BMCR 2013.12.30

Tre figure: Achille, Meleagro, Cristo. Campi del sapere

, , , , Tre figure: Achille, Meleagro, Cristo. Campi del sapere. Milano: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2013. 143. ISBN 9788807104961. €25.00.

Table of Contents

In Bertrand Tavernier’s 1994 swashbuckler movie La Fille de d’Artagnan the intrepid eponymous character summons the aging musketeers to new exploits, their long-proven valor being once again sorely needed. Something of that constellation resounds in the small, but engaging volume under review here. Maria Luisa Catoni has convoked Carlo Ginzburg, Luca Giuliani and Salvatore Settis to take up once more the gauntlet of iconographical tradition in Western art thrown by Aby Warburg about a century ago. The four studies—with the exception of Ginzburg’s all of them revised versions of previously published papers1—address different stages, aspects and problems of a visual tradition centered on the three figures of Achilles, Meleager and Christ, a tradition that is pursued from the minor arts of the early first century CE through Roman sarcophagi to the adaptation of their formulas in Renaissance painting and sculpture. The contributors’ common ground however extends well beyond the range of monuments treated; all four adopt, as Catoni puts it in her succinct introduction, a ‘workshop perspective’ (p. 10) on both artists and scholars, tracing the creative and intellectual choices and processes that eventually shaped the reliefs, paintings and texts that have come down on us. And all of them focus on the ways images are adapted and put to new semantic, narrative or symbolic uses in varying contexts.

Luca Giuliani’s opening article (a revised and avowedly ‘de-germanized’ version of the 1989 original) is the only one in the collection confined to classical antiquity. Taking a unique sarcophagus from Ostia with scenes from the life of Achilles as a starting point, Giuliani convincingly reconstructs the adoption of various compositions known from tabulae Iliacae for the new medium of sarcophagi in second-century Rome. Especially the group of Achilles mourning at Patroklos’ deathbed is studied in its subsequent fortune on both Meleager sarcophagi from Rome and Achilles sarcophagi from Athens (with the latter appearing to be on the receiving end of this tradition). What sets out as a meticulous exercise in Typenforschung and the reconstruction of iconographical genealogies eventually turns into an iconological tour de force on the relationship between mythical narratives and abstract values in Roman funerary art.

The deathbed scene on the Meleager sarcophagi is taken up by Maria Luisa Catoni, who focuses on one recurring feature of the composition, the figure of an elderly woman rushing to the right, her back turned on the viewer, her arms thrust backwards.2 She appears again (though laterally reversed) on Nicola Pisano’s pulpit in the Siena Cathedral depicting the massacre of the innocents (1265-1268), and the characteristic stance turns up with slight variations in later Italian and Western Art. Catoni, who has worked on ancient aesthetics and body language in both performative and visual arts, effectively dissects the abstract (in her words: ‘adjectival’) qualities of the figure as a signifier of despair from the narrative (‘verbal’) qualities of the woman hastening to—well, to do exactly what? Given its awkward position within the Meleager scenes, Catoni plausibly argues for the figure stemming from a different narrative context; this context is conveniently provided by an early imperial relief skyphos where a youthful woman rushes towards Semele in her fulmineous labor pains. The contradicting movement of arms and body is eventually interpreted as an artificial, purely visual creation designed to communicate both the woman’s intention and incapability to help (pp. 67-8). There is much to glean from this thoughtful and well-argued study, but this reviewer is hesitant to embrace the shrewd explanation given for this particular figure. A woman hastening towards a beloved dead is not in itself inexplicable; a close thematic– though not typological – parallel is provided by various frontal depictions of bereaved mothers and wives in rash movement with their arms outstretched, which have been traced back to a type possibly coined for Andromache,3 who on the news of Hector’s death, ‘stormed out of her quarters like a maenad’ ( Il. 22.460). To contemporary viewers the woman’s poise may thus have appeared less paradoxical than Catoni will have it, but that does not affect her pivotal argument about its shifting narrative and abstract qualities.

Salvatore Settis’ piece on the lifelessly dangling arm of both the dead Meleager and Christ is a convincing and sophisticated case study of this particularly successful Pathosformel. This ‘arm of death’ is often considered a direct borrowing of Renaissance artists (namely Raphael) from the iconography of the mythical boar hunter. Settis points out the prominence of the motif already in late medieval Vesperbilder from central Europe, precursors of the later Pietà -type of image. Nevertheless, as becomes clear from more specific borrowings, Raphael did indeed look at classical models for the rendition of the dead Christ in his Deposition. Though not every point in this line of argument is exactly new, it is laid out with compelling clarity and it gains particularly through the complementary treatment of the theoretical foundations of such adaptations as laid down, amongst others, by Leon Battista Alberti. Almost in passing Settis is able to show that with all likelihood 16 th -century scholars and artists would not have been able to identify the ancient depictions of the dead Meleager available to them as such. The point serves as a useful caveat from indulging in the reconstruction of allusive programs in Renaissance art based on modern iconology; learned as they were, the hermeneutic means (and interests) of the early modern viewers of ancient art were very different from ours.4

