Et quod vides perisse perditum ducas
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is an exhibition so weirdly fragmentary, unfocused and inconclusive as to leave me wondering how far, exactly, I should go in reading it not only as a metaphor for the future of the British Museum, but for cultural life more generally.
The way into the exhibition — chaotic, diffuse, confusing — prefigures what we’ll take away from it. Bathed in the milky light and perpetual semi-muffled roar of Great Court, I was guided first by the woman who sold me my ticket, and then by various signs and portents, into a darkened tunnel where my bag was nodded at, rather than searched, before someone else failed to sell me an audio-guide and directed me into an even darker tunnel beyond, which in turn led into a cul-de-sac. Had I missed the exhibition? No, the entrance was in fact now behind me. Having thus discovered the correct, alternative darkened tunnel, I made my way up it, along a low sloping ramp.
Hadrian enthusiasts of more optimistic stripe will, perhaps, have already begun to construe this ramp as a reference, stunning in its subtlety, to Hadrian’s tomb, now the Castel Sant’ Angelo, in Rome. Well, maybe.
Instead, though, my attention was transfixed by the view along the tunnel, upwards and to the left. For there, a few yards above me, ran shelf after shelf of books — half-hidden in the gloom, three-quarters forgotten, surely now wholly inaccessible — a tactless reminder of the fact that the exhibition space, left over from the recent occupation by everyone’s favourite Terracotta Army, is built out over the old Reading Room of the British Library. In other words, where once there was research, independent enquiry, the insistent coursing after knowledge (useful or otherwise) amongst the thickets and savannahs of the canonical printed or written word, now there is something else, superimposed across the top of it: spectacle, crowds appraised quantitas quam qualitas, crass money-making schemes, in short the ponderous mechanics of yet another British Museum Blockbuster.
Now, like most of us when we come up against the resonant detritus that is all we now have left of what used to be called Antiquity, I’m more than willing to succumb to semi-enjoyable reflection regarding the irrecoverability of the past, hackneyed regret that everything man-made really does end up ruined or lost eventually, or even pointless and sentimental sub-animist pity for the flotsam of Time’s shipwreck. That’s Antiquity’s promise, isn’t it, in all its well-worn emotional banality?
Yet it’s an oddity of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict that I managed to feel all these things before entering the exhibition itself, when confronted with the ruins of the Reading Room. Thus I stood alone for a moment, revisiting memories of doctoral research carried out countless ages ago, which is to say, in the early 1990s — those bigs desks with their turquoise-blue leather surfaces burnished by a thousand now-decayed elbows, the companionable clanking of the book trolleys, the weight of those archaic leather-bound catalogues in which so many answers were once thought to repose — and then, with a sigh, moved on.
The exhibition, anyway, begins with fragments. Specificially, it begins with some fairly spectacular remains of an heroic statue of Hadrian (AD 76 – 138), the Roman emperor whose ‘life, love and legacy’ are the focus of the whole exercise. These particular fragments were discovered recently in Sagalassos, Turkey: a head, a leg, a sandal-clad foot. And indeed they are effective, up to a point — poignant in their wrecked majesty, carved brilliantly, while at the same time as functional a visual correlative for Shelley’s famous poem as anyone’s ever likely to excavate.
Yet surely part of the point of that poem is that, however skilfully the long-dead sculptor may have captured the character of the long-dead king, beyond the single monumental inscription the poem cites, all other evidence of his achievement has vanished: ‘Nothing beside remains’. And so while we’re promised plenty of insights into Hadrian’s personality — full of ‘sharp contradictions’, apparently, of which more later — the cautionary note stuck by these silent lumps of stone in fact echoes through the exhibition, and will not be silenced. For what if all we have is in fact a few lumps of stone, a few much-molested monuments, a few problematic sources — those, to set against the normal human impulse to find order in even the most arbitrary pattern? What if the fragments simply can’t be pieced together, if they constitue less a puzzle to be solved than a despairing statement of history’s ultimate insolubility?
Of plinths, problems and pumpkins
Fragments, more fragments. The exhibition space, insinuated on its temporary and, frankly, alarmingly creaky platform between the forgotten substratum of the old Reading Room and the gilded dome soaring above, has been divided with partitions — for all the world like an open-plan call-centre set amid some out-of-town business park — amongst which cases, display areas and huge printed panels are deployed more or less at random. Which way to turn? The confusion generated by those tunnel-like entrances here blossoms into absolute chaos. There’s little sense of progression, less still of development or narrative, as crowds congregate unthinkingly around the more obviously eye-catching items — in doing so, destroying one anothers’ sight-lines, wandering blindly past crucial revelations, and inadvertantly ignoring major facets of the life of ‘Rome’s most enigmatic emperor’, in the garish words of the press release. I should add that while I visited very early in the morning — as early, in fact, as is humanly possible on an ordinary ticket — and so was able to double back on myself when sins of omission could not longer be denied, this manoeuvre would have been impossible had the room been even marginally more crowded. Most visitors, I expect, quite literally won’t know what they’ve missed.
