Richard Tuttle reviews I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome

This month in The Brooklyn Rail Richard Tuttle contributes “Augustus,” a long form essay/free writing exercise in poem form that seems to emulate a writing style that might have been prevalent in ancient Rome. The piece is about I, Augustus, Emperor of Rome, a dazzling exhibition presented at the Grand Palais in Paris this summer that, according to Alistar Sooke in The Telegraph,  “shows how Augustus harnessed art to achieve his political objectives.” The exhibition featured statues, sculpted reliefs, frescoes, household items like furniture and silverware, a reconstructed villa from Vesuvius, and tombs uncovered in Gaul.

[Image: The official catalog for the exhibition.]

statues, sculpted reliefs, frescoes, pieces of furniture and silverware, along with a reconstruction of a villa from the slopes of Vesuvius and tombs uncovered in Gaul reveal the changes in the social environment of the Romans. – See more at:
statues, sculpted reliefs, frescoes, pieces of furniture and silverware, along with a reconstruction of a villa from the slopes of Vesuvius and tombs uncovered in Gaul reveal the changes in the social environment of the Romans. – See more at:

statues, sculpted reliefs, frescoes, pieces of furniture and silverware, along with a reconstruction of a villa from the slopes of Vesuvius and tombs uncovered in Gaul reveal the changes in the social environment of the Romans. – See more at:

I was going to run an excerpt of Tuttle’s piece, but decided to run the whole thing because he makes interesting connections with ancient and contemporary art. I’m interested in the different ways artists and critics are beginning to write about art, and I  couldn’t decide which section to publish. So: read it quickly before Tuttle (or The Brooklyn Rail) sends me a note and asks me to take it down!


Where plants grow well, humans usually do well,
Rome, Paris, London, San Francisco. It must have
Something to do with the light. There is a small intaglio
Of Agrippa in “Augustus” in a glass-clear mineral,
Which creates an image in light, of light, by light.
It is tiny, hard to see, but when you do Agrippa is
Your own. Augustus wants you in the same way, too.
The Prima Porta sculpture even has drapery,
You have moved.
The Agrippa intaglio has rounded edges ready for
A gold bezel, perhaps, or like a natural stone.
Achaemenian seals were made with extraordinary
Detail almost 3000 BCE, and ever since, but the portrait
Heads of Augustus are beyond equal. Indeed, the portrait
“Is” Roman. How the artist could make Julia’s children
Look like her and themselves, tells what the art is all
About—in addition, the portrait portrays an image.
The family is greater than the individual, though
The individual drives the family. When you are excluded,
You can make the family (or those driving it) suffer,
As did Augustus’s daughter, Julia, and Livia’s son, Tiberius,
If not all the Julio-Claudians, after. The portraits
Usually exhibit multi-aspects, sweetness and sternness,
Action and rest, etc., the best ones, arresting in the
Accomplishment of multi-points of view, simultaneously.
You can even see who was important and who was not,
The generic, a cause to rebel or create a strong identity,
Usually a bad one.
Even when young, Augustus’s portrait looks older,
Following the Republic’s models, more than when he was
Older. As sole father of his country, he looks in his early 20s,
Handsome, rather than experienced. Rome was where
The artists lived who made the models, used by makers
Farther afield. It is intriguing to speculate on the process.
Augustus’s clipped ears on the Prima Porta likeness,
Though admired for their smallness, are not correct,
Perhaps a godlike appearance. That Livia, owned and
Admired this portrait, post-mortem, is approval.
That it is of the finest marble comes as no surprise,
Though Greek sculpture did better with Parian marble,
Which sparkles. Their aesthetic differing 180%, brought
Anatomy and stone to harmony. Augustus is not about
Harmony—purity comes without the sparkles.


To receive honors as Augustus did from the Senate
Gave him great pleasure, though the loss of 18,000 soldiers
Did not. We can think he revenged the murder of his uncle,
Julius, but his pursuit, in some sense, was impersonal.
How he exiled his daughter and did not remember
To thank his wife, indicate feeling, or lack of it,
But what can you expect of the son of a god? It
Has been said, someone born in a monotheistic world
Can never understand polytheism. There is also
The concern of how the living relate to the immortals.
In some sense, Augustus became singular and immortal.
Who takes pleasure in that? Who was/is Augustus?
In French, “BC”, or “BCE”, is rendered, “avant J–C”,
So you don’t know if you are talking about Julius Caesar,
Or Jesus Christ. That is good, because it is so arbitrary
A division in the inexorable march of time.  I wish it wasn’t
There, for what happened around the year, “0”,
Has had such impact ever since, it’s hard to imagine
It all happened in the natural flow of time, as it did.
On the other hand, you could say this crux indicates alignment,
In which case you parallel the polytheistic and monotheistic,
Bringing Augustus far forward, as this exhibition, recognizing
the 2000th year of his death, tries. But does it do it successfully?
From the entrance (which is between Robert Mapplethorpe
And Bill Viola) at the Grand Palais, a deconstruction of the
Palais’s own architecture, you are invited up the stairs
Through channels meant for greater crowds than available.
A certain drama greets the visitor in the first room, as the show
Ends at the beginning with the colossal, late portrait of
Augustus, deified and honored beyond all before, or since.
He was the richest, most powerful man who ever lived,
Emphasis on “man”, as in “manly”. Makers of the show
Are Italian, who know a thing or two about theater.
Despite it, Augustus is presented here in a way unenlightened
By the contemporary—perhaps in contrast with the
Deconstructed entrance—so the show is a bit of a time
Warp, and didactic, at that. A Roman copy of Praxiteles,
“Spear Carrier”, occupies a nitch near Augustus’s outstretched
arm to show the source of Augustus’s stance. This is
Art history at its worst, though the trope in showmaking
Is repeated as a finale in the last room with the deified Livia
And an even larger Augustus, side by side.


The stability of the Roman State is cause for wonderment.
Italy is the only country, can survive without government,
As when Hannibal invaded in the 3rd c BCE. The Civil Wars
Were really about families, not individuals. The proscriptions
Were made to eliminate enemy families, though individuals
Were murdered. The Julio-Claudians were in power, but
The Julians felt superior to the Calaudians. What was at
The heart of this stability?
I recently purchased a pot from Apulia, c. 320 BCE, a
Creative period. So different is the drawing from the
Greek precedent, so loosened, it can only be compared
To the pot’s form. A Lebes Gamikos, the pot pictures
A couple being married by Eros. It is a lively portrayal,
She giving him an egg, he being crowned, the artist
Creates a network of lines so dazzling, all is enveloped
By it. It is an argument, not a fact, so convincing in itself,
You want to prefer it to a system where line all but disappears,
As in the Greek.
Praxiteles’s art synthesizes form bringing back the left leg
And giving a far away, meditative gaze to the Spear Carrier.
The nude is clothed in nudeness, in art, so to speak. 
A tree stump—or something so abstract as to look like one,
The stumps of torn off branches looking like vaginas—aids
The standing athlete, both literally and figuratively. It is at
Once masterfully produced of the deductive and fully
Realized deductive—only possible, as art, because of the
Deductive, some of its charm coming because it does not
Exhaust the deductive. The Roman copy is exhausting.
Augustan art, where the world ends in line, not form,
May be the greater because it begins form all over again.
This may be what Virgil meant saying Augustus begins
A new, golden age. So what if this new form is always
Compared disadvantageously to synthetic form. The
Only scary thing is when it replaces it. But how does that
Leave us? One way is, that form (and there is no English
Verb tense) has always before always exist—which is
Not good. Or to repeat exercises: the form that’s obscured,
The form that’s revealed. Modern man has no form
In their soul, hence the unruly appetite for truth—and
The legitimacy of its denial—except the network of
The object and the network of the context becoming one.


