Saturday 15 June 2013

Roman Discipline and Dutch Enlightenment

Rewarding your child for initiative, Roman-style

You are an artist commissioned by your nation’s admirals to paint a picture on a classical theme suitable for the navy’s headquarters. Jason steering the Argo? The Athenian fleet winning the battle of Salamis? The battle of Actium? No way--at least not if you were Rembrandt’s student Ferdinand Bol in 1669. 

Bol opted for one of the worryingly numerous Roman fathers who had their own children executed. Titus Manlius Torquatus had his son beheaded for breaching military discipline by disobeying his father’s order that no officer should engage the enemy.  The fact that he had won a glorious victory did not help Manlius Junior in the slightest. Bol captures the horror of the decapitation in the faces of the onlookers. He revels in the pallor of the dead man’s face and the frontal gore of his neck stump. Even the horse is terrified.

The idea of the picture was to inculcate in 17th-century Dutch seamen a fear of the reprisals they would suffer for the slightest act of disobedience. Mutinies and disorder were incessant problems amongst the impoverished and often destitute men who served aboard the ships which ran the Dutch maritime empire. Captains needed—and utilized—barbarous punishments in order to try to maintain discipline, some of which make being beheaded look almost humane.

Water-boarding, baroque-style
The authorized punishments for mutiny or homosexuality included, besides the death-sentence, nailing the culprit’s hand to the yardarm, flogging with up to five hundred lashes, and confinement in irons on a diet of water. Most feared of all was ‘keel-hauling’, in which the culprit was stripped and dragged all the way under the ship from one side to another, to experience near- drowning. All who were keel-hauled suffered not only the baroque equivalent of water-boarding but lacerations of their flesh from barnacles which left permanent scars. The execution of the Roman thus underscored the  simple, acute form of class conflict and its violent solution which underlay the financial success of the Dutch maritime miracle.

How do I know this? Why can I reproduce a high-resolution copy of Bol’s painting free of charge on the website of my new project Classics and Class? Because the marvellous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has taken the momentous step of allowing absolutely free-of-charge use of its entire digitized collection by anyone who wants. They even allow you to edit the image and stick it on your T-shirt. 

Taco Dibbits says art is for everyone!
One of the heroes behind this open-access decision is Taco Dibbits, curator of 17th-century art at the Rijksmuseum, who has stated, in music to my ears, “We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property.” YES! 

I wish every museum and gallery (let alone fatcat Dutch publishing houses like Elsevier) would take such an enlightened line. I have never recovered from being asked to pay the Cleveland Museum of Art $700 for rights to reproduce a single photo of an ancient Greek pot. At the time it was more than my net monthly income. The Dutch policy will also certainly pay off for the both the museum and the national economy by creating a website that everyone will want to visit.

For myself I foresee several happy hours gazing at the Rijksmuseum’s online gallery, since its enticing categories including ‘immoral women’, ‘unicorns’ and ‘monkeys’. There are also dozens more classical images. Perhaps one of them can make a less off-putting T-shirt than Bol’s terrifying evocation of Roman fatherhood. 

My current favourite is this smiling Artemis/Diana with pet dogs by Jacob Matham (1602). Thank you, Taco and your colleagues, for this purest form of online joy.

1 comment:

  1. It gets even better. the Rijksmuseum also provides an API which allows developers to add functionality to the museum's own interface. See for an example:
    An appropriate query for Father's day ;-)