National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Ancient Rome Brought to Life BY RHYS CARPENTER With Thirty-two Paintings by H. M. Herget HISTORICAL painters almost invaria bly start with the theme for their pic ture, usually some subject recorded by literature which has special appeal to them - Caesar's assassination, Virgil reciting the Aeneid to Augustus, Christians in the amphi theater. Having selected the subject, they sketch a background and supply appropriate accessories to their imaginary conception of the principal characters in action. For our series of paintings for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE the procedure has been exactly reversed. Mr. Herget's compositions are created in intimate collaboration with an archeologist who is a specialist in the civilization portrayed. This collaborator first assembles all available documentary material which can be grouped around some specific cultural aspect-for in stance, the costumes and accessories used in official religious ceremonies, or the tableware, drinking vessels and eating utensils, serving trays and mixing bowls, couches and tables all the furniture and furnishings of a banquet. When these have been gathered, a confer ence between artist and archeologist decides how they can be put together into a picture. Everything in the Pictures Authentic Since all the elements are authentic ancient material, nothing that cannot be directly sub stantiated appears in the final painting. A good illustration of the workings of this process is afforded by the painting of the Worship of Isis (page 617). The problem was to portray some feature from one of the highly popular mystery cults which existed in addition, and even in opposition, to the official Roman state religion. No one alive today could reconstruct faith fully the appearance of the secret rites in the worship of the bull-slaying Mithras, because the visual documents do not exist. But for the comparable cult of Egyptian Isis,* when the material had been assembled, it was seen that enough was available for a complete composition. There were the ruins of a small Isis shrine in Pompeii, a statue of an Isis priestess in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, a carved stone relief showing a cobra coiled upon a circular chest surmounted by the Latin inscription "Sacred to Isis," a column base with carvings of ritual celebrants, and, best of all, a faded fresco showing a ceremony being performed in honor of the goddess before a sanctuary with couchant sphinxes at the head of stairs which were flanked by shrubs and palm trees, with sacred ibises perched about. Nothing had to be supplied from the imagi nation except the character studies of the lower-class votaries of this exotic religion. By exercise of ingenuity in adaptation and rearrangement, an effective painting was com posed. Even so fanciful a creation as the summer bathing resort on page 611 has been put together out of modern photographs of Cam panian coastal scenery, amid which have been distributed various villas and summer houses taken from some much-damaged Pompeian wall paintings. The fishermen's method of hauling their net is drawn from actual contemporary Mediter ranean practice, which is not likely to have changed much through the ages. Even the sailing boat, the roped quay, and the light house on the point have their ancient au thority. Remains Supply Some Architectural Details A few of the architectural features in the series are taken directly, or with little change, from surviving remains. The spectacular Al cantara bridge of page 583 still spans the River Tagus in a remote district of western Spain. The triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome, constructed of Greek marble nearly 2,000 years ago and inadequately patched and re built with Italian travertine early in the 19th century, reappears on page 587 in all its original sumptuous detail. Other scenes have been resurrected more extensively from destruction. The austerely rich law court which serves as the setting for the trial on page 623 exists today only in a few shattered columns and pilasters among broken walls and floors rather recently freed from the drifting sand of North Africa. The actual theater at Taormina has been stripped of almost everything seen on page 626 except the loveliness of Sicilian land scape; but it was not difficult to restore stage and gallery and create a play and spectators. * See "Daily Life in Ancient Egypt," by William C. Haves, with 32 paintings by H. M . Herget, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1941.