Fragments, though, fragments! How, I wondered, were these display-islands, each studded with its own array of discrete and mysterious objects, ever going to add up to an intelligible Hadrian? And indeed, there are moments when even the exhibition itself seems to throw up its hands in despair. Very early on, for instance, we are treated to a case containing a ninth century manuscript of the Historia Augusta, described by the (well-written, informative, handsomely illustrated, and in fact highly recommended) catalogue as
another series of imperial biographies written at the end of the fourth century AD. A complex work with an obscure compositional history and structure that have been painstakingly unravelled by modern historian, the Historia Augusta is a much condensed compilation interspersed with outright inventions. Yet it remains a key source for Hadrian’s life and, but for a very few early medieval manuscripts, it, too, would have perished …
In other words, it’s a gappy, intractible, problematic, pretty awful text. Without it, though, we’d know even less about Trajan’s successor than we do at present.
And we do, in truth, know very little, and there are problems with much of what we think we do know. In this context, even the objects, for all their mystery and promise, start to seem uncooperative. The statues are mostly broken, the noses on the busts often smashed, paint and gilding long gone from the waxy marble surfaces, the inscriptions damaged, the reliefs glued together with pieces missing. Some objects seem to have been summoned as a stand-in for something else that might have been better (Hadrian’s wife, Sabina, is represented in part by a portrait head of her sister) or indeed by a photo of the stand-in (in this case, a photo of a statue of the sister, as well as the actual portrait head). Absent buildings are evoked with (admittedly interesting) models, or by large holiday-brochure type photos projected on the walls, glowing in the gloom like hallucinations.
Here and there, one experiences a disquieting vision of artefacts blagging their way into a high-profile event, for which they quite possibly weren’t on the actual guest-list. From the catalogue, again, here’s what said about a group of funerary portraits from Antinoopolis in Egypt:
In their striking immediacy, [these portraits] seem to bring us face to face with the people who lived when Hadrian and his party visited Egypt and can stand in for the thousands of people all over the empire he must have met.
Can they? Well, that’s all right then. (To be fair, though, the portraits are indeed staggering, albeit less for what they tell us about Hadrian and his reign as for what they suggest about the quality of provincial painting in the second century of the Roman Empire — for if this was what provincial painting looked like, what on earth can have been happening in cultural centres like Naples, or in Rome itself?)
And then, of course, there’s that whole business of the pumpkins. There’s exactly one good visual joke in this exhibition. The section of the show that deals with the architectural achievements of Hadrian’s reign (specifically, the Pantheon and his villa at Tivoli) is located immediately under the gold-and-blue apex of the Reading Room’s dome, which of course is based in part on that of the Pantheon. It’s a joke all the better for the fact that this tidy congruence isn’t, as far as I could see, mentioned anywhere in the exhibition itself.
But the section is not, alas, without a notable curiosity all its own. A story from Hadrian’s life for which the punchline runs, in essence, ‘get back to drawing your pumpkins’ is illustrated by — can you guess? — a photo of some pumpkins. Yet at the same time, we still don’t actually know whether the architect in question ever actually said these words to the emperor, whether Hadrian responded well to this criticism, or indeed, as far as that goes, whether Hadrian actually designed buildings, or for that matter, whether he took any sort of personal interest in pumpkins. But perhaps these pumpkins can stand in for those missing facts, too. It would be a shame if, just because they missed out on being transformed by the magic wand of the curator into anything more relevant, they were somehow prevented from taking their place in the cotillion at Neil Macgregor’s current BP sponsored, blockbuster ball.
Let’s be serious for a moment. One notionally key theme of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is adumbrated in that title: Hadrian is, of course, a Good Emperor, not only because he championed the arts, wrote poetry and was, we are told, ‘gay’ (no, really! more on this later) but also because he brought his troops home from Iraq, not just in order to re-deploy them all to Afghanistan, either.
