Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.24

Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, Béatrice Bonhomme, Philippe Marty (ed.), Musées de mots: l'héritage de Philostrate dans la littérature occidentale. Histoire des idées et critique littéraire, 463.   Genève:  Librairie Droz, 2010.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 9782600014434.  $50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Delphine Lauritzen, Institute of Advanced Studies, Bologna University (

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

This book is a collection of ten studies dealing with the reception in western literature of the Eikones by Philostratus the Elder.1 The title—Musées de mots—stands as a reference to the book of James A. W. Heffernan which explores the idea that literature is nothing but a Museum of Words.2 The approach followed is that of Comparative Literature, in a perspective which questions the notion of literary genre. As an attempt to build a bridge between ancient and modern literature, this book definitely fills a gap : it will be welcomed by the specialists, as well as, hopefully, reaching a broader, learned public of amateurs. Particular care has been taken by the editors to shape the volume as a unit and to unify the unavoidably disparate articles collected.

The introduction, by Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, sets up the focus of research: it presupposes that Philostratus is the founder of a new genre whose extraordinary history can be traced up to our own times as it remains perceptible as such, even through variations and transformations. As she links all the volume’s articles together, she convincingly displays the subtle relationships between them. Moreover, the attempt to provide background bibliography is generally successful3 even though this reviewer regrets that some titles are only cited, and are not discussed in the argument.4

The choice of chronological and geographical framework for this volume calls for comment. Such a vast panorama as western literature cannot be covered in its full extent; in consequence, this book contents itself with raising various and suggestive perspectives on the topic. Due to the field of expertise of many of the authors, most of the works investigated are to be found in French literature. In the future, it might be interesting to bring the discussion further into the domain of other cultures.

The collection appears to be well-balanced. The central group of articles is bookended by two initial essays, respectively on the genre of ekphrasis and on the specific way of designating that it involves, and by a concluding essay of philosophical scope. The studies range from the late Renaissance and Classical Age to the most recent literature. The distribution favours especially the twentieth century. Some unavoidable formal imperfections, small and scarce, do not need to be mentioned here.

Finally, a word about the poem which opens the book: independent of any subjective judgement on the quality of the text or of the illustrations, the meta-poetic value of such an original contribution is striking. One may congratulate the author – Béatrice Bonhomme-Villani, who is as well one of the contributors and editors of the volume – for her poetic achievement, which brings a distinctive character to an otherwise academic publication.

1 – Sandrine Dubel tackles the question of genre, putting into perspective the special place which Philostratus’ work holds in the literature of the Imperial period. The Eikones constitute a “genealogical genre” in the sense that subsequent, related works take this first self-standing description of autonomous works of art as an absolute model. The fictional setting of the first gallery is so obvious that it may become unnecessary to reset in the following works. In contrast to the Greek novel, where ekphrasis is only a pretext for talking about art, in the Eikones the discourse on art which develops in words the necessary hermeneutic called forth by the image is the subject of the book itself. The paradox is in the fact that we end up undertaking a real journey (periegematikos) through fictive images.

2 – Philippe Marty’s approach is based on the fundamental role of language (logos) in relation to images (eikônes). He explores how the revelation of the name gives access to an entire “universe of reference”, here Homer in the case of the image of the Scamander. The interpretative process takes place in the variable distance which separates the spectator from the object. The noun, the deictic, and the use of verb tenses enter the same dynamic of re-creation of a ‘hypotypotistic’ world. Two poems, one each by Nerval and Mörike, are read from the same perspective.

3 – Emmanuelle Hénin explores the double figure of the inventor/commentator of iconographic compositions as both cicerone and as exegete in the texts of the first artistic guides : G. Betussi, Ragionamento (1573), G. Vasari, Ragionamenti (1588) and the three descriptions of the Barberini Palace by M. Rosichino (1640), F. Bracciolini, and G. Teti (1642). Through a fictional dialogue of Platonic inspiration, ekphrasis creates a virtual tour of real works of art. The viewing of the appearances of art is intended to lead to an understanding of their meaning, which develops on three levels: literal, historical, and political. The master word here is praise, since the glory of the commendatory is reflected onto the artist/author and reciprocally between them.

