Triumphs in Philadelphia
I got to Philadelphia late on Thursday -- to a beautiful, new and empty airport. The words "All men are created equal" were displayed on the wall (the Declaration of Independence having been adopted here). Reassuring, but a sentiment that must seem a little tarnished to most of those arriving on a transatlantic flight, where the inequality of mankind is marked by those curtains between the classes -- sufficient to separate you from the better time that someone else is having on the same flight, but not quite sufficient to prevent you glimpsing their privileges.
I'm in the USA for a conference on 'Celebrations of continuity and change: triumph and spectacle in the ancient world', which happened on Friday. There were papers on Renaissance processional ceremonies, the Ottoman and Egyptian equivalents plus me and Konstantinos Zachos on the Roman world itself. He was talking about his important discoveries at Augustus' city of Nikopolis in Northern Greece, in particular the sculpted frieze showing the emperor's triumph in 29 BC.
I was down to talk generally about the issues of continuity and change in triumphal rituals. It's quite hard to do this kind of thing when you've already written a book on the subject (no-one wants to hear you just repeat what you've already said). So I decided to reflect a bit more radically on the very ideas of continuity and and change, how we identify continuity in a ritual and whether we should be so confident that we could tell a 'revival' of a ritual, from its ancient living tradition'. I'm not sure how far I got this across (my fault not the audience's no doubt) -- but my heart sank a bit in the final question session when one senior academic said in passing that 'the Etruscans had triumphs', as was clear from the surviving visual imagery. Part of my paper was to say that that was precisely NOT CLEAR from the visual imagery.
But it was a great occasion, and one of those conference where the papers actually seem to cohere. I also managed to fit in other things around it. With Brian Rose I did a video about Roman laughter in the Roman gallery of the Penn Museum. This was quite a challenge, walking round the exhibits finding objects that could 'naturally' lead on to stories Roman joking (the statue of a bald priest of Isis, on the left, prompted reflections on Roman jokes about baldness, a gold coin of emperor Elagabalus led to the stories about his practical jokes).
In some ways the highlight, though, was our visit on Saturday morning to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Grand Scale exhibition. The conference had been a sort of 'tie-in' with this show, because it features 'over-size', 'jumbo' Renaissance prints - many of which depict processions and other sort of triumphal imagery.
I must confess I hadn't been much looking forward to this. I'm the sort of person who thinks that prints are for hard=core art historians, not me. When I come to a room of prints in an exhibition, I tend to walk through rather briskly.
On Saturday we were shown around by Larry Silver, one of the curators of the show, who had also given a paper at the conference. Listening to him I began for the first time to get an idea of why this material might be so exciting. He talked to us about how impressive it was simply to get the size of paper that had been used in these (most of them were assembled into vast displays, by joining together sheets about the size -- as another of our party put it -- of the open spread of the New York Times). And then there was the issue of who actually made the blocks. Did artists such as Mantegna do it themselves, or did they only provide the designs? And what use were they put to. The image on the right is actually a print used as an early version of wallpaper.
He also got us interested in the difference between engraving (in which the lines in the metal block are chiselled out) and etching (in which the lines are made with acid). And we got a bit of practice in looking at the prints and trying to work out f they were etchings or engravings. I wasn't that good at it, but I got the point.
And I certainly wont any more walk through the exhibition print rooms quite as speedily as I used to.