And yet, for all the promised emphasis on Hadrian’s actual political and military legacy — around which commentators are encouraged to shape their own fond morality tales regarding imperial overstretch and its hazards — there’s actually very little on this subject. Nor is this entirely the curator’s fault, either, because how on earth would one ‘show not tell’, as the creative writing teachers always put it, using the fairly minimal material that exists regarding Hadrian? Instead, we are offered a few things of mesmerising beauty and resonance — a cavalryman’s helmet from Ribchester, cast in bronze, the arrogant cast of the face as thrilling now as it probably was horrifying then, or a bronze portrait head of Hadrian, that tempered metal strangely soft and tactile — and then left to imagine the rest.
Admittedly, one aspect of Roman imperial policy receives less sketchy treatment. This is the Simon Bar Kokhba revolt of AD 132-135, an historical event at once so shadowy in its documentary underpinnings, yet still so ferociously potent in its present-day political and cultural significance, that it’s hard to say virtually anything about it without picking a fight with someone. The curators of the present exhibition have, accordingly, assembled a sequence of artefacts — all of them fascinating, some unsurprisingly moving — connected with this colocynthic yet in some sense glorious moment in the history of Judaism, and then said as little about them as possible.
But when I referred, earlier, to the gloomy nature of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, that ‘gloom’ was perhaps more literal than some readers might assume. Of course, it’s obvious why the two letters from Simon, the fabled leader of the rebellion, require very dim lighting indeed — but it’s unfortunate that this necessity also dooms all related artefacts to obscurity, a half-life lived in the shadows, so easily overlooked or scanned only briefly.
For in a sense, the exhibition comes more powerfully alive here, at some distance from the immediate subject of Hadrian, than it does at any other point. Roman sources suggest that, during the revolt, nearly a thousand Judean villages were razed to the ground, more than half a million rebels — most, presumably, Jews — were killed outright in the course of the rebellion, while many others must have died of starvation, disease or despair. Of those who fled their homes and tried to hide from the conflict, some took to the caves in the wadis to the west of the Dead Sea.
And here, some of their possessions have been recovered. It’s a moment of uncharacteristic vividness in an exhibition too often devoid not just of narrative focus, but of the potent stuff of everyday, imaginable life. There’s a very unremarkable basket, for instance — an environmentally-aware shopper could quite literally take it out onto the King’s Road without exciting any sort of comment whatsoever — a mirror, keys, plates. Most remarkable, perhaps, is a glass platter, probably from Alexandria in Egypt, so perfectly preserved as to shock, somehow, in its absolute normality. How could such a fragile thing survive such carnage, evils redolent of still-greater evils to come, and yet remain unmarked?
Yet the iconography of some of the items found in the cave apparently raises issues as to whether the refugees hiding in the caves were non-Jews, or simply not very devout Jews, or perhaps Jews who had plundered items from the Romans. For again, persistently, this exhibition reminds us not only how little we know about anything, but how little it may indeed be possible to know about anything. We can respond, yes, with anger or grief or sentimentality, but apparently never with true understanding. Standing there in the dark, next to these artefacts, near-numinous in their compromised ordinariness, one could be excused for weeping out of sheer frustration. From what I could see, though, most of the visitors couldn’t make out much in these cases, stared blankly and briefly, then drifted away again.
Sex, lies and the Warren Cup
In the absence of anything approaching unequivocal information regarding the finer stuff of Hadrian’s personality, the exhibition falls back on making the most of what it’s got. As virtually nothing at all is known about Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife and empress — she was Trajan’s niece’s daughter, and that’s about as good as it’s going to get — mentioning her really doesn’t take the exhibition far towards documenting, as it puts it, Hadrian’s ‘loves’.
More promising, perhaps, is the figure of Antinous. ‘Hadrian was gay,’ announces the catalogue, its author perhaps a little too obvious in his gratitude at finding a single fact about Hadrian which can be stated without reservation.
But on reflection, well, can it, and was he? Two paragraphs down from ‘outing’ Hadrian with such — I can’t avoid this, can I? — gay abandon, the catalogue further reveals:
There must have been many gay men and women in the Roman empire. Yet the Romans had an attitude to homosexuality so radically different from that of modern western societies as to render this catagorization meaningless.
Well, yes, quite — all of which rather makes one wonder at the cynicism of employing it so gleefully in the first place. As far as I can see, most ancient Romans weren’t particularly bothered one way or the other about young men having all sorts of experimental fun in each other’s company, or about older men taking an enthusiastic interest in their younger male companions, any more than most civilisations have been — and certainly none of this was seen as conflicting with the practical imperatives of procreation, either, although having sex with someone else’s wife was, quite rightly, considered unacceptable. The most rudimentary acquaintance with classical literature — not only earthy stuff like Catullus, Suetonius or Petronius — makes all of this pretty obvious. So if there’s something truly shocking about the use of the word ‘gay’ in the catalogue’s eye-catching declaration, it lies, surely, in the implicit pessimism regarding visitors’ knowledge of ancient Rome, its culture and socio-sexual mores.
