Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Romans are still relevant

I'm not particularly a fan of the work of Tracey Emin. I'd like to think that (these days) I'm open-minded enough not to be among those who shout "How dare this be considered art?" But her stuff has never really grabbed me particularly, and she seemed as talented at self-publicity as at art.

Now, she's done her first piece of public art.

Roman Standard is a small bronze bird (of indeterminate species, but not, as some have unkindly dubbed it, a 'sparrow'), on top of a four-metre bronze pole. The whole is set in front of the Oratory in Liverpool, next to the Anglican Cathedral.

And actually, I rather like it. It's subtle and understated, and is appropriate to its surroundings. By recalling both the Roman empire and Liverpool's neo-classical past, it displays a sense of history I wasn't aware Emin possessed. It also quietly subverts its paradigm, by replacing the martial eagle one would usually find on top of a Roman legionary standard with the much less aggressive bird of her selection. I shall certainly go and look for it the next time I'm in Liverpool (assuming it hasn't been vandalized by then). The Daily Mail (the Voice of Ignorance), of course, hates it.

One point of interest: In interview, Emin said that she chose her subject to fit in with the 'Roman'-style of the Oratory. As it happens, when John Foster built the Oratory, originally as the Mortuary Chapel of St James' Cemetery, from 1826-1829, it was meant to be a Greek-style building, rather than Roman. Hence its architectural order is the plain Doric, rather than the more ornate Corinthian found on many Roman temples.

The ancient architectural orders: (l-r) Doric, Ionic, Corinthian.

However, like many Victorian buildings based on Greek temples, it does not have a colonnade all around, but instead the interior extends the full width of the building. This actually makes it look more Roman.

A typical Greek temple (the Parthenon at Athens). Note the colonnade surrounding the temple.

A typical Roman temple (the Maison Carree, Nimes). Note the exterior walls.

What I don't know, of course, is whether Emin doesn't know the difference, or felt that, despite the Grecian elements, it does look more Roman (and didn't want to confuse people who might be watching the programme). It could well be the latter - she's rather more clever than she often lets on.

(Click on the photos for sources and more information.)

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