The Empire strikes black
By Chris Rogers, Apr 11 2021 11:23AM
Twenty years on, director Ridley’s Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is still acclaimed for its textured visuals of ancient Rome, background for a drama involving the actual historical figures of aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his decadent, capricious son Commodus. From the cold forests of Germania to the stony grandeur of the Forum, and from the lush silks of Imperial wives to the ghastly splendour of Legionary combat, this design work was hailed as fresh and original for its dark palette and sombre overtones. Yet director Anthony Mann’s much less recognised The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) not only addressed the same characters but did so using a style that is astonishingly similar to Scott’s epic, from the black-hued armour to the Fascistic imagery.
Arguably the most striking correspondence between the two films is also the first to be encountered; an early opening battle in a snowy wood against barbarian tribes. In both cases near-monochrome cinematography – hailed as a first when seen in Scott’s film, which arrived only a few years after Spielberg’s bleached Saving Private Ryan (1998) – sees the Romans’ armour rendered dull, almost black, and in both the snowflakes fly and torches burn. This is clear in both close-ups and distant shots.
Back in Rome, the centre of the Empire is again depicted in cool, distant style for the most part. Scott’s inspiration was Nazi architecture and its representation in propaganda films, and his concepts were realised with CGI. Mann used the traditional equivalent, the matte painting on glass, for his establishing shots but seems to have chosen an allied aesthetic.
In contrast the principal female character, Marcus Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla, appears in rich, warmly-toned costume in many scenes, whether played by Connie Nielsen or Sophia Loren. Yet both actresses have their moment of froideur too, when once again black or near-black serves to symbolise the hollow power of a declining regime.
The increasingly unhinged Commodus’s martial fantasies, of combat in the field or the arena, are also indicated by a shift to black and an emphasis on arms and armour. The glories of past rulers, which gave him the forces he commands, are seen only in the flashes of silver and gold.
Finally, both films let the extravagance for which Rome was known come to the fore when needed, whether in Scott’s Imperial ‘box’ at the Colosseum or Mann’s Capitoline Wolf behind the Emperor. Each is based on real architectural features, exaggerated or modified to suit the needs of the story. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.
"Throws light on significant achievements"
– Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall
Black Dog Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978 1 906155 73 5
Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.
"A little gem"
– Terry Philpot, Tablet
Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)
ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4
Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.
– Don Brown, The London Society
Ivy Press, 2017
ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1
Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.
Ivy Press, 2018
ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3
Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.
"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"
– Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her
Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service
Private press, 2006
The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.
Twentieth Century Society, 2020
ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0