Historic Painting: “Pollice Verso” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872.

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.

This picture is in the public domain.
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10 Comments

  1. Interestingly there’s a theory that thumbs up meant the crowd wanted the gladiator to kill the defeated opponent, while thumbs down was an appeal to lay down his weapon and allow the opponent to live. Then there’s the argument that the pollice compresso, in which the thumb was held within a fist, was the sign to spare a life, with the thumbs up a sign to slay. All three versions seem equally plausible and we’ll probably never know the real facts. Bearing in mind the long history of gladiatorial combat at Rome and elsewhere it’s also not impossible that all three were used over time. What does seem better established is that it was Gérôme’s painting that is largely responsible for our modern interpretation of the gesture.

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