damaged by the bullets.

As for the male-female dynamics, they are much what you would expect for the period. There is one full-developed female character, with other women appearing only occasionally in crowd-scenes, and not generally getting any dialogue. To be fair, two of the crowd-scene women are professionals working as journalists, and indeed the main female character herself is training to be a doctor, and gets some fairly snappy, sassy dialogue which makes it clear that she has a real intelligence of her own. But for all that, her main role as the plot unfolds is to become a love-interest for the all-American hero, who rushes straight forward to ‘claim’ her as his well-deserved prize once he has defeated the creature. I’d love to be able to say, “Ah, but that was the 1950s – things are better for women now”, but sadly this is still all too common – and that reflects rather more poorly on us than it does this film.

Posted in classical receptions, films, ray harryhausen, rome | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers

%d bloggers like this: