This week's latest product focus is based on our simply brilliant pocket square, 'Pollice Verso', a painting by renowned French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. This painting features the now infamous Roman gesture of a 'turned thumb' directed to the winning gladiator.
Whether you've seen it before or not, Pollice Verso could very well be responsible for why modern society attributes a thumbs up to mean good and thumbs down to mean bad. During the Roman Empire, the audience gave a gesture to tell a gladiator what they wanted them to do to a fallen fighter. Depending on the gesture, they could either kill the loser or kindly spare him!
Fun Fact! - No, Pollice Verso doesn't mean that two policemen are talking to each other. Instead, it's a Latin term that roughly translates to 'turned thumb', the iconic hand gesture derived from the Roman gladiator days, as mentioned above.
Gérôme's imagery of the turned thumb to signal life or death for a fallen gladiator was repeated in many movies, from the silent era up to and including the 2000 Oscar-winner Gladiator.
ABOUT THE PAINTING
It's thought the artwork was painted in 1872 and was one of Gérôme's most recognised pieces of work. Alongside gladiators, vestals, and spectators, the scene shows the emperor in his box watching over the victor with glee. The brilliant Gérôme deliberately uses light and perspective to depict some of the key features of the work. At the same time, the blend of voyeurism and a sense of moral superiority is a specific 19th-century feature.
In case you were wondering where the artwork lives in the modern-day. Alexander Turney Stewart purchased the painting from Gérôme at a price of 80,000 francs, setting a new record for the artist at the time, and exhibited it in New York City. It is now proudly on display in the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.
Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?
One of the most intriguing and mysterious aspects of the painting is the exact use of 'Pollice Verso'. We have assumed thumbs down to be 'death' and bad connotations for this blog. However, the precise gesture Pollice Verso described is still not exactly known.
From ancient Rome's historical, archaeological and literary records, it remains uncertain whether the thumb was turned up, turned down, held horizontally, or concealed inside the hand to indicate positive or negative opinions. Nevertheless, Gérôme's painting greatly popularised the idea that thumbs up signalled life, and thumbs down signalled death for a defeated gladiator.
But even in the 21st century, nobody can agree which expression implied what. Some people believe the thumbs up meant they wanted them to live, and the thumbs down meant they wanted them to die. Some people say it was the opposite of that. And there isn't enough evidence to support either claim. The mystery surrounding the true meaning of the thumbs only adds to the level of suspense conveyed in the scene.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904) was a French painter and sculptor in the style now known as academicism. The range of his oeuvre included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits, and other subjects, bringing the Academic painting tradition to an artistic climax. He is considered one of the most important painters from this academic period. He was also a teacher with a long list of students.
Gérôme's teaching highlight was being appointed as one of the three professors at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he started with only sixteen students. Between 1864 and 1904, more than 2,000 students received at least some of their art education through Gérôme's atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts. As one can imagine, places in Gérôme's atelier were limited, keenly sought and highly competitive.
In his fifties, Gérôme took up a new passion within sculpture. His first work was a large bronze statue of a gladiator resting his foot on his victim, based on the iconic Pollice Verso and first shown to the public at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris.
After Gérôme's death, in 1909, his son-in-law Aimé Morot created Gérôme Sculpting "The Gladiators": Monument to Gérôme, which comprised a new casting of Gérôme's statue along with Morot's portrait sculpture of Gérôme at work. Morot's sculpture resides in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
WHAT COLOURS DOES THIS POCKET SQUARE WORK WELL WITH?
The Pollice Verso artwork is deeply rich in tone and creates a dark, almost moody palette. Therefore making it highly suitable across subtle dark colours such as navy, red and brown. We explore some of the colour styling options below.
BURGUNDY & BROWN TONES
Burgundy and brown are both undeniably menswear classic colours and work superbly with a lot of our pocket squares, especially during the autumn and winter months. The large colour areas within Pollice Verso of charcoal and orange mean it will complement the dark texture of any jacket.
This pocket square would suit our Burgundy & Blue Houndstooth Jacket due to the colours and red thread running within the pattern. This brilliant jacket is made from the finest 100% wool fabric and features a classic cut that can be dressed up or down.
The painting is dark in tone, but clear in its red highlight colour, adding depth and levels to the mysterious artwork. This pop of red means a matching tie in a similar colour hue will suit any outfit.
Our choice to pair with this pocket square has to be our timeless Crimson Red Wool Cashmere blend tie. The blend of wool and cashmere makes for a supremely soft finish to the tie that will work particularly well with any outfit.
Navy is the most common and sophisticated way to style any outfit for all events, either work or pleasure.
Most of our pocket squares suit our navy made to order tailored jacket as this classic menswear item is extremely versatile and durable over time. The painting has rich orange, red and brown hues which work perfectly against a navy textured backdrop, as shown below.
What Makes Our Pocket Squares So Special?