Earlier this month, I spent a few days in Rome, mainly so that I could visit the Augusto exhibition currently showing at the Scuderie del Quirinale. It’s no coincidence that this exhibition is happening now. It is specifically tied in with Augustus’ bimillennium, which of course makes it of great interest to me. It’s clearly a hit with the general public too, since it was packed out on the day when I visited, and has apparently been attracting long queues for its free evening viewings. After visiting the exhibition itself, I was lucky enough be able to interview two of its curators, Annalisa Lo Monaco and Claudio Parisi Presicce, who kindly took me for lunch in the Capitoline Museum, put up with my terrible Italian, and answered all my questions about how the exhibition had been put together and what they hoped visitors would get out of it.

The focus of the exhibition rests squarely on Augustan art, and the themes which characterised it: for example, the usage and adaptation of Greek models, or the rural-idyllic and mythological motifs associated with the idea of the Golden Age. But the curators have also put a lot of thought into the bimillennial context of the exhibition, and especially the particular occasion which it commemorates: Augustus’ death, and his subsequent deification. References to this ‘book-end’ the exhibition, so that visitors begin and end their journey through Augustan art with the event that gave rise to the show in the first place. It’s a great example of how anniversaries can act as a conduit into the past.

Arles_statue_augustusAt the beginning of the exhibition, the first major piece to greet the visitor is an over-life-size statue of Augustus from the theatre at Arles (left). As the caption explains, this was made after his death, and shows him semi-nude in the manner of Zeus or Jupiter: i.e. in a quasi-divine guise. The point is reinforced by the other pieces in the same room: a statue of Livia in the orans (praying) pose, standing angled towards the emperor, and the Belvedere altar, with its scene of apotheosis (though not Augustus’) facing forwards. So our first encounter with Augustus is strongly framed in terms of his posthumous deification. The person we are meeting is no ordinary mortal.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the exhibition, the grand climax and one of the show’s greatest tours de force is the collected ‘Medinaceli reliefs’ – a series of whole and fragmentary panels, originally discovered somewhere near Naples, which depict key moments in Augustus’ political career. These are usually spread across two different museums in Spain and a third in Budapest, so the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see them all at once, and to get some sense of how they might originally have worked together. Like the Arles statue, the monument which they came from was clearly posthumous (probably Claudian), since as well as depicting events from Augustus’ lifetime, like the battle of Actium and the triple triumph of 29 BC, it also references his deification. The reference is indirect – what we get is a tensa, which was a special carriage used to carry images of the gods into the Circus Maximus so that they could ‘watch’ the races. But since this particular tensa is decorated with an image of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises, it is a pretty safe bet that it belongs to the deified Augustus.

So the Medinaceli reliefs themselves and the exhibition as a whole follow a similar narrative trajectory: tracing the major events of Augustus’ earthly career, but climaxing with his death and deification. For the exhibition, though, prefacing that narrative with the posthumous, quasi-divine statue from Arles seemed to me to lend a particular resonance to what followed. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as the effect created by the full title of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti: ‘The Achievements of the Divine Augustus’. In this context, it is often pointed out that because we learn from this title that the man whose words we are about to read has already been deified, our reading of what follows is shaped by that knowledge. It encourages us to take the deification for granted, and to approach the text with the expectation of finding out what he did to justify it. It also predisposes us to accept actions which might otherwise seem troubling, like raising an army without the authority of the senate, because we already know the end result – a grateful senate granting Augustus the ultimate seal of approval by deifying him after his death.

A couple of other things about the Augusto exhibition reminded me of the Res Gestae, too. One was the treatment of Lepidus, Sextus Pompeius and especially Mark Antony. Straight after the Arles statue, visitors enter a room which covers Octavian / Augustus’ rise to power, and contains an incredible collection of contemporary portrait heads. Crassus, Pompey and Caesar all appear, representing the precedents for Oct / Aug’s career in the previous generation, but Octavian’s own rivals and fellow-triumvirs are notable only by their absence. For Lepidus and Sextus Pompeius, this is entirely reasonable, since no securely-attested portrait busts of them survive, but this isn’t true for Mark Antony. Cleopatra, too, was present only obliquely, through a portrait which may (or may not) have been her, and a bronze crab support from one of her ‘needles’ in Alexandria.

Clipeus_virtutis_-_Augusto_-_ArlesJust as striking was the presence of the amazing marble copy of the Clipeus Virtutis (above), also from Arles, in the final room, just next to the Medinaceli reliefs. The original golden version of this shield was (probably) awarded to Augustus in 27 BC, while the marble copy is definitely dated to 26 BC. So in a strictly chronological narrative it would belong closer to the start of the exhibition than its end. But for me its placement in the final room recalled Augustus’ decision to describe the same shield in the penultimate chapter of the Res Gestae. In both contexts, the effect is to remind us of his worthy qualities (through the virtues listed) and of their widespread recognition (through the fact of the shield’s award), just as we are reaching the end of his story. Our closing impression is very much that we have been in the presence of a Great Man.

