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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER IV ROME AS AN ART EMPORIUM
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    Rome an art emporium—Every rich man is more or less a collector—Chrysogon, Sulla’s freedman, competes with patricians—Scaurus’ extravagant display—The type of a crack collector as described by Petronius Arbiter—The Roman palaces have special rooms for art gatherings—The Pinacotheca, the Library, the Exhedra, etc., according to the rules of Vitruvius—Fashion creates new distinctions in the appreciation of art and curios—The craze for Corinthian bronze and the classification of bronze “patine”—The hobby of murrhines and citrus tables.

We do not know how many private collections there were in Rome when the collectomania finally took the city by storm. A list of Roman collectors in the fashion of the modern work (Ritz-Pacot) would be most interesting and enlightening. However, judging from the statues and the public buildings we know to have been replete with objects of art, we gather that as an emporium of art Rome must have attained a magnitude unequalled in past or present times. Why this great collection of art did not transform the Romans into the most artistic people the world has ever seen, is a mystery only to be solved by hypothesis. Either the Romans were innately refractory to the refinements of true art, or, like to all nouveaux riches, the field of art merely afforded room for faddists, hobbyists and fashion seekers, and, only as sporadic cases, a few real lovers of good art. However this may be, without discussing the causes, the effect was certainly gigantic: art from every land found its way to Rome, which by force of circumstances thus became a monumental synthesis of art. Even at the time of Constantine, Rome counted 10 basilicas, 11 forums, 11 thermes, 18 aqueducts, 8 bridges, 37 city gates, 29 military roads leading to all parts of the45 known world, 2 arenas, 8 theatres, 2 circuses, 37 triumphal arches, 5 obelisks, 2 colossal statues, 22 equestrian statues, 423 temples with statues of the gods—eighty of these being in solid gold and seventy-seven in ivory.

It is easy to understand that the above statistics only give a faint idea of the magnificence of Rome, for the 423 streets and 1790 private palaces noted in the same statistics as existing in Rome at the time of Constantine were in a measure respectively open-air museums and repositories of private collections of art, as no patrician mansion, according to Vitruvius, was complete without a place where paintings and objects of art could be exhibited with advantage.

Cicero allows us a peep at the collections and gorgeous palaces owned by notable Romans as well as their style of living. In his oratio (Pro Roscio Amerino) he speaks of Chrysogon in these words:

“Look at Chrysogon when he comes down from his fine mansion on the Palatine! He owns a charming villa, where he goes to rest, just at the gates of Rome. He also owns extensive domains, all magnificent and all near the city. His palace overflows with vases of Delos and Corinthian bronze. He keeps there the famous authepsa bought by him some time ago at such a price that on hearing the auctioneer’s voice repeat the bid, the passers-by imagined a farm was being offered for sale. What shall we say of his chiselled silver? his precious stuffs? his paintings? statues? marbles? How many of such things do you think he owns? Just imagine what has been pillaged from so many opulent families in times of trouble and rapine; and all for the repletion of one single palace.”

When one thinks that this Chrysogon, Sulla’s freedman, had the chance to amass such an accumulation of art, it is not difficult to imagine the artistic wealth that must have been acquired by Scaurus, the terrible Sulla’s unscrupulous son-in-law, the embezzler, the deplored and deplorable Roman Ædile whom Cicero defended before the tribunal with the inconsistency of his easy eloquence.

46 According to Pliny (XXXVI), Scaurus not only owned one of the most magnificent palaces on the Palatine, but had his mansion crowded with rare things in true Roman fashion. With a Sulla for father-in-law, a Metella, the purchaser of proscribed citizens’ goods, for mother, a Scaurus, the magna pars of the Senate and Marius’ former friend and helper in the spoliation of provinces, for father, he can have had no difficulty, as Pliny informs us, in gathering the unequalled treasures that were stored in his palace. The wonders of the treasures of his art emporium are all the more easily explained, too, when we consider that he not only inherited a large fortune, but more than doubled it by speculations.