4 – Bernard Teyssandier evaluates the influence of the luxurious, fully illustrated and, by some ways, extravagant 1614 edition of the Images on the key question of the Prince’s education. In reaction to a moral interpretation inspired by the Rhetoric of the Jesuits which stresses the didactic aspect of the images—like Les peintures morales of Father Le Moyne – other authors propose a more pedagogical, polysemic approach, which promotes the ideal of an Apollonian king, a successful warrior, yet a protector of the arts. After the 1614 edition, the Histoire de France représentée par tableaux of Father Audin (1647) builds an ideal image of Richelieu while Les triomphes de Louis le Juste by J. Valdor (1649) presents the Dauphin with the idea of dynastic continuity through the example of his father. Finally, Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque (1699) offers a new, different model of the king as a child-shepherd. This paper includes six illustrations.

5 – Michel Briand is sensitive to the subtle relationship between Philostratus and Paul Valéry surrounding the mythological figure of Amphion. In the eponymous melodrama (1931), the ekphrasis entitled ‘Réveil d’Amphion’ quotes Philostratus; so does the prose poem L’Île Xiphos with the recreation of a secret museum conceived as an antique periegesis. The ideal of the architect-poet as the only one able to organize the cosmos is seen in the fusion of Amphion and Orpheus. Dance is a primordial theme in the poetical imaginary of Valéry. Briand also addresses the role of Vigenère and Goethe as intermediaries between Philostratus and Valéry.

6 – Catherine Mayaux proposes a link between the construction of the imaginary gallery by Philostratus and the reflections of Paul Claudel on Dutch painting, specifically as developed in his Introduction à la peinture hollandaise (1935) placed at the beginning of L’Œil écoute (1946). The hermeneutic attitude is shared by both. However, Claudel distances himself from the mimetic purpose of western art in general and Italian painting in particular, adopting non-western bases for his interpretation. Inspired by his knowledge of Chinese and Japanese traditions, he interprets the Dutch masters in relation to the theory of the soul’s role in the cosmos according to the Tao.

7 – Carmen Tercero brings attention to the practice of ekphrasis, reflecting on the role of art in a short story by Marguerite Yourcenar entitled “La Tristesse de Cornelius Berg.” The story is found in the collection Nouvelles Orientales (1938, 1963, 1978). Here as well, the Eikones matter less in terms of direct influence than because of the fundamental debate they caused among artists and commentators throughout the centuries on the essence of painting itself. This debate is crystallised in particular by the oppositions in the mind of the main character, a once well-travelled Dutch painter now in his decline, between portrait and representation of non-human images such as landscape, flowers and fruits, objects and animals.

8 – Béatrice Bonhomme offers a reading of Le Roi Cophetua – a short story of Julien Gracq to be found in La Presqu’île (1970) and adapted by the cinema in Le rendez-vous à Bray of André Delvaux (1971) – as the description of a gallery where fiction produced by both literature and art interact. The character of the narrator confuses himself with the King Kophetua, the eponymous figure of the real painting by Edward Burne-Jones, whose contemplative description provides the key to the story, if not to the world itself.

9 – Sylvie Ballestra-Puech underlines the substitution of the gallery of paintings with the painter’s workshop in L’Atelier contemporain of Francis Ponge (1899-1988), in which Ponge renews the epideictic tradition, praising contemporary artists (such as Giacometti, Fautrier, Braque, Richier, Picasso, Debré etc.), who seek to establish a poetics. He states that it is possible to talk about art as a poet, while hermeneutics reveals the ‘mechanism’ of cosmogony in the very moment when it is being built, as suggested by the metaphors materializing the artist as a technician repairing cars, as a spider weaving its net, or as a frog operating its metamorphosis.