The last of the four articles is dedicated to ‘Warburg’s scissors’ and thus tackles the fashionable, but nonetheless enigmatic founding hero of the very kind of studies in the historical anthropology of images assembled here. Carlo Ginzburg sets out in 1888 Florence, where the young Aby Warburg famously came across (of all things) the ethological writings of Charles Darwin and started developing the basic notions of what was to become his signature heuristic means, the Pathosformel.5 Dealing with virtually identical expressions for opposing states of mind, Darwin had in turn quoted painter and theorist Joshua Reynolds; with Warburg taking up Darwin, the interlocking reflections on behavioral codes and their visual rendering came full circle. What Ginzburg is after, however, is not the ultimate authorship of the Pathosformel, but its epistemological foundations and their (to use another Warburgian term) Nachleben. He goes on to trace the dichotomy of Warburg, the cultural historian in Florentine archives, and Warburg, the reader of Darwin among the North American Hopi. Of these two inextricable strands in Warburg’s work, the close scrutiny of the historical context in which classical forms are adapted eventually appears to give way to a (not so historical) anthropology of visual forms. The renowned Mnemosyne Atlas, both means and end of Warburg’s synopsis of cultural transformations, is testimony and vehicle of this gradual shift, as Ginzburg shows through the treatment of Luca Signorelli’s Compianto di Cristo morto within the paramount plate 42 of the Atlas. For the sake of morphological consistency, Warburg actually cut out a detail of the fresco which, seen in context, would have been “un’illustrazione perfetta della sua idea di Pathosformel” as a phenomenon of cultural receptivity (p. 122). We are thus left with a rather discomforting Warburg, whose ‘esoteric legacy’ lies in cultural biologism (p. 126).

Considering that only this last (and shortest) of the four papers assembled here is an original work, one may question the actual need for such a collection (besides providing Italian translations for Giuliani’s and Catoni’s articles). The overall outcome, however, speaks for itself. As frequent readers of multiauthor or edited volumes well know, unfortunately it is not the rule for their chapters to actually engage in a fruitful dialogue and indeed contribute to a shared narrative. Tre figure succeeds in this, and to an unusual degree. Though clearly aimed at a scholarly audience of some specialized background, the four papers, taken together, can also be seen as providing a vibrant introduction to issues and methods of visual traditions and hermeneutics. One would wish for a wider readership (especially amongst students) than the book’s language is likely to allow. Indeed its very reasonable price and no-frills paperback format make it very accessible. Especially welcome is the great number of illustrations (64 in total), testimony to the publisher’s awareness of their crucial importance to the argument. Their quality is, however, heterogeneous, which is particularly surprising in the case of museum photographs (cf. figs. 17, 28 and 50). Besides, the rather intricate relief sarcophagi and other longish frieze compositions would have profited from lengthwise printing, instead of being squeezed into the breadth of an octavo page.

These, however, are mere quibbles over what is doubtlessly a rewarding read, dealing with old questions, yet able to raise new ones. What, for instance, may we deduce from the fact, that ancient sarcophagi replicate Catoni’s woman in despair with great typological rigour, whereas renaissance artists make a much looser use of the motif? Can we speak of Pathosformeln in the Warburgian sense within the visual culture of classical antiquity – or is this concept ultimately linked to a context of post-antique re-employment? And if the late medieval Vesperbilder developed the ‘arm of death’ hallmark independently from classical iconography, as maintained by Settis, does this go to show (with Ginzburg’s Warburg) the working of praetercultural structures, whereby such a formula cropped up repeatedly because it was imbued with an “energia propria, fondata sulla capacità di rappresentare passioni universali in modo particolarmente efficace” (Catoni,Introduction, p. 11-12)? Debate will go on; Tre figure and its four authors have made a most stimulating contribution.


1. The first three articles originally appeared respectively as: L. Giuliani, “Achill-Sarkophage in Ost und West. Genese einer Ikonographie”, in: Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 31, 1989, 25-39; M. L. Catoni, “From Motion to Emotion. An Ancient Greek Iconography between Literal and Symbolic Interpretations”, in: H. Bredekamp, M. Lauschke and A. Arteaga (eds.), Bodies in Action and Symbolic Forms (Berlin 2012) 99-120; S. Settis, “Ars moriendi: Cristo e Meleagro, con un’appendice di C. Franceschini”, in: F. Caglioti (ed.), Giornate di Studio in ricordo di Giovanni Previtali = Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Classe di Lettere e Filosofia. Quaderni 9/10, 2000, 145-170.

2. The figure type and its ancient occurrences are also discussed by A. Schreiber-Schermutzki, Trauer am Grab – Trauerdarstellungen auf römischen Sepulkraldenkmälern (Diss. Freiburg 2008) at Freiburger Dokumentenserver (FreiDok) 80-1.

3. Cf. G. Koch, Die Antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs. Vol. 12.6. Melager (Berlin 1975) 35; D. Grassinger, Die Antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs Vol. 12.1. Achill-Amazonen (Berlin 1999) 62.

4. Settis (p. 70) thus refutes the “ipotesi un pó romanzesca” of Raphael’s Deposition as referring intentionally to the Meleager myth, and by implication to his patron Atalanta (!) Baglioni and the death of her son Grifonetto, killed in a family conflict. For a recent study in favor of this reading cf. N. Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (London 2001) 113-121 (not quoted by Settis).

5. In the meantime two new papers on Darwin’s influence on Warburg have appeared, and may well illustrate the current boom of Warburgian studies: S. Flach, “Communicating vessels: On the development of a theory of representation in Darwin and Warburg”, in: B. Larson and S. Flach (eds.), Darwin and Theories of Aesthetics and Cultural History (Farnham et al. 2013) 109-124; S. Weigel, “‘Von Darwin über Filippino zu Botticelli…und…wieder zur Nymphe.’ Zum Vorhaben einer energetischen Symboltheorie und zur Spur der Darwin-Lektüre in Warburgs Kulturwissenschaft”, in: S. Flach, P. Schneider and M. Treml (eds.), Warburgs Denkraum. Materialien, Motive, Form (forthcoming).