BMCR 2003.07.25

Gods and Heroes in Art. Edited by Stefano Zuffi. Translated by Thomas Michael Hartmann. Originally published in Italian as Eroi e dei dell’antichità (Milan: Elemond, 2002)

Impelluso, Lucia., Zuffi, Stefano, 1961-, Hartmann, Thomas Michael., Gods and heroes in art. Guide to imagery. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. 383 pages : color illustrations ; 20 cm.. ISBN 0892367024 $24.95 (pb).

Six major divisions in this tome cover mythology from Greek and Roman antiquity in an incredibly comprehensive sweep. I will assert immediately that the author, editors and translator, along with the publisher, are owed a debt of profuse thanks for a carefully-prepared and all-around excellent reference work which, I am certain, will become an indispensable reference guidebook for every mythology or mythography fan, from amateur art historians to curious museum-goers as well as advanced scholars. Its broad embrace will appeal to classicists, medievalists, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical specialists, and anyone interested in the evolution of legendary or mythological pictorial subjects in early modern and later periods.

The first impression upon opening the work is: “Ah, I’ve seen that painting (or sculpture) in XYZ museum…”. But often, sad to report, one doubtless walked by glancingly, without really studying the oeuvre. Now one can refer to Gods and Heroes in Art and hope for a time when a return visit will afford more leisure to examine in detail the gorgeous works of art captured in these high-quality reproductions.

The six major sections are: 1. Myths, Gods, and Heroes (pp. 9-256); 2. The Homeric Poems and The Trojan Cycle (pp. 257-280); 3. The Odyssey (pp. 281-298); 4. Characters and History from Ancient Greece (pp. 299-322); 5. Characters and History from Ancient Rome (pp. 323-375); and 6. Appendices (pp. 376-384), which includes name and artist index, bibliographic, mythographic, and photographic references, and mythological symbols and attributes.

Always alphabetical, Part 1 runs from the story of Actaeon to Vulcan, by way of Jason, Juno and Jupiter. The Trojan Cycle begins appropriately with Achilles and Hector and ends with Paris and the Trojan Horse. The figures of Calypso, Circe, Penelope, Polyphemus, the Sirens and Ulysses himself are treated in Part 3. Alexander the Great and Socrates are among those handled in Part 4, while it is Aeneas, Dido, Scipio, the Sibyls, and Romulus and Remus, et al., who are covered in Part 5.

The robust index nominum begins with Achilles and ends with Zenobia. Bibliographic sources list authors from Aeschylus to Virgil, though only works are mentioned, not editions of same. Under attributes are presented distinctive, iconographic items like “Anvil-Vulcan,” “Dove-Venus,” and “Trident-Neptune.” (Apollo’s Caduceus is glossed numerous times in the text, and etymologized quite fancifully as coming from “cade” — causing “conflict to fall”!)

Layout is simple and intuitive. Most entries run one or two pages, others are longer, with added representations from a wide range of artists, periods, and museums. Each entry carries a thumbnail sketch of the character(s) and also a thumbnail picture. For instance, Cupid takes up ten pages, with nine paintings, ranging from Caravaggio’s “Sleeping Cupid” (1608-1609, in Florence’s Pitti Palace), and his “Victorious Love” (1602-1603, in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie), to Bartolommeo Manfredi’s lesser-known “Chastisement of Love” (1605-1610, in Chicago’s Art Institute). These are all reproduced on high-quality paper and in brilliant colors. Glossing explanations are provided for divine attributes or features in the work that need clarification. Hercules gets a huge seventeen pages, sixteen works of art. Others leave us hungry — Pyramus and Thisbe have only one page, two smallish pictures and a disappointing textual reference to Pyramus’ “dagger” (Ovid uses “sword,” at least twice).

It would be churlish to single out the occasional infelicities in the translation (“Aurora enjoyed quite an amount of success”; Juno “appears crowned with a diadem with a scepter in hand”), or to criticize the minor errors (e.g., is it correct to say Laocoön threw his spear into the Trojan horse’s “stomach” or into its flank?).

Yet, in spite of its weight (two pounds!), this is a reasonably-priced vademecum for any world traveler. A few infelicities should not deter us from keeping it to hand. Deeper understanding and appreciation of artistic inspiration by antique images and values will surely result. Authoritative and handy, one cannot ask for more from such a volume.