To give some idea of his fatuous munificence, we may state that this Roman multi-millionaire built, for one month’s performance, a theatre in the city, to hold eighty thousand spectators, and adorned the edifice with three thousand statues and three hundred and sixty columns. Among the precious things of Scaurus’ collection were a great number of paintings by Pausias, works intended by the artist for his native town of Sycione, if the Romans had had milder methods of collecting art.

Even those Romans, and they were many, who were not considered collectors in the proper sense, owned fine works of art. The Servilius, who had large gardens on the Palatine near the present Porta San Paolo, had what a modern connoisseur might call a few extra pieces. There was a Triptolemus, a Flora and a Ceres by Praxiteles, a fine Vesta with two Vestals by Scopas and an Apollo by Calamis. It may be mentioned, by the way, that it was to this famous garden Nero retired on the day preceding his death, it was here in the Servilian mansion that he was abandoned by his servants, parasites and courtiers, here that he wandered desolate and despondent before resorting to flight. On the spot formerly occupied by the Servilian gardens a mosaic was discovered, now in San Giovanni in Laterano, representing an unswept floor with the remains of a luxurious dinner. One might fancy this mosaic to have belonged to one of those47 Roman Triclinia and their noted orgies, or, having the imagination of Ampere, the historian, to the place where Servilia had supped with her lover, Julius Cæsar. History tells us that this matron, the mother of Brutus, was of the pure blood—one might use the modern expression, blue blood—of the gens Servilia.

For the sake of the colour, we cannot refrain from giving the description of a true collector of art as related in all its suggestive reality in the Satyricon, the only known fiction of Roman times, a work which, though fiction, seems close to nature and a most faithful interpretation of the artistic merits and oddities of Roman life.

“I entered the Pinacotheca, where marvels of all kinds were gathered. There were works by Zeuxis which seemed to have triumphed over all the affronts of age, sketches by Prothogenes that appeared to dispute merits with nature herself, works that I did not dare to touch but with a sort of religious fear. There were some monochromes by Apelles which moved me to holy reverence. What delicacy of touch and what precision of drawing in the figures! Ah! the painter of the very soul of things. Here on the wings of an eagle a god raising himself higher than the air; there innocent Hylas repulsing a lascivious Naiad; further on Apollo cursing his murderous hand....”

At a certain moment the owner of the collection, apparently, arrives. He is of a type not yet extinct: the man who lives for his collection, the man so engrossed in his cherished objects as to forget and neglect other pleasures in life, social obligations, etc.

“A white-haired old man arrived,” the author of the Satyricon goes on to relate, “his tormented expression seemed to herald grandeur. His garments were of that neglected character which is often distinctive of literary people who have not been spoilt by wealth....

“I thought of questioning him. He was more of a connoisseur than myself in the epochs of the paintings and their subjects; some of the latter incomprehensible to me. ‘What48 is the reason,’ I asked him while we were speaking of painting, ‘for the weakening, the great decadence of the fine arts nowadays; more especially of painting which seems to have disappeared and to have left no trace of past glory?’ He answered, ‘The passion for money, that is the cause of the great change. Years ago when merit, though left to starve, was glorified and appreciated, art flourished.... Then, only to mention sculpture, Lysippus was perishing of hunger at the feet of the very statue he was intent upon perfecting; Myron, that marvellous artist who could cast in bronze the life of men and animals, Myron was so poor that at his death no one was to be found to accept his inheritance. We of our time, given over to orgies, wine and women, have no energy left to study the fine art pieces under our very eyes. We prefer to abuse and slander antiquity. Only vice nowadays finds great masters and pupils!... Do you believe that in our day any go to the temple to pray for the health of their body? Before all else, even before reaching the threshold of the temple, the one will promise an offering to the gods if his rich relation dies and makes him his heir, the other, if he discovers a treasure, and another if he shall achieve the dispersal of his third million in health and safety.... And are you surprised that painting languishes, when in the eyes of every man an ingot of gold is a masterpiece that cannot be equalled by anything that Apelles, Phidias and all the crack-brained Greeks have been able to produce.’”
Marcus Aurelius.
A XVIth Century copy by L. Del Duca of the equestrian statue in Rome (Campidoglio).

