“Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1884)

Important Roman figures and emperors have frequently been depicted in popular culture, music, literature and the arts. Julius Caesar, Nero, and 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 are only two representations 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, and in the Japanese comedy films Thermae Romae (2012) and Thermae Romae II (2014) based on the manga series Thermae Romae by Mari Yamazaki (see here).

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 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 in 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.

Hadrian Visiting A Romano British Pottery, 1884
Oil on canvas (cut and repainted),
Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
This artwork is in the public domain (not copyrighted)

The scene takes place during Hadrian’s visit to Britannia in AD 122, 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).

Bust of Hadrian (Chiaramonti 392 type), from Hadrian’s Mausoleum, possibly created following the emperor’s death in 138 AD, Vatican Museums.

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.

A selection of pottery found in Roman Britain, including wares made in Britain and others imported from abroad.

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 Roman Potters in Britain, 1884
Oil on canvas (cut and repainted),
Royal Collection, The Hague
This artwork is in the public domain

The third section depicts a slave or a workman ascending the stairs.

A Romano-British Potter, 1884
Oil on canvas (cut and repainted),
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
This artwork is in the public domain

Nowadays, Alma-Tadema is regarded as one of the principal classical-subject painters of the nineteenth century. His work is now admired for its beauty and mastery of light, colour and texture and will interest painting and ancient history enthusiasts alike. Very few artists have depicted scenes from the ancient world with such care and exactitude.

Source: Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Rosemary J. Barrow – Phaidon (the best book on the artist with beautiful reproductions – buy it on Amazon)

Exit mobile version