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Artists throughout history have found inspiration in their surroundings, from Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s Edo-era woodblock studies of Mt. Fuji to French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin’s Technicolor explorations of Tahiti. But specific structures have also served as inspiration for artists. While famous landmarks make an appearance in many compositions, there are some lesser-known locales that have worked their way into famous paintings. A handful of them still exist, including these seven real-life locations from famous paintings that can still be visited today.
1. Café Terrace at Night (Place du Forum)
Vincent van Gogh
Where: Le Café la Nuit: Vincent van Gogh, Arles, France
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular and prolific artists of all time, though he never found fame (or money) during his short life. One of his more famous paintings, completed in his signature Post-Impressionist style, is the 1888 work Café Terrace at Night, which depicts a brightly lit café against the starry sky. Visitors can still dine on this terrace, now part of a van Gogh-themed restaurant called, fittingly, Le Café la Nuit.
The richly colored painting is famous for being one of the first works the Dutch artist completed during his stay in Arles, France, a particularly productive period in his life. The artist had moved to Arles from Paris seeking new inspiration, as well as a respite from city life. He intended to start an artists’ colony there, inviting his good friend Paul Gauguin for a stay, but their friendship soured after an argument that ended with an Gogh severing his own ear. Van Gogh, suffering from deep depression, checked himself into a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy after the incident, and would go on to commit suicide in 1890.
2. American Gothic
Where: The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa
This quintessential American painting of a farmer and his daughter is one of the most parodied works of art of all time, inspiring everything from advertisements to magazine covers to cartoons. American Gothic was completed in 1930 by Grant Wood, who hailed from Eldon, Iowa. The white building in the background of the composition was built by Catherine and Charles Dibble in the early 1880s in the Carpenter Gothic style, an American architectural movement in which traditional Gothic design elements are applied to wooden homes.
After studying art in Europe during the 1920s, the artist returned home and created this work as a celebration of midwestern culture in the regionalist style. While Wood had his sister Nan and Cedar Rapids dentist Byron McKeeby stand in as models, the figures, dressed in garb inspired by Wood’s old family photographs, are simply meant to represent typical small-town Americans.
Wood chose the home not because it was beautiful, but because he was captivated by the odd combination of its ornate detailing and simple materials. Today it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it serves as an event space for the American Gothic House Center, a museum on the property.
3. The Little Street
Where: 40–42 Vlamingstraat, Delft, Netherlands
Though fewer than 40 paintings by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer are known to exist today, the artist is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. One of his two surviving townscapes, 1658’s The Little Street, had its real-life setting positively identified by researchers in 2015. Frans Grijzenhout, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, consulted old tax records in Delft, Vermeer’s hometown, to find out the dimensions of the buildings and alleys depicted in the painting.
There was only one spot in the entire city that matched the proportions correctly: The present-day site of 40–42 Vlamingstraat. While the buildings in the painting have been torn down and replaced with newer structures, the right gate still exists. Furthering the professor’s claim was research that showed that Vermeer’s aunt owned the redbrick home depicted on the right of the painting.
4. Water Lilies series
Where: Fondation Claude Monet, Giverny, France
The famed master painted all sorts of subjects, from the Thames in London to Rouen Cathedral in France to haystacks in the countryside, but one of his most famous motifs was the water lily. As an Impressionist, Claude Monet revisited subjects under different light and weather conditions, capturing his “impressions” with loose brushstrokes and bold color. When Monet moved to Giverny, France, in 1883, he designed his own gardens, including a water garden spanned by a green Japanese bridge, which he would paint from life en plein air. The artist painted his gardens for the rest of his life, even as his eyesight began to fail. Monet’s home and gardens are open to the public and can be toured, though they can become extremely crowded with visitors.
5. The Hay Wain
Where: Willy Lott’s House, Flatford, Suffolk, England
British painter John Constable was a major figure of the turn-of-the-19th-century Romantic movement, painting a number of large landscapes, including 1821’s The Hay Wain. The work, which was voted the second most popular in Britain in a 2005 poll by BBC Radio 4, shows a farmer and his horses pulling a hay wain, or a cart, across a river. On the far left is a farmhouse, known as Willy Lott’s House, that still stands today in Suffolk, England.