With the growth of fashion, a collection of art became the necessary complement of a wealthy mansion. The need then arose to give this collection the noblest place in the palace, a room apart to enhance its importance. This new view brought about a new architectural distribution of the Roman patrician mansion, not only on account of the family life and obligations of a wealthy class of citizens, but because the well-to-do Roman had obligations towards art and antiquity. In the Roman mansion we thus find first the atrium, a large hall open to friends, clients and visitors at large. The peristyle is the second courtyard, and is reserved for the49 family. In the atrium the domestic gods were generally placed and records concerning the family, including genealogical trees (stemmata).

With time these atria became regular museums, as they were excellent places for decoration and the display of art, being the open central part of the house girded by a colonnade.

An idea of the importance of these atria may be gathered from that of Scaurus’ palace, which had thirty-eight columns 12½ yards high, made of the same kinds of rare marble that faced the walls—Egyptian green, old yellow or Oriental alabaster, African marble and other rare kinds brought from Syria and Numidia. Scaurus’ atrium appears to have been hung round with tapestries, embroidered with gold, illustrating mythological scenes. Alternating with these rare tapestries were panopliæ and family portraits.

Though perhaps the favourite spot, the atrium was not the only place for the artistic display of the Romans. Their palaces also contained Oeci, magnificent galleries used for receptions, and the Exhedræ, which were rooms for conversation, generally of a more sober decoration. In the Triclinia there were kept works in precious metals and the finest pieces of furniture. There was also the Sacrarium, a private shrine where precious pieces of art were often hidden. Verres found his famous canephoros (basket-bearers) by Polycletus, the Cupid of Praxiteles and the Hercules of Myron in the sacrarium of Heius of Messina.

There was also a room in Roman mansions set apart for the library, and some had special nooks for such collections as gems and cameos. The place where the best paintings were shown was called the Pinacotheca, and was always built towards the north so that the light from the windows should be without much variation, and above all because a northern exposure left no chance for the sun’s rays to enter and spoil the effect of the painting.

The Roman collector of books very often went in for elegant bindings and all the showy and decorative side of a50 library. Seneca deplores the fact that while every elegant house in Rome contained a library, many of these collections of books were simply for show. Too many collectors, not dissimilar in this from our bibliomaniacs of to-day, had quantities of works they did not care to read. “What is the use of having so many thousand volumes,” cries Seneca, “the lifetime of their owners would hardly suffice to read the titles of the works.... There is a man with scarcely the literary knowledge of a serf, and he is buying volumes, not to read them, but as an ornament for his dining-room! There is another who is proud of his library only because it is in cedar and ivory; he has the mania of buying books that no one looks for. He is always gaping among his volumes, which he has bought solely for their titles. Lazy people, who never read, are likely to be found with complete collections of the works of orators or historians, books upon books. One could really forgive this mania if it had originated in a real passion for reading, but all these fine works, the great creations of divine genius, works ornamented with the portraits of their authors, do but serve to decorate the walls” (Tranq., IX).

A large library was the desire of Horace. He wrote to Lellius:

“Do you know my daily prayer?—Great Gods! let me keep the little I own, less if it is your pleasure; let me live according to my choice the days your indulgence has granted me; let me have plenty of books, one year’s income in advance that I may not be obliged to live day by day from hand to mouth.... As regards the peace of my heart and my happiness, that is my affair” (Sat., II, 6).

Such contrarieties have a genuine echo in our society where the bibliomaniac is rarely a literary man or even slightly interested in literature. Bibliomaniacs collected volumes for the most part either because some of them were considered rare, and therefore advertised the high price paid for them, or because they might serve as a decorative show, but the collecting of general art and curios, with a few exceptions,51 appears to have been vacuous and freakish. Even specialization, which is held to be progress in modern times, but as a matter of fact more often merely represents the triumph of erudition over art and taste, exercised in Rome the momentary tyranny of fashion.

