Alma-Tadema and the accession of Claudius

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Alma-Tadema and the accession of Claudius

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Mon Sep 17, 2007 11:58 pm

Salvete omnes,

As I mentioned in my previous discussion on The Triumph of Titus, Alma-Tadema seems to have had a particular fascination with the accession of emperor Claudius, a subject which he painted in at least three different versions. Over the next two days I want to briefly discuss these paintings because of their historical interest and the way Tadema's style evolved between 1867 and 1880.

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor (1867)
(Large version here)

I am unsure whether this painting is called Proclaiming Claudius Emperor or Claudius Summoned, or even whether these are two different versions of the same painting. It's possible that one is a copy of the other, but for the sake of convenience, I will stick with Proclaiming Claudius Emperor. Now let's move to the scene depicted in the painting, which is the accession of Claudius following the assassination of his nephew Gaius 'Caligula'. Tadema seems to be directly adapting the version of events handed down to us by Suetonius (Claudius, 10), who wrote the following:

"...[Claudius] became emperor in his fiftieth year by a remarkable freak of fortune. When the assassins of Gaius shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment called the Hermaeum; and a little later, in great terror at the news of the murder, he stole away to a balcony hard by and hid among the curtains which hung before the door. As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, intending to ask who he was, pulled him out and recognized him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he hailed him as emperor."

This story is similarly reported by Flavius Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews, who adds the detail that the soldier who discovered Claudius was a man named Gratus (Antiquities, XIX.3.1). In this painting, Tadema adapts the story in a fairly straightforward manner, and the key players can easily be identified. The tone of the painting however seems to be mostly emphasizing the comic elements in the story: Claudius "the fool", cowering in fear before the Praetorians, and finding to his astonishment (and the laughing soldiery) that he is being proclaimed emperor.

A Roman Emperor 41AD (1871)
(Large version here)

Tadema revisited the subject four years later with A Roman Emperor 41AD. Note that the above image is only a detail of the entire painting, which, in scope, is more similar to the third painting than the first. Unfortunately, this detail is the best version that can currently be found on the internet. A much smaller image of the entire original however can be seen here. My image cuts a portion from the left which obscures the fact that there is not one but two bodies beneath the statue of Augustus: one of a blackhaired man/woman turned in the direction of the viewer, and one of a man/woman dressed in blue robes, with green shoes protruding to the side. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's immediately apparent how much more detailed this version is compared to the 1867 original. On a technical level it is much more accomplished than Proclaiming Claudius Emperor. The richly detailed marble foot to the far right especially reminds why Tadema was rightfully called the "marbelous painter".

Tadema has now shifted the scene to the moment when Gratus discovers Claudius behind the curtain and immediately proclaims him emperor, while the other soldiers - not seen in the above image - look on in much the same way as the previous painting. Between the soldiers and Claudius however a new element appears which casts the story in an altogether more grim light: the murdered bodies of Caligula and his wife Caesonia. We know of course that Caligula was not murdered inside the palace, but rather in one of the covered hallways linking the palace to the forum (at least according to Suetonius, Caligula, 58). This painting seems to suggest that he was stabbed in the palace and, in his last moments, clasped the statue of Augustus before succumbing to his wounds. The other body is presumably that of his wife Caesonia, who was murdered along with their daughter Julia Drusilla in the aftermath of the assassination. The appearance of these bodies in one place would obviously be artistic license on behalf of Tadema, but if we follow Josephus' account of the assassination, it needn't necessarily be historically inaccurate:

"So when [Julius Lupus] was come into the palace, he found Caesonia, who was Gaius' wife, lying by her husband's dead body, which also lay down on the ground, and destitute of all such things as the law allows to the dead, and all over herself besmeared with the blood of her husband's wounds, and bewailing the great affliction she was under, her daughter lying by her also;" (Antiquities, XIX.2.4)

