Nowadays, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema isn't a widely known name in the world of art. He was famous during the Victorian era, but since everybody wanted to forget the Victorian era as soon as it was over, he fell into obscurity. “Chocolate box paintings,” at least one critic sniffed over his work, but I have a great fondness for Alma-Tadema. Why? Because over and over again, the man painted scenes of ancient Rome. Damn good ones, too. Here are a few of my favorites.
"The Roses of Heliogabalus"
Based on a nice little historical incident when Emperor Heliogabalus idly decided to murder his dinner guests by rigging a collapsible ceiling with about two tons of rose petals. There he is in the golden robe watching as everybody below starts to flail. You can just see the lady beside him whispering, “Darling, really. Two tons of rose petals? Wouldn't it have been cheaper just to strangle the guests?”
I like to think of this one as an illustration for my upcoming book “Daughters of Rome.” A dark girl, very queenly; she thinks the games are unbelievably tacky and refuses to look at the parade of gladiators below. Her sister, though, is irrepressibly curious and leans down to watch the fighters process on into the Colosseum. Their cousin, a little red-haired giggler, points out the trident fighter on whom she has a crush. If it were really an illustration for “Daughters of Rome” then there would be a fourth girl, but you'll have to wait till next April to meet her. She's blond . . .
Two women waiting for the same man. Does he know it? Do they know it? Either way, you just know this pretty little scene won't end well. I picture the two girls confronting the man in question, pulling his toga over his head in a rage, and retiring best friends to the bathhouse.
"The Women of Amphissa"
This scene comes from a legend that Bacchus's wild women revelers managed to run heedlessly into war-torn Amphissa during their festival celebrations, and once they passed out, the women of the town stood guard over them to make sure they were safe from enemy soldiers. Supposedly this was a purely altruistic action, but I'm seeing a few stern lectures coming from some of those standing figures, and I'm pretty sure the women waking up see it too. The girl getting a hand up looks like she's thinking “One word about the evils of drunkenness before this Advil kicks in and I start hitting people. Oh Bacchus I'm hung over . . .”
I've decided that this one is an illustration from my current book “Mistress of Rome.” The reclining girl with the wreath is my spoiled bitchy villainess Lepida; the seated girl is some equally spoiled friend, while her patient slave girl Thea feeds the fish in the fountain. “I'm educated,” she's thinking furiously. “I speak Greek and Hebrew, I can read and write, I can sing and play the lyre – and I get stuck feeding the damn fish!”
"A Favorite Custom"
A day at the Roman baths: a swim, a sweat, and above all a chance to gossip. “That woman behind you, the one undressing? No, don't look! Her arms are so disgusting – muscle tone everywhere! She has to be a pleb; they'll let anyone into the bathhouses these days. Not a muscle to be seen in my arms, let me tell you . . .”
Another illustration from “Daughters of Rome.” Two cousins confiding in each other: “My latest husband beats me.” “I'm having an affair with a soldier.” “We're a pair, aren't we?” Nope, no more hints.
"Among The Ruins"
“Mother said if I wandered around out here long enough looking picturesque, boys would admire me and I'd find a husband. My arms are getting tired . . .”
"The Favourite Poet"
“Read that line again about how awful it is being young and beautiful and rich. And where is that slave girl with the drinks?”
There's that marble terrace again. Boy, do I want this view in my backyard.
For a long time, Alma-Tadema's work got dismissed as “Victorians in togas,” and there's no denying its romantic quality. Give him a pretty girl in a chiton and a few marble columns, and he was pretty much set. But I like him anyway. For one thing, he was meticulous about research – he worked hard to make sure his details of Roman clothes, hair, and furniture were archaologically correct. And for another thing – well, they are pretty, aren't they?