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Antinous
Antinous everywhere!

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February 2008 Email this to a friend
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Millennia of Male Beauty
By Michael Thompson

Rome is a wonder of archaeological and artistic heritages. Some might visit St. Peter's for one kind of spiritual inspiration. But gay travelers are likely to feel different connections and resonances. What remains of pre-Christian Rome is a window onto older concepts of sexuality, and an alternative aesthetic. The relation of the Church to that prior legacy is complex and conflicted.

A visit to almost any Italian museum reveals that the ancients didn't equate nudity with a lack of modesty. Gods, emperors, athletes, warriors, and noblemen could embody ideals of human perfection without the artifice of garments. As had the Greeks, from whom they inherited so much, ancient Romans revealed man without reserve. Manifestations of this comfort with the male form are found in marble all around the city.

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The Vatican Museum (Viale Vaticano 13), paradoxically, is home to one of the world's most amazing collections of nude male beauty, diverse as to time and place. The Church wasn't always so tolerant. Fourth-century Christian emperors looked the other way when roving mobs led by monks looted and destroyed temples, particularly in the countryside, and countless statues of incredible beauty were shattered. More than a millennium later, with the old pagan religions safely dead, a more confident Church (following the fashions of the political elite) commissioned new works inspired by these same artifacts.

During the remarkable 15th century, the finest artists of their time were employed by patrons such as the Medici family of Florence, who also contributed four popes. As the West emerged from the "dark ages" it looked back to the old Roman empire as a cultural beacon. Much as local gods and sacred places of conquered peoples had been incorporated into Roman pagan religions, so too the temples, institutions, holidays and aspects of the Roman gods had been quickly assimilated into the new Christian milieu. Eventually much of pagan art was also accommodated. The sexual proclivities of some church superiors seem often to have made them sympathetic at crucial times in this transition.

The Vatican complex includes the Museo Pio Clementino with its 54 galleries, and the tour here ends with Michelangelo's masterpiece at the Sistine Chapel. Postures and knowing looks so faithfully captured by the master artist betray his affection for the street youth and urchins who portray the angels and saints, intact with the grit and grime they brought with them as models (and likely bedmates). Through him they transcend humble origins, and bridge the millennia, recalling fragments of an older world we can no longer fully comprehend, when the divine could guilelessly assume mortal flesh.

Spare some time also for other halls, including Museo Chiaramonti, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, and Museo Egiziano, with their ancient Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian materials. Get a head start from the Vatican Museum's website (Mv.vatican.va), which offers extensive virtual tours.

Other worthwhile destinations include the Borghese Gallery (Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5; Galleriaborghese.it), with examples from the works of Caravaggio, Bernini, Canova, Rubens, Raphael, Titian, and many others from the collection of Cardinal Scipione; and the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio 1, atop Capitoline Hill; Museicapitolini.org) which ranges over ancient art and architecture.

In Rome, you don't have to stay indoors to savor magnificent art. The Fontana delle Tartarughe in the Piazza Mattei depicts four youths, one at each corner, each astride a porpoise with turtles above. The fountain dates from 1588, and was restored and modified in 1658. You'll find this tiny square just off Via Arenula, near the tranquil courtyard of the Palazzo Mattei di Giove, which is adorned with antique statues, busts, and bas-reliefs, and home to the Italian Center for American Studies.

The Villa of Hadrian (Via di Villa Adriana 204) was the emperor's retreat to the northeast of the city, now in Tivoli. that includes the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden. The Spanish-born Hadrian was also responsible for the building of the Pantheon and the wall that bears his name that protected Roman Britain from parts north. Hadrian was the lover of Antinous, whom he made a god after the youth's death. Antinous represents a Roman ideal of youthful beauty, and his visage survives in countless busts and coins as perhaps the most common among extant portrayals of any face from the ancient world.

But many ancient cults left few relics and scant information. It would be fascinating to know more. In Greece and Rome, sex could be sacred, and bodies were regarded more holistically, before concepts such as sin and pornography profaned them with divisions of good and evil. About Mithraism, for instance, little is known except that it was popular with soldiers, exclusively male, celebrated underground, and involved intense initiations. The cult of Apollo was close to official ideals of the Roman state, but it was complemented by now-lost rites and rituals honoring Bacchus and Dionysus.

Such mysteries and ecstasies could be celebrated in temples and public festivals. Some famous marbles and paintings, if wrought today, would verge on the illegal. One wouldn't want to gloss over some brutal aspects of Roman society, but their civilization had characteristics we might envy.

The dissonances are instructive. Stone endures only a little longer than flesh in terms of the ages, but unless intentionally broken, long survives film negatives or digital files. One trusts these ancient artworks will outlast our own age to inspire unimaginable futures.


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