Thursday, October 25, 2012


Pollice Verso, 1872
Thumbs Down
Source : Gallery
Current Loc Phoenix Art Museum
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Pollice verso or verso pollice is a Latin phrase, meaning "with a turned thumb", that is used in the context of gladiatorial combat. It refers to the hand gesture used by Ancient Roman crowds to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator. The type of gesture described by the phrase pollice verso is unclear. From the historical and literary record it is uncertain whether the thumb was turned up, turned down, held horizontally, or concealed inside the hand to indicate positive or negative opinions. Popularly, it is assumed that "thumbs down" was the signal that a defeated gladiator should be condemned to death; "thumbs up", that he should be spared.
The notion of the pollice verso thumb signal was brought to popular attention by an 1872 painting by French history painter Jean-Léon Gérôme titled Pollice Verso (usually translated into English as Thumbs Down). It is a large canvas that depicts the Vestal Virgins signifying to a Murmillo they decree death on a fallen gladiator in the arena.
The picture was purchased from Gérôme by U.S. department-store magnate Alexander Turney Stewart (1803–1876), who exhibited it in New York City, and it is now in the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. The painting was a strong influence on the film Gladiator. The producers showed director Ridley Scott a reproduction of the painting before he read the script; "That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked", commented Scott. Pollice Verso is also the title of a controversial 1904 drawing of the Crucifixion by Australian artist Norman Lindsay. (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
For one thing, Gérôme’s images pervaded popular culture of the early 20th century, both in Europe and the United States. “Entertainers like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s restaged Gérôme’s pictures in living form,” Gotlieb said. “And directors of early Hollywood spectacles borrowed elements from Gérôme, both sets and plot elements.” But Gérôme’s contribution to cinema was more than costumes and sets. His ingenuity lay in his innovative use of space and time—what Gotlieb calls his “cinematic imagination.”
Pollice Verso is a famous painting (1872) called "Pollice Verso" ("Turned Thumb" by Jean-Léon Gérôme from a phrase in Juvenal) that represents a victorious gladiator facing spectators, who are demanding the death of his defeated opponent.
Gérôme had done research into gladiatorial apparatus. The defeated fighter, a retiarius ("net-man") is depicted accurately; he has no helmet or shield and his weapons are a net and a trident (on the ground nearby - clearly visible only in the large image). The depiction of the victor, however, is problematic. Each item of armor by itself is accurately represented, but the combination is erroneous. The standard opponent of the retiarius is a secutor ("pursuer"), who carried an curved oblong shield, but the victor in the painting carries a round shield (hardly visible even in the larger image) typical of the hoplomachus ('heavily-armed gladiator'). To the right, we see a secutor (with his curved oblong shield) moving in on a retiarius, who has lost his net and his trident (lying on the ground). He still holds his dagger, but he has been badly wounded in the calf and is on the point of giving up. The retiarius is easy to identify because he is the only gladiator with no helmet or shield. Another identifying factor is the high metal shoulder guard (galerus), which is unique to the retiarius. Finally, the protective sleeve called a manica (heavy linen quilting held on by straps) protects his left arm, while the secutor (and all other categories of gladiator) wears the sleeve his right arm. (
Take Gérôme’s most influential painting, Pollice Verso, in which a triumphant gladiator towers over his opponent in a stadium surrounded by onlookers and the bodies of other defeated foes. “Pollice Verso was hands down the most famous of Gérôme’s pictures to travel to the United States,” Gotlieb said. “Crowds lined up to see it.” And crowds continue to line up, as gallery teacher Christine Spier revealed in her discussion of visitors’ comments on the painting. The tracks of the chariot races are still fresh on the ground, and we can imagine the thundering horses and the speeding chariots as they raced by. The gladiator looks toward the vestal virgins in the stands as they all feverishly point their thumbs down, pollice verso, indicating the death of the loser. But the final decision is left to the emperor, who sits in his viewing box, slowly eating from his bowl of figs. What’s special here? “Gérôme spins time on several different axes”, said Gotlieb, who compared the effect to a popular technique in film known as bullet time. Temporally, the scene is slowed so dramatically that we can see events that would normally be undetectable. But spatially, we can still move around the scene as normal, gaining the ability to move around the undetectable event and see it from different perspectives. This effect was popularized in action films like The Matrix, where the main character, Neo, is shown dodging a bullet in slow motion as the camera moves around the scene at normal speed. In Gérôme’s Pollice Verso, the effect is similar. As the gladiator looks to the stands, we feel the fervent shouting and pointing of the vestal virgins. The emperor, however, moves in a different sphere of time, slowly eating away at his figs, unfazed by the chaos before him.
We, the viewers, are free to move around the scene at our own pace. We look from the vestal virgins, to the gladiator, to the emperor, each flowing at a different speed. This technique prefigures the ability of cinema to depict several moments in one shot, to fast-forward, to slow down, to stop. Is it any surprise that Pollice Verso was an inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator? The story goes that upon seeing the painting, Scott decided to sign on to direct the project.
