Monday, September 01, 2008

Hadrian at the British Museum

Many years ago, in York, I bought a silver denarius (or sestertius, can’t remember which) featuring the visage of this august Roman emperor. My plan was to buy two and turn them into cufflinks. But the second has not been bought (finances; worries about desecrating heritage) and the coin lurks to this day in my cuff-link box.

Hadrian made a bit of an impact on Britain, with his wall, of course. But he seems to have been very fond of building projects all over the empire, and with the Pantheon in Rome achieved a whole new category of architecture.

The British Museum’s exhibition brings together wonderful sculptures of Hadrian from across the empire (making our bronze head dredged out of the Thames look of decidedly provincial manufacture). The most exciting of these is also the most recent – fragments of a giant sculpture recently discovered in Turkey in Sagalassos and now standing at the entrance to the exhibition.

There are also fantastic architectural models of the Pantheon and Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli – as big as a small town. The Tivoli model was made in the 1930s and lacks the recent discovery of a massive shrine to Antinous, erected prominently next to the villa’s main entrance (and where a highly eroticized massive marble Antinous in the guise of the Egyptian god Osiris was discovered back in the 18th century). Hadrian famously had his boyfriend declared a god – clearly, this is archeological proof. One wonders what Hadrian’s wife must have made of it. Also, why did the shrine remain ‘undiscovered’ for so long, when the pretty amazing sculpture had been found there hundreds of years before? Clearly, classical scholars felt more comfortable not unearthing evidence of Hadrian’s passion. I’m sensing homophobia at work.

The exhibition interestingly had a section on ancient Roman amphorae (Hadrian’s family was big in olive oil). The Romans were pretty organized – each amphora had information enough about weight, origin, packaging etc to satisfy the modern Brussels bureaucrat.

The most emotive section was one containing personal belongings of Jewish rebels found in the cave they hid from [genocidal] Roman troops.

I’m not sure about the reading Room as a temporary exhibition space. The circular ground plan fragments into awkward spaces and bottlenecks occur everywhere. The dramatic lighting plan casts your fellow visitors’ shadows onto the information labels, making progress really difficult. On the plus side, Panozzi’s wonderful dome pays appropriate homage to Hadrian’s prototype, its ancestor, in this interesting and worthwhile exhibition.

Hadrian Empire and Conflict
British Museum
until 26th October 2008


Anonymous said...

I agree about the use of the reading room – a nice reference but poor execution. Hardians representation – presumably lifelike throughout his life opened my eyes to the skill of Roman artists in 3D

Boz said...

And he was HOT!

Sorry. Dragging this cultural post down to the gutter...

Hedgie said...

Cheers guys!

@ Boz - *sigh* - they don't make political leaders like that anymore . . .