Once upon a time, I imagine, it was different, and every schoolboy — some of them doubtless more alert to this topic than others — knew all about Hadrian and his ‘favourite’ Antinous. If nothing else, they might have recalled this inadvertantly hilarious reflection from Edward Gibbon:
The deification of Antinous, his medals, statues, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still dishonor the memory of Hadrian. Yet we may remark, that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.
That, anyway, was the view from the sunlit uplands of the Enlightenment — so much better, so infinitely more civilised and liberal, than ‘barbarism and religion’, don’t you think?
But in fact, only three things are really known about Antinous’ life — he was Greek, he hunted with Hadrian, and, in AD 130, amid circumstances that remain completely unknowable, he drowned in the Nile — while as for what happened afterwards, the facts are rather less clear. Possibly, it is true, Hadrian was so demented with loss and regret and so forth that he ordered the statues made, instituted the cult, and transformed the love of his life into a deity. Alternatively — and the catalogue is far more interesting on this topic than the exhibition itself — Antinous’ cult may have developed as a clever means of allowing Greek citizens of the Roman Empire to express their philhellene impulses in a manner entirely loyal to the Emperor himself. Who knows? Ultimately, even the greatest of Hadrian’s ‘loves’ may have been nothing more than a crush on a huntsman that somehow mushroomed into a geopolitical strategy, a popular cult and a durable historical myth.
What cannot be doubted about Antinous is that after his death he became the ostensible subject for some absolutely astounding statues, several of which are included in the present exhibition. The Vatican Museums, for instance, have loaned a statue of Antinous depicted as Osiris, an almost unbelievable work, the patina of the marble not properly conveyed by any photograph, the contours of the body at once austere and almost painfully erotic, the collision of the visual traditions of Egypt and Greece and Rome more weird in practice, and more imaginatively suggestive, than could easily be imagined — in short, one of the handful of works here that make, for all my doubts about curatorial judgement and flawed display tactics, the £12 admission fee for this exhibition seem entirely worthwhile. And while we’re on the subject of excellent sculpture, there are also good loans from the Louvre, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the Musei Capitolini in Rome, and major collections elsewhere. For although the presentation strives to make the show look thin and gappy, in truth, there are some marvellous things here.
Yet we cannot move on from Hadrian’s loves without brief recourse to the Warren Cup. Those who remain indifferent both to media outrage over vastly expensive museum purchases (the cup cost £1.8 million in 1999 when the British Museum acquired it, assisted in this project by the Heritage Lottery Fund and National Art Collections Fund) and to super-upmarket pornography will perhaps need to be reminded that this elaborate silver drinking-cup, probably made c. AD 50-70, depicts what the catalogue primly describes as ‘scenes of gay love-making in a Hellenized interior setting’, which I guess is in any event an improvement on the Readers’ Wives-style polyester-clad three-piece suites and similar 1970s abominations to which heterosexuals of an extrovert disposition may, I suppose, be particularly prone.
Having paid £1.8 million for this remarkable thing — it does, to be fair, seem virtually to offer one a cosy front-row couch at the Cena Trimalchionis — it’s unsurprising that the organisers of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict have found a spot for it in the present exhibition, sixty to eighty years of patent anachronism notwithstanding. What’s far odder is that they’ve chosen to display it with one of the two ‘scenes of gay lovemaking’ not visible, for all the world as if, given an object in good condition, efforts had to be made to make it seem more fragmentary. Or did they simply worry that access to a smallish masterpiece of antique silversmithing, rather beautifully executed, would constitute an unavoidably spur to moral depravity on the part of visiting schoolchildren, thus corrupting a nation away from ‘entirely correct’ taste in the ways of love? Don’t try this at home, kids! Gibbon, perhaps, would applaud the gesture — but for the rest of us, curiosity regarding the averted scene leads to contortions no less awkward, if probably considerably less entertaining, than those taking place on the surface of the cup itself. Someone, give those curators a case with a mirror at the back, before a visitor gets seriously injured …
Amongst the ruins
So, then, what to make of all these fragments? Almost certainly this account has struck too often on the tritones, sounding far too negative, giving too little weight to a redemptive point I’ll stress once again, by way of recompense — there are some amazing objects here, unmissable in their uniqueness, quality and resonance.
