We see an extravagant dinner party hosted by Heliogabalus, a teenage emperor who ruled the Roman Empire for a few years in the early 3rd century - at the back of the painting, the emperor is lying down in a golden frock, with six guests at his table and a flute player standing behind him. In front we see a number of other guests, who are being showered with rose petals while they sit or lie down on benches. The cascade of petals is so large that it seems the guests are smothered by them. To the right, an elderly man with a beard looks surprised at the whole scene, with a few petals in his hair.
Thanks to the mass of flower petals, the painting looks fresh, colorful and even joyful - but what does it really mean?
- First Heliogabalus. His name is more properly Elagabalus and he was Roman emperor from 218 to 222. Elagabalus was put on the throne in 218 after the assassination of the previous emperor, Caracalla, whose grandson he was. He was barely fourteen years old. His short reign would be marred by religious controversy - Elagabalus was born in Syria and had served as hereditary priest of the Emesan sun deity El-Gabal. He brought this cult (in the form of a phallic-shaped meteorite) with him to Rome and even placed El-Gabal above the traditional Roman deity Jupiter. Conservative Romans were forced to participate in the new rites. In this way, Elagabalus made many enemies in the shortest time possible, and was finally hacked to pieces by his own Praetorian Guards. In subsequent history, he is also depicted as a cruel pervert, a small Nero so to speak. How much of that is reliable remains to be seen: it seems the standard historical treatment of failed emperors. Among the outrages ascribed to Elagabalus in the 4th century Augustan History are his "marriage" to a Vestal virgin, dressing as a woman and playing the "mistress" to his own charioteer, as well as prostituting himself in his own palace: "He set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice soliciting passers-by." He is also described as a bisexual who used cosmetics and "offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip him with female genitalia." Unbelievably expensive meals and parties were of course also part and parcel of his reputed debauchery. Many modern writers, starting with Edward Gibbon, have copied these rather biased allegations and call him "a debauched psychic," "the most cruel and infamous wretch that ever disgraced humanity and polluted a throne." But any fourteen-year old who is given unlimited power would become a small monster...
- The cruel incident on which the present painting is based, is also mentioned in the Augustan History: "In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top." So that is what the painting shows us: murder by roses - the real flower power! Tons of rose petals must have been necessary to execute this feat on his unsuspecting audience.
- Next we turn to the maker of this "decadent" painting, (Sir) Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). He was born as "Lourens Alma Tadema" in Dronrijp, a tiny village in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands. He studied painting at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, and first became assistant to one of his professors (Jan de Taeye), who taught history and historical costume and who strongly encouraged historical accuracy in painting - indeed something for which Alma-Tadema would become known. Next he worked in the studio of the well-known painter Henri Leys, where he produced his first major work: The Education of the Children of Clovis (1861), a painting on a historical (Merovingian) subject. In all, Alma-Tadema would work for ten years in Belgium, finally setting up himself as an independent classical-subject painter. He added Egyptian themes to the European ones, and discovered his real subject when he visited Florence, Rome and Pompeii in Italy on his honeymoon: classical antiquity. In 1870 Alma-Tadema moved to London, where he would stay the rest of his life, also obtaining British denizenship. His second wife was the English painter Laura Epps. Alma-Tadema became friends with most of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, under whose influence his palette became brighter. He developed into a Victorian institution, a classical-subject painter, who was famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of the dazzling blue Mediterranean. Alma-Tadema was eminently successful and could demand the highest prices for his work. He found a ready market among the wealthy English middle classes for paintings recreating scenes of domestic life in imperial Rome. It was only after his death in 1912 that his depictions of Classical antiquity fell into disrepute, swamped away by the flood of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and the other Isms of the Twentieth Century. But a reevaluation has taken place in the last decades and Alma-Tadema is now again recognized as the important 19th century painter he was - at auctions, his work is in high demand (and fetches high prices, up to $35 million).
- As mentioned above, Lawrence Alma-Tadema strove for historical accuracy in his paintings. His was the age that great archaeological finds were made - one only has to visit the British Museum to see some of the most important ones - and interest in Classical Antiquity ran high. Alma-Tadema extensively researched the costumes, architecture and material culture of antiquity to get every detail right. Every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods; Alma-Tadema's visualization of the past was based on careful study and exactitude. Interestingly, his paintings were used as source material by Hollywood directors in famous films as Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934) and, most notably, Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments (1956).
- Also in other ways Alma-Tadema was a meticulous perfectionist. In the case of the present painting, for example, he wanted each rose petal to be as perfectly realistic as possible - but as he was working on the painting in the winter of 1887-88, there were no fresh roses in England, so he had rose petals shipped to him from the Riviera to have fresh examples. He painted each petal with painstaking skill and patience. Besides that, in the present painting the depiction of the banqueting hall is based on a description by Gibbon, and the statue of Bacchus in the background can be found in the Vatican Museum.
- Alma-Tadema was also famous as a "painter of marble." In Belgium, his teacher Leys had been critical of the treatment of marble in The Education of the Children of Clovis, which he compared to "cheese." Alma-Tadema took this criticism seriously, and he so much improved his technique that he became the world's foremost painter of marble and granite. See the pillars in the present painting.
- In 1898, the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (see my post on his novel The Hidden Force) visited the studio of Alma-Tadema in London, in his palatial house at 44 Grove End Road, St John's Wood. The house seems to have been full of marble, as well, and of the studio it was said that it "conjured up visions of all the luxury, the ivory, apes and peacocks of the Roman civilization with which his art was largely preoccupied." Also Couperus was very much interested in the subject of Heliogabalus and in 1905 would publish a large novel about him, called The Mountain of Light. Couperus discards all tales about Heliogabalus's cruelty and instead describes him as a religious innovator - Couperus seems to have regarded Heliogabalus' sun cult as a sort of proto-Theosophism. Couperus wrote many novels about classical antiquity, a period he loved for its lack of "original sin."
[Silver Favourites (1903), now in the Manchester Art Gallery,
depicts a woman feeding fishes in a "marblescape."
The painting is a great example of Alma-Tadema's treatment of marble,
here against the dazzlingly blue backdrop of the Mediterranean]