Even locked behind your car driving into the Rockies,
You can feel the mineral deposits on your left.
And the person sitting next to you can feel them.
Such is the patrimony expressed in the edicts of the
Official Augustus, the need, as the Greeks say, in their
Theater to exonerate. After 2000 years, Augustus
Does not boast to us, yet exonerates.
A huge photograph of an inscription translated into
More impressive Greek, greets you in the first
Room of the exhibition, a foil, perhaps, to the two
Sculptures. Other than that, is a small screen,
Constantly moving, giving a French translation of the
Inscription, this time scaled down. Augustus, literally,
“the August”, is not finished completely, behind, as if
he were always meant to stand before a wall. The
huge cantilever of his pointing arm, more dramatic and
Daring for the sculpture. The chest would read flatter
and the head would triumph from it, the way the artist
intended, and the tremendous drop down in scale
of the deity-symbolic putti angel at his right ankle
would dissolve in mythologic space (with his dolphin).
He is also pointing.
The little toe, so tucked under, I thought, from wearing
Shoes, is the only part which compares identically with
The two sculptures, Augustus and the Spear Carrier.
Virgil had an eye for detail, too. People have commented on
Augustan literature—actually a term now more used
To designate early 18’c, English literature—for its quality,
But Julius Caesar could keep two scribes on horseback busy
Riding into battle with the best writing by a commander in
History. You could do well to stop here and examine the
Relation of patronage to art, rather than go on to the church
And the Renaissance. Is there a difference?
The luxuries available were contentious. Ever since Carthage
Was destroyed, grown rich on its trade and termed, decadent,
By the Romans, the Romans struggled with luxury, loving power
More. Augustus was proud Livia, herself, wove his garments,
Yet gave her permission to take charge of her own finances.
She became wealthy and distinguished herself, more in
The visual arts, powerfully.
I would like to visit Capri someday where Augustus built
A palace to enjoy the greatest luxury and comfort. I am
Still too much modeled after the in-town, Spartan style
Of work and engagement Tiberius so sought to avoid in
Rhodes, studying Greek philosophy or on Capri, itself,
Just escaping the world.
But to the Roman, the matrix of luxury and art would
Include both nature and form, somehow compelling the
One to join the other. The rising above, this entailed was
Heady, indeed, but the world has not seen the like, except
For the last days of the ancien regime just before Robespierre.


For me, getting an urn to sit on the ground to which it belongs
In New Mexico, is a way to prove it is not an arrogant gesture.
The model in my mind may come from the Tuileries where
The gesture has proven itself through generations. It is
Vitruvius, however, we must look to, who achieved this first,
Under Augustus, and for Augustus. A perfect balance between
The decorative, the sculptural and the architectural, it must
Start with a well-crafted urn. To know how that is done,
One must look to the poets as musicians, that, sound, so
Radical, can be brought into submission, turn around, and
Become expressive. To “hear” is like seeing the perfectly
Crafted urn in submission, an epiphany each time it happens.
It can be repeated, remembered and new, all at the same time.
Even the plantings in the Tuileries relate to Roman painting;
They are not borders as in Italian or English gardens.
The pigeons shit on the wider chair seats under the trees
To catch the shade.
Two steps were made to make the extraordinary cameo
Portrait (cat. 80) come to life as medieval mount. Two
Worlds were brought together, one of black and white,
One of color, Dante, blue, medieval Latin, red, with pearls,
To either. Instant power in abeyance, remembering
Trickle time difference, lopsided in planes, before this one.


How many pools make up history? Reservoirs unknown to
Time/space, legitimate, toward sympathies, unjust, but
Whoever looked to history for truth in reality?
I came here hoping to see beauty, if not art, the
Truth of art, if you will? Which I believed to be the
Highest ever achieved. Conducive, or not, the exhibition
Can enhance or detract. Patrimony rules; the visitor
Is to be impressed by scale, opulence, stature—the
Remarkable thing of this time was artists were employed
In a creative age, something the historian has sadly missed.
The great historian of the period, Ronald Syme, writing
During the spectacular rise of Fascism in the ’30s,
Saw Augustus “pessimistically” and “truculently.”
Historians’ versions have universally reflected their times,
Viewpoints, preferred versions, making the period, which
Once Augustus was completely manipulated (after the
Creating artists were dispatched). The public relations,
An art by the artists, is completely polysemous, at the
Same time representing the civilized point of view.
An end is only great if its means become truly invisible.
Thank heavens for art, which is true to complexity.
This Brasserie opens with art and closes with history;
There is no time except for art. Even Augustus could not
Change that and my preferred way to see him, knew that.
Others have said, forgive him, he had wonderful taste in
Poetry. These teeth chewing, these eyes seeing beautiful
Legs, not hit by a breaking car, belong to Augustus, or do
They? Never did the most power seemed chained by
The least power. Someone votes for Obama, because,
“He’s just like me.”
The Mediterranean world loves absolute authority
Invested in one man. Part of Augustus’s greatness is
The achievement of singularity. He was too detached to
Be a demagogue. We even know the cost: absolute absence
Of personal feeling. Again paradox, he offered stability
For personal freedom. A risk for him, the times less political,
Favored him… to his surprise, but, instantly knew how
To use. One wonders if an adopted Julian was more
An advocate, such was the transparency, and instability
He was part of. One also wonders at the relatively small
Group of citizens who were affected, though the difference
Between life and death was not great. Syme is comfortable
Calling Augustus, a revolutionary. Though passionless, one
Wonders if the entire trajectory does not come from the
Assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar. The image
Of a single power figure, not two Consuls, as the top
Political authority, was enacted by Caesar. There is
Something methodical, even bland, in Augustus’s rise to
Power, but who, 2000 years later, cannot thrill to his first
March on Rome to take power from his uncle’s assassins?
However, or because, illegal, every American heart sings,
His taking power, like Julius crossing the Rubicon.
Yes, Augustus, we love you. One account has you born on
The Palatine, another in Nole, the son of a successful,
Provincial banker. Who knows? The barreness of your
Marriage, and your uncle’s, create problems in succession
But were you not more interested in becoming immortals?
Orthodox historiography does not deal with sumptuary.
Unequal, or out of proportion, wealth often begins with
Creativity. This expression, at first, happened in the exotic
East where luxury, then, as always, had practical and aesthetic
Subculture. What is amazing is how the existing forms
Were renewed, technically and aesthetically, in the Augustan age.
The mille-fleur pattern in Venetian glass originated in the
Levant at this time. The objects stun in their simplicity and
Complexity, fusing the two as political destiny. The deification
Aspirations of westerners were not just supported by
Oriental cults. Every one of means could have an object
Which proved in its physicality the most abstract dreams
Of the regime. Power was sought at this late date, but
It was viewed as something found—if not persuaded—
A onement with the gods. As princeps, Augustus was this
Union, the beauty of which was freely represented in both
His person and objects of luxury. As Syme has pointed out,
The revolution was in the machinations of several families,
Augustus, winner.