Who, for instance, could fail to stand in awe of a pair of gilded bronze peacocks that once perched on fence surrounding the outside of Hadrian’s mausoleum — achingly elegant, graceful citizens of pagan antiquity, rare birds who have survived alike the onslaughts of barbarians and popes and tourists (grand or otherwise), as decorative now as they were nine hundred years ago? And who could fail to respond to these lines, included in the Historia Augusta, that may perhaps have been composed by Hadrian as he lay dying, looking out over the Bay of Naples, confronting a bleakness that Christianity had, by that time, already begun to transform and dispel for some, but which may for all I know still have echoes for others even now:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…
Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer
Body’s guest and companion
To what places will you depart
Darkish, chilly and misty
An end to all your jokes…
Of course, by the same token — we can repeat this all together if you like — this small poem may have nothing to do with Hadrian at all. We simply do not know. As we have seen, the Historia Augusta is hardly unimpeachable in its veracity. It might be just another random fragment. And of course it’s admirably hard-nosed and clear-eyed and contemporary to be suspicious at all these various points, and to trust no one, and leave the fragments unmended, or at least to leave the modern mending obvious in the extreme. I’m not, by the way, being ironic there. There are contexts, plenty of them, in which I do genuinely admire this sort of approach. Heaven knows, confronted with the need to make a critical decision and stand by it, I’ve taken the same non-committal tack often enough myself.
Nevertheless, standing there at the end of the exhibition, reading these odd little words — half nursery-rhyme and half lullaby, so much better in the rolling, la-la-la Latin than in the accurate but so much less incantatory English — I found myself wishing the world were otherwise, that some of the sentimental certainties of past years still were possible, that we didn’t (as it were) know better now.
Oh, quite probably the postmodern pessimism of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is not only admirable, but actually correct: we can know very little about each other even at the best of times, and the passage of nearly two thousand years doesn’t exactly help. The past is over. We’re left with a pile of broken stone, rotten papyrus, deformed bronze castings, tesserae, shards, ruins, fragments, imaginative nostalgia — impermanent things, entirely at the mercy of the durable human desire to confect from them some sort of story, however misguided or nakedly tendentious even, so long as that story appears to speak meaningfully to present-day conditions. In conveying this unkind truth, the British Museum is, no doubt, being less nihilistic than coolly, unarguably honest. At that level the curator deserves our congratulations.
Yet there was a time, not so long ago either, when all the apparatus here — the Reading Room, the various vast unflashy galleries full of cases and labels, the scholarship taking place in those dusty corners soon to be demolished in favour of ever greater space for the blockbusters — seemed to convey another message, which was that however impossible knowledge might be, the pursuit of it was, in itself, worthy of a building as majestic as the Pantheon, as internationally famous as the grottos and pools at Tivoli, as enduring as Hadrian’s own magnificent, drum-like, perpetually mysterious tomb.
In conveying this pleasing fantasy, the British Museum was, no doubt, prosecuting all sorts of fiendish schemes designed to capture the material remains of the world’s entire long history in order to ensure that Britain’s present, or at least some cognate mode of modern liberal democracy articulated in Reithian tones, was seen to be history’s inevitable culmination. Well, I suppose we’re expected to wince at the memory — briefly, that is, before we set about sending the marbles back to Athens, the chessmen back to Lewis, and for all I know, re-burying the Sutton Hoo hoard at the bottom of its dried-up fen. Think, not least, how much more room we’d have for blockbuster exhibitions if we did, how much more footfall, more ‘access’, more — whatever it is that a museum’s supposed to do these days, presumably, which seems to be more about impact and marketing than it is about narrative.
And so I left Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, making my way slowly down another dark tunnel until a door suddenly opened. Light dawned. There I was in one of the British Museum’s various gift shops, from which, had I felt that way inclined, I might easily have come away with olive-branch themed tea towels and soaps, Hadrian t-shirts in various sizes, centurion-themed pyjamas, a small replica oil lamp, a tiny resin bust of the deified Antinous, a full-sized resin statue of the deified Antinous, an armful of books, a ‘frenzied maenad replica – suitable for exterior use’, coffee mugs and postcards galore. No, there’s a lot that goes on in this life that seems doomed to remain mysterious to me, and perhaps to others too. I doubt it matters much. But at the same time, I’m not sure I entirely enjoyed the process of being reminded of the extent to which we carry out our daily lives in a world of decay, fragments, and deeply confusing ruins.
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, a BP Special Exhibition, will run from 24 July to 26 October 2008 at the British Museum. Tickets cost £12. Concessions apply.