Praecipua* (Part One)

My Latin education ended over 40 years ago apologies if my usage or translations in this piece don’t quite cut it, but I was looking for a title that meant status symbol or something similar.  I ended up with things of importance which while not quite the same will have to do.

One of the “things” that was new to me on my most recent visit to Rome was an altar.  Not a holy table in any of the churches I entered, but if not Christian in origin, nevertheless something from the Christian epoch.  Ara Pacis was not open to visitors on my school trip here, nor when I spent my honeymoon here years later, and so I was oblivious to its existence when I passed on the way to my hotel.  Nevertheless a newspaper article that I’d read in preparation for my trip did mention the possibility of including a marble altar on my route between the Caravaggio’s of Piazza Popolo and Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi.

I was surprised therefore when I made the detour for this marble was more than a table.  It was the size of a small house, which to my modern eyes made it something of a statement.  It’s entirely possible that this was more typical in classical times; and my daughter who has a Classics degree might no more.  No matter, because whether the size was an important factor or not, this was a statement piece.

Ara Pacis Augustae is the fuller description of the structure; the Augustan Altar of Peace.  After nearly 500 years as a republic Julius Caesar had been assassinated for his attempt at dictatorship, yet the aftermath of that act resulted in the creation of the Roman Empire, and with it a succession of such dictators, though they were dignified with the title of Emperor.

Head of Augustus, Musei Vaticani

The first of these was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son Augustus who of course needed to be a master propagandist to make this change stick and remain in power for 40 years.


National treasure Mary Beard says of autocracy that it

does not just operate through political reform or by military power, important as they may be. It works by inscribing the autocrat indelibly into the world of his or her subjects.

The altar is a perfect example of this.  The magnificent decoration combines symbols of victory and subsequent peace, control over nature, images of the emperor and his family and scenes from Roman history.  Thus it establishes the legitimacy and value of the new ruler.  It was one of many acts of self aggrandisement that included Augustus’ own autobiography Res Gestae (Things Achieved).

In the centuries that followed its inauguration it was buried by silts from Tiber flooding and forgotten until the Renaissance when of course all things classical were admired and replicated.  Ownership of artefacts from the period became status symbols and so fragments of the altar were acquired by the rich and powerful.    The Vatican, the Medici Villa, the Louvre and the Uffizi became homes to marble pieces while more remained buried, but there’s a second phase to this story of self promotion.  I’ll tell that in my next post.  Meanwhile, Trump has his tower and Boris wants a bridge.


What did the Romans…. (SOS)

… ever do for Catalonia?

Earlier in my posts about Barcelona I mentioned that the development of the city really began with the arrival of the Romans who developed a great port here and laid the foundations for the prosperous metropolis that was to spread inland.  So is this a city with Roman sites to rival those of Italy?  Well no.  It doesn’t come close as far as I could see on my visit.

In most conurbations the medieval city might be a good place to find evidence of Roman structures that had been developed and built upon, or perhaps incorporated into the city walls, yet in Barcelona this didn’t seem to be the case.  Now I’m no Mary Beard, so might well have overlooked some vital evidence, but in the Gothic Quarter there is medieval design aplenty but very little that pre-dates this.  I suspect Medieval Catalonians may well have been recycling enthusiasts.

In Plaça Nova, not far from the Cathedral lay a stretch of Roman masonry which was my first discovery.  Perhaps “stretch” is stretching a point.  There’s a single arch, though view it from the other side and you can see two.  Any Monty Python aficionado should recognise its purpose; the famous exchange from Life of Brian that answers the question “What have Romans given us?” results in a long list of achievements.  A list that begins with “an aqueduct”.  For those of us who take clean drinking water and sanitation for granted this might not seem much, but it’s transformative power made being part of the empire a more attractive option than simple subjugation._PW_1390

Behind the cathedral I found my second structure.  Along the narrow alleyway of Calle Paradis and down a few well-worn steps I found the Temple of Augustus; the very heart of the Roman City.  This structure wasn’t only dedicated to Rome’s first true emperor who had been elevated to the status of god, it was also the site of the Forum in the city so would have been impressive and imposing, and in a limited sort of way it still is.  Only a podium and four tall columns in the Corinthian style remain, but finding them “indoors” was quite a surprise.  The rest of the temple has gone and its surrounding gardens incorporated into the cathedral complex.

Reg:          All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

Xerxes:     Brought peace!

The Romans may have done a lot, but over the centuries it seems that their beneficiaries were less than grateful._PW_1405


Ironically for a photographer, I’ve lacked focus this week.  Nothing inspired me to go and point a lens at it.

This may have been because I’ve been working in a location that I’m very familiar with, and where I’ve been out to shoot the things that interest me already, but I have to question my motivation.

