Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.27


Mary Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra. History, politics, representation. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. xxii + 164; 33 illustrations. $69.95. ISBN 0-415-04871-0.


Reviewed by A.A. Donohue, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and National Gallery of Art.

Signs of Cleopatra is not addressed primarily to specialists in ancient history or art. It is part of the series Gender, Culture, Difference, the aim of which, as explained by the General Editor Catherine Belsey (ix-x), is to present "a new kind of cultural history," explicitly feminist in its concerns, and committed to "theoretically informed ways of reading." Although the statement of mission mentions particularly "English departments [that] are looking for a way forward," the kind of comprehensive cultural history that is advocated is likely to appeal also to scholars of antiquity, especially those who study the classical tradition. Cleopatra holds interest for both classical scholars and for readers concerned with issues of gender and power. Hamer proposes to show how representations of Cleopatra, in words and pictures alike, reflect the notions of gender and power that prevail in successive cultural contexts from her lifetime through the present, and how the process of representation is related to the construction of social order. She does not attempt a comprehensive survey, but offers instead five chapters that highlight specific times, places, texts, and monuments.

The first chapter focuses on ancient images of Cleopatra in a variety of media and in both the classical and the Egyptian traditions of representation. The emphasis is on the differing forms of the three cultures -- Egyptian, Hellenistic Greek, and Roman -- in which Cleopatra figured. Chapter 2 spans the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries in Europe, using illustrated texts of Petrarch and Boccaccio and a painting by Jan de Bray to explore the image of Cleopatra in the context of profound changes in sexual, marital, and domestic relations in Italy and the Netherlands. Chapter 3 places the image of Cleopatra at the center of a revolution in the understanding of vision -- of the processes of looking and seeing -- by linking Newtonian optical experiments with Giambattista Tiepolo's Cleopatran frescoes in the Palazzo Labia in Venice, painted ca. 1750. Chapter 4 advances to nineteenth-century Paris, where Cleopatra's image becomes the point at which the symbolic aspects of civic space in post-Revolutionary France converge with issues of sexuality and politics. The final chapter comes full circle by positing a conceptual equivalence between Cecil B. de Mille's Cleopatra of 1934 and Ludwig Curtius' study of 1933 identifying a marble head in the Vatican as Cleopatra, the first sculptured portrait so recognized by modern scholarship. The book ends without summary or general conclusions.

As outlined, Hamer's program is plausible. The choice of Cleopatra as subject, the focus on the ways, means, and ends of the process of representation, the inclusion of a wide variety of texts and monuments, the selection of specific examples -- all are good. The persona of Cleopatra is still a living element in the imagery of Western culture and calls for analysis even (or especially) if one's major interest is the ancient layer of its meaning. Hamer makes several good, lively observations. Her comments on the use of the Berlin portrait head as a postage-stamp design (3-4) are acute, as are her remarks (124) on de Mille's belittling presentation of Cleopatra's political duties "as a source of confusion to her in the journey towards self-realization in true love." There are some nice bits, like the cleverly turned allusion to Stevie Smith's poem in Hamer's description of a woman pictured (pl. 2.3; the illustration has been reversed) in a walled, apparently monastic enclosure, who signals from shore, "not waving but drowning," to a male swimmer (43). Hamer's writing, however, is not often so clear; crowds of its and thises wander through the mists of critspeak, grammatical ronin in service to no antecedent.

The promise of Hamer's program is lost in its execution. The work is flawed on two levels: first, the author's range of interests is not matched by control of the material; and second, the argumentation depends far too heavily and uncritically on secondary sources. Both faults reflect problems common in the current generation of cultural history.

Chapter 1 begins with an incorrect citation of Plutarch (1, n. 1): Antony 27.2.3 has mutated into 27.11.3, probably because of a misread Roman numeral. Page 3 refers to "what is known as a melon hair-do -- hair tied back in a sort of bun"; this explanation misunderstands the term, which refers to the arrangement of the hair on the head itself in a manner that recalls the lengthwise divisions of a melon. On page 8, Cleopatra receives from Antony "parts of Coele, Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia"; Coele-Syria is a single geographical designation. The legend on the unillustrated reverse of the coin in plate 1.4 is "Kleopatras basilisses," not "Kleopatras basileis." On page 13, "a new Buchis bull was installed at Armant"; the installation took place at Thebes and was followed three days later by a procession to Armant (see R. Mond and O.H. Myers, The Bucheum, London 1934, I, 12 and II, 12, no. 13: "He reached Thebes, his place of installation ... The Queen ... rowed him in the barque of Amun").

