Blog: Leah Capaldi

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History is screaming; Flesh and form in ancient Roman sculpture


29 July 2022

I was a recipient of the New Contemporaries British School at Rome (BSR) 1 month residency in 2021. At the tail end of the pandemic I travelled to the BSR to explore how gender stereotypes may be related to the uncertainties within national identity and economic crises, especially in relation to ancient Roman history.

I wanted to learn from the past, to examine how humans have previously dealt with body politics during pandemics and uprisings to inform how we inhabit our bodies in the present. I studied male and female bodies in ancient figurative sculpture from early to late antiquity and the Renaissance to understand if there is a link between shifts in gender identity and societal collapse. I posed the question: Does gender fluidity have a relationship to the economic crisis during Covid-19?

In early antiquity the idealised male body was depicted as robust and muscle-bound. In later antiquity, maleness became soft and fleshy. It is argued, as male bodies became more androgynous - traditional muscle-bound male heroes began to reappear, that’s until the fall of the Roman Empire.

Arriving at Fiumencino airport and speaking little Italian, Dario my immaculately dressed taxi driver WhatsApps me to say he has arrived. I introduce myself in broken Italian and he looks at me surprised, “Italiano no? Capaldi?’ using Google translate I try to explain my family emigrated to England in 1890’s so I don’t speak Italian. He seems concerned. ‘You learn’, he says - a statement, not a question. Dario speeds along the motorway and through Rome, it’s about 6:30pm the sun is setting and murmurations of starlings are sculpting the sky, it is breath taking.
Video of studio 5 at BSR on arrival
Arriving at the BSR is like pulling up outside a mini British Museum in London, both have the imposing architectural language of British Empire that proclaimed the ‘greatness’ of Britain around the word. I meet Antonio on reception who shows me to my studio and I am left to unpack before dinner. The studio is insane. It is the best studio I have worked in. It’s double height with a mezzanine for sleeping and incredible big windows in the walls and roof for good light to read and draw with. I shower, sort out my European chargers and get ready for dinner. A bell jingles from the other side of the courtyard (everyday for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea (!?) and dinner) and I head to the dinner hall for the first of many meals with brilliant academics, scholars, archeologists and artists.

The scholars are studying PHD’s on 18C bathing culture, Roman winemaking or other niche research interests, they are career academics and their astounding knowledge of everything that’s happened since the start of the Roman Empire…often in Latin…is awe-inspiring. I came to really look forward to conversations at dinner and looking back I think chats over food were a formative part of my stay. I came out with several helpful references to follow up on.

Greek Athenian grave sculpture (Kouri up to 4C) depicted warriors or athletes - only hyper masculine representations. When democracy began to filter through society male representations in sculpture became less ridged and the form became softer and less ‘perfect’.

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Comodus as Hercules, Capitolini Musuem, Rome

A range of bodies open up from Hercules (muscle bound and strong) to Dionysis (soft and fleshy) because of the introduction of democracy, the ‘real man’ is now portrayed as the citizen, not only an athlete or warrior. ‘Manliness’ was not only about masculinity, but civic duty. By being a good citizen you become a good man. Elite classes could afford to spend time training in athletics or as warriors but lower class Greek men could not. The male nude continued to prevail but his body conforms less to the heroic ideal.

I gathered research from trips to museums, galleries and historical sites - drawing, shooting footage, walking, reading in the BSR library, editing film and sound. I am excited by sculpture that lives - The Apollo Belvedere; Nile and His Sons; Artemis of Ephesus; Laocoön. Heroes in mythical scenes; moving bodies blurring the line between subject and object. Bernini’s The Rape of Prosperina, Galleria Borghese and Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi - these sculptures question object-ness and the living body. I spent time studying these works (and many more) in depth, supported by the BSR public relations department who negotiated special access for me to film and draw work in the Vatican Museum, Borgese Museum and Capitolini Museums. I will remember seeing Medusa; The Dying Gaul, Marsyas and Comodus as Hercules 1:1 for the rest of my life.

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Research shots from Capitolini Museum, Rome

Following a recommendation at dinner I travelled to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples to visit the Farnese Hercules (or Weary Hercules). I wanted to look at his highly unusual tired body.
Farnese Hercules, National Archaeological Museum in Naples

Hercules is always sculpted as a pillar of strength - dynamic, active and strong but in this work he is leaning on his club and you can almost hear him breathing hard after a battle. Hercules’ calves were particularly interesting to me.

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1. Replacement calves made by della Porta for Farnese Hercules, National Archaeological Museum in Naples
2. Studio drawings in process
3. Studio research into Lacoon and Apollo Belvedere

When the fractured ancient sculpture was rediscovered at Caracalla Baths in Rome and reassembled, his calves were missing. A call went out to renaissance sculptors to reinterpret and replace his calves. The winning calves were made by Guglielmo della Porta (a student of Michelangelo) but in 1787 the original ancient Roman calves were excavated. An argument ensued maintaining that the new calves were just as good if not better than the former, so the Roman originals were exhibited alongside the sculpture until a campaign was reinstate his original calves. I am interested in this because of della Portas’ ideas of what Hercules’ calves might be. This saga demonstrates the misrepresentation of the human body through a history of classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Questioning how histories frame modern bodies and semiotics.

In an age when Trump triumphantly removes his face mask and Bolsonaro calls Covid-19 ‘a little cold’, we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation with overwhelming masculinist politicians exercising ‘strong man politics’ to lead us.

I took a trip to Foro Italico, a stadium commissioned by Mussolini to house the Fascist School of Physical Education.