Lott was a farmer on Constable’s father’s land, and he lived in the house his entire life. The structure, now maintained by the United Kingdom’s National Trust, was originally built in the 16th century, but additions were made over the following decades to create the building seen in the painting. While it was modified slightly after the painting was completed, a 1920s restoration returned the home to its state as seen in The Hay Wain.
6. Christina’s World
Where: Olson House, Cushing, Maine
Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World depicts a woman lying in the grass looking at a farmhouse in the distance—a field stretching out before her. The subject is Anna Christina Olson, Wyeth’s neighbor in South Cushing, Maine, who suffered from a neuromuscular condition. Wyeth sought to capture her grand spirit, which was not limited by her disability, by employing the style of magical realism to imbue the scene with an air of mystery.
Though the painting was not a critical success when it debuted, Museum of Modern Art founding director Alfred Barr purchased the work and displayed it prominently in his New York museum. Over the years, it gained popularity with museum-goers, eventually earning its place among the icons of 20th-century American painting. The farmhouse in the distance still stands today as part of the Farnsworth Art Museum, which offers tours of the space. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.
7. Bal du moulin de la Galette
Where: Le Moulin de la Galette, Paris, France
The hilly Montmartre neighborhood of Paris has long been a haven for artistic types, and for centuries, painters have captured one of its most famous landmarks—the Moulin de la Galette, a windmill. The site has long been used as a festive gathering place, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir captured the spirit of a party there in his sun-dappled 1876 painting Bal du moulin de la Galette, which was displayed at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition and is considered one of the finest works of the movement.
Today you can dine at a restaurant beneath the windmill, taking in the spirit of la vie bohème. Other artists who have captured the scene include Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
10 World-Famous Paintings You Can See Only in Paris
Paris has always been an art lover’s paradise, with Impressionist treasures at the Musée d’Orsay and historic gems at the world’s largest art museum, the Louvre. Discover 1o of the most famous paintings you can see in the City of Light.
The Grand Canyon VR Experience
Excellent visual and sound quality.
Impressive attention to detail.
Predefined with little control.
Requires powerful hardware.
The Grand Canyon VR Experience, $2.99 by Immersive Entertainment, lets you sit in a virtual motorized kayak ride through the Grand Canyon. Tailor the tour to your preferences by selecting either a sunlit or moonlit experience and controlling the speed of the ride.
While you cruise along, you'll enjoy the sights and sounds of procedurally generated, artificially intelligent wildlife. Attract and feed the virtual fish as you navigate the waterways.
The ride is on rails (meaning you can't steer the kayak), but you can stop at various points and enjoy the scenery by utilizing the throttle speed controls of your motorized kayak or by exiting at scenic rest stops.
The tour is short and there is no historical background information for history buffs, but it is a fun ride perfect for someone new to VR.
This tour requires one of the following virtual reality headsets: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or Valve Index.
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Museums Ask People To Recreate Famous Paintings With Anything They Can Find At Home, Get 35 Hilarious Picsanonymous
Even though most of us are stuck at home and can&rsquot go out and enjoy art in museums, that doesn&rsquot mean that life is boring or uncultured. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (or the Getty for short) challenged people to post photos of themselves recreating their favorite classic paintings from the safety of their homes.
The Getty&rsquos fans responded with a lot of enthusiasm to their internet challenge and flooded social media with their unique artistic interpretations. We&rsquove collected some of the best recreations of famous paintings, so scroll down and feast your eyes. Don&rsquot forget to upvote your faves and share which ones you loved best, dear Readers.
People are having a lot of fun becoming beautiful paintings, but this isn&rsquot the first time folks have done this. In fact, the Getty Museum challenge was inspired by an Instagram account from Amsterdam called Tussen Kunst en Quarantaine (aka Between Art and Quarantine). So be sure to check them out as well. However, the Getty isn't the only art museum doing a challenge like this. The Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine, also challenged the art community to reproduce their fave oil paintings from their art collection by taking part in the #mystetstvovdoma or #artathome challenge. Check out our post about the Pinchuk Art Centre's challenge right here.
