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Alma-Tadema Spring

"In a land of clear colours and stories,
In a region of shadowless hours,
Where earth has a garment of glories
And a murmur of musical flowers."

Algernon Swinburne, Dedication

The Floralia is being celebrated, although not by that name, as the ancestor of English May Day festivals. Prepubescent girls lead the procession, like flower girls at an elegant wedding, their virginity proclaiming the innocence of the celebration itself. The six young women with flowering sprigs who accompany them evoke two other Maying festivals: the May Queen and her attendants, and the Battle of the Flowers, both of which were popular in late nineteenth-century England. In this sentimental evocation of a country May Day ceremony, Alma-Tadema recalls an imagined world of beauty, order, and harmony.

But the main participants of the Floralia were prostitutes and the festival, itself, a fertility rite that celebrated the renewal of nature. Although Alma-Tadema seemingly has removed any suggestion of such licentiousness, there are subtle but mischievous hints that he has not ignored them altogether. Satyrs, ithyphallic and sexually insatiable, appear most obviously in the two silver statues that follow the women playing the tambourines, which are decorated with images adapted from Pompeiian frescoes, one of which shows a satyr and maenad, a devotee of Bacchus given to ecstatic frenzies. Both participated in Bacchic rites and represent physical and emotional abandon. They also are portrayed on the roundels supporting the processional standard suspended between poles high above the revelers, as well as on the capitals of the fluted pilaster on the right, playing a tambourine and panpipe. There, too, in the midst of the flower girls, the only male musician also plays a panpipe, looking suspiciously like a satyr, himself, with tuffs of hair swept up like small horns.

There also is a battle depicted on the frieze of the temple to the left, as the Lapiths struggle to wrest their women away from drunken centaurs who have come uninvited to a wedding feast. But it is the suspended standard, itself, so prominently displayed that most subverts the picture. It contains two lines from a fragment by Catullus (II): "This inclosure I dedicate and consecrate to thee, O Priapus, at Lampsacus, where is they house and sacred grove, O Priapus." Ithyphallic, a god of fertility and the garden, whose shrine is shown on the roundel below the standard, Priapus certainly belongs at the Floralia but his presence there does introduce another unexpected erotic element to the picture.

It is yet another example of Alma-Tadema artistically mixing disparate elements, as he does with time and place. The inscription on the architrave in the background, for example, is from the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, Italy; the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs, from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Greece; the river god on the spandrel of the arch, from the Arch of Constantine at Rome; the bronze equestrian statues visible through the arch from marble originals at Herculaneum; and many smaller details from archaeological findings at Pompeii. They all are combined and changed, as well, when he incongruously adds a sheep (ram) and cow (bull) to the spandrel, representing, respectively, the zodiacal signs for April and May, the months in which the Floralia occurred. The tutelary deities for these months were Venus and Apollo, another reminder that love and music were celebrated then.

A familiar festival is decorously celebrated in Rome at the height of its imperial power, the participants surrounded by opulent marble. But then the glory of empire (and, by analogy, Britain's own) is undermined by suggestions of disorder and lasciviousness. It is an ironic portrayal, accessible only to the cognoscenti, that, like Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus, seemingly depicts no more than a shower of petals, pretty and pink, cascading down upon the banqueters. The knowledgeable viewer, however, will remember the Historia Augusta, which relates that some will die, deliberately smothered beneath the flowers for the amusement of the emperor and his other guests.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, Spring essentially disappeared after the artist's memorial exhibition in 1913, only to be acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1972. The lines from Swinburne accompany the picture, which captures these ethereal qualities. Only two-thirds of the picture is shown, which is almost six feet high. A much enlarged image can be viewed on Wikimedia Commons.

Reference: Lawrence Alma Tadema: Spring (1991) by Louise Lippincott; "Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the Modern City of Ancient Rome" (2002) Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art Bulletin, 84(1), 115-29; Catullus (1988) translated by Francis Warre Cornish (Loeb Classical Library).

See also The Roses of Heliogabalus.

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