Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.62 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.62

Gianfranco Adornato (ed.), Intorno al Papiro di Artemidoro III. I Disegni. Atti del Convegno Internazionale del 4 Febbraio 2011 presso il Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Firenze.   Milano:  LED Edizioni Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, 2016.  Pp. 186.  ISBN 9788879167574.  €34.00.  

Reviewed by Joshua J. Thomas, University of Oxford (

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

This short volume contains the third and final set of papers to emerge from a series of colloquia organised by the editors of the Artemidoros Papyrus (P.Artemid) following their first major publication of the document in 2008.1 While the first and second colloquia tackled questions concerning the passages of text and the map on the recto of the papyrus, 2 the subject of this instalment is “i disegni”, the drawings on its recto and verso. This narrow designation fails to capture the breadth of topics treated in the volume, since only three of its seven chapters (Adornato, Elsner, Pajón Leyra) discuss the drawings themselves in any level of detail. The remaining four chapters instead focus on ancient painting (Moormann), on two previously unpublished illustrated papyri (Whitehouse), and on modes of transmitting images and patterns during antiquity (Schmidt-Colinet, Stauffer). Each chapter is accompanied by its own set of colour and greyscale figures, and there is also a set of greyscale plates at the back of the volume documenting all the drawings of the papyrus.

P. Artemid. has attracted considerable attention since it was first displayed in a highly publicised exhibition in 2006. Much of the discussion has centred on the question of its authenticity, since Professor Luciano Canfora and a series of collaborators have repeatedly argued that the document is, in fact, a modern forgery, produced by the renowned nineteenth century forger Konstantinos Simonides. This authenticity debate has engulfed virtually every aspect of the papyrus, including the drawings of its recto—a series of anatomical sketches of heads, hands and feet— and those of its verso— a collection of forty vignettes depicting animals accompanied by identifying labels in Greek. While a consensus seems to be crystallising that the papyrus is indeed ancient, further problems are posed by the large editio princeps published in 2008, which is inaccurate in several fundamental details.

Gianfranco Adornato’s excellent opening chapter re-visits the issue of the papyrus’ authenticity. He begins by pointing out the distinction between iconography and style, and the necessity of considering both when dating a particular work of art. These comments are directed at those scholars who have argued that P.Artemid. is a forgery based on superficial iconographic correspondences between the recto and verso drawings and medieval and/or early modern illustrations, without also considering style, technique, tools, chemical composition of ink, or type of support. As Adornato demonstrates, an analysis of all of these criteria indicates that the papyrus drawings are very different from their medieval and early modern counterparts, and that their closest analogues can be found among “indubitably ancient works” (p. 17). The second part of the chapter turns to a nineteenth century lithograph depicting St. Matthew, which has sometimes been attributed to Konstantinos Simonides, and whose iconographic correspondences with one of the heads of the recto have been heralded as a “smoking gun” by scholars who insist that the papyrus is a Simonidean creation. The author here questions Simonides’ authorship of the lithograph, before demonstrating that there are in any case major stylistic and technical differences that separate it from the P.Artemid. drawings.

The two chapters that follow, by Jas’ Elsner and Irene Pajón Leyra, are the most stimulating of the volume. After recounting the controversies associated with the papyrus, Elsner examines how shadows and shading were used to achieve a sense of three-dimensionality and volume in the recto and verso drawings, before presenting a series of passages from Philostratus’ Imagines that suggest that the appreciation of such skiagraphia (“shadow-drawing”) formed an important component of art criticism in the ancient world. The author then highlights a fundamental distinction between the recto and verso drawings in terms of how their subjects are contextualised in space, since the anatomical sketches of the recto are represented without background(s), while the animal vignettes of the verso are positioned in space through the depiction of rudimentary landscape settings. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the different modes of drawing found in the papyrus, which are here connected to “the wider context of the practical and imaginary world of artists’ workshops and training” (p. 51).

