BMCR 2007.02.11

Le défi de l’art. Philostrate, Callistrate et l’image sophistique. La Licorne 75

, , , , Le défi de l'art, Philostrate, Callistrate et l'image sophistique. Licorne (Revue), 2006. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006. 1 vol. (286 p.) : couv. ill. en coul. ; 21 cm. ISBN 2753502579 €15.00.

This volume is dedicated to the Εἰκόνες of the two Philostrati and to the Ἐκφράσεις of Callistratus, that is to say to three Greek works that bear important witness to the genre of art criticism in Antiquity and which concern both literary history and the history of art. The first series of Εἰκόνες is the work of Philostratus the Elder (2nd-3rd century AD) and comprises sixty-five descriptions of paintings with mythological subjects, which the author assures us he has seen in a gallery in Naples. Another Philostratus, who claims to be the grandson of the former, and who is traditionally referred to as Philostratus the Younger, wrote a second, shorter series of Εἰκόνες, which describes seventeen paintings. Finally, a certain Callistratus, who probably dates from the 4th century AD, is the author of the Ἐκφράσεις, which group together fourteen descriptions of statues in marble and bronze.1

Ecphrasis is a subject that is often the focus of contemporary research. Perhaps its importance stems from the fact that we live in a civilization dominated by images, and we feel the need to control the visual imagery that surrounds us, to govern it and to make sense of it through language. The attention given to literary theory, rhetoric and sophistry today also helps to explain the success of this subject. The present book is situated in this field of research. The “La Licorne” series in which it is published specializes in the study of ancient and modern literature, a specialization to which this volume corresponds. This volume has two points of focus: (1) the literary form of description and the complex relationships between word and image, between the oral and the visual (hence the title Le défi de l’art, which signifies, among other things, that the art of the painter and of the sculptor challenges the sophist, who tries to describe works of art with words); (2) the Nachleben of ancient texts, because Philostratus and Callistratus were well-known to posterity, particularly during the Renaissance.

The majority of the contributions in this volume are devoted to literary problems (in the largest sense of the word).

Nina V. Braginskaya and Dimitri N. Leonov (“La composition des Images de Philostrate l’Ancien”, pp. 9-29) suggest that in the work of Philostratus the Elder, a structure can be found that is based on both the length and the subject of the different essays which make up the collection. According to the authors, this concealed structure corresponds to a neo-Pythagorean project. Without a priori excluding the possibility of such a construct, for which parallels do exist in poetry at least, it is nonetheless dubious, particularly because the proposed scheme is less easily applied to the second book of Philostratus’s work than to the first. For the demonstration to be more convincing, it is necessary to give more precision to the bibliological elements by referring to the material reality of ancient books, and to consolidate the thematic resemblances noted between the different parts of the works, which sometimes seem questionable. (The names of the authors of this article seem to be misspelled in the table of contents, p. 287.)

Marie-Henriette Quet’s study (“Voir, entendre, se ressouvenir. I. Cadre, circonstances et objectif de l’apprentissage d’un plaisir culturel ‘hellène’ d’après le témoignage du prologue des Images de Philostrate”, pp. 31-61), is the first part of a study of which the remainder will be published at a later date. The author brings out the specificity of the εἰκῶν‘s literary form, as Philostratus uses it, with reference to other literary forms designated by the same Greek word, and insists on the notion of “Hellenism” and of the work (?) destined for the “Hellenes”.

Michel Costantini (“Marmoréen mais encore… Introduction à Callistrate”, pp. 93-111) delivers with humour the reflexions of a semiotician and a literary theorist on the genre of description applied to works of art and particularly to sculpture, with numerous examples from ancient, modern and contemporary periods.

Ruth Webb’s contribution (“The Imagines as a fictional text. Ekphrasis, apatê and illusion”, pp. 113-136) considers Philostratus the Elder and gives well-founded arguments to prove that the author of the first series of Εἰκόνες is identical to the author of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana and of the Lives of the Sophists. Although he claims that he is happy merely to describe, this author creates a sort of fiction by introducing a narrator who is a persona, and a young man (whom the narrator addresses ) who symbolizes the audience.

For Françoise Graziani (” ‘La vérité en image’. La méthode sophistique”, pp. 137-151), the works of Philostratus and Callistratus are profoundly “sophistic” in the sense that they display a knowledge (of nature and of art) in a complex and studied form.

Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani (“Une leçon d’amour en soixante-cinq tableaux ou l’énigme du sexe dans les images”, pp. 153-169) interprets the Εἰκόνες of Philostratus the Elder as an erotic enigma in which the narrator unveils the mysteries of homosexuality to the young listener so as to provide him with a sort of initiation. As this reading relies on similarities with texts from the Renaissance, it should be desirable to highlight the differences between the diverse ways in which homosexuality has been considered over the ages. Philostratus was probably more at ease with this subject than some of those who would read his work later.

Focusing on the characters who are dead or asleep in Philostratus the Elder’s first book, Clélia Nau (“Sommeil et mort, délire et rêve dans une galerie de tableaux”, pp. 171-196) underlines that the depiction of sleep created a problem for the artist and draws a justified comparison with funerary iconography.

