This amazing painting is called Pollice Verso, and it’s by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme whose previous work The Tulip Folly I also featured recently in a post in this series. As you can see, it’s a dramatic scene involving gladiators in the Colosseum in Rome, sometime at the height of the Roman Empire. “Pollice Verso” means “with a turned thumb” in Latin, and it is the famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down referendum that the Colosseum crowd rendered when a gladiator’s foe was badly wounded. Thumbs-down, of course, meant the crowd wanted to see the victim killed; thumbs-up was a vote for mercy. You can see what’s going on here. The women in the box are the Vestal Virgins.
The richness, detail, drama and romantic sheen of this picture is absolutely stunning, and it may qualify as my personal favorite of the paintings I’ve featured in this series. Jean-Léon Gérôme had amazing talent and an incredible eye for emotional detail. He painted the picture in 1872, ten years before The Tulip Folly.
If the painting looks familiar to 21st-century film buffs, it should. This exact painting was what convinced director Ridley Scott to make the 2000 film Gladiator, and you’ll notice that the visual look of the film–which includes a scene (historically incorrect) where the emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) makes the “Pollice Verso” gesture–copies this picture as closely as possible. Thus, Gérôme and his Orientalist school of 19th century art have found new life in this century. Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is itself an uncredited remake of the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire which utilizes very similar characters and situations, and is also based partially on Daniel Mannix’s 1958 novel Those About To Die.
The original painting is currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum.