Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.63

Anne Rolet (ed.), Protée en trompe-l'œil: génèse et survivances d'un mythe, d'Homère à Bouchardon. Interférences.   Rennes:  Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009.  Pp. 576.  ISBN 9782753509818.  €23.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Natalia Agapiou, National and Capodistrian University of Athens, Greece (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review combines two types of study on Greco-Roman myths currently in use: on the one hand, the monograph with which we are familiar through the series by Armand Colin (Paris) and Einaudi (Torino—under the scientific direction of Maurizio Bettini); on the other hand, the collection of essays, such as the "Ulisse da Omero a Pascal Quignard", edited by Anna Maria Babbi and Francesca Zardini (Fiorini, Verona) or the "Wege zum Mythos", edited by Luba Freedman and Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich (Berlin, Gebr. Mann), that treats more than one myth. A third type, worth recalling here, is the collection of primary sources, such as the "Mythos"-series by Reclam Verlag (Leipzig), which is a very useful educational tool.

Monographs carry the risk of an author not being able to cover with even-handed expertise a long period of time; collections of essays, on the other hand, may inevitably leave behind gaping lacunae. In this well-edited publication, Anne Rolet proposes what we might call an orchestrated monograph on Proteus, since the book under review covers seamlessly (despite its 21 authors and their diverging methodological approaches) the period spanning from Antiquity (the ancient sources of the myth: Homer, Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid) to the end of the 16th century, with a last essay that brings us to the end of the "Ancien régime" in an analysis of Bouchardon's impressive "Proteus" in Versailles). Contrary to what is more or less common usage in the case of collections of essays, this one follows a strict underlying scheme.

The reader is first initiated into the myth through the editor's introduction: "Protée incarne (...) le paradoxe d'un univers inquiétant, labile, changeant, 'protéiforme', qui se place sous le signe de la métamorphose, de la ruse et de l'illusion, mais aussi de la vérité prophétique dont le héros en quête de sagesse doit s'emparer dans la violence et par la contrainte" (p. 9), Presenting her collective project step by step, Rolet explains that "l'intention qui a présidé à cette entreprise était de restituer la complexité et la diversité des enjeux mythologiques, littéraires, esthétiques, politiques et idéologiques qu'implique l'apparition de la figure de Protée à travers les âges" (p. 13) but, she adds "(...) un recueil qui porterait spécifiquement sur Protée à l'époque moderne et contemporaine reste encore à écrire" (p. 13). Indeed, as we already mentioned, after Rolet's own survey of 16th-century emblems inspired by the myth (Andrea Alciato and Achille Bocchi), there is a gap before the next contribution on Bouchardon, where essays on Sir Francis Bacon or Giambattista Vico, for instance, could easily fit in. The editor's introduction is followed by a valuable "Petite bibliographie sélective" which, thankfully, includes Internet sites.

Parts I and II deal with the Greek world. After two essays examining the ancient sources of the myth and its possible religious significance, we are offered a delightful text by Jean Trinquier on Proteus' herd of seals (a rare animal, we are told, in Greco-Roman literature, and even rarer in iconography) and his cave. In his sensual text, that comprises several Greek and Latin literary passages elegantly translated (apparently by the author himself), Trinquier illustrates in a lucid and jargon-free way the transformations of the elements of literature, the "motifs", behind the writings of the various authors and their interplay with the successive historical contexts. He demonstrates how the "capture", the "métamorphoses" of Proteus, on one hand, and the "récit", "le savoir qu'il dispense dans le secret d'une grotte" (p. 80), on the other—the "deux pôles essentiels de la sagesse et de la duplicité, de l'immuable et de l'instable" (p. 9), as Rolet defines them—become dissociated already in Roman times and follow separate ways. He demonstrates how Virgil and Valerius Flaccus situate their action in carefully selected times of the day to serve their agendas; how Proteus' Homeric cave, located on the desolate island of Pharos, "île stérile et inhabitée, un simple rocher" (p. 66), becomes in Virgil "une sorte de scène vide où ne figurent que les éléments nécessaires à la mise en scène" (pp. 92-93), to progressively take the guise, now in the contaminated Peleus-episode of the "Metamorphoses", of the "'operosa antra', ces grottes aménagées qui font l'agrément des villégiatures maritimes à l'époque d'Ovide" (p. 99; cf. p. 102); how the Homeric seals become, with the development of bucolic literature, the aquatic equivalent of "troupeaux domestiques" (p. 85)—called anyway "vituli marini" by Pliny (p. 84)—to be later transformed, by Ovid, into a gracious dolphin, something more civilized, devoid of the seal's "épouvantable puanteur" (p. 80): (p. 94; cf. p. 103). Part II is completed with essays on the myth's appearances in Greek historiographical texts (Herodotus, Diodorus of Sicily and Dionysius of Halicarnassus) and drama (in Euripides' "Helen") and with one of the first appropriations of the myth to serve a political ideology, that of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part III analyses the "iconographie impossible" (p. 167) of Proteus who, being a "personnage trop flou, trop difficile à cerner" (p. 184), and sharing several qualities with other marine divinities, such as Nereus, Glaukos and Triton, put artists to some embarassment as to his representation.

