In the year 312 CE, a heavenly burst of light augured the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity. Observed by Constantine the Great on the eve of the battle that would consolidate his power as emperor, the celestial sign was followed by a dream in which Jesus Christ instructed Constantine to lead his soldiers under the aegis of the holy cross.
The rhetorical power of this story, whether true or apocryphal, is reinforced by one of the most famous sculptural fragments of ancient Rome. Ensconced in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the right hand of the ruined Colossus of Constantine points toward the sky in a gesture of eternal admonishment. Or so it has seemed for more than a century.
A remarkable new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan provides a different perspective. Reconstructing the Colossus based on recent scholarship, Recycling Beauty features a full-scale plaster model showing the Emperor holding a staff, his index finger gently curled around it.
The previously incorrect positioning of the finger is just one of many revelations presented in the exhibit and accompanying catalogue. The statue did not originally portray Constantine, but rather the Roman god Jupiter, who was often shown seated with a staff in hand, and whose beard was shaved away when the Colossus was appropriated and rededicated in the early 4th Century. In the years after it fell into ruin, the statue was repeatedly misidentified, initially thought to depict the Emperor Commodus and subsequently Domitian, both of whom were resolutely Pagan. If the finger was admonishing anyone, it was the class of antiquarians prone to making false assumptions.
However, the curators of Recycling Beauty are not interested in admonishment. On the contrary, the exhibition is a celebration of appropriation and the mutability of meaning. Dozens of magnificent ancient objects are shown to be more than their creators intended, fulfilling functions they could scarcely have fathomed.
Ignorance and misunderstanding have activated the imaginations of artists and institutions throughout history. Long before the Colossus of Constantine was properly identified, Michelangelo took inspiration from the fragments in his sculptural depiction of Moses, whose magisterial pose builds on the iconographic vigor of Pagan deities, effectively borrowing their prestige without getting mired in their religious affiliation.
Deeper confusion gave a new function to a luxurious Roman marble latrine, which the Vatican repurposed as a seat of papal enthronement. Church authorities misidentified it as an ancient birthing seat, which in the misogynistic worldview of Medieval Catholicism made it perfect for the act of public humiliation required of popes taking office. Only in retrospect does the insincere self-effacement by some of the most powerful men of their era take on the infantile quality of potty humor.
The antiquity of Rome, and its millennia as a seat of power, have made the city an ideal place for recycling beauty. Antient sculpture has been recarved, remixed, and mashed up for aesthetic effect and propagandistic impact. There’s nothing new about TikTok.
One of the most spectacular objects in Recycling Beauty is a Hellenistic sculpture depicting a lion attacking a horse that was set in front of the Palazzo Senatorio around 1300 CE. Marking the spot where capital sentences were read, the statue represented the power of the civic government, which had been associated with lions since antiquity. The evident age of the sculpture added to its authority and contributed to the legitimacy of the Senate. What was not known at the time was the original significance of the statue as a representation of the bravery of Alexander the Great, who hunted lions as a pastime. Alexander’s greatness was shown by his ability to vanquish an animal strong enough to down a stallion. The strength of a civic government was no match for a strongman.
“Reuse entails the coexistence of different temporalities, in which historical distance and narrative and emotional simultaneity are continually intertwined,” writes the curator Salvatore Settis in an engaging catalogue essay. “[T]he dimension of time evades the sequence of the calendar: it is unstable and can be manipulated and bent.”
The layering of intentions from different periods, interlaced with unanticipated usages, give these objects wisdom beyond the reckoning of their creators and keepers. Finding meaning is a process of excavation that simultaneously is an act of accretion. Today we are admonished by Constantine not to presume to know the past. Tomorrow we might find reason to be less certain about the present.
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