Gérôme was criticized in his day for confusing literature with painting. Before the invention of film, passage of time could only be represented in literature, poetry, and spoken word. Gérôme broke that mold—but his method wasn’t fully understood until moving pictures could capture the experience for us.
(Jean-Léon Gérôme, from “Gladiator” to “The Matrix” by Lorena Patlán on September 7, 2010 under Events, Exhibitions, Film/Video, Getty Center)
Ridley Scott was persuaded to direct the 2000 film Gladiator when he was presented with a reproduction of the 1872 painting Pollice Verso. On visiting the real Colosseum, Scott remarked to the production designer that it was "too small", so they designed an outsized "Rome of the imagination" that was inspired by English and French romantic painters, as well as Nazi architect Albert Speer.
Gladiators (Latin gladiatores) were professional fighters in ancient Rome who fought against each other and against wild animals, sometimes to the death, for the entertainment of spectators. These fights took place in arenas in many cities during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire. The word comes from gladius, the Latin word for a short sword used by legionnaires and some gladiators. The gladiatorial games were originally established by the Etruscans, but were later adopted by the Roman as a means of entertainment. The Etruscans believed when an important man died his spirit needed a blood sacrifice to survive in the after life. 
The first recorded gladiatorial combats took place in Rome in 264 BC. Decimus Junius Brutus staged it in honor of his dead father. It was held between three pairs of slaves, and held in the Forum Boarium. The ceremony was called a munus or duty paid to a dead ancestor by his descendants, with the attention of keeping alive his memory. These were held for notable people and were repeated every one to five years after the person's death. Public spectacles (called munera, singular munus) took place in amphitheatres (like the Colosseum) and took the latter half of the day after the fights against animals (venationes) and public executions (noxii). Initially rich private individuals organized these, often to gain political favor with the public. The person who organized the show was called the editor, munerator, or dominus and he was honored with the official signs of a magistrate. Later the emperors would exert a near complete monopoly on staging public entertainment which included chariot racing in the circus (ludi circenses), hunts of wild animals, public executions, theatrical performances (ludi scaenici) and gladiator fights. There was usually musical accompaniment. Gladiators were typically picked from prisoners of war, slaves, and sentenced criminals. There were also occasional volunteers. They were trained in special gladiator schools (ludi).
One of the largest schools was in Ravenna. There were four schools in Rome itself, the largest of which was called the Ludus Magnus. The Ludus Magnus was connected to the Colosseum by an underground tunnel. Gladiators often belonged to a troupe (familia) that traveled from town to town. A trainer of gladiators or the manager of a team of gladiators was known as a lanista. The troupe's owner rented gladiators to whoever wanted to stage games. A gladiator would typically fight no more than three times per year. It should be noted that fights were not generally to the death during the Republic, although gladiators were still killed or maimed accidentally. Gladiators could be also the property of a wealthy individual who would hire lanistae to train them. Several senators and emperors had their own favorites. Criminals were either expected to die within a year (ad gladium) or might earn their release after three years (ad ludum) — if they survived.
Different gladiators specialized in different weapons, and it was popular to pair off combatants with widely different equipment. Gladiators usually fought in pairs (Ordinarii), that is, one gladiator against another. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other even from outside the established troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated.
A gladiator did not have to die after every match - if the audience felt both men fought admirably, they would likely want both to live and fight for their amusement in the future. A gladiator who won several fights was allowed to retire, often to train other fighters. Gladiators who managed to win their freedom - often by request of the audience or sponsor - were given a wooden sword as a memento. The attitude of Romans towards the gladiators was ambivalent: on the one hand they were considered as lower than slaves, but on the other hand some successful gladiators rose to celebrity status. There was even a belief that nine eaten gladiator livers were a cure for epilepsy. Gladiators often developed large followings of women, who apparently saw them as sexual objects. This may be one reason that many types of gladiators fought bare-chested. It was socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual contact with a gladiator, but Faustina, the mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived Commodus with a gladiator (Commodus likely invented this story himself). Despite the extreme dangers and hardships of the profession, some gladiators were volunteers (called auctorati) who fought for money; effectively this career was a sort of last chance for people who had gotten into financial troubles. 
Gladiator contests could take months to complete. Gaius Marius had gladiators train the legionnaires in single combat. Female gladiators also existed; The Emperor Domitian liked to stage torchlit fights between dwarfs and women, according to Suetonius in "The Twelve Caesars". One of the most famous gladiators was Spartacus who became the leader of a group of escaped gladiators and slaves. His revolt, which began in 73 BC, was crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus two years later. After this, gladiators were deported from Rome and other cities during times of social disturbances, for fear that they might organize and rebel again. The Greek physician Galen worked for a while as a gladiator's physician in Pergamon. Gladiator fights were first outlawed by Constantine I in 325 but continued sporadically until about 450. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404.

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