At Large  August 30, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

In Vita Dulcis, Contemporary Art and Ancient Objects Collide

Christopher Siwicki

Bust of Antinous from the Collezione Boncompagni Ludovisi

There are a surprising number of exhibitions which bring together contemporary art and ancient objects; surprising, because the areas are not natural bedfellows. Whatever the professed reasons for putting on such shows, one suspects that part of the desire to team up is a perception that historical artifacts can offer contemporary creations a degree of legitimacy, while artists provide a sense of increased relevance and trendiness to historians

The relationship is unequal. Artists deal in subjectivity and have a certain carte blanche in how they ‘respond’ to the ancient world. Historians are constrained by the fact that their material has already been made and they are expected to be objective in the way they present it. These differences of approach are challenges for the curators, who also have to appease distinct audiences, but not insurmountable obstacles.

Photo Daniele Molajoli

VITA DULCIS, PARA BELLUM Hall | Francesco Vezzoli, Achille!, 2021, Italian marble bust (19th century), green marble socle, chalk, acrylic paint. Courtesy Francesco Vezzoli, Almine Rech Gallery, Galleria Franco Noero, Apalazzogallery / Group of Achilles and Penthesilea, mid-2nd century AD. Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano. 

Done well, such collaborations present new ways of looking at old objects and provide greater contextualisation for modern ideas and concepts. Done poorly, they risk being kitsch and cliché. 

Vita Dulcis: Fear and Desire in the Roman Empire’ is an exhibition at Palazzo Esposizioni in Rome. Its curators are the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli and the archaeologist Stéphane Verger, director of the Museo Nazionale Romano, which houses one of the greatest archaeological collections in the city. It combines a selection of pieces from Vezzoli’s repertoire of work based on engaging with the Roman world going back over a decade, with dozens of ancient sculptures and inscriptions. 

The exhibition is divided into eight spaces. In the central hall, stand six black and white illuminated figures. Rendered in 2D, their bodies are modeled on Classical-era sculptures of the goddess Venus, the wife of the emperor Hadrian, and a Maenad – a follower of god Dionysus. Their faces, however, have been replaced with the portraits of modern female stars, including Sharon Stone and Anita Ekberg. The titles of these works vary depending on the ancient statues being used, but follow the formula ‘Portrait of a Diva as the Venus from Knidos with the Eyes of My Mother’, the final part referring to the fact that Vezzoli has substituted the stars’ eyes for those of his mother. As unsettling as this detail might appear, work is effective in conveying a sense of classic Hollywood glamour and is a strong example of the exhibition design by artist Filippo Bisagni and lighting design by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, setting the tone of the show.

The seven rooms radiating off the hall are dedicated to different themes, which can be categorised as war, homoeroticism, women, death, carnality, power, and fragmentation. 

Room One contains a bust of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king held up as the archetypal ruler-warrior in antiquity, a sculpture of the emperor Domitian in the guise of Hercules, and a fragmentary statue group of the Greek hero Achilles and the Amazonian queen Penthesilea, who he fell in love with at the moment of killing her. Behind these is a 19th century bust of the Greek hero Achilles to which Vezzoli has made chalk and acrylic additions (titled Achille). The juxtaposition of ancient sculpture with Vezzoli’s work is common to all of the rooms.

Christopher Siwicki

Portrait of Antinous as a Rock Star 2023. 

The second room features a superb bust of Antinous from the Museo Nazionale Romano collection. Famous for his intimate relationship with the emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138), Antinous drowned in the river Nile and was then deified by his bereft lover. Positioned just behind the bust is one of Vezzoli’s most visually striking contributions. ‘Portrait of Antinous as Rock Star’ is an arrangement of six casts of Antinous, each featuring a colourful lightning bolt painted across one eye, as David Bowie sported on the cover the 1973 album Alladin Sane. 

Colourful additions to ancient white marble sculpture is a signature of Vezzoli’s work and in all of the rooms there are examples where makeup has been painted onto actual Roman-era portraits. There is an initial shock value on seeing the first of these altered faces, accompanied by the question ‘is it removable?’. However, grouping too many of them together somewhat lessens the effect and it is not entirely sure what the artist is saying in each case. Is this a comment on the notion that Classical sculpture was originally more colourful that commonly supposed, supposed as posited by the recent exhibition Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? In any case, seeing red nail polish applied to a third century BC votive foot (a work titled ‘Pedicure’ in the room on fragmentation) undeniably raises a smile. 

Christopher Siwicki

Capucine (Portrait of a veiled Woman) by Francesco Vezzoli, 2023

Many of the Roman objects come from the storerooms of the archaeology museum and have never been on public display before. The lack of detailed information about this material in the accompanying panels or exhibition booklet is therefore frustrating. This is particularly true in the room which is centres on the death, which contains an array of Roman funerary monuments with inscriptions but no transcription (let alone translation from the Latin) of what they say. Is there an assumption that, even though this is a show which combines contemporary and archaeological objects, because it is held in an art gallery then visitors are automatically less interested in the latter material? Again, one feels the unequal relationship. Putting historical objects in a new, unfamiliar setting need not be mutually exclusive to explaining their historical context as would be expected in an archaeological museum. 

In the room on power, Vezzoli has inserted two ancient portraits of the emperors Domitian and Marcus Aurelius into two 17th century female busts (titled ‘High Society’ and ‘The Swan’, respectively. Although Vezzoli wants us to question ‘what are the limits of power’, this gesture seems aimed at undermining received ideas of power. A suitable backdrop to the sculptures is the screening of the 1956 film Mio figlio Nerone, a comedy about the emperor Nero escaping his mother’s efforts to instil in him the necessary qualities for being a ruler.

Christopher Siwicki

Group of Achilles and Penthesilea, mid 2nd century AD (front), Achille by Francesco Vezzoli, 2021 (back)

The title of the show is the Latinization of the famous Italian movie ‘La Dulce Vita’ and presumably the subtitle is a play on the film and novel ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. Film is integral to the exhibition and is one of the most important mediums through which ideas – real or imagined – about what ancient Roman was like have reached wider audiences. 

Each room has a screen playing clips from movies about the Roman world, including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) in Room One on war, Stanely Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) in Room Two, Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) in the Room on women, and Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) perfectly embodies the room themed around carnality. 

Christopher Siwicki

Portrait of a Diva as Aphrodite Sosandra with the Eyes of My Mother (front) by Francesco Vezzoli, 2012

Also showing is Vezzoli’s own ‘Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula’ (2005) in the final room on fragments (appropriate for a trailer). The five-minute short is a humorous response to the controversial, star-studded 1979 film ‘Caligula’, the only ancient epic to be produced by Penthouse. Vezzoli’s fake trailer, itself featuring Helen Mirren, Gerard Butler, Benicio Del Toro, and Courtney Love underscores perhaps the best parts of the show, where it is playful and fun. Throughout, there is a sense that the curators enjoyed themselves and to try to show the world, ancient or modern, in an ironic way is laudable.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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