Waves, waves of Actium, one of the greatest nautical disasters,
Mark Antony barely escaping in Cleopatra’s golden barge,
Meant to ensure victory. Such was the beginning of the end
For the two, one who had married her son by Julius Caesar
To ensure she held power in Egypt when he matured
And could replace her. Alexandrian town planning (Dinocrates)
Was used for Rome and Washington, D.C. As waves moved
West, waves of Italian immigrants came to administer Egypt,
Actually breaking down the priesthood, even Cleopatra
Wouldn’t, or couldn’t. They brought Italian painting in Fayum
Mummy masks. Egypt was to be punished, a good excuse for
Removing her extraordinary wealth, from which she never
Recovered, Seleucids, to be accepted. Her reputation for
Laxity, even though the Egyptians were Greek Ptolomies
Was to produce nostalgia in Rome for strict morality,
A re-occurrence in the western Mediterranean even today,
With crimes to match. Hypocrisy, the cult of appearances,
Led to the political use of poverty as virtue. Virtue, the
Highest achievement, was in anybody’s hands, if the rational
Was solidified in a supreme power, like Augustus’s.
Look at the architecture—all to stabilize. Aqueducts,
Theaters, stadia: stable. Busloads of tourists gaze at the
Ruins, still stable, and are happy. Greeks are tough, Romans,
Weak. The barrel vaults and round arches, most important
To Roman architecture belong to the brick Augustus claimed
To replace with marble. The Greeks achieved stability; the
Romans aimed for it, all the more successfully for it was in
The waves from the start, though Augustus was at a safe distance,
Agrippa, his friend, leading the way.


Painting is said to be something coming out from the wall.
The wall is load bearing, compressed by weight above.
As a painter, you feel this coming and receive it, first in
Fresco, that so quintessential of Italian media. The artist
Who can feel this most quickens his brush as in the
Paintings at Prima Porta, famous in their day, as today.
The Greeks were said to invent quick painted scenery
For the theater, using perspective to rapidly portray great
Depth and arrangement. Vitruvius said he used the painting
To proportion his building. The paintings from Pompeii
Would be found in Rome with foreshortening.
The epic flowed out of Virgil’s mouth like the great, low
Relief acanthus spirals covering silver pots or carved into
Marble.  Horace’s poetry by contrast was more sound bites,
The best way to say something, needed to be said, and he
Was very proud to have brought Greek meter into Latin.
Ovid came later, had it all to himself. The gracefulness
Of this period could also be a reaction to the Civil Wars.
The grandeur and grace have never been equaled. There is
A lack of fat headedness, trying their best to approach their
Greek models. The success of the literature of the Augustan
Period is probably responsible for others’ adopting the
Roman alphabet. When one compares the 5-footed line of
Lucretius with Virgil’s 6-footed, you enter an age at once
Outstanding and accurate. There is always room for sur-
Prise in Virgil—that extra foot, all the difference, qualities,
One associates with Augustus. Charming, would be another
Attribute.  The big spandrels at the Met are inhabited by birds
And other animals, when you look closely. Not only are the
Spandrels big, they are carved with great sensitivity,
Assurance, and depth. They are at a high point, like 1st Dynasty
Egypt, or Safavid Persia, simply unexcelled and wonderful to
Look at. The ease with which such grandeur can pass into
Something too small to see, impacts. The attention to detail
Beneath the threshold of looking, leaves the normal field
Suspended in limbo, usually colorful, where you search for
A line, almost without reward. This is why I say form is created
By one thing larger than seeable, and another, smaller than
Seeable. One feels the same space-as-form in Virgil. It is
A network, which is pulled apart with a vacuum tension
Left in front of your eyes. Yet there is a mystifying memory
Of something formal. I have wondered if the formal can be form,
But here you are happy, if, it is—so why not be happy? Linearity
Takes a position—it is on a wall, after all—and the colors could
Be changed within a palette.
The quickness of painting and theater painting bear such a
Resemblance, and lightness, it makes me think of when I
Painted sets, feeling the culture of painting to the bones. 
Even in high school, my art teacher knew I knew how to do
It, and was amazed. It felt good. The Augustan Age may not
Have given us models, so much as found something within.


