A sumptuously illustrated, beautifully designed, gloriously rich work of history from the distinguished classicist with a lively literary voice, an extraordinary eye for telling detail, and a grand sense of humor. Twelve Caesars is a masterful, brilliant work of detection, a joy to read.
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 this book—against a background of today’s “sculpture wars”—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. Twelve Caesars 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, this richly illustrated book 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 nineteenth-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.
From Beard’s reconstruction of Titian’s extraordinary lost Room of the Emperors to her reinterpretation of Henry VIII’s famous Caesarian tapestries, Twelve Caesars includes fascinating detective work and offers a gripping story of some of the most challenging and disturbing portraits of power ever created.
Published in association with the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
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About the Author
Table of Contents
List of Tables viii
Chapter I The Emperor on the Mall: An Introduction 1
Chapter II Who's Who in the Twelve Caesars 43
Chapter III Coins and Portraits, Ancient and Modern 78
Chapter IV The Twelve Caesars, More or Less 118
Chapter V The Most Famous Caesars of Them All 151
Chapter VI Satire, Subversion and Assassination 188
Chapter VII Caesar's Wife … Above Suspicion? 235
Chapter VIII Afterword 274
Appendix: The Verses underneath Aegidius Sadeler's Series of Emperors and Empresses 289
List of Illustrations 358
What People are Saying About This
“As this book triumphantly demonstrates, there is no one on the face of the planet better qualified than Mary Beard to guide us through the great hall of mirrors, labyrinthine and treacherous as it is, that separates us from the Twelve Caesars.”—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic“Deftly weaving together past and present, this elegantly written book analyzes the allure of Roman imperial iconography from the early modern period up to the present day. Often reading like a detective novel, it focuses on the formation of a canonical group of twelve Caesars that were invented and reinvented, interpreted and reinterpreted, for purposes that varied from a simple lust for collecting to political self-fashioning.”—Patricia Fortini Brown, author of The Venetian Bride: Bloodlines and Blood Feuds in Venice and Its Empire“An exceptionally well written and lively book, there is nothing like Twelve Caesars. The book is consistently informative and entertaining. The range of reference across art history from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, as well as in the author’s more expected arena of command in antiquity, is staggering and deeply impressive.”—Jaś Elsner, author of Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text“Ancient Rome emitted a haze of distorting myth throughout all of later Western history. It was the task of most classicists to fight their way back through the intervening murk of multiple ‘Romes’ to the actual Rome. But Mary Beard, who has been a great fog dispeller from real Rome, knows that later ‘Romes’ were real to the cultures that harbored or dreamed them up. Thanks to her experience with TV cultural education, Beard is a superb visual teacher. A good example is this book’s chapter on later reverence for ancient coins. Nothing could be drearier than classical treatises on Roman coins, crowded with tiny black blurs on a page, so small as to seem indistinguishable until one takes up a magnifying glass to discern the imperfections of the minting process. Here one finds later creative uses of coins—as models for other works of art, or as set in brilliant jewelry, or as promoted by daft but wealthy collectors. What a relief.”—Garry Wills, author of Rome and Rhetoric