It only occurred to me much later that there were curtains closing this exhibition off from the museum upstairs and partitioning the various sections. I can’t decide if I prefer that to be a happy accident or a bit of petite curatorial genius referencing Claudius’ own reveal-by-drapery. Given the thought put into the rest, it could well be the latter.
The exhibition Claudio Imperatore lies underneath Richard Meier’s splendid Ara Pacis museum, not far from the Tiber, or from those great imperial monuments, the Castel Sant’ Angelo (or Mausoleum of Hadrian) and the Mausoleum of Augustus. The location of the exhibition, like Claudius’ own on the night of Caligula’s assassination, is perhaps not immediately obvious, but all you have to do is head down below the normal entrance on the long side near the Mausoleum, and there you are. It’s appropriate to have an exhibition focussing on him here, given the long-standing, if somewhat low-key and under-appreciated, presence of the superb Claudian reliefs on the museum’s lower floor. Now the whole reign undergoes scrutiny in a space intimately associated with the beginnings of the Julio-Claudian principate.
It’s a period where highly-regarded art-historical and literary works come together with the detailed, if hardly always fair and balanced, masterpieces of some of ancient Rome’s greatest writers to create a challenging juxtaposition, and a ready audience. An audience that might have some expectations and preconceptions: who, after all, hasn’t seen or read I, Claudius? Who doesn’t know this emperor primarily by those most dramatic – questionable – stories? The discovery of the quailing Claudius behind the curtain, to be carried off, bewildered, by rapacious praetorians; the slobbering and foot-dragging; the suffocating court, filled with manipulative freedmen jockeying for power; the wives – malevolent, vindictive, lust-filled, tempestuous Messallina and calculating, cold Agrippina; and then the tragic slow-motion inescapable doom of the children, Britannicus and Octavia.
When still teaching, I and my classes had more fun with Claudius, Suetonius and Tacitus than almost anything else, appreciating the skill and bile in the writing, enjoying the debunking and deconstruction. There we are then, a reign filled with novelistic features, authorial artifice, retrospective political reshaping and the odd bit of venom. But also one of undoubted achievement in Roman terms – impressive architecture, advancements in infrastructure and government, military victories and considerable expansion of the empire. A reign of two halves – lurid drama, and stolid, concrete administration. How does the exhibit handle the complexity?
Pretty well, all told. The exhibition is divided up thematically and chronologically: family and ancestry, life under Caligula, court, building, empire and expansion and so on. This is all done clearly and logically. It’s well-laid-out, in a surprisingly large space. Good use is made of video and audio-visual effects (without being intrusive), even a bit of early Italian cinema to illustrate the popular afterlife of Claudius’ tangled marriages. Light is used on selected inscriptions to highlight sections as they are discussed – this is a bit like the use of light with reliefs in the British Museum’s Ashurbanipal exhibition that I also liked, and it’s good to see it becoming a mainstream feature. It’s a very effective and engaging way of bringing out the importance and richness of a monument that might otherwise detain viewers rather briefly.
The range of material also makes this far more than a parochial, court-centred showcase, and that’s particularly important when it’s the story of the Claudian court and palace intrigue that’s done so much to skew our understanding of him and his reign. There’s material from a wide array of museums across Italy (notably Grossetto), within Rome and far across the empire (Lyon, the Louvre, Aphrodisias, the British Museum, Colchester…), thoughtfully chosen and well-displayed. This is supplemented by casts, prints and paintings, and some excellent models (I particularly liked the Lugdunum praetorium, to help illustrate Claudius’ birth in this Roman colony in Gaul). There are some real headliners in this material that would justify a ticket on their own – the section of the Forma Urbis (the great marble 1:250ish map of Rome, once in the Flavian Templum Pacis), the famous relief of the praetorians and the sizeable bronze Lugdunum tablet, bearing Claudius’ speech to the senate on extending the citizenship. Everything’s well captioned, and there’s enough English in the labels and audio that English-speakers will be able to enjoy it as much as the rest.
The display begins with Claudius’ family background, illustrated with portrait busts of the various members, supported by quotations explaining his upbringing and the collapse into factional rivalry under Tiberius and Caligula. For most, the highlight of this will be the large receptacle for the cinerary urn of Agrippina the Elder, though the beautifully-lettered bronze inscription conferring honours on the dead (poisoned? hexed?) Germanicus deserves attention, even if it’s shortly to be upstaged.
After the fearful years of Caligula’s reign, the exhibition takes you to Claudius’ accession, from the timorous moment of discovery behind that curtain to an appreciation of the new emperor’s actual impact. There’s an excellent section on Claudius’ immense harbour works at Ostia and, for me, a particularly revelatory one on the posthumous Temple of Claudius. There are, still, sizeable traces of this to be seen if you venture up to Rome’s version of Narnia, the Caelian hill, and you can of course look at plans – including the Forma Urbis/Marble Plan section on display, but it was the imagery in the exhibition that finally made me pay attention to the immense scale of the original. It’s always good when exhibitions give you moments of realisation.
The material culture – the ordinary life – of Claudian Rome is not ignored, and there’s good material to illustrate the artistic developments of the reign. Claudius’ personal contribution – the emperor was something of a scholar – of new letters to the Roman alphabet is also illustrated by a cast of a boundary marker (cippus) featuring them (the original, immured in a street corner wall, isn’t too far a walk away; it’d be a nice way to follow-up your visit). They proved abortive, so this isn’t all that common a thing to see. The life of the court – and not merely the tabloid stuff about the scurrilous wives and scheming freedmen – is there too: among the most interesting objects are grave markers of members of the imperial household, including the wet-nurses of Octavia and Britannicus, Valeria Hilaria and Claudia Pthonge, and the scribe Philius.
We then journey more widely, taking in Claudius’ government of the empire, and his expansion of it. For British and Anglophone visitors, this may be a highlight, given this is the emperor who brought our island into the Roman dominion. Again, it’s well done: there’s a mix of Roman material (notably a cast of the excellent tombstone of our old friend, the tribune Marcus Favonius Facilis from Colchester), but the pre-Roman period is not left blank. There’s a nice display of Iron Age material from Colchester and the King Harry Lane cemetery at St Alban’s. For me, the highlight of this section was the epic Lugdunum tablet, a huge bronze inscription with intricate lettering (it’s not often you get to say “the Qs are particularly lovely”) which is magnificent in its own right, but also hugely significant as providing a rare opportunity to compare a speech in a Roman historian (Tacitus) with what purports to be the actual speech, advocating a pivotal policy of granting citizenship to the Gauls. It’s this which is so well explained to the viewer by means of highlight lighting. This was a very effective way of bringing the importance of the piece, and the policy, over to the viewer; no mean feat when it’s all to easy to have visitors glance at and pass by a mass of words they are unlikely to understand. The curators have certainly succeeded in enlivening it, and in bringing Claudius as a person (the speech is full of verbal tics), and as a ruler, closer to us. The famous Claudius, the tragic figure, the dupe, the fool, the noble victim – those stories are all there for you to judge, but we get to see a much broader, fuller picture too. The exhibition achieves exactly what one with this kind of subject should, and I’d love to see more follow (Domitian? Aurelian?).
The exhibition runs until this October at the Ara Pacis Museum (http://www.arapacis.it/it/mostra-evento/claudio-imperatore). There’s a handsome (and hefty – check your baggage allowance!) catalogue (Italian only, but the pictures may justify it for those who don’t read the language). Why not join us on Peter Sommer Travels' next "Exploring Rome" tour to see it?