Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Memories of... Napoli

This posting was drafted after a trip to Napoli in February 2009.  It had started out as weekend jaunt to see Peter Grimes at San Carlo, my favourite opera house in Italy, and a planned excursion to Herculaneum.  But there was so much to do and see in Napoli itself that the entire weekend was spent exploring the city including a visit to the world famous Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. My one regret is that I only got back to there once after that - and then only for an evening.  It is a city I longed to explore.

Sunday at the Colesseo

Roma - Tuesday, February 10th 2009

No I didn't go to the Colesseo in Roma again on Sunday, though I did go passed it several times in the last week but without going in. Now that I've been through it 8 times in the last 18 months I'm not sure I'll ever step foot in the place again. Famous last words! (Strangely I was to keep to those words and never did go into it again.)

However when we were at the Museo Archeologico in Napoli last weekend they had a special exhibition on Gladiators and the Colesseo in Pompeii.  Many of the items had survived the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE and were in remarkable condition.  For me, at least, one of the most fascinating items amongst the swords, shields and general paraphernalia of the arena was this elaborately worked bronze helmet dating between 50 and 74 CE.

Found at the Quadriportico of the Theatres,  it is a stunning example of the artistry involved, and money invested, in garbing gladiators for battle. Unfortunately Christian mythology, Gibbon, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Hollywood has handed down this impression of the wholesale slaughter of the vanquished at the end of a contest. And though combatants did die, as I mentioned in my post on The Boxer, athletes and gladiators were highly skilled athletes who were too expensive an investment to allow for frivolous deaths. And many gladiators were prisoners of war but as many others were volunteers who had chosen fighting as their profession.  And even a gladiator who was past his prime could be valuable as a trainer for the young fighters entering the schools and arenas, as a bodyguard or even as a household slave.

Jean-Léon Gérôme's Pollice verso (1872) did much to influence 20th century ideas and ideal concerning Gladiators and the Roman Games.  The triumphant Murmillo stand over the defeated Thraex awaiting the pleasure of the crowd - who in this case seem to be calling for the blood of the vanquished.

The owner of the gladiator who wore this helmet must have spared no expense in outfitting his prize fighter.  The bronze helmet would have been worn by a "murmillo" as part of his equipment which would have included a broad sword, a loincloth, a belt, short greaves on his lower legs,  a linen arm protector, and the curved rectangular shield of a Roman legionnaire.  The murmillo derived his name from his helmet - vaguely fish shaped it appears to be a variant on the Greek word for a type of salt water fish.  Normally his opponent would have been a Thraex or Thracian - armed with a small round shield and a curved sword - or a Hopolomachus or Hoplite - using a spear, a sword and a small round shield in the Greek fashion.  The analogy was obvious to the crowd - the Roman legionnaire (murmillo) against a foreign enemy.  Perhaps it is more patriotic propaganda than actual records of combats but in early frescos, carvings and bas-reliefs the murmillo often appears triumphant!

This helmet is a large hemispheric dome with a grated visor and the broad brim surmounted by a crest which has holes on either side used to insert feathers and a horsehair plume to add further adornment to the elaborate relief work on the crown.  And no doubt it added a further fearsome aspect to the advancing combatant if not to his opponent then to the spectators.

The cap is decorated in relief with the personification of Roma Victorious, dressed as an Amazon, with her right leg slightly bent.  Fasces in her left hand - symbolizing power and jurisdiction - a sceptre in her left she stands in Imperial glory between two kneeling male figures.  Their tunics and trousers suggest they are barbarians who, having seen the error of their ways, offer tribute and homage to victorious Rome.

Two prisoners, their hands tied behind their backs, adorn the sides of the helmet.  A male on the right and a female on the left they are amongst the spoils of a battle won by the Empire.  Heaps of weapons form the traditional trophies of a triumph - armour, shields, spears, shin guard and banners.   Is it perhaps semi-biographical in nature - was the gladiator who wore this into the arena among the vanquished in a recent war?  Or was it just a reminder to the citizens of a fashionable resort town of Pompeii of the power and glory of their Empire?

It would be fascinating to know the story behind this amazing piece of metal work - the man who made it, the man (men?) who wore it.  How often had it been worn in triumph? Or in defeat?  Was the last gladiator to wear it one of the 16,000 who were buried in the lava flows and ash showers that reached temperatures of up to 700c.  Or as a valued piece of property had he been taken when his owner made his escape?  Or, in a more romantic vein, had he used the hysteria and confusion as thousands tried to leave the doomed city to make a bid for freedom and a return to his homeland?

The helmet reveals much about the rituals and craftsmanship of the time but reveals little of the people who made and used it leaving it up to our imagination to fill in the missing pieces.

A few other posts that actually made it up about that wonderful weekend in Napoli:

Of Cabbages and Kings

Sunday Stroll in Santa Chiara

Sharing - Napoletano Portals

11 ottobre/October - San Alessandro Sauli

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1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Talk about a hard way to make a living.