Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth installation shot. Photo Andy Keate.
The new year may already be old news, but here at Nottingham Contemporary an air of “in between” persists, as we prepare for the launch of our new season. Thus, I’ve been considering my favourite show of the year gone by, and the exhibition I elect is Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth.
This show aligned my interest in contemporary art and ancient history, specifically the period between the rise of Julius Caesar and the end of the western half of the Roman Empire in AD476, when the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, the first King of Italy. During the exhibition I undertook a number of Spot Talks in Gallery 1, a room dedicated to Roman architecture and Baroque artefacts. These talks seldom touched on the elevation of Caesar; principally they explored possible reasons for the demise of Rome. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that I would mention the trajectories of a number of the mad, bad and debauched emperors.
It was Edward Gibbon1, I believe, who conceived the notion of the “fall” with reference to Rome. I take it to signify the defeat of an idea: the idea of an all-encompassing order fashioned by reason and diplomacy. And, for several centuries, Rome may well have embodied this ideal. It has been suggested that the Empire was at its zenith in the early third century AD, and it is possible to believe that the world up until that point may never have known such prolonged peace and prosperity. But in AD218 the young Elagabalus (the sun god) donned the imperial purple, and proceeded to surpass some of his forebears in the arts of inhumanity.2
Historians have posited numerous explanations for Rome’s demise, but artists, poets and storytellers have mythologised it. One of the most striking myths is that by the sixth century BC the population of the city itself was zero.3 This was the period in which Pablo Bronstein chose to present the Via Appia in his sequence of fantastical drawings in Gallery 1.
If you ever have the opportunity to spend a day walking4 the Via Appia Antica in modern-day Rome you will discover a thoroughfare once lined with proud family tombs and burial places.5 This ancient road, with its ruined Roman masonry, is imbued with history.
I have visited the Italian capital many times. On one tour of the Appia my wife and I encountered no more than three people6 throughout the entire day. This absence of inhabitants, this desolation, can be romanticised upon. Likewise the idea of Rome and her fall.7 This lost great city and empire – was she destined to be mourned over?
The forthcoming show at Nottingham Contemporary will inevitably provoke similar questions. On Saturday 16 January we present Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, an exhibition of over 100 artworks and objects from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, dating from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s.
OHO/Marko Pogačnik, Rolling Stones Matchboxes (detail), 1968. Marinko Sudac Collection.
This exhibition will no doubt give me cause to reflect upon another of my travels – to Yugoslavia in 1986. This was only a few years before the Balkan trauma of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I was fortunate to visit the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik before it was besieged for seven months and suffered significant damage from shelling. In Mostar I walked over the magnificent old bridge built by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. In 1993 how many of us watched the footage of this treasure being destroyed?
My thoughts return to that day on the Via Appia and the feeling of melancholia. The end of history continues.
1 The citations and notes in Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire are famously lengthy and discursive. They provide the reader with fascinating glimpses into the author’s thought processes, and are, from time to time, humorous, idiosyncratic and opinionated.
2 Think Colonel Gaddafi to the power of ten! And read Caligula: Divine Carnage – Atrocities of the Roman Emperors by Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed, a book that confirmed my thinking that this sun god wished to be a hermaphrodite.
3 Although not accurate the number is perhaps telling. Estimates for Rome’s population by the third century AD vary, between one and four million. (Note, Roman censuses did not take into account women, slaves and those who wished to remain anonymous.) By the latter half of the sixth century, with many of the aqueducts and drainage systems in disrepair, the city’s populace succumbed to malaria (look to the Pontine Marshes!) and fell below 50,000.
4 Make it a Sunday (as it is closed to traffic then), take a packed lunch and plenty of water.
5 Exit the modern city via the Porta San Sebastiano, visit the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, and venture underground into one of the catacombs of San Callisto or San Sebastiano. Take in as well the Tomb of Caecilia Metella or the Tomb of Priscilla. Several of the structures that appeared in Pablo Bronstein’s drawings called to mind these drum-shaped monuments. To view something of a similar nature take a look at the Circus of Maxentius, erected by the eponymous emperor (regarding whom, see the civil wars of the Tetrarchy).
6 All native, two of whom were riding an old, rasping Vespa, bumbling along, trying to remain upright on the worn, interlocking stone. The Appia had suffered greatly in more recent times, not least from serious pillaging of both its marble and the tufa. Some – but by no means all – of this sacking can be blamed on urban regeneration projects. Which reminds me of a local tale of woe. How sad it is to know that the Palladian Nuthall Temple was finally levelled to make way for a slip road at Junction 26 of the M1 motorway.
7 To my mind, the “fall” does not convince. Rome as a political centre had been abandoned long before Alaric sacked the city in AD410. The Western Empire did not so much fall as disintegrate. One may consider the Battle of Adrianople in AD378 to be the beginning of the decline and Romulus’s deposition as the last emperor, in AD 475, to mark the conclusion. So less a fall – certainly not a revolution – and more a state of evolution.
Monuments Should Not Be Trusted begins on 16 January and runs until 4 March. For more information on Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, including media coverage and videos of the artist in conversation, please click here.