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Bill Thayer

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Children of the Roman Imperial Family (13 B.C.)

It's very hard for some reason to portray children without being mawkish or sentimental; when in addition you combine the tendency of propagandistic art to be just kitsch, the subject before you — two young children of the ruling family, surely included and emphasized, both in the actual procession on that July day of the year 13 B.C. and its representation here, in order to consolidate a nascent dynasty — is among the most difficult an artist could face.

My grade? A-minus for the younger child (looking just a shade too lovingly at his elder sister), C-minus for the other; sentimental!

Distilled: "My, what a grown-up young woman she is already!"

The gravitas of the ancient Romans, which they deemed a great virtue, is nowhere more tangible than in their attitude towards children. Not for them the mealy-mouthed 20th‑century notions of the child as a special type of person in development, masking our unspoken recognition, based on depth psychologies, that the mind of a child is an unknown and dangerous jungle: for Romans, a child was a small adult. That attitude has been deftly coalesced here into the propaganda objective of showing the permanence of peace and order under the new dynasty: see, Augustus's granddaughter is already taking care of those around her. . . .

(The pendants the children are wearing — the one around the younger child's neck is quite clearly visible — are called bullae. For details on the bulla, see this page.)


Now I have a reputation to maintain — I should not want it thought I was overly fond of children — so why this particular page rather than a fuller treatment of the procession?

The answer lies in the rather unusual photography conditions, combined with my inexperience at the time I took my pictures. The Ara Pacis is fully enclosed in a large building which, characterless though it may be, is carefully designed to showcase it. It is therefore lit from all sides by natural light thru glass walls, but is some distance away from them since it is also designed to accommodate a fairly heavy flow of visitors.

  • There seems to be a bluish-green tint to the glass, possibly on purpose to reduce glare for the human eye, or maybe just because it is thick: but this plays havoc with photography. I would guess that orange filters would help.

  • More importantly, the enclosing building is a rectangle the long sides of which are to the east and west; and the roof is not of glass: as a result, only the short sides (the entrance, to the south, and the Tellus panel to the north: a 90° turn by the way from the orientation of the altar in Roman times) ever get good lighting from the side; the long sides are flatly lit in the morning or afternoon (the other being in diffuse light), and in the middle of the day, especially in summer, the roof casts shadows over the upper portions of the procession.

    To photograph the Ara Pacis well is thus no easy task, and requires both photography experience and the ability and determination to juggle changing lighting conditions against the opening hours.

    I knew none of this when I took my little pictures in 1994. The human eye is such a marvel that it looked fine to me. The camera knew better, however, and panning back from the monstrous moppets, here is what I got:

    
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    — which no amount of toying with PhotoShop can fix nor prose explicate. My pictures are not good. For completeness sake, however, the more nearly adequate ones are still provided below, at least until I get back to Rome and make a better set. Click to open on small pages.

    
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    According to the TCI Guide to Rome, the opening hours are:

    [image ALT: a blank space] [image ALT: a blank space]
    Oct 1 thru Mar 31
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    Apr 1 thru Sep 30
    Sunday
    0900‑1300
    0900‑1300
    Monday
    closed
    closed
    Tuesday
    0900‑1330
    0900‑1330 then again after lunch: 1600‑1900
    Wednesday
    0900‑1330
    0900‑1330
    Thursday
    0900‑1330
    0900‑1330
    Friday
    0900‑1330
    0900‑1330
    Saturday
    0900‑1330
    0900‑1330 then again after lunch: 1600‑1900

    To conclude, my tentative advice would be to go photograph the Ara Pacis on a cloudy day; or better, the W side in the morning and the E side in the evening. I hope that this will be useful to those of you who want to do better than I did, and would appreciate hearing from any of you that try it.

  • Page updated: 24 Sep 99