Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.08


Jacob Isager, Pliny on Art and Society. The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art. Odense University Classical Studies, Volume 17. Odense: Odense University Press, 1991. Pp. 263. $59.95. ISBN 87-7492-794-9.


Reviewed by A. A. Donohue, University of Pennsylvania.

The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all. -- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Snap off that flashlight and come out from under those blankets: at last it is acceptable, perhaps even chic, to read Pliny. Yet, that's Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis historia, one of the most misused texts of classical antiquity. The traditional archaeological and art-historical scholarship on Pliny is characterized by a patronizing disdain for the author, expressed in rigorous Quellenforschung and a tough-minded, common-sense ingenuity in fixing his errors and reconciling discrepant information on art and artists. These approaches are misguided insofar as they depend on seeing the text as a patchwork that preserves in the form of awkward digressions some precious snippets from a lost tradition of ancient art-historical writing, a tradition as coherent as our own and not utterly alien in its aims and concepts. This kind of scholarship has survived even to the present day despite quite glaring contradictions between the monumental evidence and the view of classical art that can be extracted from a reading of Pliny's text even at face value, and despite the fact that Pliny vigorously signals that his work is anything but a neutral accumulation of bare facts. No one confronted by the shattered wreckage of the ancient physical world can be blamed for wishing for a transparent window to the past, but Pliny does not provide one. Isager's volume is a recent addition to the growing body of work that engages Pliny in his own context instead of treating the NH as an Encyclopaedia Britannica manquée. It offers much of value for the study of ancient art, literature, society, and intellectual history.

In a useful introduction (pp. 9-17) Isager reviews the history of scholarship on Pliny and places his own contribution within the "scholarly reorientation" that has brought the socio-political matrix of art to the fore. His aim is to show how the NH is "a literary whole" in which the sections on the visual arts present a coherent and comprehensible view of "art in the service of Man". He succeeds completely.

Isager takes his subtitle, The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art, from the influential translation and commentary by Jex-Blake and Sellers of 1896, but whereas the older work deliberately isolated the sections of the NH dealing with art, Isager's intention is the reverse: to restore them to their context, to view them as parts of the whole. He begins with the preface, and rather than dismissing it as irrelevant at best or mere shameless pap of Titus-flattery at worst, he shows that it expresses the basic themes and structures that govern the entire NH, including the sections of Books 33-37 that concern the visual arts. Isager identifies a nexus of related social, political, and moral themes and traces them step by step through the discussions of bronze statuary, painting, marble sculpture, and gems that take their places in the successive books on metals, earthen substances, and stones.

The basic themes are the relationship of Man and Nature; Man as inventor and artist who exploits Nature for good or for evil; the use and abuse of art; and the employment of art by good and bad emperors. Isager demonstrates that Pliny organizes the material in Books 33-37 to develop these themes. Particularly useful are his schematic analyses of "plan and intention" for the various books, which show the sections on art within the total structure of the surrounding text. With this frame in place, the interconnected themes stand out in the extensive quotations as if in boldface: invention and luxury; private and public; Greece and Rome; rise and decline. Subjects that seem irrelevant and discussions that seem incoherent when viewed with the preconception that Pliny intended to present a history of art now make perfect sense in a compelling thematic context. Pliny's praise of Flavian artistic activity and civic philanthropy emerges not as sycophancy, but instead as part of a coherent moral vision of the Roman state reflecting the Augustan reformulation of Republican values. The lists of artists and works are not haphazard miscellanies or incompetent histories, but rather reflect a situation in which conceptual points like "invention" and "first use" are signals in a quasi-historical but in fact morally determined structure in which Man's good use of Nature's bounty can deteriorate into excess and abuse. To my mind, one of the most important results of Isager's analysis is the implicit challenge to the entire notion of "digression" as regards the inclusion of the material on the arts. Pliny states clearly in the preface that his subjects do not permit digressions (p. 12: neque admittunt excessus), and we must take him at his word. Our task is to understand what is encompassed by the program he sets himself: rerum natura, hoc est, vita, narratur. The problem has never been with Pliny, but with ourselves. Isager's book shows that when we listen to Pliny it is not background noise we hear, but an elaborate fugue.