Caesonia then offered her throat to Lupus, who killed her along with Julia Drusilla. If this was the narrative Tadema followed, the person in the blue robes would be Caesonia, and Caligula the man beneath her. A previous analysis of the painting however (which can be found here) identifies Caligula as the man in blue, on account of the green shoes or boots he seems to be wearing. This is said to be a sligh reference to his nickname "Caligula", meaning "little boot", but personally, I'm not completely convinced. The blackhaired person at the bottom does appear to be a woman, but if we are to believe Suetonius, Caligula often dressed as one:

"In his clothing, his shoes, and the rest of his attire he did not follow the usage of his country and his fellow-citizens; not always even that of his sex; or in fact, that of an ordinary mortal. He often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets; sometimes in silk and in a woman's robe; now in slippers or buskins, again in boots, such as the emperor's body-guard wear, and at times in the low shoes which are used by females" (Caligula, 52)

So I suppose the exact interpretation remains open for debate. One final point of interest here is the carpet at the feet of Claudius, which bears the text GENIVS HVIVS L(OCI) beneath a picture of a serpent. In Roman mythology, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place, and it was often depicted as a snake. Tadema travelled to Italy several times during his life, and cites his visits to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum as a major inspiration for his painting. In these houses, he would have seen frescos similar to the carpet depicting the serpent.

Ave Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! (1880)
(Large version here)

Which brings us finally, some 10 years later, to the third and last version of the story: Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia! In several ways, this is the most enigmatic version of the three paintings. To begin with, the question arises why Tadema felt the need to revisit the subject a third time. Was he unhappy with the previous version? Is it simply meant to be a different take on the same subject?

As a work of art, there are things in this version I like better AND worse than in A Roman Emperor 41AD. In both paintings, the action is nearly identical: Gratus discovering Claudius behind the curtain, the dead bodies beneath the Julio-Claudian statues, and a mob of Praetorians hailing Claudius as the new emperor. As a composition, I think Ave Caesar! is the more balanced painting, giving us a clearly spaced view of the action, as opposed to the more "cramped" atmosphere of the 1871 version. What I like less however is the lack of colour contrast. Much of the scene to the left here is obscured by the darkness of the colours. In the 1871 painting, the green curtain contrasts beautifully with the white toga of Claudius and the red-brown uniform of Gratus. Here we can barely even see Claudius, whose arm seems curiously afloat in a mass of dark red colours.
Equally covered darkness is the floor in this painting. Whereas A Roman Emperor 41AD allows at least some guesswork as to who the dead people beneath the statue might be, identification on Ave Caesar seems entirely impossible. At least three or four corpses can be distinguished on the floor, all dressed in togas.

The two most interesting things about this painting are in fact, the statues of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and the two snakes crawling over the floor in the far left corner. The busts, from left to right, most likely depict Caligula, Tiberius, Augustus and Julius Caesar. The last bust I'm merely guessing is Julius Caesar, because only part of the inscription is visible ("us"), but I have no idea who else it could be. The inscriptions on the other three make identification fairly straightforward:

Augustus: "caesar augustus divi f. pater patriae"
Tiberius: "ti. caesar divi aug f. augustus imp."
Caligula: "c. caesar divi aug pron p. ma tr"

The snakes are a different matter. I'm not sure what they are supposed to symbolize here, although I guess it's connected with the serpent depicted in the 1871 painting. If someone else could comment on their use here?

One final note then, is the title of the painting, Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia!. I'm unsure what Io Saturnalia is doing here, since my sources tell me Caligula was murdered on January 24, long after the Saturnalia had passed. Or is this simply a generic expression of rejoicing? Seems odd at first.
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Tarquinius Dionysius
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Io Saturnalia, indeed!

Postby Aldus Marius on Wed Sep 19, 2007 5:09 pm

Salve, mi Tarquini!

I'm still too muzzy-headed to be much help on the rest of it, but...I think 'Io Saturnalia' just could refer to the comic element of the situation; after all, slave and master traded places during the Feast of Saturn, and the whole accession-of-Claudius thing must have seemed ever afterwards to the Romans as a sublime jest. >({|;-)

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