The Emperor Hadrian

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Bronze head of Hadrian, c. 120-130 A.D. /© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The first thing to be said about the British Museum’s current exhibition about the Roman Emperor Hadrian is that it makes you understand why Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, wants more space. MacGregor wants to build an addition that will include galleries for the temporary exhibitions that have been multiplying under his directorship. Over the past year I’ve visited two of those shows, Hadrian, which continues through October 26, and the blockbuster display of China’s Terra Cotta Warriors. Good shows; bad space.

To accomodate temporary exhibitions, the museum has taken to repurposing its great circular Reading Room, the one just beneath Sidney Smirke’s famous copper dome. At a diameter of 140 feet that dome is just two feet smaller than the one topping Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome, but as a gallery the Reading Room still feels cramped. Even with timed tickets, the round space leads to awkward circulation patterns and bottlenecks around display cases. The temporary walls and floors also prevent visitors from getting a good look at the Reading Room itself, which was so beautifully restored for the opening in 2000 of the great glass-domed courtyard by Norman Foster that now surrounds it. (The Chinese Warriors exhibition will be traveling next month to the High Museum in Atlanta, where I expect it will have more room to breathe.)

That said, the Hadrian show, which was curated by the British Museum’s Thorsten Opper, was still pretty absorbing. Hadrian is an object of fascinaton to the Brits of course because he built Hadrian’s Wall across the north of England as a bulwark against barbarian tribes. For the rest of us he’s the serene intellect who narrates Marguerite Yourcenar’s wonderful novel The Memoirs of Hadrian. I viewed the Hadrian show through the lens of a book I read last year by Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Zanker discusses how Roman art and architecture had served Augustus to create an identity for an empire that was then just emerging from the rubble of the old Republic and he stresses the role that Greek models played in Roman imagery after Rome absorbed Greece and its much more sophisticated culture in the 2nd century B.C. For one thing, nude statues of Roman generals were an idea borrowed from the Greeks.

As it happens, Hadrian, who was born in what is now Spain, was a very enthusiastic student of Greek culture. By the time he became emperor, in 117 A.D., the conventions for representing imperial power were well established. So he was depicted in the nude — Hadrian as god — and in full armor — Hadrian as warrior.

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Bronze head and torso of Hadrian, c. 135 A.D. /© THE ISRAEL MUSEUM, JERUSALEM

And until recently, it was also believed that he had been depicted in a Greek toga, which would have been a powerful but very unusual message about a Roman emperor’s dedication to Greek culture. But one of the discoveries of this show was that the statue of Hadrian clothed that way is a concoction by Victorian restorers, who mistakenly put the head of one statue on the body of another. Ardent Hellenists themselves, the Victorians simply cobbled together an image of Hadrian they wanted to see.

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Head of Hadrian on sculpted body of another man, 117 – 138 A.D./© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

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