Pajón Leyra’s contribution concentrates on the animal drawings of the verso, and investigates whether the notion of a “visual paradoxography” offers a useful framework for their interpretation. The chapter opens with an enumeration of the salient characteristics of paradoxography, a literary genre that emerged in the hellenistic period and that was chiefly concerned with presenting de-contextualised information about extraordinary natural phenomena and things. There follows an examination of the ways in which the animal drawings of the verso (and the accompanying labels) intersect with paradoxographical literature, leading to the conclusion that “l’idea di una «paradossografia visiva» risulti una definizione utile per capire la natura dei disegni” (p. 88-89). Particularly compelling here is the discussion of the connections between the verso drawings and Aristotelian natural science, which stems from the observation that much paradoxographical literature re-packaged extracts borrowed from earlier treatises produced in Peripatetic circles.

While these chapters illuminate very different aspects of the drawings, they converge in seeing a comparatively elevated social and cultural milieu for the papyrus. Elsner, for his part, explores the editors’ suggestion that the verso was a “copybook” used for making large-scale works of art like the Nile Mosaic of Praeneste, and sees the likely social context of the papyrus as a “workshop or book-making and illustrating scriptorium in Egypt” (p. 53). Pajón Leyra, meanwhile, contends that the largest vignettes of the verso were organised in a sequence defined by the geographical origins of the creatures that they depicted, and that this geographical order was itself dictated by the original contents of Artemidoros of Ephesos’ (now very fragmentary) Geographoumena, a passage of which was copied on the recto of the papyrus (p. 85-88).3 Some readers may question whether the papyrus necessarily inhabited this kind of high artistic and intellectual plane during antiquity, and whether it might instead have originated in a more modest cultural milieu, of the kind of level suggested by the un-sophisticated encomium of geography also written on the recto.

In the next chapter, Eric Moormann identifies some formal correspondences between the anatomical drawings on the recto of P.Artemid. and our corpus of wall paintings surviving from antiquity, with the aim of demonstrating that paintings may have numbered among the sources that inspired the draughtsmen of the papyrus. The discussion centres on a series of painted comparanda featuring bold contours executed in black and brown, in which “il riempimento di figure fatte con questo tipo di ‘contorno’ è… il medesimo del fondo della composizione” (p. 93). These comparisons range from the recently published painted metopes from Temple A at Cumae, dated to c. 340-320 B.C., to parts of the famous wall decoration of the columbarium at the Villa Doria Pamphilj in Rome, dated to the early first century A.D.

Helen Whitehouse presents two previously unpublished illustrated papyri recovered from the rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The first carries a crisp drawing of a caprid (a kind of goat-antelope) on its recto, while the second has drawings on both sides, with two birds and a unicorn on one side, and a cockerel, a wild boar, a gazelle and a peacock on the other. Here the author investigates the cultural context in which the second papyrus was conceived by comparing its unicorn drawing to other representations of the same creature surviving from antiquity. She demonstrates that the closest analogues are found in “assuredly Christian contexts” (p. 115) and suggests that this papyrus should be dated to the second half of the fifth or the first half of the sixth century A.D. Her conclusion that this late antique papyrus did not function as a pattern-book accords well with the sketchy quality of its drawings.

The final two chapters, by Andreas Schmidt-Colinet and Annemarie Stauffer, address the question of how artistic motifs were transmitted and re-produced during antiquity. Schmidt- Colinet’s brief contribution begins with a statement in favour of the existence of ancient “pattern books”, supported by a series of artefacts excavated in Palmyra (Syria) that exhibit very close iconographic and formal correspondences with objects found elsewhere in the Roman world. The author then attempts to reconstruct the appearance of two such “pattern books”, first by typologising the floral motifs depicted in the modillion frieze of a third century Palmyrene tomb, and then by repeating this process for the motifs depicted on clothing in Palmyrene sculpture. Stauffer’s chapter is a redacted version of her excellent monograph on ancient textile production published in 2008.4 Here the author discusses a series of papyri from Egypt that can be identified as “pattern-sheets” (“Musterblättern”), one-to-one scale models used during the manufacture of late antique and Coptic textiles.