Isager's treatment is nothing if not clear and systematic; perhaps too clear and systematic at times, because the major points are established early in the book, and some sections need not have been discussed so closely. It is difficult to suggest an alternative approach, however, short of cutting the monograph down to an article, but to have done so would have cost us much in the way of interesting analysis and, of course, the sheer richness of Pliny's material. Isager's presentation is most likely to seem overlong to the audience for whom it is not news that in reading Pliny on the arts we are dealing not with a handbook of information but with the interlocking systems of discourse that determine the structure of Greek and Roman thought and expression. These are the readers whom the collapse of Altertumswissenschaft into non-communicating specialties has shielded from contact with studies that are unable to distinguish history from historiography and that try to read as historical information, correct or mistaken, the urgent Roman attempts to fashion the past in light of present concerns. This audience will move quickly through Isager's arguments; but there are many for whom Pliny is known only as truncated infobites stripped of context, and these readers will find the extended paraphrases and quotations a revelation.

The themes emphasized by Isager have not, of course, passed unnoticed in classical scholarship, and there are several places in his discussion where previous work might usefully have been mentioned. For example, there is an extensive bibliography on the theme of decline in first-century literature that is not cited (work by Harry Caplan, Gordon Williams, and Elaine Fantham comes immediately to mind); this theme is also recognized as vitally important for the formulation of concepts of stylistic development in ancient and post-antique art (Vasari, Winckelmann, Mahon, Brendel, and Gombrich). Significant work exists that explores the political component of Pliny's treatment of art: the important article of Pierre Gros, "Vie et mort de l'art hellénistique selon Vitruve et Pline," (REL 56 [1979] 289-313) is cited by Isager (p. 98, n. 324), but, strangely, only in reference to "Corinthian bronzes". The core of Gros's discussion, however, is the theme of moral decline as linked with the Roman conquest of the East ("l'idéologie de la conquête"), and in seven lines and three footnotes Gros states what Isager argues at length: that Pliny is concerned with differentiating private (bad) uses of art from public (good) ones, and that he juxtaposes Nero and Vespasian as bad and good exempla (303: "Les bons empereurs sont pour Pline ceux qui ont rendu à leur vocation première des oeuvres détournées par l'avidité au profit des quelques-uns: Auguste, par exemple, ou son second, Agrippa ...; et Vespasien, bien sûr, dont l'action s'oppose, en ce domaine, à celle de Néron."). The bibliography cited for the study of the Roman assimilation of Greek art (p. 158, n. 559) does not include some of the most enlightened new approaches; I mention only B.S. Ridgway's Roman Copies of Greek Sculpture: The Problem of the Originals (Jerome Lectures 15; Ann Arbor, 1984), which poses so serious a critique of the positivistic tradition of Kopienforschung that many have chosen to ignore it rather than attempt a response.

It is surprising to find traces of less enlightened approaches in Isager's comprehensive re-evaluation of Pliny. For example, in speaking of Pliny's "principles of selection" in his treatment of artists, Isager falls back on the notion of "the established canon" (p. 107); the idea of any such canon, however, cannot be maintained (A.E. Douglas in ANRW I.3 (1973) 107-115). His treatment of the "cessavit deinde ars" puzzle (pp. 97-98, 102) involves a pair of weak suggestions: that in the 121st Olympiad it is bronze statuary, not marble sculpture, that comes to an end; and that Pliny's chronology grinds to a halt at the revival of ars in the 156th Olympiad not because ars has reached the end of its course, but because a specific literary source on ars goes no farther. This accounting is better than the theories that appeal to changes in artistic styles, but it still misses the mark. I think it is clear that Pliny's chronologies of artists reflect deep-seated theories of development within the arts, conceptual structures that not only provide a relative chronology (e.g., the schema of rise and decline), but are furthermore tied to absolute chronology in accordance with political histories. Thus the decline of ars at Olympiad 121 (NH 35.52) is but one element of a universal decline in rhetoric, history, and every other cultural achievement that is asserted by many ancient sources, particularly among the rhetoricians, to have set in after the death of Alexander the Great. The capacity of such historiographic structures to compromise the reliability of information relating to the arts -- in short, to create history -- is considerable. Although in this area I think Isager does not move as far from the traditional approaches to the ancient sources on art as is necessary, and indeed as his material would permit, his contribution to the emerging synthesis is important and should be warmly welcomed.

