Venerable: “Caligula”

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

Hello young man. I see you are staring me down. How can I help you?

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

Oh, you are looking over there, sorry to interrupt. Here let me get out of your way.

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

What—is here not a good place? No? oh. um….how about….

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

There. is that better? Whew! For a minute, I was concerned. You were really eyeing me, despite having holes where your eyes should be. You are far better company from this angle. What’s on your mind? Are you considering how to improve your complexion? Honestly, I find the rough mix of copper green, gold leaf, and bronzed skin quite attractive. It lends a an air of, shall we say, experience. Despite your chiseled features, you are not some fresh faced lad pining for a girl. No, you have seen things. You are weathered despite your apparent youth, and considering your next move. My apologies, again, for getting in your way earlier.

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

Is that a trace of sadness in your expression? Do you regret the choices you have made? Perhaps not…you still hold your head high, proud.

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

Ah, now you seem lost in thought. I do hope that is true, because I would hate to bore you, sticking you in this glass case to be on display for so long. I know you would prefer to overlook your kingdom, not the visitors of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Well, actually, the curator at the MFAH thinks you would rather be in a temple in your honor, watching people worship you. Hmmm…

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

This roman statue stopped me in my tracks on my last visit to the MFAH. I was being dragged by a small child towards the escalators (remember this?) when I glanced into an adjoining room and subsequently announced that we were making a detour. I like Caligula, well, perhaps not the man, but the representation. I like how his expression seems to change from different angles. I also really enjoy the weathered texture of the bronze. I’ve always liked old dilapidated buildings, because it seems they have a story to tell, that they have seen much in their lifetime. I think the pocked and discolored nature of this statue lends a similar affect: it makes me wonder what this head has seen in its long history.

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” proclaims Keats on the wall. This head is a thing of beauty, in my book, though I’m not sure Caligula brought much joy during his actual lifetime.

While there is evidence that some people wrote and thought favorably of the emperor, the historical sources that have survived all have nasty things to say of Caligula. While some of what is written is certainly true, we don’t actually know if he was insane or as malicious as they say. Caligula “is described as a noble and moderate ruler during the first six months of his reign. After this, the sources focus upon his cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity, presenting him as an insane tyrant.” (Wikipedia)

A change in attitude occurred about having his likeness made into art, as well. “Though he at first forbade any one to set up images of him, he even went on to manufacture statues himself; and though he once requested the annulment of a decree ordering sacrifices to be offered to his Fortune, and even caused this action of his to be inscribed on a tablet, he afterwards ordered temples to be erected and sacrifices to be offered to himself as to a god.” (Cassius Dio)

the MFAH's Julio-Claudian "Caligula"

While I don’t approve of cruel tyranny, I am glad he had a change of heart about having portraits made.

How about you, are you ready to join the cult of Caligula? Or do you prefer your statues to be less weathered bronze and more polished marble?

Here is a gallery of portraits of Caligula, some more flattering than others.

For an in-depth look at what we do and don’t know about Caligula, as well as some color reconstructions of how he might have looked, click here.

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