A History of Rome in Paintings: 19 More martyrs

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), The Death of the Emperor Commodus (1879), oil on canvas on cardboard, 58 x 37.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Two years after Pompeii and Herculaneum had been destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the emperor Titus died of natural causes, at the age of just 41. His successor Domitian wasn’t as fortunate: when he wasn’t quite 45 he was assassinated following a conspiracy in the palace. He was the last Emperor of Rome to die violently for almost a century, though, as Rome and its far-flung empire finally seem to have resolved its internal strains.

From Titus onwards, with some exceptions, the painted history of Rome appears mainly in landscapes and views of its buildings.

Tina Blau (1845–1916), Roman Capriccio with the Arch of Titus (1879), oil on panel, 12.4 x 21.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

When the Austrian painter Tina Blau visited Italy in the late 1870s, she painted this delightfully loose plein air Roman Capriccio with the Arch of Titus (1879).

Tina Blau (1845–1916), View of the Arch of Titus Vespasian and Surrounding Ruins in the Roman Forum (1879), oil on panel, 28 × 40.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Her View of the Arch of Titus Vespasian and Surrounding Ruins in the Roman Forum from the same year is larger and more finished.

The persecution of Christians continued unabated, and is commemorated in more paintings than any other aspect of Rome during this period.

Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the patron saint of Sint-Janskerk in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch makes the assumption that John, author of the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, is the same person as John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee.

It appears that John, practising and preaching as a Christian during the rule of Domitian, was banished to Patmos as a result. While he was there, he wrote the book of Revelation, addressed partly as a letter to the “seven churches of Asia”. Much of the rest of the book consists of a series of prophetic visions, featuring well-known figures such as the Whore of Babylon and the Beast (of 666 fame). It culminates in his description of the Second Coming of Jesus.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), Saint John on Patmos (c 1490-95) (CR no. 6A), oil on oak panel, 63 × 43.2 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bosch shows Saint John seated, writing, in the midst of a deep and extensive landscape, with an angel on a nearby hillock, and looking up to a vision of the Virgin Mary and Child.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640), oil on canvas, 100.3 x 136.4 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with Saint John on Patmos from 1640 shows another idealised landscape, probably based on the western Italian coast, rather than Patmos in the Dodecanese, in the eastern Aegean.

One of the most familiar landmarks in modern Rome is Trajan’s Column, erected in its own forum in 113 CE to commemorate the victory of the emperor Trajan in the Dacian Wars, fought on his behalf in the region of what is now Romania. Documenting the relief on this column was one of Piranesi’s last major projects in 1774.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), View of the Main Face of Trajan’s Column (1774), etching, 297.8 x 77.5 cm in 6 parts, scan from dioscorides.ucm.es via Wikimedia Commons.

His View of the Main Face of Trajan’s Column. is just one of many meticulous etchings he made of the historical scenes which wind their way up the column.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Octagonal Room in the Small Baths at the Villa of Hadrian (Tivoli) (c 1777), red chalk over black chalk or charcoal with partly ruled construction, sheet glued onto secondary paper support, 39.4 x 55.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, Piranesi made this chalk study of The Octagonal Room in the Small Baths at the Villa of Hadrian (Tivoli) (c 1777).

This was the period in which another prominent landmark in the city was built: construction of the Colosseum began in 72 CE under Vespasian, was completed in 80 when Titus was emperor, and was modified substantially during the reign of Domitian. It was the largest amphitheatre built in Classical times.

Alexey Tarasovich Markov (1802-1878), Eustace Placido in the Colosseum (1836), oil on canvas, 98 x 136.5 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery Государственная Третьяковская галерея, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

During the nineteenth century, several artists including most notably Jean-Léon Gérôme, attempted to reconstruct scenes and events in locations like the Colosseum. One of the earliest of these spectacular reconstructed views came in 1836, in Alexey Tarasovich Markov’s Eustace Placido in the Colosseum, showing the martyrdom of Saint Eustace, although other traditions claim that he and his family were roasted to death inside a bronze statue of a bull, on the command of the emperor Hadrian in 118 CE.

My favourite painting of these later years of the Roman Empire shows an atypical tragi-comic assassination.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), The Death of the Emperor Commodus (1879), oil on canvas on cardboard, 58 x 37.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Known best for his Naturalist depictions of street-urchins and other destitutes, Fernand Pelez’s first works were history paintings, including The Death of the Emperor Commodus, from 1879. Commodus, who reigned from 180-192 CE, was a larger than life character, aspired (foolishly) to be a gladiator, and a megalomaniac. He was assassinated by being strangled in his bath, after an earlier attempt to poison him had failed. He was so hated that after his death the Senate declared him a public enemy.

Pelez shows the professional wrestler who was paid to murder the emperor bent over the corpse just after the act. Behind them is the bath in which Commodus had been, and the killer is talking to a woman, presumably a courtesan, who looks very surprised despite her extensive veil.

Much of the official killing remained that of Christians, who continued to be fair game until the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312 CE.

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Young Martyr (1853), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 60 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Delaroche’s moving painting of The Young Martyr (1853) shows a young Christian woman whose hands were bound before she was thrown into the River Tiber in Rome, during the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The writer and critic Théophile Gautier considered her a “Christian Ophelia”, and a paragon of divine beauty.

With the decline of the Roman Empire leading to the Sack of Rome in 410 CE, and the arrival of the Middle Ages, Rome and its history faded from paintings. The great days were past, and sheep were grazing in its ruins.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839), oil on canvas, 91.8 x 122.6 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, LA. Wikimedia Commons.