An Image of Cleopatra?

While killing some time this weekend, I was poking around the archives of the New York Times via Google and in the October 12, 1884 edition I found this very interesting excerpt in an Arts column:

If you click on that, you’ll get the full image (I think) but the gist of it is the following:

  • at Cortona there was on view an encaustic image of Cleopatra
  • it is said to be the word of Timomakos of Byzantium (a contemporary of Julius Caesar)
  • it depicts the famous queen sporting jewellery reminiscent of that found by Heinrich Schliemann
  • the queen is also holding an asp

We are told that a Mr. John Sartain would be writing a book all about this image and include an engraving.  This is where the interwebs get all interesting because, as might be anticipated, that book is available online at the Internet Archive: On the antique painting in encaustic of Cleopatra, discovered in 1818 (1885 — there are apparently later versions) . The frontispiece includes the promised image:

Even though it’s a depiction of a depiction, I’m sure folks will readily recognize that ‘upward gaze’ as belonging to an later time in Roman art and it doesn’t seem to be the norm in wax encaustic paintings which we have, but I digress. Another version of the book at Google seems to be missing this frontispiece. The book only spends a few pages on this specific item, but it has an interesting provenance/backstory … especially in these days when we’re used to simply reading that something comes ‘from a Swiss collection’.

This is from pp 10 ff, after a section describing the ‘Muse of Cortona’, found in the same area:

The other example of ancient tablet painting is one of greater importance, and is preserved in the Villa of the Baron de Benneval at the Piano di Sorrento. This also is ingood hands but it ought to find a permanent resting-place in some national collection, where it should be forever safe. It represents Cleopatra receiving her death from the bite of an asp, and of course it cannot be claimed that it is a portraint from life, as it was obviously painted subsequent to her tragic end. It was discovered by Micheli, the well-known antiquary, under the cella of the temple of Serapis, at Hadrian’s Villa.

I haven’t been able to identify this ‘well known’ antiquary (is he someone associated with forgeries?); if folks can point me in a direction, that would be much appreciated … after a digression on the finding of the other painting we get more details on the discovery:

The history of the Cleopatra since its discovery is briefly this. Dr Micheli and his brother, who were associated in the ownership, endeavoured to secure a safe and permanent repository for their treasure in the famous Florentine Museum through a sale to the Grand Duke of Tuscany,but the large price demanded was refused, at a time so little removed from the political convulsions and great wars of the first French Empire, the finances of the Duchy requiring yet many years of economy for their re-establishment. Some years later, the business of the Micheli brothers falling into a decline, they realized funds by pledging the picture with some Jews, and soon after both died. The charges went on increasing with time, and the heirs finding themselves unable to redeem it, sold it to an acquaintance of the Baron de Benneval, subject to these accumulated charges, and he rescued it from the hands of the usurers at serious sacrifice. Subsequently the new owner also found he could not afford to keep it, and the present owner purchased it from him in the year 1860.

I omit a paragraph on times it was exhibited and a passing mention that it was placed “on an underbed of a peculiar cement” for stability purposes; it continues:

In 1869 the Emperor Louis Napoleon made an offer to purchase, which was reluctantly agreed to, and the picture was transported to Paris with the view to the fulfillment of the arrangement; but the war with Germany began, and just on the arrival of the picture in Paris there occurred the battle of Forbach, which caused hesitation as to risking its delivery. During the German siege of Paris and the Commune following, the painting was under the protection of the Prince Czartoryski, and after the liberation of the city the picture was returned to Sorrento, where it has remained ever since.

Now we get an ancient reference:

I have now only to relate what appears to have been the origin of the picture, and how it came to the place where it was found. Augustus Caesar being deprived of the presence of Cleopatra in person to grace his triumph (the Queen having evaded that humiliating exposure by suicide), decided on having at least a representation of her. It is on record that a picture was painted for this purpose, and was borne on a car or litter near his own, along with other objects of Egyptian interest and of great value, taken from the monument in which she died; and since it was carried on the attendant car, it was obviously a tablet picture. After it had answered this use, he placed it as an offering in the temple of Saturn at Rome. There can be little doubt that this is the Sorrento picture.