10 – Lise Wajeman casts light on a recent (2009) text of Pierre Michon, Les Onze, based on a gigantic painting by a certain François-Élie Corentin which represents the eleven members of the ‘Comité de salut public’ of the 1793 French Terror. Although the painter is presented as a genius and the painting as the most famous in the world, both are fictitious. The novel explores the principle of representation as an intricate layering of interpretations whose sum constitutes personal and general history and achieves presence and sense through fiction.

Finally, Arnaud Villani concludes the collection by questioning the very notion of ekphrasis, thought of as a link in the chain which connects all artistic creations.

Table of Contents

Sur une fresque peinte dans une maison abandonnée (poème de Béatrice Bonhomme-Villani, illustrations de Serge Popoff), pp. 6-9
Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, Introduction, pp. 11-24
Sandrine Dubel, Le livre et la pinacothèque : position générique des Images, pp. 25-38
Philippe Marty, Montrer-nommer (l’être que c’était) : noms propres, noms communs et déictiques dans l’ekphrasis (Philostrate, Nerval, Mörike), pp. 39-57
Emmanuelle Hénin, Philostrate en cicerone: regard et parole dans les premiers guides artistiques (1573-1642), pp. 59-87
Bernard Teyssandier, Philostrate transfiguré : postérité des Images dans l’idée d’éducation du prince à l’âge classique (1614-1649), pp. 89-112
Michel Briand, Amphion et la danse des pierres : sur un discret dialogue entre Philostrate et Valéry, pp. 113- 136
Catherine Mayaux, Le musée hollandais de Paul Claudel : musées de mots, musée de l’âme, pp. 137-153
Carmen Tercero, Marguerite Yourcenar et la galerie de peinture du Nord, pp. 155-172
Béatrice Bonhomme, Le Roi Cophetua: nouvelle ou galerie de tableaux, pp. 173-183
Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, L’Atelier contemporain de Francis Ponge ou le « regard-de-telle-sorte-qu’on-le- parle », pp. 185-210
Lise Wajeman, Le tableau le plus célèbre du monde. Les Onze de Pierre Michon, pp. 203-219
Arnaud Villani, D’œuvre en œuvre. Philosophie de l’ekphrasis, pp. 221-225
Bibliographie générale, pp. 227-240
Index, pp. 241-248
Table des matières, pp. 249-250


1.   In French, Philostrate, Les Images ou tableaux de platte-peinture, tr. B. de Vigenère (1578), ed. F. Graziani, Paris (Honoré Champion) 1995, 2 vol and La Galerie de Tableaux, tr. A. Bougot, rev. and notes F. Lissarague, Paris (Les Belles Lettres, “La Roue à livres”) 2004; in English, Philostratus the Elder and the Younger, Imagines. Callistratus, Descriptions, tr. A. Fairbanks, London-Cambridge Mass. (Loeb, Heinemann-Harvard UP) 1969; in German, Philostratos, Die Bilder, intro. E. Kalinka, ed. tr. and notes O. Schönberger, München (Heimeran) 1968, reissued Würzburg (Königshausen and Neumann) 1968, 2004.
2.   J. A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: the Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, reed. 2004.
3.   See Le défi de l’art: Philostrate, Callistrate et l’image sophistique, edd. M. Constantini, F. Graziani and S. Rolet, Rennes (La licorne vol. 75) 2006. The global surveys on the topic (such as Die poetische Ekphrasis von Kunstwerken: eine literarische Tradition der Großdichtung in Antike, Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. C. Ratkowitsch, Wien 2006), listed in the general bibliography at the end of the book, could perhaps have as well been referenced in the introduction.
4.   For instance, Webb R., Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice, Burlington (Ashgate) 2009, essential for contextualizing the theoretical background of ancient ekphrasis. This is cited in the introduction (p. 18 n. 30), but only in relation to the practice of ekphrasis in the Greek novel, which seems a little reductive in view of the broader scope of that book. It is also referenced on p. 115 n. 6.

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