BMCR 2005.05.38

Panorama of the Classical World

, , Panorama of the classical world. London: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 368 pages : color illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 0892367695 $50.00.

Weighing in at 4 and one-quarter pounds, in green cloth and inscribed brown endpapers, Spivey and Squire’s panorama (“see it all”) provides a wide-ranging and accessible synthesis of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan societies (700 bce to 335 ce). The 590 illustrations printed in Singapore on shiny paper are of high quality, many of them familiar but many others not so. The “not so” are often found to be objects owned by the organizations behind the publishing unit. Seven of the first twenty numbered objects belong to the Getty Museum (see pp. 362-3 for acknowledgments, though not provenances). Getty Publications, headquartered on Getty Center Drive, a division of the J. Paul Getty Museum, itself related to the Getty Trust, has put us in its debt.

No other scholars’ comparable survey would replicate these topics or this order of the two authors’ ten chapters. The “portable museum” (p.7) assembled here, nevertheless, provides an admirable and worthwhile presentation of “current preoccupations” with the classical past — not “a view of everything” or panorama (a word invented ca. 1789 by Robert Barker), but a “polyorama,” at the least. This is a delightful book, with witty comments and provocative modern comparanda. For example, see #443, The Merseyside Atkinson Museum’s 1886 oil painting by Ernest Normand of Pygmalion and his statue — text by Ovid, body by the Melian Aphrodite, face by this fantasist’s own wife). The photographs are of high quality and often show ten or more objects in a row that I have never, or rarely, seen (see #48-63 or 130-44 or 394-405). Such series often belong to the JPG Museum.

We may be startled to start with a chapter on that present catholic obsession, the body. The subcategories are engagingly provocative: cosmetics, athletics, erotics, diet (they now forgo the “etics” suffix), iatrics (here thankfully called, in a self-proclaimed jargon-free style, medicine). Spivey and Squire remind us (68) that the science of physiology in the time of Hippocrates or Aristotle did not include knowledge of “bacteria, sterilization, antibiotics, or the immune system.” The authors provide text, illustrations, and discussion of faith-healing artifacts at Epidauros and Sources of the Seine. The thousands of ex votos of Sequana constitute in a charming phrase (75) a “poignant depot of afflictions.” They quote the Ploutos of the poet Aristophanes and describe climactic acts of bringing back the dead by the cult figures Asklepios, Jesus of Nazareth, and Apollonius of Tyana.

The next chapter examines the higher powers, gods and heroes (see below). We then advance to the making of myths, the manipulation of nature, the nature of political men, house and house-rules or economy, education, an interlude exploring two important gods (Dionysos and Apollo), the classical traditions in art, and for the finale, a chapter cleverly entitled “the present classical past.”

Either as an afterthought or as an apology for the unconventional, unalphabetical, and unchronological organization of this attractive “panorama,” an appended reference section includes a farrago of fascinating facts. We encounter a rather basic map, a thoughtful timeline, some two hundred thumbnails of important real people, and a similar guide to mythic men, women, and monsters (with some captioned illustrations, such as black-figured Achilles and Ajax playing dice (?) on an Exekias vase). Further, we get a three-page glossary of unavoidably technical terms — e.g., euergetism, lectors, palaestra, patera (Lat.), psykter (Gr.), and xoanon (Gr.) but not Vanth, a short but intelligent bibliography, and an index.

Spivey and Squire, both connected to Cambridge University, know the visual evidence particularly well, so their choices of images here are admirable. The last chapter provides illustrations from Titian, Adam, Zoffany, Piranesi, Wedgewood, Alma-Tadema, and other painters inventing their own classical pasts. The Parthenon is showcased as an icon of tourism and “toney” taste, for instance, Nashville’s reverential replica (accurate to 3 mm.) and a gimmicky box of chocolate candies (## 484-5 on p. 315). A brief subsection examines Greek architecture and art as touchstones of reactionary (including Nazi) and revolutionary ideologies, but it soon must give way to the cinematic travesties of Ben Hur and Gladiator. The chapter naturally includes an image of Picasso’s minotaur fetish and Giacometti’s Evening Shadow, but, post-modernly eclectic, it delightfully discusses Charles Moore’s post, lintel, arch et alia Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (#511) and a kitsch novelty light with a bulb emitting a golden glow from the womb of a plastic replica of the Venus found in 1820 in a cave on Melos (#514 — not for sale, it seems).

