Though foundational to the study of art history, Greco-Roman visual culture is often sidelined by the modern, and overshadowed by its own cultural and intellectual reception. Recent scholarship, however, has meticulously unpacked the discipline's formative narratives, while building on archaeological and literary studies in order to locate its objects of analysis more precisely within the dynamic cultural frameworks that produced them, and that were in turn shaped by them. Focusing on a passage from Pliny the Elder's Natural History (arguably the urtext of classical art history), this paper explores the perennial question of how the material stuff of antiquity can be most effectively yoked to the thinking and sensing bodies that inhabited it, arguing that closer attention to ancient engagements with materialism can alert us to models of image-making and viewing that are both conceptually and physically grounded in Greco-Roman practices of production, sense perception, and interpretation.
One day in the 1940s, the classicist Eric Dodds was viewing the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum when a young man admitted to him, “I know it's an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn't move me one bit! It's all so terribly rational!” For Dodds, it was unsurprising to find this attitude among young people “trained on African and Aztec art, and on the work of such men as Modigliani and Henry Moore.” The encounter prompted his disciplinary intervention The Greeks and the Irrational, which opened shadowy byways–such as divine possession, dream-visions, and magic–to a generation seeking a less “rational” antiquity than that illuminated by the cold light of Hellas.1 For all their rampaging centaurs, swirling drapery, and heaving divinities, the Parthenon sculptures themselves would not feature in this rediscovery of Greek primitivism, but remained suspended in the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” that Johann Joachim Winckelmann first identified in the art of antiquity in 1755.2 It would take several decades before the Parthenon, too, found its narrative of irrationality, in Joan Connelly's controversial suggestion that the central scene of its famed frieze depicts not a joyful civic ritual in honor of the goddess Athena, but a dark origin myth of human sacrifice.3
Greek miracle? Tragic drama? Imperial loot? (Inter)national treasure? The Parthenon sculptures continue to provoke anxious, conflicting responses, none more so than in their current role as poster child for the ongoing debate over repatriation and the role of the “world museum.” As aesthetic, political, and ethical touchstones (in all their marble monumentality), they are invested with a status and identity that tell us far more about contemporary concerns over artistic value and cultural ownership than the original significance of the building they adorned. Classicists often point out, in amused frustration, that Pausanias–the travel writer from the second-century ad and our most trusty ancient source on the Athenian Acropolis–fails to mention the Parthenon's frieze at all. How could a monument that has caused such controversy during its Nachleben have occupied such a blind spot in antiquity? It is an enduring source of frustration that material objects, with all their physical immediacy, hold out the tantalizing prospect of direct contact with our predecessors, yet do so in silence. Each new generation might attempt to give these artifacts voice, but determining how they should speak, and what they should say, entails a perpetual process of imaginative projection and creative reinvention. Amidst the cacophony that clamors around the classical, Winckelmann's sirenic voice has led many a viewer astray on the alluring fragments of the antique. Meanwhile, the stones themselves remain stubbornly silent.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to suppress the voice telling us that classical artists developed a powerful set of strategies for representing bodies as if they might speak: the idea of the breathing, talking, living object is an enduring theme of Greco-Roman literature, and is fundamental to the visual rhetoric of Greek naturalism. As the myths of Pygmalion and Narcissus remind us, it is at its most recognizably human that the classical provokes its most irrational responses. The urge to animate Greco-Roman art also infuses those moments when its beholders are most keen to reject its influence; for instance, Constantine's biographer Eusebius, when describing the emperor's rejection of pagan idols in the early fourth century, recounted how the statues of the gods were marched through the streets of Constantinople, like prisoners in a Roman triumph. At Cornell, where I teach classics and history of art, much of the university's extensive assemblage of plaster casts was–like many such collections across Europe and North America–unceremoniously dumped and destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s. Amidst the dismembered bodies now strewn through Cornell's storage warehouse, the cast of a metope from the Olympian Temple of Zeus, depicting Heracles wrestling the Cretan Bull, looms out of the darkness, daubed with the graffito I'M ART (see Figure 1). In such encounters, the constraints of classicism–pushed to the breaking point by the ersatz replication of its best-known incarnations–are violently rejected at the very moment that its invitation to imaginative projection is most enthusiastically embraced. Meanwhile, Heracles labors under the weight of a concept (ART) that one might argue he was never meant to bear.4
Classical art history is thus faced with a dilemma. Sidelined by a discipline that has focused its attentions on the modern, the contemporary, and, increasingly, the non-Western, it still staggers under the weight of its subject's complex reception over time, haunted by that “dread white army of Greek and Roman statuary, risen from the ground in the sixteenth century and then endlessly cloned and imitated.”5 This reception history has shaped the very origins of the discipline in which the classical now struggles to find its footing: in the history of art, antiquity is at once the grande dame and the awkward guest.