It is ungrateful to criticize Isager for not writing the book he did not set out to write, especially when one of the strengths of the book he has produced is the way it opens many doors for research and speculation. For example, he retrieves the Wonders of the World from their precarious position at the borders of respectable scholarly interest and shows that they and other such mirabilia occupy a highly significant place in the moral and intellectual universe of antiquity (cf. the approach taken in The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, P.A. Clayton and M.J. Price, eds., London and New York 1988, a fine example of the higher positivism that is praised, accurately, by its cover blurb because it "sets the record straight" and "establish[es] for the first time the archaeology and location of each Wonder"). One of the more intriguing discussions is of the aqueducts and sewers of Rome as the rhetorical high points of the topos of the Marvels of Rome (pp. 198-205). It is a completely convincing analysis, and a suggestive one. The visionary rhetorical evocation of the city as constructed, watered, and drained by the civic ingenuity of Man might help account for the persistence in Western imagery of the great urban sewer systems: Paris, of course; Orson Welles scuttling deep beneath Vienna; the beasts and mutants that crowd the fictional underworld of New York.

In quite a different vein, Isager contributes to the old discussion, fueled by the cosy revelations of Pliny the Younger, of how dear old Uncle Pliny ever managed to compose his NH at all. In demonstrating the consistent structural pattern in the books treating art, Isager emphasizes recurrent thematic tags like luxuria, avaritia, utilitas, origo, inventores, and mirabilia, an analysis that recalls the discussion of A. Locher ("The Structure of Pliny the Elder's Natural History," in R. French and F. Greenaway, eds., Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, his Sources and Influence, London and Sydney, 1986, 20-29) of adnotationes and key-words.

Another highly interesting topic is the perhaps universal human habit of collecting and displaying objects, one of the ways we re-make and re-present the past, present, and even the future world. Isager's discussion of the relationship of Man and Nature is particularly significant for current research on post-antique collections for which Pliny's NH was taken as the organizing principle; for example, Eva Schulz has shown how, from the sixteenth century on, scholars "found in Pliny instructions concerning what was to be collected", drawing on his "detailed description of the three realms of nature" ("Notes on the History of Collecting and of Museums," Journal of the History of Collections 2.2 [1990] 205). Pliny would have understood the young schoolgirl who tells Holden Caulfield that his sister's class may have gone to "the museum", tout court, whereas Holden knows that all Central Park separates "the one where the pictures are [from] the one where the Indians are".

Not the least virtue of Isager's book is the way he preserves, in quotation and paraphrase, both the overall flavor of Pliny's world and its small enchantments (the poisoned dish, for example, that accounted for 130 guests [35.164], prefiguring our own Fiesta Ware). The impression emerges that Pliny's situation was in many ways similar to our own, and this, I think, helps to explain his growing popularity. Do we too not struggle with the corrosive effects of corruption and luxury in a world where "Friends and Family" is the operative motto of government? It does not do, however, to sentimentalize our affinities to the ancients. Isager's discussion makes it clear that current green-think finds no true analogy in Pliny's diatribes on the respect Man owes to Nature. The moral and intellectual basis on which Pliny stands is an absolute anthropocentrism that makes our rainforest-despoilers look like Buddhists. In Pliny's view, Man may exploit Nature within moral limits or to immoral excess, but there is no doubt that the bounty of Nature exists for the benefit of Man. Isager is completely correct to focus on Pliny's attitude toward the physical world as well as toward its representation in the visual arts, for without a grasp of this range of values and as sociations we will simply misunderstand both the art and what the ancient sources say about it.

The book is generally well and carefully produced. Only a few infelicities of expression confirm the evidence of the Danish summary (pp. 244-251) that the work is a translation. The renderings of Pliny are readable rather than literal, but the original Latin is given in the footnotes, and I noticed nothing that would seriously mislead the Latinless. The extensive bibliography is so varied that a list of abbreviations would have been a merciful inclusion. The only real tooth-gnasher is the unaccountable absence from the font of the opening character in pairs of inverted commas; the closing apostrophe character does duty for both, with the curious result that titles of articles beginning with vowels look like some bizarre species of Cockney -- unattractive and, I fear, hopelessly distracting to the frivolous and weak-minded. Perhaps it was the hope of being able to purchase a better typesetting system that caused the publisher to set such an outrageously high price for the book; it is a great pity that the pricetag will place this important work beyond the reach of many individuals and libraries.