The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
Spring, (1894) depicts the festival of Cerealia in a Roman street. One of Tadema's most famous and popular works, it took him four years to complete. The models for many of the participants and spectators were Tadema's friends and members of his family.
In this painting, Alma-Tadema depicted the practice of sending children out to get flowers on the morning of May Day, or May 1st, but placed the scene in ancient Rome. A great historical researcher, Alma-Tadema was meticulous about portraying the historical elements in his paintings as they actually appeared.
In this painting, he went to great lengths to portray the Roman originals, everything from the music instruments to the architectural details and dress are accurate to Roman history. He had an insatiable curiosity about classical antiquity. This painting was used a reference for Cecil B. De Mille’s movie “Cleopatra,” in 1934.
A procession of women and children descending marble stairs carry and wear brightly colored flowers. Cheering spectators fill the windows and roof of a classical building. Lawrence Alma Tadema here represented the Victorian custom of sending children into the country to collect flowers on the morning of May 1, or May Day, but placed the scene in ancient Rome. In this way, he suggested the festival's great antiquity through architectural details, dress, sculpture, and even the musical instruments based on Roman originals.
Alma Tadema's curiosity about the ancient world was insatiable, and the knowledge he acquired was incorporated into over three hundred paintings of ancient archeological and architectural design. He said: "Now if you want to know what those Greeks and Romans looked like, whom you make your masters in language and thought, come to me. For I can show not only what I think but what I know."
Alma Tadema's paintings also enjoyed popularity later, when his large panoramic depictions of Greek and Roman life caught the attention of Hollywood. Certain scenes in Cecil B. De Mille's film Cleopatra (1934) were inspired by this painting.
The Floralia is being celebrated, although not by that name, as the ancestor of English May Day festivals. Prepubescent girls lead the procession, like flower girls at an elegant wedding, their innocence proclaiming the innocence of the celebration, itself. The six young women with flowering sprigs who accompany them evoke two other Maying festivals: the May Queen and her attendants, and the Battle of the Flowers, both of which were popular in late-nineteenth-century England.
In this sentimental evocation of a country May Day ceremony, Alma Tadema would seem to have recalled an imagined world of beauty, order, and harmony. But the main participants of the Floralia were prostitutes and the festival, itself, a fertility rite that celebrated the renewal of nature. Although Alma Tadema seemingly has removed any suggestion of such licentiousness, there are subtle but mischievous hints that he has not ignored them all. Satyrs, ithyphallic and sexually insatiable, appear, most obviously in the two silver statues that follow the women playing the tambourines, which are decorated with images adapted from Pompeiian frescoes, one of which shows a satyr and maenad, a devotee of Bacchus given to ecstatic frenzies. Both particpated in Bacchic rites and represent physical and emotional abandon. They also are portrayed on the roundels supported the processional standard suspended high above the revelers, as well as on the capital of the fluted pilaster on the right, playing a panpipe. There, too, in the midst of the flower girls, the only male musician also plays a panpipe, looking suspiciously like a satyr, himself, with tuffs of hair swept up like small horns. There also is a battle depicted on the frieze of the temple to the left, as the Lapiths struggle to wrest their women away from drunken centaurs who have come uninvited to a wedding feast. But it is the standard, itself, so prominently displayed that most subverts the picture.
Identified at the time, it contains two lines from a fragment by Catullus (II): "This inclosure I dedicate and consecrate to thee, O Priapus, at Lampsacus, where is they house and sacred grove, O Priapus." Ithyphallic, a god of fertility and the garden, whose shrine is shown on the roundel below the standard, Priapus certainly belongs at the Floralia but his presence there does introduce another unexpected erotic element to the picture. It is yet another example of Alma Tadema artistically mixing disparate elements, as he does with time and place. The inscription on the architrave in the background, for example, is from the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, Italy; the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Greece; the river god on the spandrel of the arch, from the Arch of Constantine at Rome; the bronze equestrian statues visible through the arch from marble originals at Herculaneum; and many smaller details from archaeological findings at Pompeii. They all are combined and changed, as well, when he incongruously adds a sheep (ram) and cow (bull) to the spandrel, representing, respectively, the zodiacal signs for April and May, the months in which the Floralia occurred. The tutelary deities for these months were Venus and Apollo, another reminder that love and music were celebrated then.
A familiar festival is decorously celebrated in Rome at the height of its imperial power, the participants surrounded by opulent marble. But then the glory of empire (and, by analogy, Britain's own) is undermined by suggestions of disorder and lasciviousness. It is an ironic portrayal, accessible only to the cognoscente, that, like Alma Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus, seemingly depicts no more than a shower of petals, pretty and pink, cascading down upon the banqueters. The knowledgeable viewer, however, will remember the Historia Augusta, which relates that some will die, deliberately smothered beneath the flowers for the amusement of the emperor and his other guests.