Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.73

Letizia Abbondanza (ed.), Filostrato maggiore. Immagini. Biblioteca Aragno.   Torino:  Nino Aragno Editore, 2008.  Pp. xx, 332.  ISBN 9788884193933.  €20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Graeme Miles, University of Tasmania (

Philostratus may be in no danger of becoming a household name, but he is attracting growing numbers of readers, and an increasing body of scholarly analysis. The recent volume of essays on the corpus as a whole, edited by Bowie and Elsner,1 in addition to several works on specific texts, is certainly evidence of a revival of interest in this multifaceted and intriguing group of texts.2 Philostratus wrote in an elegant and idiosyncratic Greek on subjects as varied as holy men (Life of Apollonius), the interpretation of paintings (Imagines), hero cult (Heroicus), sophists (Lives of the Sophists) and athletics (Gymnasticus); it is perhaps no surprise that contemporary readers are finding much to interest them in Philostratus’ work, especially as those readers are increasingly likely to be free of the longstanding prejudice against ‘later Greek’. Letizia Abbondanza’s new Italian translation of Philostratus’ Imagines, with extensive introduction and notes, is a timely work. Both those already familiar with the Imagines and those approaching the text for the first time will find much of interest in this book.

This new volume sits alongside the existing German translation and commentary of Beschörner and Kalinka,3 and the edition of the French translation by Auguste Bougot revised and annotated by François Lissarague with a preface by Pierre Hadot.4 A serious reader of the Imagines will still want to refer to these, in addition to this new volume. While Beschörner-Kalinka offer more information on the side of Quellenforschung, Abbondanza’s notes are fuller in relation to parallels between Philostratus’ descriptions and surviving visual art.5 In English there is also Fairbanks’ aging Loeb, though this offers only limited notes, in keeping with the usual restrictions of the Loeb library.

The preface by Maurizio Harari (‘Attualità di Filostrato’), besides introducing some of the main features of Abbondanza’s approach, also makes some remarks regarding why an educated general reader might find something of interest in these old ekphraseis. Abbondanza’s introduction, which is based on the author’s doctoral thesis,6 does a thorough job of covering the nature of Philostratean ekphrasis, in particular his associations for particular colours (pp. 49-65) and his physiognomic approach to determining the ethos of represented characters (pp. 65-74). Abbondanza is sensibly brief in her treatment of what little can be said with any degree of confidence about Philostratus himself, and follows the scholarly consensus on these matters (pp. 3-5), ascribing most of the works in the Corpus Philostrateum to ‘the second Philostratus’, Flavius Philostratus the Athenian. She is equally sensible in not pursuing the question of whether or not the gallery described in the Imagines really existed (p. 15). As she notes (and as does Harari in his preface) it is really not the most important or interesting question to ask of the Imagines. While the notes place the text more fully in the history of art than in the history of viewing, this latter topic is addressed at length in the introduction. The viewer in the Imagines is ‘certamente non ordinario’ but does represent the literary, rhetorical and viewing culture of his time (p. 17).

The introduction and notes offer a great many astute insights into the text. As with any work of this sort, much of the value lies in the details. To mention just a few examples, Abbondanza’s distinction of symbola and gnorismata is a productive one (e.g. p. 84), as too is her recognition of the importance of Aristotle for Philostratus (pp. 23, 42, 72). The observations with which Abbondanza ends her introduction (‘Un’arte perfetta’) are also most interesting. Noting the absence of any imperfections in the images that Philostratus describes and the removal of these images from any historical context, she connects these qualities with a broader contemporary tendency to see art as created with reference to ‘modelli di bellezza assoluta, non confrontabili con la natura’ (p. 91). This is quite plausible, and could be further supported from the discussion of phantasia which Philostratus puts into the mouth of Apollonius of Tyana (Vita Apollonii 6.19).

The appendix to the introduction deals with the adaptation of material from the Imagines by the Austrian artist Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871), mediated via Goethe’s Philostrats Gemälde. The relatively few illustrations in the volume are of these images. These are fairly small and black and white, though this is no doubt advisable to keep down the cost of the volume. The absence of fuller illustrations is really no great shortcoming as more than enough information is given to allow readers to find the relevant visual material for themselves.