Before the rest, we should mention that Plutarch’s Life of Antonius (86.3) mentions an image being carried in the triumph. Dio (51.21) mentions an ‘effigy’ of Cleopatra on a couch in the procession. As often, we seem to be getting ambiguous/conflicting messages from our sources who are writing more than a century after the fact. In any event, the relevant bit of Sartain continues:

This painting has given rise to voluminous literary research, and some writers claim that it is the work of the famous Byzantine artist, Timomakos, who was the author of two pictures purchased by Julius Caesar at the enormous price of eighty talents ($350,000), which he presented as an offering to the temple of Venus Genetrix. One of these was of ” Medea,” the other “Ajax,” the former one unfinished. It is also asserted that this artist saw Cleopatra when she visited Greece, sum-moned thither by Mark Anthony, and Anthon places him as cotemporary with Caesar and the Egyptian Queen, although some authorities locate him at an earlier period. Be this as it may, by whomsoever done, it was doubtless painted about twenty-nine years before the Christian era — assuming it to be the identical picture known to have been produced for the use named. Some hundred and forty years later, the Emperor Hadrian removed from Rome a large amount of the choicest art treasures of the city to enrich and adorn the vast villa he had caused to be built near Tivoli (the ancient Tibur), and no doubt the Sorrento Cleopatra picture was among the objects thus gathered, and it found an appropriate resting-place in the temple of the Egyptian god Serapis, since that was the locality of its discovery.

Timomachus is, in fact, an encaustic artist of the time mentioned by Pliny the Elder (NH 35.136 … thanks to assorted folks on Twitter and Facebook for helping me track that down efficiently). The rest of Sartain’s book really has little of interest for us. My next foray was into a magazine/journal called Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (vol. 27; 1889). An article by one John Paul Bocock (pp. 537 ff) entitled “Some Artistic Conceptions of Cleopatra” has an interesting statement on p. 539:

Marvelous as it may seem, the authenticity of the Encaustic Cleopatra was questioned chiefly on account of the freshness of the colors, says Dr. R Schoener, the great German expert. Fragments from the slate have been ground up,however, and the age of the wax and resin colors verified.

I’m not sure what dating methods would have been in use in 1889 … anyone know?

Last, and certainly not least, I direct the reader to a very interesting page at Lacus Curtius (which I stumbled upon, archaeologist-like) while doing the ref to Plutarch above. It’s an extract from Sir Thomas Brown’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which seems to be describing just such a painting back in the 17th century. The notes are more interesting, and seem to relate to the discovery of the encaustic under consideration by us. There are also some more references to ancient sources. What I find interesting — but not surprising — is that the author of the page (James Eason) has been unable to trace the whereabouts of this encaustic. He speculates that it’s possibly in a museum in Cortona. Does anyone know what happened to this? It seems very likely to be a fake — does anyone know of any scholarly literature debunking its authenticity? As far as I can find, the Popular Monthly item is the last mention, but it’s clear that there was skepticism about its authenticity by that time.

UPDATE (the next morning):  while getting my five shots of espresso in me this a.m., I came across James Jackson Jarves,  “An Assumed Example of Greek Easel-Painting of the Best Period of Antiquity,” The Art Journal (1875-1887), New Series, Vol. 1, (1875), p. 177, which obviously predates Sartain’s work. A notable quote:

“Certain critics, however, considered it to be one of the experiments made in the last century by Count de Caylus to resuscitate the lost Art [sc. encaustic].”

Jarves doesn’t seem to have actually seen it; he goes on to talk about the Muse of Cortona. Anne Claude de Caylus (the Comte de Caylus) is suitably introduced in the relevant Wikipedia article. He does seem to have been trying to revive the encaustic technique.

Ancient Stuff at io9

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past couple of weeks, it’s becoming clear that the gang at io9 are either looking for some rogueclassicism love or (more likely)  have sensed the popculch value of the ancient world. Consider some of their recent posts (all worth a look) …  They first caught my eye with A brief history of alternate history fiction, which mentioned Livy’s digression on what Alexander the Great would have done if he had headed west. Poking around a bit, I found they had also had a feature called Advanced Imaging Reveals a Computer 1,500 Years Ahead of Its Time (about the Antikythera Mechanism, of course). Then last night one of my twitterfeeds brought me Five ancient technologies that were ahead of their times, which included a bit on Hero’s steam engine (and some borderline von Danikaan stuff). And finally, this a.m., we find in our mailbox: Great moments in alternate history: the non-fall of the Roman empire, which is a nice little compendium of novels about what might have happened if Rome didn’t ‘fall’.

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem vii idus junias

Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum in Rome.
Image via Wikipedia

ante diem vii idus junias

  • the ‘inner sanctum’ of the Temple of Vesta was opened to the (female) public
  • ludi piscatorii (?) — a private festival celebrated by fishermen
  • 17 B.C.. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 3)
  • 20 A.D. — Nero Julius Caesar, son of the emperor-in-waiting Germanicus, dons his toga virilis; a congiarium is given to the people as well
  • 86 A.D. — ludi Capitolini — a festival involving poetic contests, inaugurated by Domitian based on something done by Nero (day 2)
  • 204 A.D. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 4)

Gladiator Graveyard?