Part IV brings us back to Roman literature and to the "modalités infinies de l'intertextualité" (p. 187). Here, after a brief essay on Virgilian poetics, we are thrown into deep waters to struggle against the Lernaean literary theory of Gilles Tronchet. In his essay, one of the "pièces de résistance" of the volume, Tronchet applies the principles of the "textique", a "discipline nouvelle" founded, he tells us, by Jean Ricardou (p. 243). Unfortunately, this bright and, otherwise, well-written text, is littered with jargon, such as "débrayage diégétique" (p. 209), "récriture isodiégétique ou bien allodiégétique" (p. 229) etc.—Achtung! "Récriture" here is not "réécriture", but (we learn from an Internet announcement by Ricardou) the "amélioration théoriquement avisée des structures de l'écrit". It is obvious that the reader who is interested in the myth, yet is not familiar with the intricacies of French literary theory, is unfairly hindered in his or her comprehension. Still, this contribution is important in its own right; it would fit nicely in a volume exemplifying the theory of "textique”, but here it is somehow out of place; it is more, we might say, the product of a creator than that of a critic. In any case, after examining Ovid's "stratégie[s] poétique[s]" (p. 216), Tronchet concludes that Proteus becomes in the "Metamorphoses" a "voix opportune pour évoquer l'exercice poétique même" (p. 244), something already implied by Nonnos of Panopolis who saw in the figure of Proteus the embodiment of the notion of ποικιλία and, consequently, of the "habileté rhétorique" (p. 314; see the essay by Vincent Giraudet). Part IV closes with an essay on the invisible presence of Proteus in the work of Apuleius.

Part V covers roughly later Antiquity (Philostratus, Fathers of the Church, Servius and Nonnos) and Part VI brings us to the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. Pierre Maréchaux, for instance, supplies a well-documented essay on the treatment reserved Proteus by the Mythographers. Here, next to the expected Boccaccio ("l'enfant de son temps"; p. 352), Bersuire, and the even less well-known Hermannus Torrentinus, we are reminded of the importance of Ravisius Textor's "Epithetorum opus". Maréchaux remarks quite rightly: "face à l'énigme de tel texte de Ronsard ou de Baïf, on a plus vite fait de l'interroger que d'aller consulter un mythographe" (p. 359). In another contribution, Marc Deramaix examines the figure of Proteus in Jacopo Sannazaro's work. Proteus makes, for instance, an unexpected appearance in Sannazaro's nowdays little-read "De partu Virginis" (though available in English in "The I Tatti Renaissance Library" series). Under the influence of the Augustinian Egidio da Viterbo and of Marsilio Ficino, Sannazaro moulds him into a Prophet foretelling the coming of Christ to the river Jordan, (a fact that provoked a reaction from Erasmus in his "Ciceronianus", p. 392), while in "Rime" Proteus sings of the advent in Naples, in 1496, of the king Frederick IV: here, Proteus' metamorphoses are, we are told, none other than the tribulations of History itself (pp. 395-6).

In the last part, part VII, dedicated to the iconography of the early modern period, Anne Rolet analyzes the emblems of Andrea Alciati and of the humanist Achille Bocchi inspired by the myth (the relevant texts are edited and translated in appendix) and familiarizes us with a fascinating episode of heresy in Bologna, in which Erasmus has once more a role to play. Bocchi, possibly under Nicodemist influence, uses the Greek myth in order to dissimulate a religious message destined for Rénée de France, the wife of the duke of Ferrara Ercole II d'Este, who supported the case of the Reformers; the difficulty of capturing Proteus signifies "la difficulté pour appréhender la vérité" (p. 470). Despite her clear analysis, Rolet tends sometimes to fall into the alluring trap of over-interpretation: Proteus'armour, for instance, in figures 3 (p. 443—Lyons 1550) and 5 (p. 444—Najera 1615) may not be "un attribut de la royauté neptunienne, ou de la royauté tout court" (p. 447, cf. p. 455), but simply the legacy of Ovid's Venetian 1497 edition where all pagan gods and heroes wear Roman 'loricae'. As for the epaulettes and the aegis, they are not particularly exceptional if compared to prints of the same period. Incidentally, a reference (e.g. in p. 441) to the Peleus illustrations of the various editions of the "Metamorphoses" might have been appropriate here. Daniel Rabreau concludes the collection with a sensitive short essay on the personality of Louis XV, "le Bien-Aimé", and on the up-to-now misread Proteus in Versailles.

The collection is accompanied by a short presentation of the authors and of the content of their essays in French and English, and with two indices: an "Index nominum" and an "Index locorum".

