Mike Aquilina

Columnar Coloring Book

Friday April 11th 2008, 8:36 am

Discovery News tells the fascinating story of Rome’s plans to colorize the Trajan Column with light beams.

The Trajan Column, one of Rome’s most famous monuments, will be shown next year under a totally new light. Italian researchers announced they plan to restore the column’s original bright colors by “painting” it with light beams.

Erected in 113 A.D. in honor of the Emperor Trajan (53-117 A.D.), the huge marble column stands almost 100 feet in height. It is decorated with a spiral relief sculpture, winding 23 times around and depicting the story of Trajan’s triumphant campaigns in Dacia, now part of Romania.

One of the best preserved of all Roman artworks, the monument has however lost what might have been it most distinctive feature — color.

“The column, like many other statues of antiquity, was a carnival of color. The knights, the shields, the horses, the rivers, the sky were all painted,” Maurizio Anastasi, head of the technical office of Rome Superintendency for Archaeology told Discovery News.

Anastasi plans to return the column to its full polychrome glory using an innovative, fully reversible technology… (Read More)

Trajan’s memorials are many and beautiful. I know of no greater tribute to them than the (imagined) dialogue between the emperor Constantine and a fourth-century avant-garde sculptor in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena. The two men are discussing the just-unveiled Arch of Constantine.

“So you are responsible for those monstrosities I saw yesterday. Perhaps you can explain what they are meant to represent?”

“I will try, sir. The arch, as conceived by my friend Professor Emolphus here, is, as you see, on traditional lines, modified to suit modern convention. It is, as you might say, a broad mass broken by apertures. Now this mass involves certain surfaces which Professor Emolphus conceived had about them a certain monotony. The eye was not held, if you understand me. Accordingly he suggested that I relieve them with the decorative features you mention. I thought the result rather happy myself. Did you find the shadows too pronounced? They detract from the static quality of the design? I have heard that criticism.”

Constantine’s patience had been strained by these words. Now he asked icily: “And have you heard this criticism? Your figures are lifeless and expressionless as dummies. Your horses look like children’s toys. There is no grace or movement in the whole thing. I’ve seen better work done by savages. Why, damn it, there’s something there that looks like a doll that’s supposed to be Me.”

“I was not aiming at exact portraiture, sir.”

“And why not, pray?”

“It was not the function of the feature.”

Constantine turned to his left, “You say this man is the best sculptor in Rome?”

“Everyone says so,” said Fausta.

“Are you the best sculptor in Rome?”

Carpicius gave a little shrug. There was a silence. Then Professor Emolphus rather bravely intervened. “Perhaps if your Majesty would give us some idea of what exactly you had in mind, the design might be adapted.”

“I’ll tell you what I had in mind. Do you know the arch of Trajan?”

“Of course.”

“What do you think of it?”

“Good of its period,” said the Professor, “quite good. Not perhaps the best. I prefer the arch at Benevento on many grounds. But the arch of Trajan is definitely attractive.”

“I have the arch of Trajan in mind,” said Constantine. “I have never seen the arch at Benevento. I’m not the least interested in the arch at Benevento.”

“Your Majesty should really give it your attention. The architrave…”

“I am interested in the arch of Trajan. I want an arch like that.”

“But that was—how long—more than two hundred years ago,” said Fausta. “You can’t expect one like that today.”

“Why not?” said Constantine. “Tell me, why not? The Empire’s bigger and more prosperous and more peaceful than it’s ever been. I’m always being told so in every public address I hear. But when I ask for a little thing like the arch of Trajan, you say it can’t be done. Why not? Could you,” he said, turning again on Carpicius, “make me sculpture like that?”

Carpicius looked at him without the least awe. Two forms of pride were here irreconcilably opposed; two prigs stood face to face. “One might, I suppose, contrive some sort of pastiche,” he said. “It would not be the least significant.”

“Damn significance,” said Constantine. “Can you do it or can’t you?”

“Precisely like that? It is a type of representational work which required a technical virtuosity which you may or may not find attractive—personally, I rather do—but the modern artist…”

“Can you do it?”

“No.”

Few books have made me laugh so hard as Waugh’s Helena. Once, while reading it in Rome with Rob Corzine, I feared the laughter was going to send me into the Italian medical system. The book is in print in an affordable edition from Loyola Press, publisher of my book The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence. It’s in the Loyola Classics series, which also includes Hilda Prescott’s brilliant romance Son of Dust, set in eleventh-century Normandy. Someone you know wrote the introduction to that book.

Thanks to my friend and great benefactor Jim Manney for bringing all these pleasant thoughts to my mind.