Monday, January 31, 2005

HBO's "Rome" offers realistic view of the ancient Roman world

A blow to the temples"At modern Rome?s fabled Cinecitta studios, the BBC and American TV giant HBO have joined forces to shoot an epic $100m television drama series that aims to topple the Hollywood image and set a new vision in its place.

Simply called Rome, the painstakingly researched show is shaping up as a vast, operatic, Grand Guignol drama. Its epic story will weave the lives of two ordinary Roman foot soldiers with historical celebrities such as Julius Caesar and Pompey in the last years of the Roman Republic. The show?s relatively unknown British stars - Kevin McKidd, Ciaran Hinds and Polly Walker - are likely to become household names.

In keeping with ancient Hollywood traditions, Rome will feature intrigue, spectacle and casual brutality. In a radical break with Hollywood traditions, though, it will also be jammed with cliche-busting surprises. There?ll be much more sex and paganism than we?re used to. We?ll see Julius Caesar as he really looked during his ceremonial triumphs (painted head to toe in Jupiter?s colour, red) and Cleopatra will not be a vamp or demi-goddess, but as Cicero saw her - a dinner-party bore.

HBO is putting up most of the money. The first 12 episodes are due to air late this year, and if all goes well a further four seasons are planned. So far, though, the show?s most spectacular feature is its jaw-dropping set, reckoned to be the biggest and most expensive ever built for television. On the backlot at Cinecitta, where Ben-Hur?s chariot race was filmed and where 500 slaves once dragged Liz Taylor into town atop a giant sphinx for Cleopatra, a spectacular new version of the ancient city has been built of steel and fibreglass. There?s a full-scale replica of the Forum, a warren of working-class streets, markets, villas and gardens.

It looks tremendous, but also weird, because this Rome is grubby rather than grandiose. Its temples don?t shimmer but are dirty and multicoloured. The set is smoky and covered with Latin graffiti, much of it obscene. On street corners there are candle-strewn shrines and drawings of giant penises. In one street there?s a typical Roman toilet: a latrine with planks with holes where men and women sit side by side and use the same fetid sponge as toilet paper. Grass grows between the flagstones on the Via Sacra. There?s mud everywhere.

Welcome to the new, realist, ?authentic? Rome: feral, vivid, jumbled, irregular. ?Third world Rome?, the show?s executives call it - a bracing, provocative antidote to a century of ?Hollyrome?.

Production designer Joseph Bennett, who built the set, says: ?People think of Rome as white and cold and beautiful, powerful but distant. But based on the research, I don?t think it was like that at all. If you go to Pompeii, you?re struck by how garish it is, even now. The temples and sculptures were all brightly painted. Rome was like Pompeii, but much bigger. And Rome was so noisy it was impossible to sleep. It was like hell. Think of it as a combination of New York and Calcutta, with insane wealth and insane poverty. It was pretty extreme.?

?We?ve taken everything from scratch,? says chief writer and executive producer Bruno Heller. ?We are disregarding what people might have seen before, and asking: what was it actually like at this moment in history? We?re trying to deal with the lives of ordinary people, the details of routine, everyday life, of unemployment, of disease. And we are trying to be very precise in the historical moment, very precise about the texture of everyday life. Everything flows from that. The Forum was about as grand as it got, but it was not, by any means, stupendous or stupefying. Once you know that the Tiber flooded regularly and the houses were constantly on fire because they were just made of wood, you know that there were fires and floods constantly. It was always smoky, grimy and dirty."

Pompeii: The Last Day

I was one of the millions who watched "Pompeii: The Last Day" last night on the Discovery Channel. I thought the visual effects were quite compelling and the acting quite good for a docudrama. I also did not realize that the pyroclastic surge that killed the remaining residents of Pompeii did not produce instant death. The narrator's description of the residents' three painful breaths, the first searing the lungs and producing fluid, the second creating a soft concrete like mixture with the inhaled ash, and the third and final breath one of suffocation, was quite poignant. It made the instantaneous death suffered by the inhabitants of Herculaneum's boat sheds seem merciful by comparison (even though their teeth shattered and their brains boiled afterwards).

I also didn't realize the last flow actually spanned the Bay of Naples and threatened the household where Pliny the Younger waited for his uncle's return. I wish it had included more information about Rome's relief efforts but it made it sound like relief was deemed useless because of the immensity of the disaster.

The second half of the presentation was a repeat of information provided in a documentary I had seen before about how the current authorities have planned for an evacuation of the area if (or should I say when) Vesuvius erupts again.

Of course I startled my husband when I commented that I hoped Vesuvius would hold off at least for a couple more months so I could visit Pompeii and return home safely in March. He didn't realize my plans included a visit the ruins.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Atlas Statue depicts lost Hipparchus star catalog : "The Farnese Atlas, a 7-foot tall marble work which resides in the Farnese Collection in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy, has been found to hold clues to the long-lost work of the ancient astronomer Hipparchus.

What makes it important to scientists is not the titan's muscular form but the globe he supports: carved constellations adorn its surface in exactly the locations Hipparchus would have seen in his day, suggesting that the sculptor based the globe on the ancient astronomer's star catalog, which no modern eyes have seen.

'There are really very few instances where lost ancient secrets or wisdom are ever actually found,' said Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University. 'Here is a real case where rather well-known lost ancient wisdom has been discovered.'

Hipparchus, who flourished around 140-125 BC, is believed to have been one of the world's first path-breaking astronomers. Among other innovations, he put together the first comprehensive list of the hundreds of stars he observed, known as a star catalog.

This catalog no longer exists, and previously the only evidence for it came from references made to it by astronomers who followed Hipparchus, Schaefer said.

Another Hipparchus invention -- the idea of precession, which is the slow movement of the stars and constellations across the sky in relation to the celestial equator -- led Schaefer to believe that Atlas's globe referred to Hipparchus's star catalog."

Medieval Combat manuals indicate gladiators more showbusiness than slaughter News : "To thrill the crowds around the arena the combatants would 'display' broad fighting skills rather than battle for their lives, according to Professor Steve Tuck of the University of Miami.

'Gladiatorial combat is seen as being related to killing and shedding of blood, but I think that what we are seeing is an entertaining martial art that was spectator-oriented,' he said.

Prof Tuck focused on fighting methods used by pairs of gladiators in one-to-one combat, as opposed to mass battles or staged events, and examined 158 images that show combat, such as a gladiator pinning down his opponent, his shield and sword on the ground.

Such gladiatorial art adorns practically all Roman artefacts, from lamps, gems and pottery to large-scale wall paintings.

To try to ascertain more fully what these scenes show, Prof Tuck turned to the pages of fighting and martial-arts manuals produced in Germany and northern Italy in medieval and renaissance times. These provided instruction in everything from sword-fighting to wrestling. He argues that, as such, they are a good parallel for gladiatorial combat.