ⓘ Pollice Verso (Gérôme)

                                     

ⓘ Pollice Verso (Gerome)

Pollice Verso is an 1872 painting by French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, featuring the eponymous Roman gesture directed to the winning gladiator.

The thumbs-down gesture in the painting is given by spectators at the Colosseum, including the Vestals, to the victorious murmillo, while the defeated retiarius raises two fingers to plead for mercy. The painting was an inspiration for the 2000 film Gladiator, where Commodus holds out a raised thumb to spare the films hero, Maximus.

                                     

1. The painting

Along with gladiators, Vestals, and spectators, the picture shows the emperor in his box. Like many historical or ethnographic paintings of the era, Pollice Verso piqued the prurient interest and indulged the voyeurism of viewers while allowing them to feel a sense of moral superiority over another previous, non-Christian culture.

Alexander Turney Stewart purchased the painting from Gerome at a price of 80.000 francs, setting a new record for the artist, and exhibited it in New York City. It is now in the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.

                                     

1.1. The painting Historical accuracy

The painting almost immediately kicked off a controversy over the accuracy of Geromes use of the thumbs-down gesture by spectators in the Colosseum. A 26-page pamphlet published in 1879, "Pollice Verso": To the Lovers of Truth in Classic Art, This is Most Respectfully Addressed, reprinted evidence for and against the accuracy of the painting, including a letter dated 8 December, 1878 from Gerome himself.

The controversy remains unsettled. The exact gesture described by the phrase pollice verso is not known. From historical, archaeological and literary records from ancient Rome, it remains uncertain whether the thumb was turned up, turned down, held horizontally, or concealed inside the hand to indicate positive or negative opinions. Geromes painting greatly popularized the idea that thumbs up signaled life, and thumbs down signaled death, for a defeated gladiator.

Geromes depiction of the Colosseums architecture is based on accurate drawings, and the armor of the gladiators follows the design of those found in Pompeii, although the secutors armor is not properly assembled. His depiction of blood-thirsty Vestal virgins demanding death may have been inspired by a passage by the ancient Christian author Prudentius, who disapproved of the carnage in the arena:

Then on to the gathering in the amphitheatre passes this figure of life-giving purity and bloodless piety, to see bloody battles and deaths of human beings and look on with holy eyes at wounds men suffer for the price of their keep. There she sits conspicuous with the awe-inspiring trappings of her head-bands and enjoys what the trainers have produced. What a soft, gentle heart! She rises at the blows, and every time a victor stabs his victim’s throat she calls him her pet; the modest virgin with a turn of her thumb bids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe so that no remnant of life shall stay lurking deep in his vitals while under a deeper thrust of the sword the fighter lies in the agony of death.

                                     

1.2. The painting Influence on cinema

This painting and others by Gerome including his earlier Ave Caesar! Morituri te Salutant had a strong influence on the visual portrayal of the ancient world by later filmmakers, beginning with silent movies. The painting was a catalyst for director Ridley Scott; when the producers of Gladiator showed him a reproduction of the painting before he read the script, Scott recalls, "That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked."

                                     

2. The sculpture

In his fifties, Gerome took up sculpture. His first work was a large bronze statue of a gladiator holding his foot on his victim, based on Pollice Verso and first shown to the public at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris. After Geromes death, in 1909, his son-in-law Aime Morot created Gerome Sculpting "The Gladiators": Monument to Gerome, which comprised a new casting of Geromes statue along with Morots portrait sculpture of Gerome at work. Morots sculpture resides in the Musee dOrsay in Paris.