Important Roman figures and emperors have frequently been depicted in popular culture; in music, literature and the arts. Caesar, Nero, Caligula are certainly the most portrayed figures of Ancient Rome. But what about Hadrian? Although there have been a few films taking place in the time of Hadrian, there is only one representation of the emperor on screen; in the Italian TV production “Le Memorie di Adriano” (1992), a theatrical adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. The play is set in the picturesque and enchanting scenery of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. Italian actor and film director Giorgio Albertazzi is playing the emperor Hadrian. You can watch his extraordinary performance here (in Italian).
In painting, one of the very few depictions of Hadrian I know of is by my favourite Neoclassical painter; Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), a Dutch artist renowned for his paintings of opulent scenes in classical settings. His paintings are noted for fine detail, smooth finish, and realistic representations of ancient artefacts.
Alma-Tadema visited Italy a few times during his lifetime. He was very impressed by the archaeological remains he saw in Rome, Naples and especially in Pompeii and his love for Roman antiquity grew big. He spent a significant amount of time studying the site of Pompeii, going there daily. These excursions gave him an ample source of subject matter as he began to further his knowledge of daily Roman life.
Hadrian in England: Visiting a Romano-British Pottery is -quite obviously- among my favourite paintings of Alma-Tadema’s extended catalogue. The emperor is shown taking an interest in ordinary life by visiting a Romano-British Pottery with his wife Sabina.
The scene takes place during Hadrian’s visit to Britannia in 122 AD and in this painting Alma-Tadema follows the account of the Roman historian Cassius Dio:
“Hadrian travelled through one province after another, visiting the various regions and cities and inspecting all the garrisons and forts. He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of every one, but of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves, — their lives, their quarters and their habits…” Cassius Dio Epitome of Book LXIX
The depictions of Hadrian and Sabina are based on portrait busts of the imperial couple like those included in Alma-Tadema’s photographic collection. The photograph he used for depicting Hadrian was of a portrait bust of Hadrian from Hadrian’s Mausoleum (on display in the Vatican Museums – see picture below).
Alma-Tadema collected sketches, drawings and photographs, mostly of archaeological remains from classical Rome and Greece but also of imperial portraits and artefacts of daily Roman life. Many objects were integrated into his paintings. This was the case with his Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery painting. The pots depicted in this painting imitate actual Romano-British pots, sketches of which the artist kept for reference.
Alma-Tadema was dissatisfied with the general effect of the whole composition and eventually cut the painting into three sections. The second section depicts a workman carrying pots on his head.
The third section depicts a slave or a workman ascending the stairs.
Nowadays Alma-Tadema is regarded as one of the principal classical-subject painters of the nineteenth century. Very few artists have managed to depict scenes from the ancient world with such care and exactitude. His work is now admired for its beauty, mastery of light, colour and texture and will be of interest to painting and ancient history enthusiasts alike.
Source: Lawrence Alma-Tadema by by Rosemary J. Barrow – Phaidon (the best book on the artist with beautiful reproductions – buy it on Amazon)