These errors and inaccuracies are not very grave, especially in a book neither written by a specialist nor intended for such an audience (although the melon coiffure is one of the most basic diagnostic features in the body of Hellenistic representations of women, and the place of Buchis' installation is a matter of some interest). One might wonder if they are even significant enough to be mentioned, did not so many more slips of the same kind in this chapter and throughout the book undermine the reader's confidence. More disturbing are mistakes that suggest a fundamental lack of familiarity with the period in question. On page 5, "in 34 BC Antony declared Cleopatra a Hellenistic monarch"; this statement makes no sense. On page 6, in a discussion of the relationship between the Macedonian Ptolemies and their Egyptian subjects, Hamer states, "It is sometimes claimed that, although the written language, Demotic, made use of the Greek alphabet, it was controlled by the priests and shows only very limited borrowings from Greek." The note attached to this bizarre misinformation cites a scholar who in fact said no such thing: his statement concerned the rarity of Greek vocabulary in Ptolemaic Demotic texts. Apparently Hamer has not understood that the Egyptian language was written in more than one kind of Egyptian script, among them the cursive, thoroughly Egyptian Demotic, and she has added Coptic for good measure. In view of such errors, one is reluctant to trust the author for either information or interpretation.

The prevailing level of confusion both emphasizes and undercuts the material of better quality. For example, pages 14-16 present an intricate and subtle analysis of reliefs on the south wall of the temple of Hathor at Dendera. Note 19 credits John Ray for "this interpretation of the strategy of representation and of the choice of Dendera as a site." Any interpretation formulated by Ray is likely to earn its keep and more, but here it sits like an island of understanding in a sea of misapprehension.

The problems do not end when the argument moves out of the ancient world. The same lack of control of primary material and careless use of secondary sources mar the treatment of both texts and monuments throughout the book. For example, in discussing de Bray's painting of Cleopatra's banquet (pl. 2.2), Hamer says, without discussion, that the male figure facing out from the background is "possibly the painter" (35); it is the distinctive figure in profile carrying a halberd, however, that has been identified as a self-portrait (see the catalogue entry on the version in the Royal Collection in Art in Seventeenth Century Holland, The National Gallery, London, 1976, no. 17, p. 29, where the sources for the subject are well summarized).

Sometimes Hamer's lack of control undercuts otherwise promising arguments. For example, she proposes to link Giambattista Tiepolo's frescoes in the Palazzo Labia, which show Cleopatra meeting Antony and the banquet by means of which she won her bet with him, to contemporary debates over the role of experiments and demonstrations in scientific practice, by way of Francesco Algarotti's popularizing Il Newtonianismo per le dame of 1737. Her discussion involves interesting and significant issues of knowledge and proof. It should be noted, however, that the difficulties surrounding Newton's experiments with refracted light are even greater and more fundamental than Hamer suggests (49-50). The experiment illustrated in the French translation of the Opticks of 1722 (which was actually the second edition in French) does not in fact show the so-called experimentum crucis, of which no illustration is known; that experiment, reported in February 1671/2 in Philosophical Transactions, was dropped (as was the term) from Newton's subsequent publications on optics, and the famous engraving shows quite a different experiment. It is also not the case that "Newton's original experiment produced the colours in the form of an ellipse" (Hamer 56). In the famous communication of February 6, 1671/2 (The Correspondence of Isaac Newton I, Cambridge 1959, no. 40, p. 92), Newton reports that the sides of the spectrum he produced were "streight lines," and later, in the Opticks (Book I, Part I, Experiment 3), he insists again, "This Image was Oblong and not Oval, but terminated with two Rectilinear and Parallel Sides, and two Semicircular Ends." Whatever shape it was that Newton observed -- and the questions regarding the form of that projected spectrum are complex (see J.A. Lohne, "Experimentum Crucis," Notes and Records of The Royal Society of London 23.2 [1968] 169-199) -- his published descriptions do not seem to support Hamer's attempt (56) to press the connection with Algarotti's praise of the natural colors that surpass the creations of artists who "unite and shade their Mezzo Tinto's with so much exactness to form the Oval of a Face." The very term experimentum crucis, coined by Robert Hooke, is not without difficulties. "Crucial experiment" is not adequate to convey the far-from-dead Baconian metaphor (Newton Correspondence I, 104, n. 10; Lohne 173-174) that underlies it. In John Harris' Lexicon Technicum of 1704 (London; repr. 1966; vol. I, s.v.), it "is such an Experiment as like a Cross set up where divers ways meet, do direct Travellers in their true Course, guides and directs Men into the true Knowledge of the Nature of the Thing they enquire after." I think it is possible to bolster Hamer's reading of the banquet scene in the Palazzo Labia by recognizing such a crux as the formal core of the composition: Antony and Cleopatra sit as far apart as possible, even drawing back to widen the space between them; Cleopatra is about to dissolve the pearl in vinegar and drink it, and the judge will then indicate one or the other as victor in the wager. The issue is not simply an "intense concentration of specularity" (66); it is the idea of the decision that will go one way or the other, inherent in Pliny's story, that is given new spatial expression.

