Arts / All Canberra leads to ‘Rome’

Agrippa, Hadrian and Commodus… all coming to Canberra.

ALL roads will lead to the National Museum of Australia from this week as its newest exhibition, “Rome: City and Empire,” opens to the public.

That and other aphoristic Roman puns will be inevitable as staff settle in for an exhibition running through the summer, with a host of terrific public programs, including one in which two Roman mosquitos guide kids around the Eternal City.

There are 260 artefacts from as early as the 9th century BC and images of little Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf.

One person who knows very well how to do as the Romans do is NMA curator Lily Withycombe. She’s the on-the-ground person responsible for ensuring that this show and its substantial catalogue, featuring “Why Rome Matters: An Australian Perspective”, co-written with NMA director Mathew Trinca, have an Australian flavour. In it, Norman Lindsay’s ribald impression of Petronius’ “Satyricon” is set against an image from Sydney’s Mardi Gras.

And, indeed, Rome continues to resonate today through our forms of government, law, architecture, language, engineering and religion.

Withycombe did her PhD in archaeology, rattling around the Capitoline and Palatine hills in central Rome, and she proves to be an entertaining human encyclopaedia on all things Roman.

The exhibition, she explains, which comes from the British Museum, is the third show in a collaboration with them, following “Encounters” in 2015 and “A History of the World in 100 Objects” in 2016. It’s only travelled outside England once before, to Nashville, Tennessee.


“It is an exciting time to be working here and it has been a pleasure to deal with the British Museum people,” she enthuses.

With sensational, sometimes huge, sculptures and frescos, it is nonetheless a very up-to-date show. It includes recent discoveries from repositories such as The Selby Hoard, unearthed in Yorkshire in 2010. In such hoards, as the Roman Empire was waning, wealthy Romans stashed away their often-revealing personal treasures.

“They show us how humans lived,” Withycombe says, pointing to the beautiful “luxury goods” such as fine silver spoons and delicate silver toothpicks.

This is the largest display of Roman objects ever to come to Australia and is divided into five parts – The Rise of Rome, Military Might, The Eternal City, Peoples of the Empire and In Memoriam.

Augustus may have said: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”, but as in Ancient Greece that marble was often painted and what we’ll see, Withycombe says, will be “a colourful and vivid spectacle”. That will include a gilded wall painting from Nero’s decadent Golden House.

In the past, Withycombe has addressed Canberra’s classicists on portraiture in Roman sculpture and there will be no shortage of distinctive characters on show.

The key image of the exhibition is a striking, ferocious female face, probably that of the notorious Messalina. Then there’s Commodus, the evil son of Marcus Aurelius played by Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator” and the emperor Hadrian, the only royal personage to be depicted with a beard. These are all “real” people, with hairstyles of famous women such as Cleopatra as recognisable as Maggie Thatcher’s.

In the stunning entry to the show there will be a 2.5-metre-tall Roman magistrate from the 1st century AD in full toga, but there’s also a full-size priestess in Carrara marble. Most of the women portrayed, Withycombe says, are aristocratic, but images on bowls speak to the lives of ordinary people who lived across the Roman Empire.

Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the exhibition follows the city as it grew from a cluster of small villages to become the centre of an empire encompassing more than a quarter of the world’s population.

It’s a fair bet that even very small children are going to love this exhibition. Those flies buzzing around the museum are called Marcus and Tullia and they’ll take the kids on a journey through the stinkier parts of Rome. Richard Fidler will provide a more sedate guide for adults.

At the end, visitors will doubtless be saying, like Saint Augustine, “Rome has spoken”.

“Rome: City and Empire”, National Museum of Australia, until February 3.

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