BMCR 2003.07.19

Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece

, Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. viii, 352. $60.00.

In the introduction to her book, Gloria Ferrari invokes the spectre of a figure now shunned and ridiculed in intellectual circles — the antiquarian. He is a figure whose passion for collection, description, and systemisation she finds comforting to the project she is about to undertake in tracing the representation of men and maidens in Greek art. In fact, the allusion to the antiquarian is a bit of a red herring. It soon becomes apparent that the real parent of this book is a much more recent figure on the intellectual landscape, the semiotician. Sign and signifier are its real subjects . What Professor Ferrari has presented here is a detailed and serious study of the science of communication as applied to the visual representation of the masculine and the feminine. In doing so, she makes a valuable contribution not only to gender studies, but to art history as well.

The construction of meaning is the main subject for discussion in the first three chapters of the book. Ferrari has been heavily influenced by formalist and structuralist analysis of language. This is a debt that she freely and generously acknowledges. Her discussion is littered with chunks of language theory from I.A. Richards to Derrida, often accompanied by explanatory gloss. Influential in the work is a model that regards images as resembling communication events. In these events not only the content of individual elements is important, but also attention needs to be paid to the frame of reference in which the message is exchanged. One is inevitably forced “onto the social and historical terrain of practices of discourse to contemplate the conditions that make the exchange both possible and meaningful” (p. 6). Such a view is not entirely novel. A number of art-historians have been working with a similar methodology for a number of years. However, Ferrari’s book is perhaps the most explicit and comprehensive utilisation of language theory to art analysis. She offers a refreshing re-ordering of the scholarly agenda away from connoisseurship towards a sociological understanding of art. Such a trend has been developing for a while. Ferrari’s work makes a welcome addition to the growing number of such studies.

In presenting her case for a rigorous and self-conscious examination about how we construct meaning out of vase-imagery, Ferrari challenges us to do a lot of re-thinking about a number of comfortable categories in art-history. The distinction between ‘genre’ and ‘myth’ scenes is one of her first targets.1 It is inevitable given her interest in interpretative frames that the value of this distinction should be put under the spotlight. It is a distinction that she ultimately finds of limited value for analysis of images. Others have noticed before both the strong similarity between the two types of scenes, and the near-impossibility of establishing with certainty that a scene depicts ‘everyday life’ and not some episode from myth or literature. Ferrari is wary of the distinction because the label ‘genre scene’ makes implicit claims about authenticity. It has a troubling tendency to occlude the artificiality of such images. For Ferrari, ‘genre scenes’ are just as mythical as any scene involving sphinxes or satyrs.

The surprising thing about this claim is that it should come as a surprise. Of course, certain segments of the scholarly community have always invested more in the ‘truth value’ of vase-painting than others. Social historians, in particular, have a fondness for ‘genre’ pictures. Oddly, it is a preference that they share with Hitler and Stalin. Yet, while we have had no trouble seeing the elements of fantasy in the troops of flaxen-haired beauties bringing in the harvest or the chiselled-jaw miners working hard for the collective good that dominate totalitarian art, historians have only seen reality in the scenes of weavings, weddings, and water-carrying that adorns Greek vases. The desire to have a window onto ancient Greece blinds us to the way in which such windows may turn out to be trompe l’oeil. One of the important consequences of Ferrari’s book will be to strip vases of their sense of the mundane and reconfigure our notions of the domestic.

Emblematic of the failure to recognise the richness of domestic imagery is the scholarly treatment of the ‘spinning woman’ motif on Greek vases. In a discussion that threads through the first three chapters of the book (and an appendix), Ferrari demonstrates the unrecognised richness of the imagery and its component elements (footed chest, wool basket, spindle, mantle etc.). Anchoring each element within its respective nest of associations, allusions, and connotations, she shows the way in which the images play with the central constituent elements of the feminine — aidos and philergia.

Ferrari’s discussion then leaves the realm of the feminine to turn its attention to the way in which masculinity is mediated, discussed, and created through images of men. Again this is a topic that draws Ferrari into a number of key art-historical controversies; most notably, the questions surrounding the form of the kouros, and the function of heroic nudity. The solution to both these problems lies with andreia. This is a state that is foregrounded through nudity, and reaches its apogee in the kouros. “He is the young citizen at the moment of truth, displaying the beauty that rightfully belongs to free males” (p. 124). Yet, it is a complicated, paradoxically feminine beauty that is represented. Transition and ripeness are bound into the image. Andreia is heavily implicated with notions of the hora. This relationship features most at moments of coming of age and it is within such a context that Ferrari believes that we should place the erection of kouroi.

Naturally, such discussion leads to a discussion of sexuality. Although a little too dismissive of the contribution of Halperin (“Here we face a reductio ad absurdum”), Ferrari is effective in fleshing out the subtle differences that make the adolescent youth such a problematic love object. She rightly points out a number of features that mark him out from his female counter-part. These are features that can get lost in a model that only sees participants as either ‘active penetrators’ or ‘the passive penetrated’. She evokes the figure of Harmodius from the group by Kritios and Nesiotes to illustrate the ambiguous nature of the eromenos who simultaneously embodies andreia and action. Frozen in the moment of striking down the tyrant/viewer, he is captured in the process of becoming a man.

Greek girls, on the other hand, do not change. They are born female, and remain so. In this context, Ferrari examines the rituals of the Arkteia, and the iconography of the krateriskoi associated with the ritual site. This ritual she sees as sitting alongside, without precisely paralleling, the transition rituals for Athenian men. Its function was not to mark the transition from girl to woman. Rather, its importance lay in making a claim about status and about which segment of the population possessed the capacity to produce citizens. The Arkteia functioned as a method by which the community of female astai defined their membership and embraced aidos as their predominant feature.

The work concludes with a discussion of marriage rites. This is another performance that has often been likened to a female transition ritual. Ferrari shies away from such a reading. Taking her lead from the visual representations of weddings, she sees little to indicate such a view. Bodies moves through space, but internal change is unmarked. Ferrari argues instead that the images are keen to stress the artificiality and reversibility of any changes. The woman makes it to another oikos, but only just.

Not all of Ferrari’s arguments and suggestions will meet with universal acclaim. Her synchronistic approach to literary sources will sometimes alarm those attuned to the nuances of genre. It is doubtful that we will ever have the evidence to make initiation the totalising matrix for interpretation that Ferrari’s arguments often imply. Yet, it would be a shame if we were not to respond to the challenges that this work presents. In the area of amplification and extension, the work begs a detailed study of the contribution that vase-shape makes to the semiotic mix of reading Greek vases. Shape is the one co-ordinate obviously missing for the trajectories that Ferrari wishes to trace (a fact she acknowledges in the introduction). Its absence in the book is keenly felt. In the area of modification, we might like to think about whether there is any place for individual agency in Greek art or is Greece really a place of ‘art without artists’? How often does the label of ‘inversion’ mask acts of individual resistance? Will the Pan Painter really vanish in a puff of deconstruction? Or can we reincorporate him as an active cultural agent? Finally, we might start to re-theorise the relationship between the world of image and realia. Is there really no bleeding between the two? Art may not imitate life, but that doesn’t preclude life imitating art. Regular eavesdroppers on conversations at Starbucks do not need to be told that an astonishing number of people seem to be living their lives as if they were characters in a cheap drama. It is hard to maintain a notion of fashion or style without some interaction between the spheres of art and practice. However, these are all issues for the future. For the present, we should be happy to receive this ambitious and accessible work.


1. Her discussion on this distinction is repeated and expanded in her recent article ‘Myth and Genre on Athenian Vases’, Classical Antiquity 22 (2003) 37-54.