But in the end the exhibition is not the Res Gestae. Its concern is with the art of the Augustan era, and the sheer mass of pieces which it has brought together allows the opportunity for some really valuable comparisons and contrasts which have never been possible before.

Perhaps most excitingly, the curators have succeeded in bringing together the eponymous exemplars of all the major known Augustan portrait types: Béziers, Spoleto, Alcúdia (also known as the Actium / Octavian type), Lucus Feroniae, Louvre MA 1280 (now taken as the apogee of the Forbes type), and of course the Prima Porta statue. (Augustus’ portrait types are discussed in this seminal article by R.R.R. Smith, but I can’t find a good basic introduction to the topic online). Though the Prima Porta has its own special space later in the exhibition, the rest are presented directly alongside one another, so that for the first time ever visitors can compare and contrast not casts or pictures but real originals, taking in the fine details of hair-style, expression and facial roundedness which scholars have used to differentiate and classify them.

I certainly found myself more convinced than I have ever been before that the traditional groupings really are both consistent and different from one another, and I was particularly struck by the differences in the portraits dated to the triumviral period. I have tended to focus on the Lucus Feroniae and Alcúdia style portraits when thinking about this period, with their hard, determined look conveying Octavian’s role as the stern, no-nonsense politician and unflinching military leader. But the Béziers and Spoleto portraits are incredibly different – idealised, impassive and very Hellenistic-looking with their youthful, full faces and bouffant hair. There was clearly more experimentation with Octavian’s public image going on during this period than I’d really recognised before, and I’ll be sure to remember that in future.

The portraiture of Augustus’ family is also very well-represented, with busts for every possible relative, and two each for both Livia and Gaius (one as boy, one as a young man with his first beard). Again, the particular busts on display are the best known examples, collected from museums all over the world, and the effect of being able to see them all in one place was really worthwhile. Of course I already knew that the visual iconography of the imperial family was calculated to emphasise family resemblances, even where there was no blood connection, thus creating the impression of a coherent regime. But seeing their similarities carved into marble across a full three-dimensional set is again quite different from noting it in pictures. I came away feeling like I had experienced something of the original impact of contemporary family groupings from places like basilicas, cult buildings or monumental arches.

Prima Porta waist upAs for the Prima Porta statue (left), I’m afraid that for me the effect of placing it right next to the Naples Doryphoros was to make me think that the resemblance between them is perhaps not that strong after all. Nonetheless, I loved being able to walk right round it, and examine it in close detail. Though I have seen it before in its usual home in the Vatican Museum, I noticed new things about it in the exhibition which I hadn’t picked up on before. In particular, looking at the traces of original paint in the statue’s eyes, I realised one interesting effect of the direction of his gaze. If you stand a few metres in front of the statue, it appears to be looking directly at you: perhaps addressing you with the grand adlocution which its raised-arm pose evokes. Yet the carving on the cuirass is executed in very fine detail, suggesting that it was intended to be examined at close range; and once you have stepped up close to the statue in order to do this, a glance up at its face reveals that the emperor’s eyes are now gazing outwards, above and beyond you. That is, at the moment of taking in the central scene of Augustus’ great achievement, you are simultaneously reminded of your own insignificance, and the much wider horizons of the princeps‘ concerns. Or that’s how it felt to me, anyway.

Meanwhile, the exhibition itself is its own art-form. I’ve already spoken about how it opens with the over-life-size Arles statue, but what I haven’t mentioned yet is how the impact of this piece is enhanced by its placement, facing the visitor through a framing doorway. The effect is to invite us forward for our first encounter with Augustus, and it is followed by a similar sequence of framing devices which keep on drawing us through the exhibition space. From in front of the Arles statue, a turn to the left reveals not only a magnificent bronze equestrian Augustus in the next room, surging forward to greet us at the head of a sea of portrait busts, but at the other end of the gallery the star attraction of the Prima Porta statue. Similarly, on the floor above, the Medinaceli reliefs are constantly visible as we work our way through the four rooms which precede them, helping to build anticipation for the moment when we get to see them in their full glory.

I was impressed, too, by the used of curved or cylindrical pedestals, which besides serving the welcome practical purpose of allowing visitors to walk round the exhibits, also echoed the curving fronds of vegetation which are so central to Augustan art, and the curved shapes of the Scuderie’s ceilings and stairways to boot. All in all, I came away struck not only by how very important it is to view individual works of ancient art in real life, rather than just in pictures, but also by how much more there is to the spatial experience of an exhibition than the printed catalogue and a few photographs can ever convey.

Augustus’ stint in Rome is nearly over now, with the exhibition closing on February 9th. But if you’ve missed it, don’t despair: the same exhibition will also be shown at the Grand Palais in Paris from 19th March to 13th July. I can highly recommend a visit.