Bust of Augustus, great nephew of Julius Caesar (Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikipedia)
What does the face of power look like? Who gets commemorated in art and why? And how do we react to statues of politicians we deplore? In her new book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, noted classicist Mary Beard tells the story of how for more than two millennia portraits of the rich, powerful, and famous in the western world have been shaped by the image of Roman emperors, especially the “Twelve Caesars,” from the ruthless Julius Caesar to the fly-torturing Domitian. She asks why these murderous autocrats have loomed so large in art from antiquity and the Renaissance to today, when hapless leaders are still caricatured as Neros fiddling while Rome burns.
Beginning with the importance of imperial portraits in Roman politics, Beard offers a tour through 2,000 years of art and cultural history, presenting a fresh look at works by artists from Memling and Mantegna to the 19th-century American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, as well as by generations of weavers, cabinetmakers, silversmiths, printers, and ceramicists.
Rather than a story of a simple repetition of stable, blandly conservative images of imperial men and women, Twelve Caesars is an unexpected tale of changing identities, clueless or deliberate misidentifications, fakes, and often ambivalent representations of authority.
In conversation with Maya Jasanoff, Coolidge professor of history at Harvard University, hear Beard discuss her fascinating detective work, offering a gripping story of some of the most challenging and disturbing portraits of power ever created, from Titian’s extraordinary lost Room of the Emperors to Henry VIII’s famous Caesarian tapestries.
Copies of Twelve Caesars (Princeton University Press) are available for purchase.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1/2 credit*
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