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Sculptures in Stadio dei Marmi, Rome

I went to study the Stadio dei Marmi (Stadium of the Marbels), which is surrounded by 60 Carrara marble sculptures of male athletes encircling the running track. Each sculpture was gifted by a different Italian province and is of a male athlete performing ancient or modern sports. Each piece is meant to represent the ancient Roman values of virility, fortitude, discipline, and dignity. It is monumental. The Fascist regime used sports to introduce and instil new Fascist traditions, ideals, customs, and values, with the goal of forming ‘citizen warriors’. The Fascist male body is terrifying, threatening and aggressive. Women’s bodies are totally absent from this space.

The stadium is still in use today, chunks of tesserae from the black and white Fascist mosaics have been vandalised but the sculptures still stand and people visit. I found this a really uncomfortable experience that made me reflect on the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in 2020. The UK is beginning to decolonize monuments by re-contextualising items in museums rather than on plinths in public space. Here in the Stadio dei Marmi the monuments are still in use, they memorialise Fascism and there was limited information for how to understand this space in a contemporary context. Fascism combined ancient and modern male bodies to proclaim its strength at the expense of women’s, trans or other bodies. Without context, Mussolini’s dream continues to have a voice at Foro Italico. The Stadio dei Marmi reminded me of Greek Kouri because it demonstrates the relationship between the ideal male body and the ideal nation. To create a strong healthy, masculine body creates a strong, healthy, masculine nation.

In contrast, Centrale Montemartini curates complete and fragmented Roman sculpture in the decommissioned former power station of Acea.

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Sculpture of roman torso installed in front of power plant machinery at Centrale MontiMartini, Rome

It’s weird to see ancient busts and limbs exhibited on industrial machinery and that’s what makes it so refreshing. The sculptures battle with the machinery, each undermining one another to create something new and exciting. It’s an effective way to rephrase (and re-house) ancient sculpture within a contemporary cultural context.

Walking around, through, over and under Rome every day, I noticed the absence of sculptures of women. Female bodies were either in despair or ecstasy but hardly ever simply present. As a woman walking around Rome alone I felt a sense of threat. The Italian army have soldiers with guns (mostly young men) stand at the doors of culturally significant buildings and sites. Walking past a solder holding a semi automatic rifle that checks you out is foul. Walking home alone at 6pm to wolf whistles, kissing noises and shouts from passing cars is gross. I don’t have to deal with this in London, Rome is an ancient city built by men for men.

In Renaissance Italy, it was commonly assumed that the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome had achieved a pinnacle of aesthetic purity in their buildings and artworks. Since that time during the “middle ages” art had suffered a decline - one that could be reversed, even surpassed, by a re-acquaintance with the techniques of the classical past. Form and shape are political. In Ancient and Renaissance sculpture the body is often mathematic in symmetry, idealised and perfect.

Civilisations record their values in their bodies, Michelangelo used the Belvedere Torso to model Adam’s body on in The Creation of Adam painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. The Belvedere Torso was also studied by Reubens, Canova and Rodin (going on to inform Rodin’s The Thinker). It is easy to see the 500-year impact of the rediscovery of this sculpture highlighting how ancient poses and body shape inform how we think about bodies today. Also, it’s important to scrutinise whose bodies are recorded and why, because it is often only the recorded bodies that are remembered.

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Bernini research shots in Borgese Gallery, Rome

In the Galleria Borgese you are almost inside a body. The gallery is painted with veins to look like marble. It is fleshy, intestinal. The agony and drama of the Baroque is palpable - it reminded me of Lady Gaga wearing her meat dress; the ‘Carolee Schneeman look’. The painted female bodies within are portraits of motherhood or dissected, looked and leered at. Female carved bodies are objectified in a state of fear, The Rape of Prosperina by Bernini is the first work you see as you walk through the front door.

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Pauline as Venus Victrix, Canova with Damien Hirst ‘Archaeology Now’ exhibition the background. Galleria Borgese, Rome

I really struggled with this and found myself hyper aware of my gender, reinforcing how vital it is to see people who look like you represented in positions of power - and art has/is power. As a representation of a woman in the Borgese, your only choice is to turn into a laurel tree, Daphne and Apollo, Bernini, to loose your identity, your body. Unless you are Princess Pauline who requested herself sculpted with the dignity of Athena/Diana…still this image is not her own.

Today flesh is most commonly flawless, moist, and hairless. Time is spent in the gym perfecting your form. Lazer and injectables to refine, tweak, reform, reshape, remake. Subject becomes object and so on and so on.

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My residency left me hungry for more. I felt on fast-forward for the 24 days I was in Rome. Having nothing but research and making ahead of me for a month meant I had to work quickly, 30 minutes before dinner, 2 hours before bed. The BSR had access to special tours of ancient underground Rome, the Vatican Necropolis and the maze of ancient and excavated barracks, domestic home, and tombs beneath the Lateran Baptistery. I never totally understood the scale of the history in Rome - that Roman buildings like the Pantheon are still in use. History collides in a chaotic way that often doesn’t make sense. This highlights how malleable history is - written by the victors; the losers manipulated and erased. Getting to grips with this narrative gave me tools to understand how the civilisations are constructed through combinations of language, architecture and art.

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View over the Roman Forum from inside the Tabularium, Rome

Standing on the Capitoline Hill, in the Tabularium looking out of the ruins of the Roman Forum was magnificent and terrible. Looking at fragments of Roman bodies, the icons of Roman life, I couldn’t help but read this site as a warning from history. Drawing on the links between climate change and strong man politics might be obvious but Germany is firing up its decommissioned coal power stations ahead of what looks like a cold winter in Europe, following Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Flesh is political. Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Covid-19 opened up new possibilities for structural change in the last ten years. How do we define ourselves...what’s left when it’s all over? How will we be remembered? Are these out-dated questions formed by patriarchy? History is screaming, I hear the warning.