In recent years, scholars have handled antiquity's cumbersome role with mounting confidence. On the one hand, they have embraced the challenge of a profound engagement with historiography, exploring the cultural and intellectual climates that shaped the discipline's founding narratives.6 At the same time, they have developed sophisticated approaches to the dynamic and shifting ways in which Greco-Roman art has been–and continues to be–desired and destroyed, restored and manipulated, collected and displayed.7 This means, for example, acknowledging the Parthenon's palimpsestic role not only as Athenian temple, ideological symbol, and Greek national monument, but also as Byzantine church, Ottoman mosque, and Venetian weapons depot.8
On the other hand, this enhanced awareness of the diverse voices that have shaped our reception of the antique makes it more possible to listen to the silence of the objects themselves: to push to one side the anachronisms of Renaissance, Enlightenment, or modernist concepts of the classical, and to estrange ourselves from our old friends as we attempt to relocate them more precisely within the cultures they originally inhabited. In particular, this means letting go of familiar narratives, such as that of a teleological drive, in the sixth and fifth centuries bc, toward naturalism. Recent work on Greek sculpture explores how notions of artistic style are deeply embedded in cultural experiences of bodies, spaces, and modes of practice and discourse. Such scholarship also examines how, alongside the seductions of classical naturalism, there existed a “spectrum of iconicity” (to use Milette Gaifman's phrase), in which schematic, naturalistic, and even aniconic forms were made and experienced side by side, often in complex dialogue with each other.9 Moreover, while the grip of post-Renaissance models of naturalism on the field has relaxed, notions of classicism within antiquity itself have expanded to embrace a broader range of styles, cultures, and modes of representation (such as Roman appropriations and adaptations of Egyptian art). The field is witnessing a burgeoning interest in comparative premodernities, while postmodernism's enthusiasm for the replica series has liberated Roman art from its reputation as a pale imitation of Greek genius, given that the notion of the “copy” is now reformulated as emulation or creative adaptation.10 In the new millennium, this attitude is even being extended to nineteenth-century plaster casts, which are slowly limping out of the warehouse as genuine “antiques” to be rediscovered by a digital generation entranced by analog forms of reproduction and less troubled by the notion of the “original.”
If we are to historicize notions of the Antique, understanding them as inherited and continually shifting receptions of the material past, what about the ancients, who, by means of the written word, still speak to us across the centuries? Classical art history has always struggled to define its relationship to the discipline of classics, the latter traditionally dominated by the textual preoccupations of classical philology. It is telling that one of the most influential paradigms for the study of Roman art in the later twentieth century, which prompted a greater interest in material culture amongst ancient historians, in particular, was Tonio Hölscher's concept of Bildsprache: a “semantic system” or “language of images” that projects a legible order onto the bewildering stylistic eclecticism of Roman visual culture.11 Although the trend toward interdisciplinarity has encouraged sustained attention to the relationship between “art and text” in recent decades, the predominant impulse has been to absorb the visual into discourse, to focus on dematerialized “images” rather than physical “objects,” and further, to prioritize narrative, figural representation over ornament, abstraction, and medium. From Homer's description of Achilles's shield to Pompeian frescoes of the Trojan War, such an interdisciplinary approach has enriched our understanding of literary engagements with the visual, and vice versa. However, this method has attended less to aspects of art-making and viewing that resist translation into the rationalizing and dematerializing language of academic hermeneutics.12
Yet just as philologists, fueled by the “material turn” in the humanities at large, are increasingly interested in the physical aspects of the artifacts that have ensured their discipline's survival, so can scholars of classical art, familiar with antiquity's creative translations of silent objects into speech, be particularly attuned to the literary nature of their enterprise.13 As Jaś Elsner points out, art history writ large is “a verbal discipline of the visual,” driven by “the belief in (or desire for) the potential transfiguration of the visual cast in verbal terms.”14 A schooling in the rhetorically brilliant ecphrastic techniques of, say, Ovid or Philostratus, attunes readers to the subtleties with which ancient authors signal the insufficiency of language's intermedial adventures, while attending to the very qualities that make art objects so compelling or confusing, and to the ways in which art provokes, even desires, language, while eluding its semantic net.15 Rather than simply reinforcing the canon, recognizing the critical sensitivity of such texts, and the sophistication with which ancient art objects engaged their earliest beholders, can teach an awareness of both art history's creative potential and its rhetorical arbitrariness; it encourages a sense of responsibility to the voiceless objects that are in our care.