Filippo Fimiani (“Des eaux mentales. Vision et cécité chez Philostrate”, pp. 197-211) is interested by the theme of the gaze directed towards the painting. To illustrate this theme and to give it as much depth as possible, the author links it to philosophical theories, namely those of Plato and Aristotle.

The studies listed above do not always manage to avoid the pitfall of over-interpretation, and some readers will undoubtedly be irritated by certain pointless complications or unnecessary references to fashionable thinkers. However, the intriguing gamble shared by these authors is that they study the texts of Philostratus and Callistratus for themselves and recognize their status as literary works in their own right, instead of all too naively scanning them for raw data and factual information. This approach is most welcome.

The remaining contributions concentrate on art history, codicology and the Nachleben respectively.

Agnès Rouveret (“Les paysages de Philostrate”, pp. 63-76) tackles the pictorial techniques displayed in the paintings described, particularly the landscapes, according to the indications given by Philostratus, and with which we can imagine what ancient paintings were really like. This original and interesting piece of research brings into account rhetoric and philosophy and leads to the notion of the “imaginary landscape”. Along the way, the author summarizes and gives useful nuance to the debate between those who consider Philostratus’s descriptions to be of a fictive nature and those who believe them to be true.

Simone Follet and Brigitte Mondrain (“La tradition manuscrite des Descriptions de Callistrate”, pp. 77-91) present the results of firsthand research into the manuscripts of Callistratus and provide descriptions of the main witnesses and reflections on their classification. They conclude that the text was transmitted in good condition, and that it was widely disseminated during the Renaissance. Future editors will be happy to take this study into account.

On the subject of the Nachleben, Stéphane Rolet (“Pierio Valeriano lecteur de Philostrate. L’image écartelée”, pp. 213-260) analyses the reminiscences of the Εἰκόνες of Philostratus in the work of Pierio Valeriano (1477-1558), author of the Hieroglyphica. Many passages are used, tacitly or otherwise, and bear witness to the great influence of the Greek author on the Italian humanist. However, it must be admitted that the treatment Valeriano seems to apply to a passage relating to Amphion (I, 10) remains perplexing

The volume concludes with a text by Blaise de Vigenère (“La Description de Callistrate. Traduction présentée par Françoise Graziani”, pp. 261-279), which consists of a reprint of the translation of Callistratus’s Descriptions published by a French scholar in 1597 and unedited since 1637. This “inventive” translation was representative of a whole way of thinking (?) about the text. No one is more qualified to present it than F. Graziani, who has already edited and written notes on the translation of Philostratus’s Εἰκόνες attributed to the very same Blaise de Vigenère.2

To finish with a question of form, one wishes that this volume had more unity. The foreword by the three editors is extremely brief (pp. 7-8), and the different contributions are put together without revealing any overarching structure. The product of a colloquium (held in 2002 in Saint Denis, near Paris), the book still bears the marks of its origin. Repetitions appear from one text to the next, sometimes accompanied by divergences or contradictions, for example, regarding Philostratus the Elder’s prologue, pp. 35 ss., 118, 137, 171, 198 ss; the famous phrase “He who dislikes painting, insults the truth”, pp. 35, 137, 153; the Neapolitan setting, pp. 39, 117; tuna fishing, pp. 72, 202 ss.; links with the novel, pp. 32-33, 113-114, 124; or eroticism, pp. 127-128, 153 ss. The reader feels somewhat abandoned when faced with such disparate approaches. A bibliography should also have been added, along with a philological presentation of the works studied and an index.

On page 93, one of the directors of the volume writes “[le] colloque dont la présente publication est la conclusion provisoire”. One hopes that there will be more to follow, to prolong this stimulating initiative,which provokes thought and promotes the discovery of lesser known texts.3


1. The texts of both Philostratus (the Elder and the Younger) and of Callistratus are conveniently brought together in one volume of the Loeb collection: Arthur Fairbanks, Philostratus the Elder, Philostratus the Younger, Imagines. Callistratus, Descriptions. Loeb Classical Library 256. London: William Heinemann – Cambridge Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1931. A more recent edition of Philostratus the Elder is that of E. Kalinka and O. Schönberger (München, 1968) and likewise a more up-to-date edition of Callistratus has been published by B. Bäbler and H.-G. Nesselrath (München-Leipzig, 2006). On the Εἰκόνες of Philostratus the Elder, read the presentation of Pierre Hadot, which brings to light the aesthetic and philosophical issues in the text, in Philostrate, La galerie de tableaux. Traduit par Auguste Bougot. Révisé et annoté par François Lissarague. Préface de Pierre Hadot. La Roue à livres. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1991, pp. VII-XXII.

2. Françoise Graziani, Philostrate, Les Images ou Tableaux de Platte-Peinture. Traduction et commentaire de Blaise de Vigenère (1578). Présenté et annoté, 2 vol., Paris: Champion, 1995.

3. There are a few mistakes in Greek to be corrected: p. 138, οἶδα is not an aorist; p. 139, write διελέγετο; p. 225, the nominative form is καιρός.