A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
I struggle to keep my footing on a narrow ridge of earth snaking between flooded fields of rice. The stalks, almost ready to harvest, ripple in the breeze, giving the valley the appearance of a shimmering green sea. In the distance, steep limestone hills rise from the ground, perhaps 400 feet tall, the remains of an ancient coral reef. Rivers have eroded the landscape over millions of years, leaving behind a flat plain interrupted by these bizarre towers, called karsts, which are full of holes, channels and interconnecting caves carved by water seeping through the rock.
The Oldest Enigma of Humanity
We’re on the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, an hour’s drive north of the bustling port of Makassar. We approach the nearest karst undeterred by a group of large black macaques that screech at us from trees high on the cliff and climb a bamboo ladder through ferns to a cave called Leang Timpuseng. Inside, the usual sounds of everyday life here—cows, roosters, passing motorbikes—are barely audible through the insistent chirping of insects and birds. The cave is cramped and awkward, and rocks crowd into the space, giving the feeling that it might close up at any moment. But its modest appearance can’t diminish my excitement: I know this place is host to something magical, something I’ve traveled nearly 8,000 miles to see.
Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.
Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks—it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.”
This ghostly babirusa has been known to locals for decades, but it wasn’t until Aubert, a geochemist and archaeologist, used a technique he developed to date the painting that its importance was revealed. He found that it is staggeringly ancient: at least 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world—the world’s very first picture.
It’s among more than a dozen other dated cave paintings on Sulawesi that now rival the earliest cave art in Spain and France, long believed to be the oldest on earth.
The findings made headlines around the world when Aubert and his colleagues announced them in late 2014, and the implications are revolutionary. They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke.
Hidden away in a damp cave on the “other” side of the world, this curly-tailed creature is our closest link yet to the moment when the human mind, with its unique capacity for imagination and symbolism, switched on.
Sulawesi’s rock art was first discovered in the 1950s. (Guilbert Gates)
Who were the first “people,” who saw and interpreted the world as we do? Studies of genes and fossils agree that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa 200,000 years ago. But although these earliest humans looked like us, it’s not clear they thought like us.
Intellectual breakthroughs in human evolution such as tool-making were mastered by other hominin species more than a million years ago. What sets us apart is our ability to think and plan for the future, and to remember and learn from the past—what theorists of early human cognition call “higher order consciousness.”
Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine. “We couldn’t conceive of art, or conceive of the value of art, until we had higher order consciousness,” says Benjamin Smith, a rock art scholar at the University of Western Australia. In that sense, ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift: Find early paintings, particularly figurative representations like animals, and you’ve found evidence for the modern human mind.
Until Aubert went to Sulawesi, the oldest dated art was firmly in Europe. The spectacular lions and rhinos of Chauvet Cave, in southeastern France, are commonly thought to be around 30,000 to 32,000 years old, and mammoth-ivory figurines found in Germany correspond to roughly the same time. Representational pictures or sculptures don’t appear elsewhere until thousands of years afterward. So it has long been assumed that sophisticated abstract thinking, perhaps unlocked by a lucky genetic mutation, emerged in Europe shortly after modern humans arrived there about 40,000 years ago. Once Europeans started to paint, their skills, and their human genius, must have then spread around the world.