And a sense of responsibility is arguably one of the defining features of classical studies. It is most overtly expressed in a rigorous historicism foundational to the nineteenth-century development of Altertumswissenschaft (the “science of antiquity”), and typifies the disciplinary terrain in which art history and archaeology converge, and where the scholarly stewardship of the catalog and site report remain critical to current work. In a rejection of aestheticism and antiquarianism–in vigorous resistance to the politicoeconomic forces that encourage the looting of historical sites–today's classical archaeologists tend to prioritize historical and physical context.16 At the same time, the tools with which archaeologists date and interpret their material are often dependent upon techniques of stylistic and iconographic analysis that facilitate the identification of hands, workshops, and places of origin: traditional “arthistorical” practices of connoisseurship.17 Liberated from the constraints of dry formalism, however, and treated as an intrinsic aspect of ancient material culture, objects such as temple metopes, painted vessels, and honorific statues are enmeshed within the dynamic web of social, economic, and political relations that constituted the ancient sanctuaries and cities they once enhanced. Long-term excavation projects at sites such as the Athenian Agora or the city of Aphrodisias in Turkey (whose quarries fed an insatiable demand for marble statuary) have helped to integrate such objects into a thick analysis of the spaces, structures, and activities in which they were made, used, and viewed.18 In this way, the anonymous foot soldiers of antiquity's “dread white army” have been individuated and resocialized, emerging as strategically employed pieces in the cultural rituals and high-stakes status games of communities and their elites. They can, moreover, be reimagined in all their technicolor glory, now better understood through the painstaking analysis of original polychrome surfaces.
One question that lingers, however, is whether the absorption of “art” into rationalizing histories of material culture can fully address either the complex fashioning of such highly prized objects, or their enduring power to enchant the senses, preoccupy the mind, and invite dynamic engagement and response. Experiments in polychromy, for example, though often shockingly gaudy to viewers accustomed to the whiteness of the (neoclassical) antique, raise important questions about the ancient phenomenology of color. They demand that we both reassess Greco-Roman formulations of the relationship between medium and form, surface and depth, ornament and figuration, and address the signifying and differentiating potential of specific pigments.19 Would Dodds's interlocutor have been moved by the Parthenon sculptures if he had seen them finished in paints such as intense Egyptian blue (a form of cuprorivaite recently detected using infrared light), which simultaneously dissolved their marble monumentality and emphasized their mass, projecting them before his eyes in a riot of color?20 Or might they have seemed even more alien, their strong tones and dramatic contrasts designed for viewers with quite different conceptualizations of color and perception, and for whom the Parthenon was still part of a living network of spaces and structures sacred to the gods? The question of how the material stuff of antiquity can be most effectively yoked to the thinking and sensing bodies that inhabited it is an enduringly problematic one, but if we believe that objects mattered, then the kinds of questions posed by contemporary art history–with their focus on historically constituted forms of visuality and, increasingly, materiality–have an important role to play in a rigorously historicizing study of the ancient world.21
Take, for example, an anecdote passed down to us by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic Natural History. It is notable that the sections Pliny devotes to sculpture, painting, and gems–which have been traditionally excerpted as an independent work of art history avant la lettre–are embedded within a work of natural science, and arranged according to raw materials (metals, earth, and stones). Pliny's story of art conforms to a materialist, Stoic model of all-encompassing natura, presenting a narrative of man's acquisition of the skills necessary to work material resources into higher-order objects.22 Here, it is the processes of extracting, manipulating, transforming, and replicating nature that most preoccupy him, in both a celebration of human skill and a repudiation of luxuria: the fetishization of matter for its own sake, as opposed to respect for natura as a holistic, even divine, system. In his account of the meticulously precise Greek painter Protogenes, Pliny relates his multiple attempts to depict a panting dog. Protogenes, frustrated because “the foam appeared to be painted, not to be the natural product of the animal's mouth,” then
fell into a rage with his art because it was perceptible, and threw a sponge against the offending spot in the picture. And the sponge restored the colors he had removed, just as his diligence had desired, and chance produced nature in the picture.23
