I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. — Emily Brontë
s scholars of the use of Classical Rome in the Victorian period we should not forget that the Toga is, unfortunately, a myth. That is to say, that historical evidence suggests the unlikelihood that the Romans ever wore togas in their everyday lives. Caroline Vout makes the point succinctly: 'The chances are that if we cannot act Shakespeare's Julius Caesar without our unpinned togas falling off, then the Romans themselves would have found such a toga hard work' (205-206). The Romans probably wore togas on ceremonial occasions just as we wear dinner jackets or tuxedos. Vout points out that the textual and visual evidence that has long been used to re-construct what has become the commonplace notion of everyday Roman costume does not accurately indicate Roman life because these objects are themselves representations. The portrait statues, components of monuments, and funerary reliefs that have supplied our images of the Roman people are themselves artworks like the representations we find in Victorian Britain.
These artworks are just as ideologically loaded as their modern counterparts — the statues and monuments of nineteenth century Britain, for example. In Rome the portrait was similarly a means of displaying honour for the individual and the state. Thus the famous statues known as Ara Pacis, a procession of toga-clad priests and members of the Imperial family, contrary to the belief that they provide an illustration of the dress of the early empire they are much more likely a 'rhetorical statement in marble about the imperial family' (p. 209). In other words, the toga as an emblem of Rome for the Victorians is an historical idealization that is, rather ironically, itself used idealistically. The pressing implication of this to our study of the 'Olympian dreamers' is that they used the toga, in the same way that the Romans did, as a myth in Roland Barthes' sense of the word, and this tells much about the intersections of power and art in Victorian society.
Needless to say, the majority of art in the period was funded and therefore controlled by patrons; this moved from the church to other institutions such as the Royal Academy and then between art galleries and wealthy, private individuals. But art in Victorian Britain was almost exclusively a bourgeois activity as far as its autonomy and design was concerned. In Barthes' study of the myth he points out that myths are deployed by the classes in power — bourgeois cultural myths — that serve the function of constructing certain images of the ruling classes. Looked at in this light the so called collective dream of Rome becomes a representation of the ideals of the few rather than the masses. The myth of Rome is ideological in the sense that it is a body of beliefs that maintain and legitimate the current power relationships. By seeing themselves as Romans the Victorians were ideologically asserting and therefore naturalizing historical events such as, for example, the colonization of foreign lands under the guise of Roman Empire. The dream of Rome when represented in art also aestheticises middle-class and aristocratic British life — as we see in Alma-Tadema's selection of domestic classical scenes, or perhaps in his domesticating of classical scenes, which feeds his audience's homespun myth that their everyday lives are somehow as ordered, peaceful and graceful as the representations of their counterparts in antiquity. So a mythologized past is used to legitimize a myth about the present.
Not only do the power structures that influenced the art of the day (the patrons whose influence we could indeed interrogate) reflect the nature of the myth — the politicians and military heroes who were immortalized in the public parks and squares — but also the myths themselves belie the ideologies and instutitions to which they are subservient. All the artists that reacted against many of the classical ideals in art and society, namely the Pre-Raphaelites the aesthetes and the decadents, expose these myths as the hegemonic codes through which art and by implication society was constructed. The edified gender constructs, sexuality, and notions of beauty were all challenged by the reactionary artists of the period, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Swinburne (who also challenged religion with his pagan beliefs) to name to few, and this exposes how classical art/society essentially represented the status quo they were attacking. If we look at Victorian classical art as whole it represents — as do Albert Moore's paintings — beautiful people in beautiful surroundings, and these people are almost exclusively heterosexual, wealthy, heroic, and handsome specimens of their culture. On the other hand, the Pre-Raphaelites, who use real models, concentrate on representing the every-man: Holman-Hunt's Jesus as a carpenter, for example, extends the range of acceptable various social classes and occupations while Burne-Jones' characteristic androgynous images of men and women — his continuation of Rossetti's earlier masculinizing of women — expands notions of gender.
The Victorians as Olympian Dreamers: The 'Togification' of Britain
- 'Classic Revel': How Fiction Becomes Fact in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii
- Hall of Mirrors: Critique, Contradiction and Irony in Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Landow. George P. "Victorianized Romans: Images of Rome in Victorian Painting." Browning Institute Studies: An Annual of Victorian Literasry and Cultural History. (1984) [text].
Vout, Caroline. "The Myth of the Toga: Understanding the History of Roman Dress." Greece & Rome 43.2, Series 2. (Oct., 1996): 204-220.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 26 June 2020