Chauvet Cave, Ardèche, France. Dated to: 30,000 to 28,000 B.C. | Once thought to house the oldest representational art, the more than 1,000 paintings of predators like lions and mammoths are unmatched in their sophistication. (DRAC Rhone-Alpes, Ministere de la Culture / AP Images) Coliboaia Cave, Bihor, Romania. Dated to: 30,000 B.C. | This cave, often flooded by an underground river, revealed images to spelunkers in 2009—a bison, a horse, a feline and the heads of bears and rhinos. (Andrei Posmosanu / Romanian Federation of Speleology) Serra da Capivara, Piauí, Brazil. Dated to: 28,000 to 6,000 B.C. | In this national park, paintings of jaguar, tapir and red deer (shown here, c. 10,000 B.C.) interact with human figures in scenes that include dancing and hunting. (Niède Guidon / Bradshaw Foundation) Ubirr at Kakadu, Northern Territory, Australia. Dated to: 26,000 B.C. | Aboriginal painters covered rock shelters over millennia with enigmatic beings and animals (like the kangaroo here) plus, much later, arriving ships. (Tom Boyden, Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images) Apollo 11 Cave, Karas, Namibia. Dated to: 25,500 to 23,500 B.C. | The seven “Apollo 11 stones,” discovered shortly after the first moon landing, are decorated with feline and bovid-like figures in charcoal and ocher. (Windhoek Museum, Namibia via Trust for African Rock Art) Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Dated to: 13,000 B.C. (est.) | Clustered in five natural rock shelters, paintings show large animal figures including the Indian lion and gaur (an Indian bison), beside stick-like people. (Universal Images Group / Getty Images) Cumberland Valley Caves, Tennessee, U.S. Dated to: 4,000 B.C. | The art in this Appalachian valley shows the preoccupations of native Southeastern peoples, from hunting (seen here) to religious iconography. (Jan F. Simek / University of Tennessee, Knoxville)
But experts now challenge that standard view. Archaeologists in South Africa have found that the pigment ocher was used in caves 164,000 years ago. They have also unearthed deliberately pierced shells with marks suggesting they were strung like jewelry, as well as chunks of ocher, one engraved with a zigzag design—hinting that the capacity for art was present long before humans left Africa. Still, the evidence is frustratingly indirect. Perhaps the ocher wasn’t for painting but for mosquito repellent. And the engravings could have been one-offs, doodles with no symbolic meaning, says Wil Roebroeks, an expert in the archaeology of early humans, of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Other extinct hominin species have left similarly inconclusive artifacts.
By contrast, the gorgeous animal cave paintings in Europe represent a consistent tradition. The seeds of artistic creativity may have been sown earlier, but many scholars celebrate Europe as the place where it burst, full-fledged, into view. Before Chauvet and El Castillo, the famous art-filled cave in northern Spain, “we don’t have anything that smacks of figurative art,” says Roebroeks. “But from that point on,” he continues, “you have the full human package. Humans were more or less comparable to you and me.”
Yet the lack of older paintings may not reflect the true history of rock art so much as the fact that they can be very difficult to date. Radiocarbon dating, the kind used to determine the age of the charcoal paintings at Chauvet, is based on the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and works only on organic remains. It’s no good for studying inorganic pigments like ocher, a form of iron oxide used frequently in ancient cave paintings.
This is where Aubert comes in. Instead of analyzing pigment from the paintings directly, he wanted to date the rock they sat on, by measuring radioactive uranium, which is present in many rocks in trace amounts. Uranium decays into thorium at a known rate, so comparing the ratio of these two elements in a sample reveals its age the greater the proportion of thorium, the older the sample. The technique, known as uranium series dating, was used to determine that zircon crystals from Western Australia were more than four billion years old, proving Earth’s minimum age. But it can also date newer limestone formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, known collectively as speleothems, which form in caves as water seeps or flows through soluble bedrock.
Aubert, who grew up in Lévis, Canada, and says he has been interested in archaeology and rock art since childhood, thought to date rock formations at a minute scale directly above and below ancient paintings, to work out their minimum and maximum age. To do this would require analyzing almost impossibly thin layers cut from a cave wall—less than a millimeter thick. Then a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Aubert had access to a state-of-the-art spectrometer, and he started to experiment with the machine, to see if he could accurately date such tiny samples.