Examine chapter II, “High powers: gods and heroes.” This is not the type of learnedly annotated book usually reviewed in these cyberpages, but it is good enough to be taken seriously for what it is, so it deserves a detailed description of at least one or two chapters. The first of five sections (“Pantheons and pagans”) tries to explain some basic weirdnesses of polytheism, in ways designed for an audience presumably unaware of the weirdness of monotheism. The authors illustrate a statuette of Tyche, Athena, an Athena ostrakon, a reconstruction of the Parthenon temple statue, a Palatine graffito, a Roman temple, and a Herculanean painting. Four of these objects (not the Pantheon) are in the JPG Museum. (I’d like to go there! Where did they find and how did they get all this first-class old stuff?) The original Getty museum is pictured (#244) with a caption that tells us that the oil magnate saw affinities between himself and L. Calpurnius Piso, the alleged owner of the house recreated in Malibu. The authors discuss the interpretation of classical gods, moving beyond structuralist ideas and linear borrowings, beyond Ur-religion and alien origins (African and Indic) to pluralistic complexity (a relief for anti-reductionists, although not an explanation). Polytheism was flexible and assimilationist, just as Christianity and other faiths claiming persecution, past and present, show a similar ability to borrow — adopt and adapt (well discussed with reference to a 359 CE sarcophagus, #128).

“Imagining and imaging the divine” discusses the power of images for the ancient believers. Not only gods themselves but their very images intervened in human affairs. Page 83 presents a problem ubiquitous to the genre of book aimed at the well-heeled “general reader.” The page is quartered: continuing text; an image (a nice reconstruction of the colossal statue of Olympian Zeus by Sian Francis); a caption with both a description of the image and a quote from Strabo; and finally — the biggest quarter of the page — a beige sidebar introduces a fine excerpt from Dio Chrysostom rationalizing Hellenic anthropomorphism. Every one of these visual and verbal contributions is commendable, but one struggles amidst exotic diversions to stay on any one track and not get run over by heavy thoughts. The handsome page-layout produces the anxiety of a videogame with notable assailants approaching you from all corners of the screen.

“Heroic intermediaries” treats us to images of four of Alcides’ canonical twelve labors and a gem with one of those labors shown even less frequently than the cleaning of the unimaginably gross Augean stables, I mean “Herakles Urinating” — yes, you guessed it, a small object now housed at the Getty. Perseus receives six interesting images to Herakles’ ten — Greek, Roman, and Etruscan. Then the authors move on to heroization of the common man and uncommon ruler cult. “Cultic performance” provides a less satisfactory sub-section, since artless and mass-produced ex-votos are less compelling than inscribed Etruscan bronzes from the top drawer. “A place for the gods” describes sanctuaries and god-houses. The authors uneasily combine a rapid history of the development of the temple with discussion of the materials and the orders. They do manage to include helpful distinctions among Hellenic, Sicelo-South Italian, Etruscan, and other Italic domiciles for the divine — “foreshadowing later Roman compromises between native Italic and Greek forms” (107).

In sum, this volume is much better than one might expect from bibliopolic assumptions about the genre. Excellent photographs of familiar and unfamiliar objects delight casual perusal. The publishers bound the book well with handsome endpapers (from Trajan’s column base). Spivey and Squires have made trenchant observations based on rethinking established views and they have interesting approaches of their own. Quotations from ancient texts are well chosen. The juxtaposition of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman objects and landscapes stimulates even the jaded palate. The black-figured kylix (owned by the Getty, #399) showing six symposiasts wreathed, some holding cups like the one on which they are painted, and the three three-inch bronze symposiast figurines (partly? owned by the Getty, #405), neither party-event ever before seen by your reviewer, are alone almost worth the price of admission.

This handsome tome belongs to the genre disparagingly described as “coffee table books.” Glossy pictures, big pages, heavy to carry, clever opinions necessarily offered without evidence. All of that is true of the volume under consideration, but the authors have interesting things to say on many pages. I could not recommend it to “the professional scholar,” as the publicist’s blurb does, but it contains a wealth of facts and arresting images. If a scholar has $50, and would like to propitiate a potential amateur donor, or expiate a forgotten anniversary for a relative seriously interested in the ancient world after a hasty sea cruise, here is an answer. Especially if that gifting leads to reciprocated prestation — perhaps an all-expenses paid visit to the Hesperian Getty collection, once housed in a replica of Piso’s cozy Mediterranean villa, now since 1997 inhabiting a big museum in a Richard Meier building. Start with the website. The book here reviewed must be an excellent advertisement for that trip.