Imagine a situation so chock-full of play among signifiers that the signified sought to sue for neglect. In his latest work, Italian philologist and anthropologist Maurizio Bettini tackles such a situation; beginning with what he terms his ‘fundamental story’ — a lover, a beloved, and a portrait — B. analyzes the increasingly complex permutations of this seemingly simple trio. What if, for instance, the beloved, having received the gift of the portrait, falls in love with this imago instead of with the lover? Or, to complicate matters further, what if a lover is stunned by his own imago ? What if an imago (named, say, Galatea) itself learns to fall in love? Another burst of questions: what changes if the imago is a twin, or a dream, or a doll, or just a cloying reflection in a limpid pool? In each instance, in each twist of the tale, there follows inexorably a different, unique constellation of presence and absence, of signification and abnegation. Informed by recent trends in French and Italian anthropology, B.’s breathless study of the visual ricochets over an incredible range, from Ovid to Poe, from Pompeiian frescoes to the oils of Jean Gérôme. Lovingly translated by Laura Gibbs, this continental export derives its greatest value, however, by tackling familiar classical texts from unexpected angles, as B. draws ever wider the narrative limits of his fundamental story: a story that dwells on the power of images to mimic, define, and, perhaps, replace reality.
B. structures his book as a theme-and-variations, with the simplest form of the narrative first propounded and more elaborate variations subsequent. There is hardly space for this reviewer to pay tribute to every one of B.’s variations; I shall simply have to pick those most worthy of note, and hope the interested reader will dip into B.’s book to continue the feast. In his first chapter, B. analyzes a paean by Petrarch to a portrait of his beloved Laura, a portrait which, in fact, surpasses the real Laura in beauty, tenderness, and, in a word, perfection. The wrenching recognition by Petrarch that he is falling in love with an image inspires B. to his first rhapsody on the play of signification:
“… [As] we all know, Laura is not there… but in some sense she is there : the portrait is simultaneously a sign of her absence and of her presence. This is the paradox at the heart of our fundamental story. The portrait is a point of passage, a narrow opening between the light and the dark. Like a fragile veil of paper, the painted image is delicately poised between these two possibilities, and the slightest pressure in one direction or the other can summon life, or death. It consoles us, and is also the source of our greatest anguish.” [p. 5]
For some, this passage may seem rather like prose-poetry, always a peril when dealing with paradox. Even trenchant analysis in this vein can sound like pensive Catullus. But at its best, B.’s style handles well the inevitable contradictions inherent in his fundamental story: that the presence of an image points inevitably, sometimes achingly, to the absence of the referent.
Though the book has imagines for its subject, B. dwells most often on literary sources, and of these, the works of Ovid provide the greatest well of resources. In a particularly stimulating subchapter on love-sickness and narcissism (“Image Mania”), B. explores a twist to his fundamental story: what if someone falls in love with an image lacking a tangible referent? He first surveys some familiar territory: Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion and his adored statue / mistress Galatea, as well as Lucian’s narrative of a sorry young man desperately in love with Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidos. In each case, the imago has replaced even the thought of a real woman; only divine intervention metamorphoses the Pygmalion story from sterile tragedy to apparently sunny romance. B. is never content, however, to examine the well-known treatments in isolation, and therefore segues to a little-known declamation by Libanius, intriguingly entitled “What the Painter Should Do If He Has Fallen in Love with the Girl He Has Painted”. (The solution: you might as well strike a pose for a portrait — it makes for a simply smashing subject.) From here, B. meanders, seemingly, to a speech by the sophist Onomarchus, “The Man Who Fell in Love with a Statue”. This declamation features a conclusion both twisty and twisted: “O living beauty in a body without life, what god gave you form? Persuasion? Grace? Or Love himself, the father of beauty? … [But] you have not granted me so much as a single word. That is why I will hurl at you the curse that more than any other causes beauty to shudder: may you grow old!” From this observation, B. leaps back suddenly to Ovid, concluding with the elegiac thought “one wonders if Pygmalion … ever stopped to think that by obtaining life for his lovely masterpiece, he automatically condemned her to the ravages of time” . This lyrical notion is typical of B.’s style: poignant and effective ring composition, accomplished through a series of deft digressions and turns.
One of the virtues of the study is that B. often tackles subjects one might not expect to be covered under the title of the book (and, in fact, a subtitle for the book would likely have helped bibliophiles everywhere). B.’s fifth chapter, for instance, “The Sign Stained By Reality”, offers a quick survey of the shadow in classical literature. B. begins with magical warnings culled from various authors — for instance, Pliny records solemnly the Persian Magi dictum “The shadow of any person should not become wet with urine”  — and ends with analyses of umbrae and other metonyms for the dead. B. here stresses the indexical nature of shades and ashes, how they are not just substitutes for the deceased, but pointers towards their very (non)existence. Imagines of the deceased in Rome, B. points out, tread the line between being and non-being; they refer to the dead, but are treated as a part of the family, liminal kin caught betwixt and between.
Another unexpected investigation is that of classical dolls. Not unusually for B., the author begins with a seemingly slight story from which he spins his narrative web. In 1889, archaeologists discovered in Rome the sarcophagus of Crepereia Tryphaena, a young girl. While cataloguing the jewelry, myrtle leaves, and mirrors, the archaeologists found also that the skull of the girl was turned towards an object of unusual interest: a small, articulated doll in the shape of a nubile woman. In the hubbub accompanying the discovery, this charming detail was sadly neglected. B., however, pursues the semiotic ramifications with a vengeance: “The doll is a sign that aspires to autoreference; this is an image that tends to escape from the closed and fixed world of the icons in order to journey into the domain of reality” [p. 221]. That is to say, the girl and the doll refer to each other in a complex matrix of meaning: since a Roman girl dedicates her doll to Venus on the night of her wedding, the doll really is the girl, or rather, is emblematic of her state of pre-marriage. The very moment she loses her girlhood, she loses her doll. But a doll differs from other simulacra in its capacity for movement, for changing positions and clothing, for making sound. When a young child plays ‘pretend’ with a doll, the scene inevitably raises the question: who is playing with whom? For B., a doll must finally submit to her mistress — but not before B. raises intriguing issues of ‘playing pretend’ in literature: in Greek New Comedy, in Petronius, and even in E. T. A. Hoffman. After analyzing the relationship between eyes and dolls ( pupa in Latin, korê in Greek), B. returns again to Crepereia, the virgin who must gaze forever on the symbol of her eternal youth — and by the same token her eternally untimely death.
B. covers these topics, and much more: gazing, and the dynamics of seeing; twins and double-images; vision and visions; Plato and eidola; Lucretius and love at first sight. The book is attractively produced, and cleanly set with copious endnotes and six black and white figures included between the two main parts of the book. (In a sense, it is unfortunate that the book includes endnotes rather than footnotes, since it is easy to miss the thought-provoking and far-flung references to Goethe, Wilde, and Pushkin.) All Latin is translated, and all Greek transliterated and translated; these choices indicate that the author deservedly seeks a wide audience for his equally wide-ranging tome. B.’s staggering command of rather less well-known authors (e.g. Columella, Palladius, Iamblichus) ensures that even specialists will be surprised by B.’s research, and the division into eighteen neat chapters will appeal to those who wish to consult the book for analyses of specific authors or topics. In his preface, B. expresses the hope that his work will broaden the field of study (of the anthropology of images) and introduce new topics for consideration; he has admirably succeeded in both aims, and this rich work will repay close study.