An example of this specialization is given us by the craze in Rome for Corinthian bronze. Without entering into a discussion about the legend of its origin, and simply hinting that there are strong proofs that the alloy existed long before the siege of Corinth, we are safe in saying that the craze in Rome for Corinthian bronze was one of those freaks of fashion that has had, perhaps, no echo in all the after-history of “collectomania.” Every amateur was at that time bound to have at least one vase of the coveted metal. According to Pliny (XXXIV, 1, 2, 3) in his time this metal was equal to gold in value. In order to obtain two vases of this precious metal Mark Antony ordered the assassination of the owner, and it must be borne in mind that Mark Antony was accused of using golden vessels for the lowest services of his household. Octavianus, supposed to be a collector of mild passions and a man who certainly did give up all such hobbies on becoming emperor, was also very fond of the fashionable metal—corinthiorum præcupidus—and did not scruple to adopt the methods of Sulla and Mark Antony to gratify his ultra-fashionable taste.

Times were then ripe for all forms of degeneration. Connoisseurs, like those of to-day, began to discuss patina. As it required years for Corinthian bronze to assume the proper patina—Nobilis ærugo, Horace calls it—it was natural that this alloy should have the preference over all other kinds of bronze. But there were gradations of colour even in this metal and value was discriminated according to the quality of the patina. Of these patinæ the Roman collector recognized five different kinds. Apart from these varying degrees of merit, the connoisseur, Pliny tells us, could tell the quality of the alloy from its weight and determine the excellency of the patina by its smell.

52 Another craze in Rome that greatly fostered imitation and forgery was that of murrhines, cups of a mysterious material which was more valued than any other rare stone or rock crystal, though a cup of the latter, according to Pliny (XXXVII), easily fetched 150,000 sesterces, an amount equivalent to £1200. As a rule, always according to Pliny, for one of these cups a bigger price was paid than for a slave.

If the Romans, unlike the Americans, had no detectives at festivals and banquets, they certainly took precautions to guarantee the safety of the treasures displayed and to guard against the possible greed of some guest.

“Whereas Virro drinks from pateras of beryl,” remarks Juvenal, speaking to a parasite, “no one would trust you with even a simple golden cup, or, if perchance they do let you use one, be sure a guardian near you has previously counted the precious stones studding it and follows with his eye the movements of your fingers and your sharp nails.”

One can really not refrain from giving this gorgeous patch of Roman colour as Juvenal himself puts it:—
... Ipse capaces Heliadum crustas et inæquales beryllo Virro tenet phialas: tibi non committitur aurum; Vel, si quando datur, custos affixus ibidem, Qui numeret gemmas unguesque observet acutos (V. 38).

One may be sure that the man charged with watching was likely to do his duty with the utmost solicitude. Carelessness in handling these precious pieces that were used to decorate Roman tables was not easily overlooked. An anecdote will illustrate this. Vedius Pollio, a Roman nobleman, possessed one of the most esteemed collections of these crystals. One day when Augustus was dining at this favourite’s house, a slave broke one of the precious crystal cups. Vedius immediately ordered the slave to be thrown alive into the pond of lampreys. Disgusted at such an order, Augustus not only made a freedman of the slave but ordered that Vedius’ whole53 collection of crystals should be broken before his eyes and thrown into the pond of lampreys.

But as we have said above, the craze for murrhines surpassed the craze for the precious crystal, though comparing the two, we are bound to add, with no artistic justification.

What these murrhines were made of is not exactly known. Some of the scholars of our day believe they were artificial, a mixture of clay with myrrh, hence, perhaps, the name. Winkelmann is inclined to think they were made of a kind of agate, and Mariette and de Caylus respectively believe them to have been mother-of-pearl, or fluor-spar, or porcelain.

In further illustration of the peculiar substance of the murrhines we quote from Pliny:

“The material of the murrhines is in blocks no larger than an ordinary glass, and a stratum no thicker than the marble of a small console. There is no real splendour in this material, but instead of splendour what one might call brilliancy. What gives the murrhines their price is the variety of their tints, the colour of the veining, either purple or pure white, sometimes shading off into nuances, reaching in some species the hue of blazing purple. The white samples shade into roseate or milky tones. Some amateurs are fond of freakish accidentalities or reflex iridescent changes like the rainbow, others prefer opaque effects. Transparency and pale hues are considered defects, as also opaque grains inside even if they do not alter the surface, like tumours, spreading in the human body. The quality of the odour helps to set the price on the stuff” (XXXVII, 8).