Hamer's last chapter revolves around notions of the fragmentation of images of women, relying heavily on various treatments of ideas going back to Ferenczi and Freud about the head (of Medusa) as an image of "the female genital" (114 and passim). From this derivative platform she attacks Ludwig Curtius' article of 1933 in which he proposed to identify a head in the Vatican as a portrait of Cleopatra. Page 110: "The account of the Cleopatra head takes up only half of his argument, pp. 182-92. The latter part, pp. 192-243, is devoted to a separate iconographic problem, concerning the representation of a man, M. Vipsanius Agrippa. The journal readership ... would recognize in the name ... the man who had commanded the Roman fleet at Actium ... Curtius frames his iconographic argument within a reminder of Cleopatra's subordination and conquest. It is the first indication of a rhetorical strategy that is highly politicized." What Hamer takes for "the latter part" of a single argument is a separate article, the fifth in Curtius' series of twelve "Ikonographische Beiträge zum Porträt der römischen Republik und der julisch-claudischen Familie" published irregularly in the Mitteilungen of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome between 1932 and 1940. It would have been sufficient to note the juxtaposition without imputing specific motives to Curtius; the publication of such a long series can involve intentionality on the part of editors (and even printers) as well as authors.

On page 111 Hamer takes up the question of Curtius' method. "Curtius articulates his argument in a sequence of separation and substitution. Starting with the statue of a female figure then on view in the Vatican's Sala informa di Croce [by which is meant the Sala in Forma di Croce Greca, or Sala a Croce Greca, of the Museo Pio Clementino], he proceeds to divide the head from the body. They did not belong together, he argues, partly on the grounds that they were made from different kinds of marble .... Curtius makes his argument about Cleopatra on the basis of a head that he has personally divided from the body he found it joined to." The head in question was not pertinent to the body to which it had been attached. Curtius simply separated the head from a body to which it did not belong and tried to determine the kind of body it had originally had. Hamer's accusatory tone is hard to fathom, because at the very beginning of the study, on page 1, she had written with apparent contempt that the head was "stuck to an alien body."

Further (p. 111): Curtius' proposals for identifying the body, or kind of body, to which the head did belong are said to constitute "the second phase of figuring the medusa." By this process "the head is transformed into the sign of the genital ... These forms were all still fragmentary, multiplying the images of the female body in a special kind of dismemberment: that is, where the head and the genital, divided from each other, have been defined as distinct and the genital function has then been used to obliterate the functions of the head." Page 113: "It is as an article about 'the Vatican head' that the piece will enter the literature of the subject." Hamer does not seem to recognize that for archaeologists, working with broken things is not altogether a matter of choice. It would have been valid to point out that ruins, remnants, and fragmentary figures have strongly influenced the Western imagination. To assert, however, that the vicissitudes of survival and our only means of coping with them have a special malign effect on images of women is like a parody of feminist analysis. The same processes affect male figures. One visit to any museum with ancient material would support, perhaps more plausibly, a corresponding argument about male dismemberment.

