imperial period

“Interno del Colosseo” by Giovanni Battista Altadonna

Italian, 1850s

albumen silver print from glass negative

Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Chalcedony Statuette of a Herm of Herakles, Roman Imperial, 2nd Century AD

While sculptures of bronze and marble are among the most well-known artistic legacies of Greece and Rome, ancient artists also produced fine works of sculpture in other materials such as terracotta, ivory, gold, silver, glass, and rare or semi-precious stone. Some artists possessed the remarkable skills needed to transform hard stone into miniature sculpture worthy of comparison with the finest works in bronze and marble. This extraordinary and finely made statuette of Herakles is just such an object. It stands out as a masterwork, even when considered among the small number of other stone statuettes that are known, and testifies to the superior talent of artists who created such luxuria during the Roman Imperial Period. This type of herm representing Herakles first appears in the Greek Hellenistic period and becomes prevalent during Roman Imperial times. This herm is supported by a golden pedestal of 18th century date, following a custom of the time for mounting such rare objects.

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Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys coined the term “imperial phase” in reference to that point in an artist’s career when they have completely captured the zeitgeist and can do practically nothing wrong. 

Being familiar the concept of the “imperial phase” makes Coldplay’s 2008 song “Viva La Vida” (but especially Lady Gaga’s cover of it) all the more interesting.

Although I know very little of Coldplay, I do know that “Viva La Vida” was released well into the band’s career and biggest successes. The song contains many biblical references and looks back to a time when the narrator “ruled the world”. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to consider that the song may be a reflection upon Coldplay’s own “imperial period”, which lasted sometime around the worldwide success of the single “Yellow” and the release of their 2005 album “X&Y”.

What makes Gaga’s cover of this song most interesting is that she covered it in 2008, shortly after the release of “The Fame”. Gaga’s “imperial” period lasted from this time until the release of “Born This Way” in early 2011.

Gaga’s cover of “Viva La Vida” is in my opinion more musically interesting than Coldplay’s. It’s a live cover, and in the original unedited version she laughs and fumbles with the lyrics several times. It is truly the mark of an “imperial phase” that Gaga could be so charming and interesting even while screwing up the lyrics of a just-released hit. 

It is now 2015 and Gaga’s imperial phase has come and gone. Her career suffered from overexposure and a severe case of hubris, leading to bad press and sliding record sales. Public opinion has changed as of late, and her career seems to be on the upswing, but it will never be the same as that time when she was talked about in every newspaper, beloved by hipsters and teenyboppers, and copied by every girl in the pop world. Gaga’s imperial phase was truly a special moment in time.

Now, for some personal reflection.

I was turning 18 when “Viva La Vida” and “The Fame” were released, and just entering university. I finally felt free to be myself and express who I was: a weird, artsy girl with a lot of opinions and crazy outfits. I also learned just how much I loved partying. I finally had friends! And we all loved Gaga. We went out every night and still made it to class. We got dressed together. We fell asleep on each other’s couches. My life felt truly… fabulous. Gaga and I shared the same imperial phase.

Now, as a post-grad in a university town, I feel much like the narrator of “Viva La Vida”. I remember when the world was mine to conquer, but now I just serve the university students and their friends, trying to scrape by while they party. I can still remember when my friends and I would shut down the clubs. There’s a pretty sad story behind the rise and fall of my imperial phase, but it’s better not to go into it.

When Lady Gaga ruled the world, I felt like I did too. Here’s hoping we both have a comeback.

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Monumental Marble Bust of Zeus or Asklepios, Roman Imperial, 2nd Century AD

The head dates to the Roman Imperial period, 2nd century AD. The socle, shoulders and restorations are attributed to Vincenzo Pacetti (1746-1820).

This is modeled after a Greek original in bronze of the 5th Century BC, turned to his right, with thick unruly beard of deeply drilled curls, long moustache, outlined full parted lips, and finely arched brows, his hair radiating from the crown and falling in a mane of loose curls over the ears and nape of the neck. Height of head approx. 16 in. 40.6 cm.; total height 28 ½ in. 72.4 cm.