Here, the supreme act of painterly depiction is generated not by human skill, but by a serendipitous impression, in a manner that satisfies the artist, yet warns against the hubristic assumptions that drive human feats of mimesis (such as those of none other than Dædalus!). Sponges, as Pliny observes earlier in Natural History, are themselves living beings that engage dynamically with their environment and “possess intellect,” occupying an interstitial category between plant and animal.24 Centuries before Yves Klein's reliefs-éponges, the sponge's “raw living matter” proves to be the purest vehicle for paint as a medium, offering an alternative model of (literal) absorption to the bewitching powers of naturalistic illusionism.25 The most precise imitator of the natural world, it turns out, is natura herself. By materializing a substance that had eluded the painter's attempts at depiction, the sponge's imprint is both a representation of the dog's drool (by virtue of its formal parallels with foam) and an instantiation of it (through its transmission of liquid), while the artist must himself experience dog-like rage (ira) in order to depict the dog correctly. The anecdote offers, in effect, an alternative ontology of the image to that of mimesis, a form of “truth” (verum) rather than “truthlikeness” (verisimile), bypassing Platonic concerns about the deceptive illusionism of representation in order to celebrate the replicative potential of matter itself. Here, painting is not presented as an inferior imitation of reality, but as contiguous with it; the artist plays the role not of transformative genius, but of nature's unwitting agent. That such a complex aesthetic concept is spun out in relation to a panting dog is typical of the paradoxographical Hellenistic literature that likely formed Pliny's source, in which the most striking, entertaining, and confusing aspects of image-making and viewing–or the most “irrational” aspects of ancient art–are often the most effective conveyors of its ontological and phenomenological complexities.26
What are art historians to do with such a text? Like most such anecdotes, its authenticity is impossible to verify: no works by Protogenes, nor any other Greek old masters, survive, painted as they were on wooden panels vulnerable to fire and decay. Nor, to my knowledge, do ancient frescoes or vase paintings make use of sponge impressions, although the conceit can be found in other literary sources. Nevertheless, Pliny's account raises important questions about ancient attitudes toward the artist's relationship with his materials, and models of perception and representation that were common at the time. Rather than offering us a Pygmalionesque fantasy in which image dissolves into prototype, Pliny gives us the object at its most tangibly present and its most enigmatic: Protogenes's painting is at once embedded in the material world of which it is part and stands on its own as a wondrous object that reveals nature's internal structural consistencies.
A similar fascination with the slippage between medium and representation, and between natural marvel and marvelously contrived illusion, is suggested by a painted shrine from a house in Pompeii, contemporary with Pliny himself (see Figure 2). Here, red and white pigments are used to imitate variegated marble, creating a grand trompe l'oeil structure for the household's gods. Traced within the marble veins is a human face, hinting at the painter's art (and artifice) while suggesting that marble contains an art of its own, that natura is herself a painter. Viewing with Pliny in mind, we might note that the pigments employed for painting are themselves derived from stones, metals, and organic substances, including finely ground marble. The implication of such illusionism is that artistic representation is just one of a continuous series of processes by which one substance might be transformed into another, shaped by the constraints and affordances of matter.
This sense of both material continuity and dramatic metamorphosis is also conveyed by the sponge's act of impression. This models a form of image-production that was vital to ancient practices of art-making, including the processes of stamping, molding, and casting employed in the sealing of signatures, the minting of coins, the mass production of terracotta figurines, and the lost-wax technique of bronzecasting. As forms of “mechanical reproduction,” such methods were key to the creation, use, and circulation of objects that were worn on bodies (as engraved sealrings), displayed in homes, and beheld in public spaces. As techniques of replication, these methods exist in a continuum with the replicative processes that are so critical to Roman art, and invite us to view rather differently the practice of “copying” the Greek old masters, denigrated for so long by the inheritors of classicism. In Pliny's Protogenes anecdote, the ability to transfer an image from one medium to another does not imply an ethical, aesthetic, or ontological compromise, but quite the opposite: it is the bearer of “truth.” This is in keeping with the Stoic underpinnings of Pliny's project, a materialist model of sense perception, in which knowledge is acquired through impressions (phantasiai) made upon the soul. The Stoics, following Aristotle, used the image of a seal-ring's impression in wax as a key metaphor in their philosophy of mind.27 Like the sponge, the seal-ring is the bearer of truth, the transfer of its matrix from one medium to another guaranteeing the endorsement of its owner in an unbroken sequence of matter.
