Stadtmuseum Simeonstift, Trier
Lust and Crime. Nero – the Myth
From demon to object of ridicule – Nero’s ‘career’ as depicted in the fine art of medieval and modern times
At the climax of the Iraq War the cartoon of a Roman soldier in front of the lyre-playing Emperor Nero appeared in an American newspaper. The caption read: “Invade Mesopotamia? I may be crazy but I’m not stupid!”. Representations of the Roman emperor had, for the time being, run their full course; from monster to object of ridicule. How did it come about that the ‘demon’ sitting on the imperial throne, the “antichrist” - at least as he was portrayed in fine art, became the subject of so many caricatures, while in other forms he had essentially disappeared as artistic subject matter?
Although Nero is considered to be one of the most frequently cited figures of the ancient world and his literary afterlife has been studied reasonably well, this is far from the case when it comes to his representation in the realm of fine art. Also, in a sense the last Julio-Claudian ruler is essentially a ‘late bloomer’ as artistic subject matter, the first graphic representations dating around half a millennium after the end of antiquity. One of the earliest (preserved) examples is provided by the so-called “Great Mantle of St. Kunigunde” at Bamberg Cathedral.
From the 13th into the 15th century Nero appears most notably in the miniatures of illuminated manuscripts. The various versions of Boccaccio’s “De mulieribus Claris” show, often in dramatic representation, the cruelties attributed to the emperor, such as the dissection of the body of his mother Agrippina, the forced suicide of Seneca accompanied by the death of his wife Paulina or the fatal kick in the abdomen of Nero’s pregnant second wife Sabina Poppaea.
Possibly in response to Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and the subsequent re-evaluation of sovereign virtues, ‘fictitious’ portraits of Nero became more frequent following the Renaissance. In particular, there are numerous representations of first twelve Roman emperors, naturally include the last Julio-Claudian. It is noteworthy that, in these series, for the first time the image of the emperor is not embellished with negative aspects but his portrayal, for the most part in contemporary clothing, is of one amongst others.
As the opera (1642: L'incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi / 1705: Nero, 1709: Agrippina, both by Georg Friedrich Händel) and the theatre (1669: Britannicus by Jean Racine) embraced various themes relating to Nero as far back as the 17th century, it is only to be expected that there are a large number of prints and drawings in existence related to this.
Surprisingly, it was not until the end of the 18th century that the event most frequently associated with Nero today, the Great Fire of Rome, found its way into fine art for the first time. Worthy of note in this respect are the works of Hubert Roberts and, stepping into the 19th century, a small gouache by Joseph Mallord William Turner, displayed in the Tate Gallery.
Indeed, towards the end of the century, Nero experienced what might almost be called a boom. In Spain, home of Seneca, the emperor’s tutor, Manuel Domínguez Sánchez once again painted the death of the philosopher (today exhibited at the Prado, Madrid) while in 1904 the sculptor Eduardo Barròn created a sculpture of Nero and Seneca in dialogue.
However, it was first and foremost the Polish struggle for independence which saw in the martyrdom of the first Christians under Nero his prefiguration. Polish artists, such as Jan Styka, produced large-scale paintings including panoramas, a large number of studies and preliminary sketches of which are to be found in the museums in Krakow and Warsaw.
The, as yet new, art of photography also devoted attention to Nero. Emerging around 1893 were the photos taken by Wilhelm von Gloeden of young Italian boys, some posing as Nero, which were to become an icon of gay photography.
While stage and costume designs, including those for the “Nerone” operas by Arrigo Boitos und Pietro Mascagni, have indeed survived as part of the collection at La Scala in Milan, Nero has been progressively fading away from ‘high art’. Paintings, such as Dali’s “Desmaterialización de la nariz de Nerón” from 1947 and “Nero malt” by Anselm Kiefer remain the exceptions. In contrast, there are many posters advertising the over twenty films which have appeared on cinema screens since 1896 and have more or less successfully depicted episodes from the,reputed, life of the last Julio-Claudian emperor.
Nero is allowed to live on, albeit as a mere caricature, solely in English-speaking countries, where the phrase “Fiddling while Rome burns’ has long been established in idiom. In fact, since George II, many a politician from the past through to President Obama today, has had to put up with being portrayed as a gleefully fiddling Nero in the face of crumbling states.