In some respects the timing of Abbondanza’s Immagini has been a little unfortunate. The bibliography was closed in February 2006 (p.3), and some significant new works have appeared since. Bowie and Elsner’s Philostratus contains several chapters of importance to the Imagines7 and Costantini, Graziani and Rolet’s Le défi de l’art. Philostrate, Callistrate et l’image sophistique also has much of value.8 Abbondanza’s discussion of Philostratus’ physiognomic approach is very good, but there has also appeared in the meantime Elsner’s article discussing this among other aspects of the Imagines,9 and Swain’s volume on Polemo’s Physiognomica, a work which evidently influenced Philostratus.10 This, however, is not the fault of Abbondanza.

It is, as ever, possible to find a few quibbles. There is a tendency for footnotes to wander onto the next page, which gradually increases throughout the introduction. By the end, note 424 refers to text on p. 92 but appears on p. 94, and the last three and a half footnotes have disappeared entirely. There are a few typos,11 but not terribly serious ones. It is unfortunate that there are no indices. On p. 90 there is a reference to the ‘neoplatonismo’ of the second century, which should rather be to Middle Platonism.

Abbondanza’s Immagini will be of use to readers interested in art of the Roman era and the history of viewing, as well as those interested primarily in the works of Philostratus. As a non-native reader of Italian, I am not equipped to comment on the elegance of the translation, but can recommend the methodical analysis and comment which Abbondanza has brought to bear on this extraordinarily rich text.


1.   Bowie, Ewen and Jaś Elsner (eds.), Philostratus (Cambridge, 2009).
2.   Demoen, Kristoffel and Danny Praet (eds.), Theios Sophistes. Essays on Flavius Philostratus’ Vita Apollonii (Leiden, 2009). Grossardt, Peter, Einführung, Übersetzung und Kommentar zum Heroikos von Flavius Philostrat (Basel, 2006). Schirren, Thomas, Philosophos Bios. Die antike Philosophen-biographie als symbolische Form. Studien zur Vita Apollonii des Philostrat (Heidelberg, 2005). Aitken, Ellen Bradshaw and Maclean, Jennifer K. Berenson, Philostratus’s Heroikos. Religion and Cultural Identity in the Third Century C.E. (Atlanta, 2004). Maclean, Jennifer K. Berenson and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken (eds. and trans.), Flavius Philostratus. Heroikos (Atlanta, 2001).
3.   Kalinka, Ernst and Otto Schönberger (eds. and trans.), Philostratos. Die Bilder. (München, 1968).
4.   Lissarrague, François, Philostrate. La galerie de tableaux (Paris, 1991).
5.   Lissarrague’s volume aimed to present Philostratus with a minimum of commentary: ‘Le texte de Philostrate, nous semble-t-il, peut parler de lui-même’ (p.7).
6.   Abbondanza’s translation and notes originate from her ‘tesi di laurea’ (1992) at the University of Perugia. The introduction is a revised version of her doctoral thesis (1997) at the University of San Marino.
7.   See in particular Verity Platt’s chapter ‘Virtual visions : phantasia and the perception of the divine in the life of Apollonius of Tyana’, Sandrine Dubel’s ‘Colour in the Imagines of Philostratus’, and Zahra Newby on ‘Absorption and erudition in Philostratus' Imagines’.
8.   (Rennes Cedex, 2006).
9.   Elsner, Jaś, ‘Philostratus Visualizes the Tragic: Some Ecphrastic and Pictorial Receptions of Greek Tragedy in the Roman Era’, in Kraus, Goldhill, Foley and Elsner (eds.), Visualizing the tragic : drama, myth, and ritual in Greek art and literature : essays in honour of Froma Zeitlin (Oxford, 2007).
10.   Swain, Simon (ed.), Seeing the face, seeing the soul : Polemon's Physiognomy from classical antiquity to medieval Islam (Oxford, 2007).
11.   Some examples: on p. 8 n. 28 Ἕφρασις instead of Ἕκφρασις. On p. 40 an eta is used instead of an epsilon in λεπτός and λεπτότης and in the text of p.140 Καύἃἃστρῳ appears instead of Καύστρῳ.

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