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July 31 2012

The world's two great walls get together - Hadrian's and the Chinese

Steel Rigg takes its place among history's roll-call of sites where international agreements have been signed. Stand by for lots more tourists

It is the obvious twinning arrangement, the one made in Heaven, unlike some of the curious pairings which flash past on welcoming signs to towns and villages in the UK.

Huddersfield's snuggle with Kostanay in Kazakhstan is always intriguing, for instance, or the fact that Wakefield has eight twins, three of them in Germany.

But who could cavil at the growing relationship between Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China, especially as the benefits in terms of tourism and publicity are likely to be lopsided in our favour? There are many more of them than there are of us, and the Great Wall attracts visitors nowadays on a mammoth scale.

A few well-sited images of the Roman counterpart, which has glorious stretches on its 73 mile (120 km) meander between the Solway and Wallsend, would do wonders at Great Wall honeypots such as Badaling. That prospect has come a little nearer with a visit to Northumberland and Cumbria by the organisers of a Chinese exhibition of Great Wall photographs which opens at Central Hall, Westminster, on Thursday 2 August.

The show itself suggest the way things are going. Although entitled The Great Wall – Photographs Then and Now, it includes pictures of Housesteads Crags and Castle Nick alongside images from China covering 140 years of exploration and archaeology. Chinese photographer Zhang Baotian picked them from photographs collected by volunteers between 2001 and last year. Like both walls, the organisation of the display has been epic.

Both countries are enthusiastic about the prospect of more co-operation, with Linda Tuttiett, the chief executive of the Hadrian's Wall Trust, taking the exhibition's chief curator Chen Haiyan, chair of the Chinese publishing company Phoenix Publishing and Media Group, on a ramble round the wall before signing a memorandum of understanding at Steel Rigg. She says:

The Great Wall and Hadrian's Wall were both inscribed as world heritage sites in 1987, so this year is the 25th anniversary of the status for both monuments. UNESCO's vision for world heritage sites is to promote understanding, tolerance and co-operation amongst the peoples of the world through respect for their shared heritage. Working together, we hope to raise awareness of both sites among new audiences across the world. In turn, that should help their potential to contribute to local communities through sustainable tourism development.

Chen Haiyan adopted appropriate building metaphor and some interesting linguistic info in reply:

In Chinese, the words 'peace' and 'integration' share the same pronuciation.  Peace is the eternal theme of the Great Wall, and integration is the basis of development. It is our hope that through cooperation we can promote historical and cultural exchange between China and the UK. We are confident that the agreement will build a bridge of communication between the two countries for future collaboration and development.

The exhibition will come north to Hadrian's Wall country in November – venues to be announced - after London spells at Westminster from Thursday until Saturday 4 August, Charing Cross library from 17 August to 17 September and the School of Oriental and African Studies off Russell Square from 18 September to 2 November. Entry is free. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2012

Roman fine dining: Mildenhall Great Dish

In his ongoing tour of Britain's art treasures, Jonathan Jones is dazzled by a sumptuous serving dish from the 4th century AD

July 26 2012

Hot chips: Lullingstone Roman villa mosaics

For the latest instalment in his history of British art, Jonathan Jones takes in the stunning mosaics at this Roman villa in Kent. The house's design has been a major influence on British architecture

July 25 2012

The male Medusa: Gorgon's Head

Jonathan Jones continues his exploration of British art with a sculpted head from ancient Bath that is both a powerful image from Greek and Roman myth and a touchstone of British folklore

July 24 2012

Seeds of subversion: Little Sparta garden

The latest in Jonathan Jones's series on Britain's art heritage visits a provocative Scottish garden made by Ian Hamilton Finlay, clashing mythology and modern history

July 23 2012

Heads did roll: the Statue of Boudicca

Jonathan Jones continues his journey through British art with a stop to pay homage to the magnificent Queen of the Iceni, a true British patriot – who destroyed Roman London

January 04 2012

Porn yesterday: Roman brothel tokens and early erotic art

Bronze discs depicting sex acts, like the one discovered in London, were used to hire prostitutes – and directly led to the birth of pornography during the Renaissance

One of the oldest pieces of British pornographic art has just been discovered beside the river Thames. At first sight, the bronze disc found near Putney Bridge in London looks like an old coin – until you notice that it depicts a sex scene.

This type of bronze token with its erotic imagery was specially made to spend in ancient Roman brothels. The example found near Putney Bridge and given to the Museum of London is evidence that brothels in Roman Londinium were just as busy as they were in ancient Pompeii, where brothels and their lewd wall paintings are among the well-preserved everyday shops of a Roman town.

Yet this is not just a hint of life in Roman Britain. It is also a glimpse of a hidden art history. These Roman tokens, with their detailed depictions of sex acts, had a dramatic influence on the birth of modern pornography. While the Putney token has been hailed as a rare discovery from Roman Britain, such artefacts showing similar scenes were actually well known in Renaissance Italy. Scholars in the 16th century didn't know what they were – maybe something to do with the reputed excesses of the emperor Tiberius? – but they did leap on evidence of ancient Roman erotic art. Anything from antiquity was considered noble in the Renaissance, so these "coins" (as they were misnamed) licensed saucy 16th-century art, including Giulio Romano's famous series of pornographic illustrations I Modi.

It's easy to see how these classical erotic images by Romano, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, emulate the images on tokens like the one from Roman London. In turn I Modi, in its printed form with pornographic poems added, became a bestseller all over Europe and returned to the London of Shakespeare. It set the style for a new erotic art.

As for Roman Britain, those invaders from the shores of the Mediterranean probably needed every reminder of home they could get. I spent an afternoon in the Christmas holidays looking at the ruins of a Roman bath in north Wales. Like the brothel token from Londinium, it shows how the Romans recreated the same way of life everywhere they went: here, Romans could sit in a heated bathhouse in the middle of what to them must have seemed an incredibly cold and bleak Welsh wilderness, and feel the warmth of the Mediterranean for a moment. The site hereabouts has only been partly excavated. Who knows – perhaps the bathers in wild Wales clutched brothel tokens of their own. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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