Magazine article The Spectator

Hadrian at the BM

Magazine article The Spectator

Hadrian at the BM

Article excerpt

The British Museum's forthcoming major exhibition will make us aware once more of Hadrian's immense legacy and its continuing relevance. It has the express aim of reassessing popular notions of Hadrian and his reign in the light of new research and new discoveries, contrasting the most recent scholarship with outdated cliches we may still hold dear.

Yet while it is possible to describe the dramatic events of Hadrian's time in words and to capture the vastness and astonishing diversity of the territories that made up his empire on film, a museum exhibition has to deliver by different means.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, one of the largest exhibitions ever staged by the British Museum, includes some 170 objects drawn from 31 lenders in 11 countries from Italy to Israel, from Spain to the Republic of Georgia.

Many of these objects have never left their source countries before, and the vast majority will be displayed together for the first time.

They include truly outstanding pieces, some of which have been icons of western art from the Renaissance on; many others are highlights of the Grand Tour in the 18th century. But these objects also have meaningful contexts: they can tell powerful stories in addition to being appreciated in aesthetic terms. The means to overcome the almost 2,000-year gap that separates us from Hadrian and his time lies in the striking authenticity of the objects themselves. As individual items, they are as close to events and people as possible.

Included in the exhibition are the famous Vindolanda tablets, letters and notes jotted down on thin slabs of wood that shed light on the life of Roman soldiers at the British frontier in the decades before the wall was built and when Hadrian himself was still a young officer.

Of course there are gleaming marble sculptures that show Hadrian as he wanted to be seen, and was seen, by his contemporaries.

And yet these polished portrait images, of the finest quality Rome's leading workshops could produce, stand opposite ordinary, strictly utilitarian transport containers, in which large quantities of olive oil were exported from Spain to Rome, a lucrative trade that, over centuries, bought the colonial elites of Roman Spain, to which Hadrian's family belonged, entry into the senate, and ultimately imperial power. Pilaster capitals from the famed rotunda of the Pantheon in Rome, one of the most renowned buildings of the ancient world and completed by Hadrian, can be seen next to individual brick tiles, whose stamped inscriptions reveal that it was the high senatorial aristocracy and members of the imperial family itself who owned the brickyards and gained enormous wealth from the Hadrianic building boom. …

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