This striking classical revival masterwork has been attributed to Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c. 1716 to 1799), a sculptor and restorer fascinated by the works of classical Rome and Greece. This interest was very much in the spirit of the time. The Accademia de San Luca, which he entered in 1732, was one of numerous European art institutions where the masterworks of the classical world were used to fuel the Enlightenment. His workshop in Rome became famous as a stopping point for European tourists on the Grand Tour, and sold both recent and ancient works of art. His al l antica (Lit. “in the antique style”) works were in great demand in what was essentially the jet set of the time: wealthy, well-travelled aristocrats, building collections of original and classically-inspired artworks. He also carried out major restoration works for Cardinal Albani (the nephew of Pope Clement XI, and the best known private collector of antiquities in Rome) and achieved additional fame with his publication of a three-volume work on antique designs 1768 and 1772. Cavaceppi rarely signed his work; while some of his statues were known to be his own original designs, others were confused with authentic antiquities.
The current sculpture is a beautifully executed representation of Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus (originally Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) less felicitously known as one of the Mad Emperors, and presumably inspired by a classical original. The subject was, however, infamous in his lifetime, and is widely believed to be the worst Roman Emperor ever to have held office, in the mould of Nero and Caligula. Appointed as co-emperor in 177, he rose to full power in 180 upon the death of his father, the popular and successful Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors. However, he did not perpetuate his father’s heritage, and was believed to be insane by many contemporary observers. The sole tangible benefit of his reign was to halt the persecution of Christians started by his father.
Other than this, however, he was given over to some of the worst excesses of the Imperial period, basking in a life of wealth and luxury and either ignoring or disastrously mismanaging affairs of state. He began his reign by making an unfavourable peace treaty with the Germanic tribe of the Marcomanni, thus surrendering the territories his father had conquered. He went on to fight a series of catastrophic wars against the Germans, which were misreported as great victories in the Roman Senate. However, it is for his excesses that he is best remembered. He lived for entertainment, setting up gladiatorial combat in which he entered the arena dressed as mythological figures such as Hercules, fighting an assortment of professional gladiators and wild animals with and without weapons. However, he charged the city of Rome one million sesterces for each appearance, and was known to have slaughtered his practice opponents (the final events never resulted in a death because the human opponents always submitted to the emperor). Most of his time, however, was spent with a harem of 300 men and women and, allegedly, in an incestuous relationship with his sister. He either ignored public duties, or appointed underlings to prominent positions in the senate, even selling some of his duties as emperor to an adviser named Cleander. In all cases, he shared in the top-level corruption to fund his extravagant lifestyle, draining the treasury of funds.
Matters peaked when a huge fire gutted part of Rome in 190, giving Commodus the opportunity to re-found the city as an memorial to himself. Rome was renamed Colonia Commodiana, defended by the re-named army (Commodian Army) and decorated with ever more optimistic images of himself as a redeeming champion of the people. The senate was dismayed to find itself labelled the Commodian Fortunate Senate. It was perhaps this that precipitated his murder. He was strangled in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus, at the order of his mistress/cousin Marcia. The Senate passed a damnatio memoriae on him and restored the proper name to the city of Rome and its institutions. However, in 195, the emperor Septimius Severus, trying to gain favour with the descendants of Marcus Aurelius, revived the memory of Commodus and forced the Senate (much against its will) to deify him.
This sculpture is therefore a perfect paradox. It is an emblem of a dying civilisation and a monument to a man instrumental in bringing about its end. It is also a sobering reminder about the perception of beauty (Commodus was said to be extremely good looking) and the fact that appearances can be very deceptive. It also comes from the workshop of an architect of the Enlightenment, which ushered in a new era in the development of European civilisation; it is highly likely that Cavaceppi himself was entertained by the paradoxical nature of thus representing this man. Finally, it is an incredibly beautiful, sensitively executed and well-presented work of art that would grace any refined setting, as well as being an unbeatable conversation piece.