It is to be noted that while this rather vague description of Pliny’s would seem on the one hand to point to the agate or any fluor-spar, the addition of the odour tends to destroy this hypothesis.

In any case murrhines became the rage of the Roman collector, and the fashion being, as usual, imperative, no one was considered elegant or correct who did not own at least one sample of the precious cups. One of these cups which, according to Pliny’s estimate, could not contain more54 than a measure of liquid, less than half a gallon, had cost the large sum of 70 talents (£15,400). Adding that the cup had belonged to a consul, and that the edge of it was nibbled, Pliny remarks that “such damage is the reason of the increased price, there is not in all Rome a murrhine which can boast of a more illustrious origin” (XXXVII, 7).

This consul, who loved his cup so much as to nibble it on putting it to his lips, this collector, whose name is unknown to us, used up all his patrimony on his hobby of collecting murrhines. He possessed so many of them, Pliny adds, that “one might have filled with them the private theatre that Nero had constructed in his gardens on the other bank of the Tiber.”

Perhaps one of the most esteemed murrhines was that which was considered the gem of Petronius’ collection. He had paid 300 talents (£66,000) for it. Knowing how much Nero coveted this precious cup and wishing to baffle his plans, before destroying himself Petronius ordered his slaves to break it to pieces, so that it should not fall into the hands of the man he detested.

A rival craze in Rome to that of murrhines was the passion for tables of citrus. Here too there is uncertainty as to the nature of this rare wood called citrus. Apparently it grew at the foot of Mount Atlas in Africa, and was in all probability a thuja. To obtain the proper grain it was felled at the root and cut into planks of a length to furnish the board of the table.

Pliny seems to think that Cicero—the snob collector—set the example of extravagance in these tables. The one he bought at the fancy price of 4000 English sovereigns was still in existence in Pliny’s time and went under the name of the Ciceroniana. Cicero’s price, however, was surpassed by Asinius Gallus and Cethegus, the former paying 1,100,000 sesterces for his citrus table and the latter 1,400,000 sesterces. Yet according to Cicero, the citrus table that Verres had placed in his triclinium was the finest and most valuable Rome had ever seen.

55 Needless to add that in this article, too, collectors had their preferences, that there was citrus and citrus, that the precious tables were valued according to the grain of the wood and the patina. There were four qualities among the most appreciated. The tigrines, the pantherines and the pavonines were those tables of which the grain and knots of the wood resembled the coats of the two animals in the case of the two first, whereas the wood of the last showed knots like the eyes of a peacock’s tail. The fourth quality was called apiates, for in these tables the wood looked like a mass of dark seeds, or more accurately a swarm of bees—hence the name.

The collectomania and thirst for display must have not only favoured the trade in spurious pieces of cheap imitation but, have caused in the chaos of tastes at times an equal confusion in general reasoning. Thus wise men and philosophers appear to have indulged in—what shall we say?—rather amateurish considerations, indicating the reasoning powers of a dilettante. Cicero at one time gibes at collectors and at another boasts of being a collector himself. Seneca, the wise Seneca, the cool-headed philosopher, was no better. Forgetting that his triclinium was adorned with five hundred fine, tripod-like tables with ivory feet, he writes as a comment:

“I like a simple table with nothing remarkable about its grain, one that is not celebrated in the city for having belonged to a succession of lovers of fashion.” And then “... material considerations to which a pure soul mindful of its origin should give no weight.”

At one time fashion demanded that citrus should be used in veneering, an art in which the Romans were extremely skilful, using all kinds of rare woods, ivory and tortoise-shell. Furniture veneered with tortoise-shell, especially, fetched an extremely high price and was in considerable vogue for a time. The fact was sufficient to prompt Seneca to this odd comment: “Is it possible that people are so ready to pay most extravagant prices for the shell of such an unclean and lazy animal!”

56 The prices paid for art were only too often created by fashion, as shown by the artistic milieu of Rome we have been trying to outline, and yet the characters we have passed in review in our reconstruction of the past do not seem altogether dissimilar from some of our present-day lovers of art.


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