Aubert examines Leang Timpuseng, home of the record-breaking babirusa. (Justin Mott)
Within a few years, Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong, where Aubert had received a postdoctoral fellowship—today they are both based at Griffith University—started digging in caves in Sulawesi. Brumm was working with the late Mike Morwood, co-discoverer of the diminutive hominin Homo floresiensis, which once lived on the nearby Indonesian island of Flores. The evolutionary origins of this so-called “hobbit” remain a mystery, but, to have reached Flores from mainland Southeast Asia, its ancestors must have passed through Sulawesi. Brumm hoped to find them.
As they worked, Brumm and his Indonesian colleagues were struck by the hand stencils and animal images that surrounded them. The standard view was that Neolithic farmers or other Stone Age people made the markings no more than 5,000 years ago—such markings on relatively exposed rock in a tropical environment, it was thought, couldn’t have lasted longer than that without eroding away. But the archaeological evidence showed that modern humans had arrived on Sulawesi at least 35,000 years ago. Could some of the paintings be older? “We were drinking palm wine in the evenings, talking about the rock art and how we might date it,” Brumm recalls. And it dawned on him: Aubert’s new method seemed perfect.
The idea for dating the paintings in Sulawesi came from Brumm. (Justin Mott)
After that, Brumm looked for paintings partly obscured by speleothems every chance he got. “One day off, I visited Leang Jarie,” he says. Leang Jarie means “Cave of Fingers,” named for the dozens of stencils decorating its walls. Like Leang Timpuseng, it is covered by small growths of white minerals formed by the evaporation of seeping or dripping water, which are nicknamed “cave popcorn.” “I walked in and bang, I saw these things. The whole ceiling was covered with popcorn, and I could see bits of hand stencils in between,” recalls Brumm. As soon as he got home, he told Aubert to come to Sulawesi.
Aubert spent a week the next summer touring the region by motorbike. He took samples from five paintings partly covered by popcorn, each time using a diamond-tipped drill to cut a small square out of the rock, about 1.5 centimeters across and a few millimeters deep.
Back in Australia, he spent weeks painstakingly grinding the rock samples into thin layers before separating out the uranium and thorium in each one. “You collect the powder, then remove another layer, then collect the powder,” Aubert says. “You’re trying to get as close as possible to the paint layer.” Then he drove from Wollongong to Canberra to analyze his samples using the mass spectrometer, sleeping in his van outside the lab so he could work as many hours as possible, to minimize the number of days he needed on the expensive machine. Unable to get funding for the project, he had to pay for his flight to Sulawesi—and for the analysis—himself. “I was totally broke,“ he says.
The very first age Aubert calculated was for a hand stencil from the Cave of Fingers. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’” he says. “So I calculated it again.” Then he called Brumm.
“I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying,” Brumm recalls. “He blurted out, ,000!’ I was stunned. I said, are you sure? I had the feeling immediately that this was going to be big.”
The caves we visit in Sulawesi are astonishing in their variety. They range from small rock shelters to huge caverns inhabited by venomous spiders and large bats. Everywhere there is evidence of how water has formed and changed these spaces. The rock is bubbling and dynamic, often glistening wet. It erupts into shapes resembling skulls, jellyfish, waterfalls and chandeliers. As well as familiar stalactites and stalagmites, there are columns, curtains, steps and terraces—and popcorn everywhere. It grows like barnacles on the ceilings and walls.
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This story is a selection from the January-February issue of Smithsonian magazine
We’re joined by Muhammad Ramli, an archaeologist at the Center for the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage, in Makassar. Ramli knows the art in these caves intimately. The first one he visited, as a student in 1981, was a small site called Leang Kassi. He remembers it well, he says, not least because while staying overnight in the cave he was captured by local villagers who thought he was a headhunter. Ramli is now a portly but energetic 55-year-old with a wide-brimmed explorer’s hat and a collection of T-shirts with messages like “Save our heritage” and “Keep calm and visit museums.” He has cataloged more than 120 rock art sites in this region, and has established a system of gates and guards to protect the caves from damage and graffiti.