The decision to include this pair of papers at the 2011 colloquium was presumably conditioned by the editors’ belief that the verso of P.Artemid. served as a “pattern book” for producing representations of animals in grander artistic media. This interpretation remains highly contentious in view of the mediocre artistic quality of the majority of the vignettes, the total absence of polychromy, and the varied contents of the papyrus as a whole.

In fact, both this “pattern book” theory and the chapters by Schmidt-Colinet and Stauffer highlight the need for a greater degree of flexibility in discussions concerning modes of artistic production in the ancient world. Two observations are relevant here. Firstly, while many scholars now accept that artists and craftspeople sometimes used intermediaries when designing compositions during antiquity, it is important to recognise that this was not the only way in which artistic designs and motifs were transmitted. We may reasonably question, for instance, whether all the floral motifs depicted in the Palmyrene modillion frieze discussed by Schmidt-Colinet were copied from a “pattern book” of the kind that he reconstructs, since this interpretation leaves little room for factors such as artistic memory, workshop tradition and interactions between itinerant craftsmen. Secondly, it may also be time to re-evaluate our automatic use of terms such as “pattern books”, “Musterbücher” and “cahiers d’artistes” in such contexts, since these formulations imply that when pre-existing designs were consulted by craftsmen they were necessarily carried on papyrus. This was certainly true in the case of textile production, but Stauffer herself seems to acknowledge that this may have owed something to the two-dimensionality (“stets flächig malerische Ausführung”) that often characterised this particular medium (p. 150). In media such as mosaics, relief sculpture and wall paintings craftsmen sometimes may have used different intermediaries that were better suited to carrying detailed designs and motifs.

More could have been done in this volume to engage with important questions concerning the social level and function(s) of the Artemidoros papyrus. Still, the volume contains a series of useful observations concerning both the drawings of the papyrus and some practical aspects of artistic production during antiquity.

Table of Contents

Gianfranco Adornato, ‘P.Artemid. and C. Simonides’ Original Drawings’
Jas’ Elsner, ‘Backgrounds and Shadows in the Artemidorus Papyrus’
Irene Pajón Leyra, ‘Paradossografia visiva sul Papiro di Artemidoro’
Eric M. Moormann, ‘Linee di contorno e disegni nella pittura greco-romana: collegamenti con i disegni del Papiro di Artemidoro’
Helen Whitehouse, ‘Birds, Beasts and a Unicorn at Oxyrhynchus’
Andreas Schmidt-Colinet, ‘The Reconstruction and Distribution of Pattern Books in the Roman Empire: Some Archaeological Evidence from Palmyra’
Annemarie Stauffer, ‘Zum Gebrauch von Musterblättern in der antiken Textilherstellung’
Referenze fotografiche


1.   The editio princeps is: Gallazzi, C., Kramer, B., and Settis, S. 2008: Il papiro di Artemidoro (P. Artemid.), Milan.
2.   See Gallazzi, C., Kramer, B. and Settis, S. (eds.) 2009: Intorno al Papiro di Artemidoro I. Contesto culturale, lingua, stile e tradizione, Milan; Gallazzi, C., Kramer, B. and Settis, S. (eds.) 2012: Intorno al Papiro di Artemidoro II. Geografia e Cartografia, Milan.
3.   For a more developed version of this theory, see Pajón Leyra, I. 2012: ‘Artemidorus Behind Artemidorus: Geographic Aspects in the Zoological Designs of the Artemidorus Papyrus’, Historia 61.3, 336-357.
4.   Stauffer, A. 2008: Antike Musterblätter, Wirkkartons aus dem spätantiken und frühbyzantischen Ägypten, Wiesbaden.

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