When the crowds at the Paris Salon of 1859 first saw Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant, its visual impact would have been very different from those on a modern viewer. It was unusual if not radical in three respects:
- it has what we would now term a wide-angle or widescreen view;
- it shows the well-known ruins of the Colosseum in Rome in reconstruction;
- it shows a reconstruction in detail of gladiatorial combat in classical times.
Its panoramic view had been used in some landscapes, but was unconventional to say the least in this type of motif. It is not derived from photography, though (although Gérôme was a pioneer in admiring photography and accepting it as an art): wide angle lenses weren’t developed until later in the century, and are spherical in their effects, so would have shown more of the top and bottom of the image.
Gérôme’s image much more closely resembles widescreen movies, which of course didn’t start to appear until the 1920s, and weren’t commonplace until the 1950s. If anything, Gérôme’s panoramic spectacles were the precursor to widescreen cinema, and continued to be an influence on them. His paintings were important to Ridley Scott when he was making Gladiator (2000), for example.
In this article and the next, I will explore the other two radical features of Ave Caesar: here, its reconstructed view of the Colosseum, and tomorrow the depiction of gladiatorial combat.
If you have visited Rome and seen the Colosseum, you will undoubtedly have been impressed by its size, by the sophistication of its construction, and how it is embedded in the modern city.
As Maarten van Heemskerck shows in his Bullfight in the Ruined Colosseum from 1552, it continued to be used in its ruinous state for public events.
Claude Lorrain’s Capriccio with the Ruins of the Roman Forum from about 1634 shows how, for many centuries, the ruins of the Colosseum were surrounded by open land, and other remains from the Roman Empire.
It was a popular motif for the landscape artist visiting Rome, and for Hubert Robert it offered an unusual genre opportunity, in his Washerwomen in the Ruins of the Colosseum (c 1765).
Turner’s great rival Thomas Girtin even painted this undated watercolour View of Rome with a Rider on a Track Near the Colosseum without ever visiting Italy!
Rome, and its classical ruins, were on the schedule for many of the great landscape painters who learned their art and craft in its Campagna. Among them, the Dane Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg painted two views of the interior of the Colosseum in 1815-16, shown above and below. That above shows some of the religious services held in its amphitheatre to commemorate the many Christians who were martyred there. The view below shows a quieter moment of prayer.
For many, alongside Claude’s famous Capriccio is JMW Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839). By this time, the city of Rome had grown around the Colosseum and its nearby ruins, although there still were – and are – open spaces among the higgledy-piggledy mass of buildings.
As far as I can discover, no painting of a reconstruction of the Colosseum, or any similar amphitheatre, had become well-known before Gérôme’s Ave Caesar was exhibited in 1859. Although he continued to use his reconstructions in later paintings, notably his Pollice Verso of 1872, the ruins remained popular in landscape works.
Francisco Javier Amérigo y Aparici’s Friday at the Colosseum in Rome from about 1876 shows Franciscan preaching of the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross) taking place inside the ruins. Excavation of the substructure of the arena started in 1810, continued in 1874, then in the 1930s the whole was exposed, changing the internal appearance.
Salomon Corrodi’s undated watercolour View of Rome with the Colosseum and the Roman Forum is both beautifully lit and an accurate topographic view of the Colosseum in its more recent urban setting.
Finally, Antonietta Brandeis’ undated oil sketch of View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine gives an excellent account of the ruins around the start of the twentieth century.