This isn't my bike btw!
This isn’t my bike btw!

I did take some pictures while out cycling last weekend, as I further explored my new home in Durham, but I managed to time this with the only few hours in days where the skies were overcast.  Perhaps that contributed to my torpor.

Shincliffe was my destination.  I’d been there the previous day to drop my friend Elaine off at the garden centre.  It is a village that consists largely of two perpendicular roads that both join a more major route that forms the hypotenuse of a small triangle.  Consequently, with no through traffic other than the green-fingered and its own residents, Shincliffe is a quiet spot that seems almost timeless.  This sense was compounded by the fact that due to the spending restrictions that local authorities are imposing the verges of the village high street have not been cut, leading to an almost meadow-like quality.

Shincliffe High Street
Shincliffe High Street

The effect is noticeable in many locations around the county, but here in Shincliffe it seems almost appropriate and creates a scene that may go back to when this chapel was built and earlier.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe
Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe

The village certainly has a history – the bridge over the Wear here may be built on Roman origins, though it was properly established in the middle ages, flourished briefly following the industrial revolution due the nearby collieries and then declined one again as they closed.

I’ve always associated the history of this area with the majesty of the Norman buildings on Durham’s Palace Green, but there is so much more scattered around here.  The remains of the most northerly villa in all of the Roman Empire were found nearby.

On my way home I passed through Sherburn House, a tiny cluster of houses on one side of the road and an imposing gatehouse on the other.  These old stones now form part of a residential home for the elderly, but in their time they were part of a medieval hospital established in the 12th century providing care to a large group of lepers.APW_3910

And yet for all of this opportunity to shoot something historic, it was a more modern image that provided my favourite.  This was regatta weekend in Durham, the Wear thronged with racing rowers and their supporters.  It might have been a great place to take pictures, but the cycle path I would have needed to get there has been swept away by heavy rain in recent months.  Nevertheless the boat houses, which populate the river banks face no such restrictions.  The picture I got isn’t high quality, because I needed to crop away most of it to get to the detail that caught my eye.  A simple study in straight lines.  The purple blades just give it a little oomph!APW_3884



Loading the wagon

The Roman Empire was a magpie; borrowing foods (lentils from Egypt), religion (Mithra from Persia) and language from those they subsumed into their boundaries.  A word that they borrowed from the Gauls, karros, meaning a wagon or cart was Latinised into carrus to refer to a Gallic wagon.  Words like car, carriage, cargo and carry have clear origins here, but what about caricature?  Strangely enough this also originates from carrus, and it’s original meaning was to “load the cart”, in other words to exaggerate or over-emphasise.

It came to refer to a drawing, painting, or silhouette which gave greater prominence to the features of an individual which were already notable; Prince Charles is forever portrayed with huge ears, for his sister Anne it is her teeth.  Like the word, the practice can be traced back to Roman times; amongst the proliferation of graffiti in Pompeii can be seen a local politician whose bald head and long drooping nose are clearly the object of ridicule.

Caricaturing continues to be popular – the centres of many tourist cities will have artists who offer to portray passers by in charcoal or chalks with either a measure of realism or a degree of exaggeration.  Their pitches are normally decorated with caricatures of celebrities that are demonstrations of their art.

As the art form that was initially believed to be truly representative (the camera never lies) it is perhaps not surprising that photo caricatures haven’t become commonplace.  That’s not to say that it can’t be done – any photographer with a little knowledge of the properties of a wide angle lens would see the possibilities this might have for exaggerating the nasal features in a portrait for example.

The ability to alter negatives goes back to the 19th Century, and in this digital age we are familiar with the abilities of photoshop and other digital editing software.  The same tools that notoriously made Kate Winslet‘s legs slimmer on the cover of GQ could be used to exaggerate other features.  I suspect many a magazine cover has resorted to a digital boob job from time to time.

So if it’s possible to create photographic caricatures, why don’t we see them?

For me the answer is that we are so used to the “truth” that a photographic represents that as soon as you distort it you lose that truth and enter the world of cartoon.  The caricaturist who draws is creating the whole, they can imagine the the image in its entirety and create something with a sense of proportion (however imbalanced).  If I were to take a photograph and elongate the the nose, I then potentially have to adjust all of the other features to make it look right.  Attempts to do this have concentrated on creating digital measurements of key features and playing with equations that keep the numbers in balance.  At that point though we’re no longer talking about an artistic talent.

My subject for today is another John, and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to give him enormous ears or a tiny head .  However before I met John another potential subject turned me down because “I’m not really even supposed to be in this town!”.  Perhaps if I’d offered a little digital manipulation…