From the Times … seems to be hyping an upcoming TV documentary:

Archaeologists believe that they may have discovered a Roman gladiator cemetery near York city centre. About 80 remains have been found since the investigation began in 2004, with more than half of them decapitated.

Researchers believe they may form part of the world’s only well-preserved Roman gladiator cemetery.

Kurt Hunter-Mann, a field officer at York Archaeological Trust who is leading the investigation, said: “The skulls were literally found somewhere else in the grave — not on top of the shoulders.

“We could see that in quite a few cases the skulls had been chopped with some kind of heavy bladed weapon, a sword or in one or two cases an axe.

“But they were buried with a degree of care. There are no mass pits. Most of them are buried individually.”

He said that bite marks on one of the skeletons helped to steer the team to its initial theory.

“One of the most significant items of evidence is a large carnivore bite mark — probably inflicted by a lion, tiger or bear — an injury which must have been sustained in an arena context.

“There are not many situations where someone is going to be killed by something like that, and also to have other wounds, and also to be decapitated. They may have been a gladiator involved in beast fights.”

He added: “Other important pieces of evidence include a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry — a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with a gladiator; some healed and unhealed weapon injuries; possible hammer blows to the head — a feature attested as a probable gladiatorial coup de grace at another gladiator cemetery, Ephesus, in Turkey.

“The arm asymmetry would also be consistent with weapons training that had already started in teenage years, and we know from Roman accounts that some gladiators entered their profession at a very young age.”

Most losing gladiators who were put to death were stabbed in the throat. However, decapitation may have been adopted as a custom in York in response to a prevailing local preference, he said.

“At present our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators. So far there are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards that interpretation or are consistent with it.

“But the research is continuing and we must therefore keep an open mind.”

The size and importance of York suggested it might have had an amphitheatre, he said, but so far none has been found.

The skeletons date from the late first century AD to the 4th century AD. Fourteen of them were interred with grave goods to accompany them to the next world.

The team said that the most impressive grave was that of a tall man aged between 18 and 23, buried in a large oval grave some time in the 3rd century.

Interred with him were what appear to have been the remains of substantial joints of meat from at least four horses, possibly consumed at the funeral — plus some cow and pig remains.

He had been decapitated by several sword blows to the neck.

Additional research has also been carried out by forensic anthropologists at the University of Central Lancashire.

Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the university, said: “These are internationally important discoveries. We don’t have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world.”

I’m not sure whether this is connected to the Roman ‘Cold Case’ we mentioned four years ago (which also seemed to be hype for a television program) … or the Roman Graveyard we mentioned a month before that (which also seemed to be hype for a television program). I think that program was a Timewatch episode called The Mystery of the Headless Romans, but perhaps this one is new.

FWIW, the Times seems to have also reported on an early stage of this excavation back in 2005: Mystery of 49 headless Romans who weren’t meant to haunt us

Overnight we appear to have had a pile of other coverage of this story, most of which are really playing up the ‘lion, tiger, or bear’ wound angle; we’ll forgive the media this time for not distinguishing between gladiatorial participants and those who participated in venationes:

Aqua Traiana in Peril?

Back in January/February we featured a series of posts highlighting the discovery of the source of the Aqua Traiana:

… a spectacular find, of course,  and the last we had heard, the O’Neills were working to have the site preserved.  As such we were quite dismayed to have this Telegraph piece land in our mailbox this a.m.:

In January father and son team Edward and Michael O’Neill discovered the headwaters of the aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Trajan, hidden beneath a crumbling 13th century church north of Rome.

A sophisticated example of Roman hydraulic engineering, the aqueduct, known as the Aqua Traiana, was inaugurated in 109AD and carried fresh water 35 miles to the imperial capital.

But since the discovery was publicised, the archeologists claim that the farmer on whose land it stands has begun a crude excavation of the site in the hope of finding valuable Roman treasure.

They claim to have photographic evidence that the owner has burned vegetation around the entrance to the underground grotto, cut down mature fig trees which are holding the fragile structure together with their thick roots and started to dismantle sections of masonry.

“It’s a complete tragedy,” Edward O’Neill told the Daily Telegraph. “He’s doing some kind of treasure hunt.

“What is needed is an expert process by archeologists to preserve the site.” Repeated telephone calls to the landowner, Davide Piccioni, went unanswered yesterday.

In an attempt to stop the alleged damage to the site, the O’Neills and two American archeologists – Prof Katherine Rinne of Virginia University and Prof Rabun Taylor of the University of Texas at Austin – have sent a letter to Italian heritage authorities.
They have called for urgent intervention in order to prevent the landowner from further damaging the site, which they say has been “completely transformed” in the last six months.