"Protée en trompe-l'œil" will be welcomed alike by specialists in mythology, Classics, comparative literature, and art history, as it is a carefully planned and edited volume that fills a lacuna in the bibliography on the study of myths. Nevertheless, in a collective work some overlap is unavoidable. Indeed, someone who decides to read the volume cover to cover will come across the various versions of the myth, and even its interpretations, more than once. An agreeable surprise is the fact that, despite the odd typing error, the quotations in Greek are on the whole correct (apart from an unexplained accent serving as an apostrophe). As for the material aspect of the publication, its layout is very neat, and the fonts—the Greek ones included—very readable. The binding also needs praise: the book's spine has endured with dignity the tough treatment that befalls a book-to-be-reviewed. The cover of the book, on the other hand, is somehow disappointing, although its marine, deep green and blue colours and its network of lines seem to convey the "kaleidoscopic" quality (p. 126) of the images of Proteus. Discerning his blurred image underneath them, one cannot but think of Giambattista Vico who exclaimed of Proteus: "just as children try to grasp their own reflections when they look in a mirror, so primitive people thought they saw an ever-changing person in the water when they beheld how it altered their own features and movements".

Last but not least, the price is unexpectedly friendly for a book of this quality and its size.

Table des matières

Avant-propos / Anne Rolet, 7.
Petite bibliographie sélective sur Protée, 17.
Abréviations, p. 24.

Première partie: Construire / déconstruire le mythe

Chapitre I - Protée tel qu'en lui-même: les métamorphoses de la parole poétique ("Odyssée", IV, 351-586) / Laurent Gourmelen, 27.
Chapitre II - Protée insaisissable entre mythe et fiction / Charles Delattre, 49.
Chapitre III - Protée en sa grotte ou le parti pris du phoque / Jean Trinquier 63.

Deuxième partie: La revanche de l'Histoire et l'enrôlement politique du mythe

Chapitre IV - Protée, figure amphibie de l'historiographie grecque / Stavroula Kefallonitis,107.
Chapitre V - The last metamorphosis of Proteus in Euripides' "Helen" / Claudia Zatta, 129.
Chapitre VI - Géographie symbolique des errances de Protée: un mythe et sa relecture politique à l'époque hellénistique / Évelyne Prioux, 139.

Troisième partie: Le langage des images I: variations et apories

Chapitre VII - Protée ou l'iconographie impossible / Noëlle Icard, 167.

Quatrième partie: Les modalités infinies de l'intertextualité

Chapitre VIII - D'Homère à Gallus: Protée, une variation virgilienne sur une figure poétique des "Amores", Silène? / Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, 189.
Chapitre IX - Protée volubile on l'antre des métamorphoses captives (Ovide, "Métamorphoses", XI, 221-265) / Gilles Tronchet, 203.
Chapitre X - Protée on la peur en la métamorphose. L'exemple d'Apulée / François Le Penuizic, 251.

Cinquième partie: Décrypter Protée: herméneutique, symbolisme et usages métapoétiques

Chapitre XI - Protée et Pythagore dans la "Vie d'Apollonios de Tyane" de Philostrate / Frédéric Blay, 263.
Chapitre XII - Protée: lecture et interprétations chez les Pères de l'Église / Therese Fuhrer, 283.
Chapitre XIII - Lectures de Protée dans les commentaires serviens: entre silence et saturation / Muriel Lafond, 293.
Chapitre XIV - L'un et le multiple: Protée ou le style métamorphique chez Nonnos de Panopolis / Vincent Giraudet, 313.

Sixième partie: Survivances et renaissances: la toute-puissance de l'allégorie

Chapitre XV - Protée au Moyen Âge: une survie aléatoire et ambiguë / Jacqueline Leciercq-Marx, 337.
Chapitre XVI - La réception de Protée dans les mythographies et les commentaires d'Ovide entre 1350 et 1550: l'histoire d'une dissociation / Pierre Maréchaux, 347.
Chapitre XVII - Protée à la Renaissance: interprétations allégoriques / Philip Ford, 365.
Chapitre XVIII - "Proteus uaticinans". Poétique et théologie de Protée dans l'œuvre de Sannazar (1457-1530) lecteur de Virgile / Marc Deramaix, 383.
Chapitre XIX - Quand Ronsard fait parler Protée / Benedikte Andersson, 403.

Septième partie: Le langage des images II: Protée au service des idéologies religieuses et politiques

Chapitre XX - Le Protée d'André Alciat et les Protée d'Achille Bocchi (dans le "Symbolum" à Renée de France et les manuscrits): variations emblématiques, entre philologie et théologie / Anne Rolet, 429.
Chapitre XXI - Le "Protée" d'Edme Bouchardon (1735-1739): une iconographie à réévaluer au bassin de Neptune de Versailles? / Daniel Rabreau, 501.
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