Despot Style: The Iconography of Power, Part 1

Despot Style: The Iconography of Power, Part 1

Anna Hoffman
Sep 1, 2011

The recent news photos of the Gaddafi compound were of course fascinating for the watershed historical moment they illustrated. From a design history perspective, they were also a fascinating peek into a contemporary interpretation of what I'd like to call 'despot style,' or the decor favored by absolutist rulers whose furnishings become a kind of manifestation or even legitimization of their power and privilege.

King Tutankhamun's throne is a perfect expression of royal power. Made of precious materials like gold, silver and lapis lazuli, the chair's iconography represents the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt under the King (who lived c. 1341-1323 BCE), and depicts the Queen attending Tutankhamun under the radiant halo of the sun's rays. The fact that this young, relatively minor king had such a bounty to bring with him to the Afterlife reveals some of the luxurious excesses of the Egyptian pharaohs.

You may remember the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BCE) from the Old Testament. He's the one who captured Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple before going mad and living like a wild animal for 7 years. We don't have any extant examples of Nebuchadnezzar's decor (though you may have heard of his Hanging Gardens?), but his lasting accomplishment as an artistic patron was Babylon's Ishtar Gate and Processional Way. The walls were ostensibly supposed to honor the war goddess Ishtar (whose symbol was the lion), and other deities. But the King's inscription shows that, like many royal works, this was intended to glorify not only the gods, but the King himself: "I (Nebuchadnezzar) laid the foundation of the gates … and had them built out of pure blue stone … and thus I magnificently adorned them with luxurious splendor for all mankind to behold in awe."

Porphyry, a reddish-purple stone, was a favored material of the Roman emperors. All Roman porphyry came from one quarry in Egypt, discovered in AD 18 and mined by slaves in terribly rough conditions from about 29-335. And porphyry was precious not only for its scarcity and difficulty of extraction, but because of its color — purple was the color of royalty; purple dye was the most expensive to produce, and so to wear it had become a status symbol greater than gold. Because of this, porphyry has always been associated with the emperors. Nero (AD 37-68), famous for his luxurious excesses, was the first emperor to be buried in a porphyry sarcophagus, and the above basin, made from an enormous single piece of stone, was found in his Roman palace.

The princes of the Italian Renaissance were not always tyrannical despots, but like their imperial forebears, they were often experts at using decor to express their power and to construct their public persona. Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (1422-1482), commissioned the Florentine da Maiano brothers to create intarsia panels designed to look like cabinets. These were 'filled' with trompe-l'oeil icons representing the ideal Humanistic leader (you can read about this room in more detail here). Federico had achieved his ducal position as a condotierro, or a mercenary soldier, and so he felt some pressure to legitimize his authority. By representing himself as the ideal leader — even in this kind of tongue-in-cheek way — Federico was using his decor to reinforce, even justify, his power.

A few decades later, Agostino Chigi was the richest man in Rome, and Pope Julius II's treasurer. Italian politics at the time were pretty cutthroat, with dynaties like the Borgias, the della Rovere, the Medici and the Strozzi locked in perpetual power struggles. Chigi was allied with the della Roveres (Julius II's family), and his wealth reflected not only his own power, but the dynasty's, as well. Famously, Chigi would throw lavish feasts on pure silver dishes that he would encourage his guests to throw in the Tiber River at the end of the night (secretly, he had his servants ready with nets to catch the dishes before they sank or drifted out of reach!) just to demonstrate his vast riches. One large gallery in his villa (above) was painted by Raphael (who, incidentally, had been raised in the Urbino court of Federico da Montafeltro). Depicting the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Raphael's decorative painting could be read as a justification of Chigi's somewhat libertine lifestyle, a different kind of legitimization and persona-projecting than Federico's. His villa and his conspicuous consumption helped him project the image of wealth and power he wanted to represent.

Of course, Federico and Chigi weren't despots, per se, but it's less about the style of rule than the circumstance of relative power and wealth. Next Thursday, we'll finish our little tour of 'despot style' with some more absolutist rulers, looking at Louis XIV, Napoleon, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Colonel Gaddafi.

Images: Huffington Post,,, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eternally Cool

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