They have also complained that the farmer has closed off access to the site since the grotto and spring were discovered five months ago.

The mayor of the local town, Lucia Dutto, said she too was concerned. “We have asked the superintendent of archaeology to carry out an immediate inspection of the site, so that further interference can be prevented. But until that happens, we can do nothing because it is private property.”

via: British archaeologists fight with Italian farmer to save ancient aqueduct | Telegraph

Ted O’Neill has also written directly to us, and sent along some photos which may be of interest. Here’s a photo of what the site looked like a while ago:

image via Ted O'Neill

Ted O’Neill writes, inter alia:

The very upsetting news for us, is that on the important Santa Fiora
site – the location of the Nymphaeum shrine at the head of Trajan’s
aqueduct, seriously damaging works are in progress that we are
currently powerless to stop.

We and the archaeologists have been locked out of the site
since the date of the Press Conference in January. In mid-March we were able to
come fairly close (within about 50 yards) of the nymphaeum-church and
we were shocked by what we saw.

The owner had destroyed vegetation above the roman and Christian
ruins, up to the level of some masonary structures which he was bent
on removing. We are convinced that the masonary belongs, if not to
the roman nymphaeum, then to the early-christian church structure
which was added to the front of the nympheum shortly after the decrees
of Emperor Teodosio in 391AD which forbade pagan worship.

The steps have been removed ...

More perilously, the destruction of fig-trees above the nyphaeum
itself is likely to have led to the collapse of roman hydraulic cement
attached to the walls of the roman spring chamber. Roman building
materials in this type of construction teach us a great deal about the
science of how Trajan’s great water-supply worked. The fig tree
roots were the only thing still holding the this once rock-hard
material to the walls when we last visited in 2009. The material is
now extremely crumbly because the fig trees have sucked out all the
calcium, so a particular professional preservation technique is
required to save it.

the fig stumps ...

Currently the local Council is powerless to act because they are
waiting for a “Vincolo” – like listing a listed building in the UK –
which would allow them to initiate a compulsory purchase, but the
owner is blocking this whole process by not allowing the Council or
Archaeologist Quilici to enter and make a detailed relief map.

In conclusion, these arbitrary interventions, carried out without the
slightest historical or archaeological understanding are undermining
the structural integrity of the Santa Maria della Fiora site. We
want to ensure that the monument is saved, but if the owner continues
digging about, there will be nothing left.

As mentioned above, the O’Neills have sent off a letter to the various Soprintendenzas … here’s some addresses (in Italian) if you’d like to add your voice:

1) La Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per l’Etruria Meridionale ha responsibilita’
per tutta la roba antica e tutto che sia sotto il livello della terra.
Loro stanno a Villa Giulia, indietro di Villa Borghese a Rome.

L’indirizzo e’:
Soprintendente Dott.ssa Annamaria Moretti
Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per l’Etruria meridionale
Piazzale di Villa Giulia, 9 – 00196 ROMA
tel.06/3226571 – fax 06/3202010

Chiamando 06.322.6571, potresti chiedere la inspettrice Dott.ssa Ludovica Lombardi
o la inspettrice Dott.ssa Ida Caruso. Siccome voi state al confine del Comune di
Bracciano e Comune di Manziana, queste due condividono la responsabilita.

Dott.ssa Lombardi e davvero una persona gentile e simpatica. Dott.ssa
Caruso e simpatica anche lei, e’ molto influente li a Villa Giulia, e una stretta amica
della Soprintentende, e tiene una interessa personale sull’acquedotto di Traiano.

Si puo scrivere per la cortese attenzione della Soprintendente Annamaria Moretti,
e mettere Lombardi e Caruso per conoscenza.

Chiamando 0669624202 potresti parlare con Arch. Anna De Luca oppore con
Arch. Sandro Mantovanni. De Luca e’ risponsabile per la zona di Bracciano e
Mantovanni per Manziana, credo, e entrambi sono tosti e appassionati per
il tuo acquedotto e il suo ristauro.

2) Sovrintendenza per I Beni Architettonici Ed Il Paesaggio e Per Il Patrimonio
– Provincia di Roma, Viterbo ecc. tengono responsabilita’ per tutto quello
sopra terra – i Monumenti – in questo caso, la chiesetta / ninfeo.
Loro stanno nel Ghetto, vicino il Portico d’Ottavia.

L’indirizzo e’:
Sovrintendente: Dott.ssa Federica Galloni
Sovrintendenza per I Beni Architettonici Ed Il Paesaggio e Per Il Patrimonio
via Cavalletti, 2, 00186 Roma
Tel. 06.696.24202 / 06.696.24203