By combining the imitation of nature with its direct impression, Protogenes's painting juxtaposes two critical models of image-making. While inviting the reader/viewer to consider how familiar objects might combine figural representation with its mechanical replication, the painting materializes conflicting philosophical models of knowledge-acquisition: the dualism of the Platonic school, with its deep suspicion of mimesis, versus Stoicism's validation of the senses. Pliny's anecdote is a reminder that while we may work to master or transcend matter, we are also agents and components of it, with all the responsibility (and humility) that should entail. As the “material turn” continues to dominate work in the humanities, it is worth considering not only the materialist models of ethics and epistemology that antiquity has bequeathed us–which can be surprisingly familiar as well as refreshingly strange–but also the thoughtful and sophisticated ways in which these were explored in ancient literary and material culture.28 Classical art history, with its close relationship to both philology and archaeology, and its long tradition of analyzing how artifacts were designed and manufactured, viewed and handled, desired and discussed, can demonstrate that although they lack voice, such objects nevertheless work to materialize thought: as “vibrant” components of antiquity, they still have the capacity to move and surprise, while inviting their viewers to think beyond the limits of the self.29
Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951).
“Edle Einfalt und stille Größe,” first stated in Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauerkunst (Dresden and Leipzig: G. C. Walther, 1756).
Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
Jeremy Tanner, The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Verity Platt and Michael Squire, eds., The Art of Art History in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Special Issue of Arethusa) 43 (2) (2010).
Christopher Wood, “Envoi: Reception and the Classics,” in Reception and the Classics: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Classical Tradition, ed. W. Brockliss, Pramit Chaudhuri, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, and Katherine Wasdin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 171.
Katherine Harloe, Winckelmann and the Invention of Antiquity: History and Aesthetics in the Age of Altertumswissenschaft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Klause-Werner Haupt, Johann Winckelmann: Begründer der klassischen Archäologie und modernen Kunstwissenschaften (Wiesbaden: Weimarer Verlagsgesellschaft, 2014). See also a monumental new three-volume edition, with commentary, of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, ed. Adolf H. Borbein, Thomas W. Gaethgens, Johannes Irmscher, and Max Kunze (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2002–2007).
See, most recently, Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012).
Anthony Kaldellis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
See Tanner, The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece; Richard Neer, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Milette Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Jennifer Trimble, Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Jaś Elsner, “Classicism in Roman Art,” in Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome, ed. James I. Porter (Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 270–296. For an exercise in comparativism, see the essays on Chinese and Roman sarcophagi in RES: The Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 61/62 (2012), guest edited by Wu Hung and Jaś Elsner.
Tonio Hölscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art: Art as a Semantic System in the Roman World, trans. Anthony Snodgrass and Annemarie Künzl-Snodgrass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
For an alternative view, see Michael Squire, The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Shane Butler, The Matter of the Page: Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011); and Laura Jansen, ed., The Roman Paratext: Frame, Texts, Readers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
See Jaś Elsner, “Art History as Ekphrasis,” Art History 33 (1) (2010): 24.
See the seminal new five-volume revision and commentary of Johannes Overbeck's 1868 classic, Der Neue Overbeck: Die Antiken Schriftquellen zu den Bildenden Künsten der Griechen, ed. Sascha Kansteiner, Klaus Hallof, Lauri Lehmann, Bernd Seidensticker, and Klaus Stemmer (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).
See Elizabeth Marlowe, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Richard Neer, “Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style,” Critical Inquiry 32 (1) (2005): 1–26.
R. R. R. Smith, with Sheila Dillon, Christopher H. Hallett, Julia Lenaghan, and Julie Van Voorhis, Roman Portrait Statuary from Aphrodisias: Aphrodisias II (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 2006); and Kathleen Lynch, The Symposium in Context: Pottery From a Late Archaic House Near the Athenian Agora (Princeton, N.J.: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011).
See Jennifer Stager, The Embodiment of Color in Ancient Mediterranean Art (Ph.D. diss.: University of California, Berkeley, 2012).
Vinzenz Brinkmann and Andreas Scholl, eds., Bunte Götter, Die Farbigkeit Antiker Skulptur (Munich: Hirmer, 2010).
As explored in the new series The Senses in Antiquity, ed. Mark Bradley and Shane Butler (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).
Tanner, The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece, 236–246.
Pliny the Elder Natural History 35.103.
Pliny the Elder Natural History 9.148, 32.47.
Yves Klein, quoted in Nan Rosenthal, “Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein,” in Yves Klein 1928–1962: A Retrospective (Houston: Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1982), 111.
A term defined as “an ancient literary genre devoted to descriptions of mirabilia, marvelous or miraculous objects.” From Oxford Reference, “Paradoxography,” http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100305169 (accessed December 21, 2015).
Verity Platt, “Making an Impression: Replication and the Ontology of the Graeco-Roman Seal Stone,” Art History 29 (2) (2006): 233–257.
James I. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetics in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Ruth Bielfeldt, ed., Ding und Mensch in der Antike. Gegenwart und Vergegenwärtigung (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014).
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).