The balance of Hamer's attack on Curtius rests on her belief that (105) "Curtius' text draws on the racial theories of Nazism and Fascist ideology of womanhood in making his identification of Cleopatra's head in the Vatican Museum." Page 116: "It is clear, for instance, that a Nazi ideology of womanhood underpins the analysis of visual evidence that Curtius is offering." The proof offered for this assertion is that "he writes with admiration of the style of wearing the hair in plaits round the head, as something that 'schöne Frauen' (beautiful women) used 'bei uns' (among us, in our country too) before the fashion for short hair won through.... A fabricated version of the national past was used to ground Nazi propaganda concerning the distinct roles appropriate to men and women. This involved suggesting that women should favour the rustic simplicity implied by braids ... Gertrud Scholz-Klink [sic], chief of the Women's Bureau under Hitler, is shown wearing her hair in braids round her head on the cover of Mutter und Volk, the magazine for Nazi women." Page 117: "But the textual fantasy is produced in its detail by the specific constraints of Fascist and Nazi ideologies."

I quote Hamer at length because physical appearance as shaped by fashion does provide important insight into the ways societies are constructed, and if she is correct here, we would have gained a disturbing glimpse into the way one eminent and influential sixty-year-old German man thought about women. The problem is that Hamer is not correct. The hairstyle sported by Scholtz-Klink (who remained a spry and unreconstructed Nazi into her old age), while not completely clear in the illustration cited by Hamer, does involve plaits of hair circling the crown of the head, but this style is not the treatment discussed and described clearly and precisely by Curtius, which results in a flat, compact, and quite small coil of hair fastened to the back of the head, well below the top, as can easily be verified by looking at the illustrations he cites. The style has been thoroughly studied, and information about it is not difficult to find. (For recent remarks on the history of the melon coiffure, on the form and position of the back coil, and on the revival of the style by Cleopatra VII, see B.S. Ridgway, Hellenistic Sculpture I. The Styles of ca. 331-200 B.C., Madison 1990, 130.)

Even more troubling than Hamer's misrepresentation of the evidence is the simplistic denunciation that shaped it. Aspects of the humanistic scholarship for which Curtius is known, like many features of the cultural and intellectual contexts in which it arose, certainly appear to us outmoded or mistaken. Because we stress the differences in human experience, we are less confident of finding common experiential ground with antiquity; we also reject the pretensions to universal truth of methodologies such as physiognomic analysis. There is much to criticize in the work of Curtius, and much in his tradition that was easy prey for political manipulation, but only reckless and erroneous arguments can equate his thought with the murderous ideologies of Fascism and Nazism. On this point the recollections I have sought from people acquainted with Curtius and with his situation support both the evidence of the work itself and the consensus of contemporary accounts of the man. Ludwig Curtius (1874-1954) became the First Director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome early in 1928. He held this post until 1937, when he was dismissed by Hitler. (For Curtius' open opposition to the Nazis during those years, see, e.g., the account of F.W. Deichmann in Beiträge zur Geschichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 1929 bis 1979, Teil 1, Mainz 1979, 8.)

The scope and depth of Hamer's misapprehensions lead me to doubt that her book could ever have been very good, but it could certainly have been better than it is. At least the basic factual errors could have been corrected, although it is not clear to whom the task could have fallen without raising some quite serious questions about authorship and ethics.

The flaws in Hamer's book focus attention on the problem of scholarly synthesis in an age of extreme specialization. We all rely on the conclusions others have drawn, as we must and as we should, if the idea of the scholastic community has any meaning at all, and if we are not to eliminate all possibility of communication. The rise of "cultural studies" has encouraged the building of welcome bridges over the barriers of specialization, but these structures are too often poorly anchored. The back cover of the paperback edition of Hamer's study glows brightly with quotations praising the wide scope of the book and the author's "extraordinary historical range." Range, however, is not a substitute for grasp. It is even more disturbing that the author of a study of this kind should fail to understand that interpretations arise in specific conditions of discourse; that generalizations, whether about portraiture in Egypt or the Roman attitude to luxury, constitute no more than provisional answers to particular questions in an ongoing inquiry; and that the explanations generated within individual belief systems, whether positivism or psychoanalysis, cannot always be unified. This book shows in the clearest possible way that the new cultural studies cannot succeed without both providing a coherent theoretical foundation and mastering the processes and the products of traditional humanistic scholarship. Only then is progress possible.