I just met Juan Luna. His famous work that is, the Spoliarium. And it is spelled as such, not the often-used “Spolarium.” Many years ago, the nearest I could get into seeing it were on television, history books, art magazines, and the internet. I’ve been based in Manila for three years and haven’t gaped at it in person until last November 17. It’s like—as how a friend’s friend put it—being in Paris and not seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Really embarrassing for any art enthusiast.
The 4.22 meters x 7.675 meters oil painting, housed in the National Museum of the Philippines, was Luna’s piece to the Madrid Art Exposition in 1884 which actually won him a gold medal. To say that it easily topped the said competition is an understatement. It depicts the aftermath of a gruesome spectacle in Rome that is a gladiatorial match. Spoliarium, according to the museum’s official site, refers to “the basement of the Roman Colosseum where the fallen and dying gladiators are dumped and devoid of their worldly possessions.”
The work is vast but the emotional force it contains is bigger, much more enormous than its canvas. Every wrinkle on every face, every wilted limb of each lifeless man constitutes to a story that transcends what it visually features: the frailty of human life, the impact of death, the everyday horror of what could happen next. Juan Luna’s Spoliarium—along with the museum’s other masterpieces by Fernando Amorsolo, Jose Joya, Cesar Legaspi, my favorites Ang Kiukok and Vicente Manansala, and many more— is proof that art remains one of man’s triumphant mementos that become richer, more profound, and more relevant in each passing time.
On the same day and in the same place, around five in the afternoon, I attended the 31st National Book Awards for the nomination of Ian Rosaless Casocot’s Beautiful Accidents in the Cirilo F. Bautista Prize for Short Fiction in English. (See full list here).
And, apparently, without prior knowledge, I could also be in the event for Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry (edited by Khavn De La Cruz and Joel M. Toledo) nomination in the Manila Critics Circle Special Prize for a Book by an Independent Publisher. My longish piece “Stones” is one of the 150 poems featured in this collection.
Held in the venue’s magnificent old session hall, the whole affair felt like a night of overflowing champagne in the gilded age. Though both books lost in their respective categories, we had a sumptuous late dinner at Tao Yuan Restaurant in Malate we all felt like big winners. And in the end, our appetite was the bigger winner.