How did the Greek artists of the 4’c BCE, who colonized southern
Italy develop their style? Did it naturally come out of
Hellenism, which can be seen as a 500-year transition between
Athens and Rome? Did it owe to the people and climate of
Italy, who were involved in ceramics? Did it evolve in the
Market place, which follows a pendulum of tastes—Attic
Pottery also changed in the direction as South Italian?
Attic wares, estimated to be 1/3 of Athenian economy,
Was a synthesis of potter and painter, some painters
Becoming potters when blind.  The art is to enjoy the
Unbelievable synthesis between 2nd and 3rd dimensions.
The South Italian rebelled, seeing the potter and painter
Independent, encouraging each to absolute freedom.
There were, then, as it were, two 2nd dimensions laid
On top of one another. Once this was objectified, it could
Be taken to the wall and then to panels and canvas.
The line of Attic pottery is 3-dimensional, substantive. It
Exists because the pot exists. When red-figure ware was
Invented, line was no longer scratched into the surface
Of the clay, but on it. No one knows how it was done, but
It is especially admired to find it both shiny and raised,
As in the painting of the great, Berlin Painter. Southern
Italian line, by contrast exists in itself, part of a pre-existing
Network of lines, only some of which are seen. The pots
Are encouraged to become extreme variations of the Attic
Forms—the more so the better. They, then, exist in their
Own network of lines. One could say, these two networks already
Have correspondences, share lines with one another—
Why not, in the complex universe the Roman Empire ruled.
But here, you can see the artist drop from a position
As maker of harmony to a scribbler of lines, some of
Which were there already, maybe better than his. Still,
This hegemony opened the world, impersonalized it,
And during the creative period, gave the artist a lively
Role to play. The trouble is, when the creative period
Was over, the artist was a hack, or worse, and the architect
Fought to occupy the original high position of the artist,
A position, which could no longer be seen from the perspec-
Tive offered. The artist was dependent on the creativity
Of the period, or perpetual revolution to not fall into
The hands of nature, on the one hand, or convention,
On the other hand.


And how was this 4’c BCE, discovery transported to
Rome in the Augustan period, supplying the means
To produce an aesthetic in full bloom, the likes of
Which the world has never seen for refinement, grace
And beauty? How has this means continued coming
Forward until DiChirico, Morandi, Fontana and the
Transavantguard? Constantly coming out of the wall,
A well spring, never going into the wall, Italian, not
Greek, the mere passage of time creates an eternally
New, and no one lives long enough to collapse the
Rendering of the system—the rendering, itself,
Delightful, in control, even done in evil and darkness.
So the Augustan regime chose this system as a basis for
Projecting a style. Of all the evidence, the indigenous
Tribes of Italy were distinguished by the leap in sophis-
Tication found in the Greek colonies, which may be
Another way of saying, users of deductive reasoning. 
Once born, it took centuries to explore. Its extremes,
Sought first, provided a field, little of which is left today,
Though the two, equal and opposite beauties represented
By the Greek and Roman aesthetics are necessary to
See the field. Both are extreme, though the Greek poses
As central, and the Italian, really extreme, as in “mad”.
Because of the Christian destruction of the classical world,
Creating its own lens of approval and disapproval, it is
Further difficult to see our heritage defined by its two
Poles, which is necessary to find the spring board for
Development. Augustus was princeps of the west,
Alexander the Great, of the East, the two poles of the
Deductive. In synthesis, it breaks apart; in breaking apart,
It holds together.

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 Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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