During Covid 19 and the lockdowns I have taken to listening to an amazing FREE podcast series called, The Emperors of Rome. Matt Smith is the Communications Manager at La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University in Melbourne and his co-host is Dr. Rhiannon Evans, Head of Classics & Ancient History. Matt and Rhiannon and their guest presenters have created over 200 episodes and today have over 80,000 subscribers around the world.
It was early in 2021, when I reached out to Matt and Rhiannon to ask if they would be my subjects for my 2022 Archibald Art Prize entry. Melbourne was about to go into lockdown at the time, so we agreed to meet online. I attended several ‘live’ Podcast recordings via Zoom, where I took numerous reference photos and sketched some rough layout ideas.
Early in 2022, after the borders re-0pened for travel between NSW and Victoria, I finally got the chance to drive to Melbourne and meet and paint Matt and Rhiannon in person. It was a fantastic experience and apart from the long nine-hour drive and lugging all my studio gear, including lighting equipment, for a quality photo shoot, it was well worth the effort.
Listening to the podcast each day on my morning walk has been a rich learning journey. Matt demonstrates his unique ability to produce highly engaging interviews and Rhiannon shares her highly animated and brilliant story telling skills to provide in-depth and broad expertise on the lives of the Roman Emperors and their subjects.
In the large double portrait, 91.44cm H x 137.16cm W, oil on linen, I painted Matt and Rhiannon in a contemplative and storytelling pose, bringing metaphorically ‘back to life’ the Emperors of Rome. Matt has just asked a question and sits pensively listening and wondering to himself and Rhiannon has shared a story about the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aulius Hadrianus – 117–138 CE.) whose colossal fragmentary marble portrait bust, with a wreath of oak leaves, sits between them.
Matt usually hosts each podcast dressed in a Roman toga including a gold crown made of foil. In his portrait I have him wearing a toga and covered with an ornate deep red/purple coloured cloak, (‘a paludamentum’) and over the top of that the bronze military ‘heroic cuiras’ or breastplate, displaying with the face of medusa and worn in the statue of the Emperor Hadrian. Matt’s head is adorned with the civic crown of laurel. A plant/tree that was also used for the civic ceremonial crown of Emperor Augustus. I happen to have a large Laurel tree at my home. I plucked a few branches to study and replicate the details in the leaves. The laurel tree and its vibrant deep green shiny leaves was also found at the ancient Roman villa, known as Livia’s Villa’ at Prima Porta (‘First Door’) which is located 12 kilometres north of Rome, Italy along the Via Flaminia. As early as 1596 this site was rediscovered and explored, and yet it was not recognized as the Villa of Livia until the 19th century.
I posed Matt in a similar position to the seated pose of the famous heroic marble statue of Augustus, the ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’. This statue was also discovered at the Villa of Livia and today is safely housed in museum of the Vatican. (‘Braccio Nuovo’). The statue is a marble copy of a bronze statue that celebrated Emperor Augustus’s return, in 20 BC, of the military standards captured by the Parthians in 53 BC.
There were about 70 Roman emperors from the beginning (Augustus being the first – 27 BC) until the end (Romulus Augustus — 476 AD). I chose to include in the double portrait the crumbling bust of Emperor Hadrian. I visited his famous garden and villa at Tivoli in September of 2014. I remember seeing a replica of his bust along with a variety of other impressive statues and would never have guessed at that time that I would be painting him as a key part of the large double portrait in 2022. (See Below)
Hadrian was a young emperor who had a passion for the Grecian aesthetic and artworks. He was one of the five good Emperors, also a scholar, traveler, architect, and aesthete and today is remembered for his twenty-one-year reign during what is known as the ‘Roman Golden Age’, a period of prosperity and peace. Alongside Hadrian’s bust I added the busts of Augustus, Claudius, (on the Right ) and ( Carcalla and Caligula on the left).
Hadrian brought a different focus and strategy to civilize his people. He was responsible for building beautiful architecture and gardens to improve the Roman empire. Like myself, he enjoyed travel and the arts. It is said, he was complex man with an ‘artistic’ temperament and a good administrator who managed to stabilize Rome’s borders while being responsible for building wonderful monuments such as his famous seventy-four mile-long wall, ‘Hadrian’s Wall‘ located in Brampton, England.
Attempting to give the portrait a point of difference with its relation to Roman antiquity, I thought a lot about my pallet of colours. I used pure pigments to paint the busts. These in their day would have been brightly coloured. My pallet included colours inspired by the wonderful eighteenth century Italian and Roman born artist, Vincenzo Camuccini, and his painting ‘La Morte de Caesar’.
I am excited to say the ‘Emperors of Rome Podcasters’ Oil on Linen, 91.44cm H x 137.16cm W, double portrait is finally finished and ready to be shared, before being ‘shipped-off’ for judging in the 2022 Archibald Art Prize.
My special thanks again to Matt and Dr. Rhiannon Evans for your support and highly entertaining and informative podcast series. I also very much enjoying listening to your ‘Raising Standards’ series, which provides wonderful insights into the HBO ‘Rome’ Television series I watched some years ago. I hope others get the chance to listen to it and enjoy learning from the stories as much as I have.
Cool Fact : The colour Tyrian purple is apparently obtained from secretions of the sea snail family of thistles, mainly Haustellum brandaris and only allowed to be only worn by the Emperors. ALSO the name – Tyrian – is taken from its place of origin, in present-day Lebanon, from Tire. The original creators of this color were the Phoenicians, who in order to obtain purple had to crush thousands of sea shells first. Apparently, in order to color one Roman gown needed close to 10,000 shells.