The exhibition “The Age of Anxiety” opening today at Rome’s Capitoline Museums focuses on the years 180 to 305 AD, a time of crisis and uncertainty that the show’s organizers compared to World War I, the Great Depression, and the 2007-08 financial meltdown.
The show is aptly named. The era’s political instability, inflation, higher taxes, civil wars, epidemics and food shortages provoked a spiritual crisis that led to a fascination with Eastern cults and the adoption of Christianity as a state religion. The exhibition aims to capture this transition through the visual testimony of sculpture, frescoes and household objects.
“All of the parameters that held up the system of the Roman Empire were collapsing,” said curator Eugenio La Rocca at the presentation.
The Capitoline Museums has one of the world’s largest collections of classical sculpture, and the show is sprinked into the museum’s permanent exhibits including the Dying Gaul and the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.
The exibition looks at the 150 years between the reigns of Commodus (180-192 AD) and Diocletian (284-305 AD), when internal and external pressures resulted in an increasingly powerful military. This shift in power, in turn, weakened traditional Roman institutions and created new social classes.
This is not an easy story to tell through sculpture, sarcophagi and stone fragments. The show’s explanations are well written and useful.
The first and largest section, “The Protagonists,” walks the visitor through the main players of the era: emperors, their wives, and the wealthiest citizens. The cult of emperor-worship grew sharply during “The Age of Anxiety,” as reflected in the increasingly idealized depiction of these leaders on view, like the Commodus depicted as Hercules on show.
“Emperors at this point were no longer ’first among equals’ like Augustus had been,” said curator La Rocca. “They became increasingly divine figures. So their representation moves away from Greco-Roman classical standards into a more abstract image.”
The section devoted to “The Army” deals with the military’s growing power, as depicted in 20 works. “The City of Rome” illustrates the huge building spree of the period, which included the still-omnipresent Aurelian Walls as well as new aqueducts and increased military barracks to deal with the larger and larger security forces needed. Food storage and distribution also had to be improved, to deal with the shortages of the period.
“Religions” is probably the most interesting section, with 52 works depicting cults including Isis, Cybele, Iside and Mithras. The small section on Christianity features a marble slab from 250 AD with a Christ resurrecting Lazarus. Christ is wearing a toga. A sarcophagus from 250-300 AD bears an image of “The Good Shepard,” which was a familiar icon from Greece re-purposed for Christian imagery.
“Wealthy Residences” features some beautiful silver tableware (including a small bowl bearing the odd-looking cross that would later be appropriated by Germany’s Nazi party).
Many of the works come from the Capitoline’s vast collection, like the busts of Decius or Probus, or from other museums in Rome . On view for the first time in Italy is the bronze statue of Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, from 251-253 AD.
(“The Age of Anxiety,” Capitoline Museums in Rome, from January 28 to October 5)
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