Almost all of the markings he shows me, in ocher and charcoal, appear in relatively exposed areas, lit by the sun. And they were apparently made by all members of the community. At one site, I climb a fig tree into a small, high chamber and am rewarded by the outline of a hand so small it could belong to my 2-year-old son. At another, hands are lined up in two horizontal tracks, all with fingers pointing to the left. Elsewhere there are hands with slender, pointed digits possibly created by overlapping one stencil with another with painted palm lines and with fingers that are bent or missing.
There’s still a tradition on Sulawesi of mixing rice powder with water to make a handprint on the central pillar of a new house, Ramli explains, to protect against evil spirits. “It’s a symbol of strength,” he says. “Maybe the prehistoric man thought like that too.” And on the nearby island of Papua, he says, some people express their grief when a loved one dies by cutting off a finger. Perhaps, he suggests, the stencils with missing fingers indicate that this practice too has ancient origins.
Paul Taçon, an expert in rock art at Griffith University, notes that the hand stencils are similar to designs created until recently in northern Australia. Aboriginal Australian elders he has interviewed explain that their stencils are intended to express connection to a particular place, to say: “I was here. This is my home.” The Sulawesi hand stencils “were probably made for similar reasons,” he says. Taçon believes that once the leap to rock art was made, a new cognitive path—the ability to retain complex information over time—had been set. “That was a major change,” he says.
There are two main phases of artwork in these caves. A series of black charcoal drawings—geometric shapes and stick figures including animals such as roosters and dogs, which were introduced to Sulawesi in the last few thousand years—haven’t been dated but presumably could not have been made before the arrival of these species.
Alongside these are red (and occasionally purplish-black) paintings that look very different: hand stencils and animals, including the babirusa in Leang Timpuseng, and other species endemic to this island, such as the warty pig. These are the paintings dated by Aubert and his colleagues, whose paper, published in Nature in October 2014, ultimately included more than 50 dates from 14 paintings. Most ancient of all was a hand stencil (right beside the record-breaking babirusa) with a minimum age of 39,900 years—making it the oldest-known stencil anywhere, and just 900 years shy of the world’s oldest-known cave painting of any kind, a simple red disk at El Castillo. The youngest stencil was dated to no more than 27,200 years ago, showing that this artistic tradition lasted largely unchanged on Sulawesi for at least 13 millennia.
12. The Google Art Project
To help its users discover and view important artworks online in high resolution and detail, Google partnered with more than 1200 cultural institutions from around the world to archive and document priceless pieces of art and to provide virtual tours of museums using Google Street View technology. The Google Art Project features fine art from the White House, the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, and even São Paulo street art from Brazil. Here’s a complete list of museums you can visit virtually.
Although influenced by other artists and photographers, and herself a leading figure of the American modernist movement, O'Keeffe followed her own artistic vision, choosing to paint her subjects in a way that expressed her own experience and what she felt about them.
Her career, spanning eight decades, included subjects ranging from the skyscrapers of New York City to the vegetation and landforms of Hawaii to the mountains and deserts of New Mexico. She was most inspired by organic forms and objects in nature, and most well-known for her large-scale and close-up paintings of flowers.
7 Ancient Roman Curses You Can Work into Modern Life
Curse tablets, known to researchers as defixiones, were a popular form of expression in the Roman Empire from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE. More than 1500 tablets—inscribed in Latin or Greek, and scribbled on bits of recycled metal, pottery, and rock—have been found from Britain to north Africa, sealed with nails and hidden away in graves, wells, and natural springs. Many are so formulaic that it’s thought they were written by professional scribes who sidelined as curse-writers, and whose words, it was believed, would imbue the tablets with magic.
Used by commoners and the elite alike, the little notes revealed what many Romans really wanted the gods to do to their enemies: The garden-variety curse would ask the gods to “bind” someone else’s body to strip them of their power. Others addressed retribution, theft, love, and even sports. Some of the more inventive could be used in our 21st-century lives—just swap out the Roman names and use your imagination to get dark magic to do your bidding.
1. "OLD, LIKE PUTRID GORE"
Curse: Vetus quomodo sanies signeficatur Tacita deficta.
Translation: "Tacita, hereby accursed, is labelled old like putrid gore."
