Rome has been ‘antique’, ancient and of the past since the Middle Ages. It is perhaps unique in that it is both legend and material. The city itself has been a place of religious, spiritual, metaphysical and aesthetic pilgrimage since poets, popes, artists and antiquarians made it their temporal and godly point of gravity in the hundred years preceding the first glimmers of the Renaissance. Petrarch visited in 1341, Byron and Shelley in the early 19thcentury, Zola and Henry James several decades later and all wrote about it, heaping layers of words onto the marble that is its bedrock. By the 17thcentury no education was thought complete without a trip to Rome. In Adonais, (1821),Shelley tells us to…
‘Go thou to Rome,
From the world’s bitter wind
Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb’.
When we first imagined this project we wanted to take design and architectural elements coming from various parts of Rome’s then vast empire and to show them as they are now in the context of a modern and contemporary design fair. Adrien and Ollivier Chenel are experts in their field and have spent several years sourcing these works. Many antiquities dealers focus on sculpture rather than design but as we see from the images that surround this text, the line between design and art was then, and is now, ambiguous. Everything we are showing, all of it marble, had a domestic, religious, or architectural function. Marble lasts and it is because of this that the idea of Rome (now over 2,000 years old) is still powerful, romantic and hugely affecting. Every great architectural and artistic movement, certainly in Western culture derives from Greco Roman art. The Romans of course took much of what we think to be ‘Roman’ from Athens. It was in Rome that Hellenistic ideas about beauty, building and art found, in the words of one scholar, ‘firm foundations and room to grow’. Augustus Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD) said that he found Rome ‘a city of bricks and left her clad in marble’. Later on Rome’s papal rulers took his marble and repurposed it for churches and palaces. Here is a city feeding on itself in a cycle of destruction and rebirth, both stylistically and literally. The Renaissance is a celebration of the antique, taking this Greco Roman score, writing a libretto, and making it into an opera.
Through the architecture of Palladio (a true neo-classicist) columns, pediments, and scale come to England, manifesting there in grand houses built by Kent, Vanborough and Adam. Houses paid for by aristocrats heavy with Roman statues picked up, sometimes with syphilis, on the almost obligatory 18thcentury grand tour. This neo-classicist architecture was then distributed all around the world from the white painted edifices of the American south to Haciendas (with Roman courtyards) in Latin America.
Napoleon looked to the Romans to define and style his reign as Emperor. His faintly kitsch aesthetic, which found its way to towns across France, is borrowed (stolen?) from Rome. Indeed, when Canova sculpted him (1806) it was in a pose lifted directly from the famous Greek marble, Apollo Belvedere, excavated in the 16thcentury. The Canova sculpture has Napoleon’s bulldog head on the body of a Greek god; it has all the poetry of a Jeff Koon’s sculpture. What it does demonstrate is that the power of Rome to inspire both originality and crude imitations seems not to diminish. It is truly the eternal city and this idea of aeternum, which they were already talking about in Roman times, seems to be played out again and again by both history and art history. Under the patronage of Napoleon, Ingres championed at the Salon a neo-classicism that the Impressionists fought to dismantle fifty years later. Indeed, European art history seems to be variously for and against Rome’s cultural values. It was only after Picasso looked to African art and within himself to gift us Cubism and the many derivations of more abstract art that spring from it, that he made his own neo-classical paintings from 1917. In 20thcentury design we see the same back and forth. Art deco and Fascist architecture mixes the marble column with the slick lines of automobiles and aircrafts. Despots seem to gravitate to Roman architecture because it represents triumph and permanence and Mussolini’s legacy which exists today in stone in train stations and libraries all around Italy derives from the first Italian architecture.
Post-modernist design also plays with classicism, Sottsass uses Roman and Egyptian shapes changing colour, proportion, and material to make something very new and very different from a half remembered past. Of course the great Modernist architects and designers were against Rome. Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus protagonists, and Jean Prouvéwanted to make democratic, modular, modern and utilitarian places and things. They chose tubular steel and aluminium over marble which by the 1920s must have looked totally bourgeois; concrete, (a Roman invention) serves just as well. Of course when you look at the eroded and stripped back stuff of Rome it feels totally proto-modernist. In its fragmentary form or seen in a neutral environment there is a strong relationship with minimalism. But this is of course accidental. It is a 21stcentury lie trying to understand and relate to something made 2,000 years ago. There is an innate ambiguity to these objects because we have 2,000 years of art history between them and us. Also it can sometimes feel inconceivable that these works have survived the ravages of time. The Vandals that sacked Rome, the popes who took pagan marble and repurposed it for Christ, the grand tourists, the tourists, the crooks and the grave robbers all have played their part in the destruction of Rome but none succeeded entirely. The sheer scale of what they did and built means that we still retain an extraordinary heritage of buildings and objects many of profound beauty and importance.
Proximity to Rome and art elicits a feeling of tragedy but also of the anti-tragic. Looking at some of the works which illustrate this poster we can imagine the lives of the men and women who built and lived with them. We can ponder the building and ruin of empires, the passage of time and our relationship with our real and imagined ancestors. They are talismans of loss but also joyous reminders of what endures and what lasts. They beg the question, what made now will last, how can we build as the Romans did, and did we peak in about 100 AD? What was most extraordinary about working with Adrien and Ollivier Chenel on this project is that it is possible to make a selling exhibition of Roman design at all, that not all of this material is in museums and that some can be brought together for Design Miami Basel. I cannot wait to see a 2,000 year old Roman column within eyeshot of a Prouvéstandard chair. For me, Rome always wins. These columns, capitals and fragments are works made by artisans but time itself is an artist, everything Rome stands for as well as everything in-between is distilled here in marble aeternum.