Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard

Second paragraph of third chapter (discussing Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin):

It would be easier to suggest a particular reason if we knew for sure the identity of the portrait’s main subject. Recent views have favoured Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian scholar, collector and politician of the late fifteenth century, who in the 147os spent time in Flanders, where Memling was then working, and whose personal emblem included a palm tree and laurel leaves (unusual elements visible in the landscape background and on the lower edge of the portrait). If so, then the coin might be a flattering reference to the quality of Bembo’s own collection; for some Renaissance experts in ancient coinage insisted that, whatever the emperor’s despicable character, Nero’s coins were particularly fine works of art. But there have been plenty of other identifications and explanations too. One idea is that the coin makes a visual pun on the otherwise anonymous sitter’s name: perhaps this was a hint that he was called ‘Nerione’, a not uncommon Italian name at the time. Or maybe a more subtle moral point was being made. It might have been a reminder, as one art historian has recently put it, ‘that worldly fame and visual commemoration cannot always be associated with virtue’.1
1 The identification of the sitter and interpretation of the Roman coin: Lobelle-Caluwe, ‘Portrait d’un homme’ (the first to propose Bembo); Borchert (ed.), Memling’s Portraits 160; Campbell et al., Renaissance Faces 102-5 (quotation on ‘worldly fame’ p. 105), Lane, Hans Memling, 205-7,213-14, Christiansen and Weppelmann (eds), Renaissance Portrait, 330-32; Nalezyty, Pietro Bembo, 33-37. Vico, Discorsi 1,53 writes of the coins of Nero (along with those of Caligula and Claudius) as ‘surpassing the others in beauty’; see also Cunnally, Images of the Illustrious, 160.

Beautifully illustrated and very detailed description of the iconography of the Twelve Caesars, as made classic by Suetonius, in sculpture and art, based on (but updated from) a series of lectures given in 2011. There’s a huge amount of detail, including a sarcophagus that Andrew Jackson refused to be buried in, and fascinating stuff about lost art that we still know about. Hamton Court alone merits almost a whole chapter. Not my usual thing, and I’m not close enough to the subject to really learn as much as I would like to from this, but it is entertaining and informative. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2021. Next up is Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, by Nick Montfort.