Imagining the Empress
It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.
This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.
Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”
Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.
Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.
This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.
The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.
“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.
Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.