Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity

1908,0616.44 (recto)-1

(British Museum, London, 20 February until 9 August 2020)

What do you think of when you think of Piranesi? Labyrinthine staircases and ominous prisons? The ruined monuments of ancient Rome? Marble vases brought home by Grand Tourists and Swedish kings? All of these would be absolutely correct, but each of them offers only one facet of the man. One way to get a broader sense of Piranesi’s achievements, as architect, designer, printmaker, publisher and art dealer, is by looking at his drawings; and, by happy chance, you can do just that at the moment here in London. In a completely shameless act of self-promotion, I wanted to flag a free exhibition at the British Museum (curated by me), running from tomorrow until 9 August 2020. Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity presents all 51 of the Museum’s drawings by Piranesi. It’s one of the richest collections in the world, spanning his career from his arrival in Rome in 1740, as a young man of twenty, to his death in 1778 as one of the most influential and admired advocates of ancient Roman architecture. There’ll be traces of ‘your’ Piranesi here, whether you know him best as a visionary printmaker or a methodical antiquarian, but I hope you’ll also get a sense of just how exuberant and wide-ranging his talents were. Join me below the line for an unofficial romp through Piranesi’s life and work.

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Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

Scythian Rider

(British Museum, London, until 14 January 2018)

Since I began the year with a tale of adventure in the Caucasus, I thought I’d follow that up by (finally) sharing some thoughts on the Scythians show at the British Museum. I hasten to add that the exhibition is nothing to do with me: I’m simply a visitor, and an enthusiastic one at that. I’ve been round five times now and the exhibits never cease to amaze me. Excavated from the Siberian permafrost, they offer a compelling picture of a people largely overlooked by the modern world, but who were admired and feared in equal measure by their ancient contemporaries. The Scythians were lethal horse-archers, notorious drinkers, proud warriors and superb craftsmen in gold, wood and leather. And yet so little of their culture survives. These treasures from frozen tombs help to bring that scintillating world back into focus.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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Defacing the Past (2017)

Head of Germanicus

Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)

We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.

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A curator’s tale

French Portrait Drawings: Exhibition Layout

Or, a newbie’s guide to preparing an exhibition

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming French Portrait Drawings show at the British Museum. Today I thought it might be fun, a few days before it opens on 8 September, to tell you a bit about the planning process from idea to installation, from a very personal point of view. The entire experience was new to me and, since many of my friends don’t seem quite sure what a curator does, I thought this might be of interest.

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French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet (2016-17)

Courbet: Self Portrait

(British Museum, 8 September 2016-29 January 2017)

I’ve been debating whether to write about this exhibition here. In the act of doing so, I’m banishing mystique and bringing the blog and the real world together for the first time; but my desire to write about this show was too strong to resist. It’s my exhibition, you see. I’ve been working on it ever since I joined the British Museum in late 2014 and now, to my mingled delight and terror, it’s on the brink of opening to the public.

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Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (2016)

Canopus: Sunken Cities

(British Museum, 19 May – 27 November 2016)

It’s rather shameful that I haven’t written anything about this exhibition yet, because it’s been open for more than a month and really is worth seeing. My excuse is that I have to squeeze in sightseeing during my lunch breaks and things haven’t been as quiet as they could have been. However, with deadlines out of the way and notebook in hand, I pottered off yesterday lunchtime to explore the underwater delights of ancient Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.

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Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King (2015)

Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King

(British Museum, until 15 November 2015)

When you think of Louis XIV, chances are that you think of Versailles. The Hall of Mirrors; the fountains and festivals; the gold, glass and glitter of the Ancien Régime. But medals? Maybe not. And yet Louis was responsible for one of the most ambitious and innovative of all medal series, the Histoire medallique. Published in 1702, towards the end of his reign, it aimed to celebrate and promote his victories, both as a military commander and an administrator, and to gloss over his defeats and failures.

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Bacchae (405 BC): Euripides

Euripides: Bacchae


(The UCL Classical Play; directed by Emily Louizou, at the British Museum, 20 July 2015)

Bacchae was the first classical play that I saw, way back in 2000, and it’s still my favourite. When I heard that UCL Classics students were performing the play on Thursday night at a British Museum Members’ Evening (sold out), and there was a free dress rehearsal on the Monday, I jumped at the chance to attend. Performed in an English translation by James Morwood, this was a promenade performance, unfolding amid the columns, steps and statues of the Museum’s Great Court.

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Defining Beauty: The Greek Body (2015)

Defining Beauty: Discobolos

(British Museum, London, until 5 July 2015)

I’ve been terribly lax at writing about exhibitions recently, and this post is actually far too late because the show has just closed. Nevertheless there were such beautiful things on display that I still wanted to write a little about it; and I hope some of you had the chance to see it. The theme was, very simply, the body in Greek art; but it went beyond the predictable athletic male nude, which for the Greeks, and for so many cultures since, has been the pinnacle of physical perfection. The show also looked at sculptures of the female body, whether divine or mortal; at representations of the body throughout the life cycle; and at sculpture on different scales and in different modes, from heroic to comic.

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