No one knows what Tacita did, but it must have been quite heinous to warrant a curse this serious. Discovered in a grave in Roman Britain dating to the early 2nd century CE, this curse was written backwards on a lead tablet, perhaps to make it more potent.
2. "LOSE THEIR MINDS AND EYES"
Curse: Docimedis perdidit manicilia dua qui illas involavit ut mentes suas perdat et oculos suos in fano ubi destinat.
Translation: "Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple."
Poor Docimedis was just trying to enjoy a nice soak at Aquae Sulis, now known as Roman Bath in Somerset, UK, when someone made off with his gloves. This tablet dates to the 2nd-4th centuries CE and comes from a large cache of curses relating to bathhouse thefts, which were apparently rampant.
3. "MAY THE WORMS, CANCER, AND MAGGOTS PENETRATE"
Curse: Humanum quis sustulit Verionis palliolum sive res illius, qui illius minus fecit, ut illius mentes, memorias deiectas sive mulierem sive eas, cuius Verionis res minus fecit, ut illius manus, caput, pedes vermes, cancer, vermitudo interet, membra medullas illius interet.
Translation: "The human who stole Verio’s cloak or his things, who deprived him of his property, may he be bereft of his mind and memory, be it a woman or those who deprived Verio of his property, may the worms, cancer, and maggots penetrate his hands, head, feet, as well as his limbs and marrows."
This is an especially nasty curse on the culprit who stole Verio’s clothes, because being devoured by worms was seen as a particularly gruesome, undignified death. The tablet was found near Frankfurt, Germany and dated to the 1st century CE.
4. "BE STRUCK DUMB"
Curse: Qui mihi Vilbiam involavit sic liquat comodo aqua. Ell[…] muta qui eam involavit.
Translation: "May the person who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who has so obscenely devoured her be struck dumb."
This partially broken lead tablet refers to the "theft" of a woman named Vilbia by an unknown person whether Vilbia was the curse-giver’s girlfriend, concubine, or slave is unclear. It was also found at Roman Bath.
5. "BE UNABLE TO CHAIN BEARS"
Curse: Inplicate lacinia Vincentzo Tzaritzoni, ut urssos ligare non possit, omni urssum perdat, non occidere possit in die Merccuri in omni ora iam iam, cito cito, facite!
Translation: "Entangle the nets of Vincenzus Zarizo, may he be unable to chain bears, may he lose with every bear, may he be unable to kill a bear on Wednesday, in any hour, now, now, quickly, quickly, make it happen!"
This curse is aimed at gladiator Vincenzus Zarizo, who fought in Carthage, North Africa, in the 2nd century CE. The author of the curse presumably had some money riding on Zarizo’s bear fight.
6. "KILL THE HORSES"
Curse: Adiuro te demon, quicunque es, et demando tibi ex hanc hora, ex hanc die, ex hoc momento, ut equos prasini et albi crucies, occidas et agitatores Clarum et Felicem et Primulum et Romanum occidas.
Translation: "I implore you, spirit, whoever you are, and I command you to torment and kill the horses of the green and white teams from this hour on, from this day on, and to kill Clarus, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, the charioteers."
The most frequently cursed animals on these tablets were horses, given their importance in chariot races. This particular curse comes from Hadrumetum (in modern day Tunisia) from the 3rd century CE, and the side opposite the curse included a crude depiction of an anatomically correct deity, presumably to aid in ensuring the rival teams failed.
7. "NEVER DO BETTER THAN THE MIME"
Curse: Sosio de Eumolpo mimo ne enituisse poteat. Ebria vi monam agere nequeati in eqoleo.
Translation: "Sosio must never do better than the mime Eumolpos. He must not be able to play the role of a married woman in a fit of drunkenness on a young horse."
This tablet wishes ill on an actor named Sosio. In Roman comedic theater, apparently the "drunk woman on a horse" was a common joke, so the person making the curse hopes that Sosio’s stand-up routine will fall flat. It was found at the site of Rauranum in western France and dates to the late 3rd century CE.