BMCR 2020.07.21

Pittori, tecniche, trattati, contesti tra testimonianze e ricezione

, , , Pittori, tecniche, trattati, contesti tra testimonianze e ricezione. Archeologia e arte antica. Milano: LED Edizioni, 2019. 266 p.. ISBN9788879168977 €74,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Thirteen contributions (eight in Italian, five in English) discuss the tension between ancient texts on t painting and painters, and ancient paintings and mosaics connected with Greek originals, especially those from the fourth century BCE. The papers are based on presentations given at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa in 2015 and envisage a ‘dialogo’ (p. 8) between arts and texts. The contributors, often thanks to previous work, can definitely be considered as best qualified to deal with the themes they discuss. As the editors make clear in their introduction, fourth-century original paintings are limited to funerary material. As to the texts,[1] many sources have not been considered in previous discussions, although they can cast new light on the art of painting. To be sure, many treatises were lost and are known solely through a title or some paraphrase. . Especially valuable are some philosophical texts (by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero), but also disiecta membra in Plutarch’s enormous oeuvre.

Various papers deal with the reception of fourth-century painting in subsequent periods, again both materially (as Campanian mosaics and paintings) and textually (in Cicero, Pliny; Vitruvius is omitted). The book does not follow a strict division between essays on paintings and those on texts, but this will not represent a serious problem for interested readers. Cross references, however, are regrettably few but a fine index partially corrects this weakness.

Nadina Koch and Maria Fernanda Ferrini open the series with dense papers on Plato and other fourth-century sources on painting. Koch argues that colour and shape of figures were the main concerns, not the rendering of space or perspective. These features match the logos and ethos of rhetoric, and images were to be ‘read’ as if they were texts. Ferrini discusses the mixing and composing of colours as debated in an enigmatic passage (Tim. 67c-69a) in Plato’s Timaeus. Colours seem to be the effect of mixing radiances of light rather than pigments. This mixing might seem mundane, but is the work of the Demiurge, who also ‘mixes’ and ‘composes’ all other constituents of the world; the passage, therefore, forms part of the description of the creation of the cosmos. It barely had practical significance for artists, who, after all, might not have read Plato’s works.

Hariclia Brecoulaki focuses on fourth-century tomb painting in Macedonia. The striking portraits (if such they are) of the hunters on the façade of the ‘Tomb of Philip’ in Vergina as well as the Hades and Persephone of the nearby ‘Tomb of Eurydice’ show technical innovations , e.g., the use of various tempera layers and new colour schemes. Brecoulaki examines these paintings for their mimesis of real personages and whether they aptly represent beautiful and ugly features alike, as problematized by Aristotle. One aspect in this hight-quality analysis struck me most: the bodies of the hunters are rendered is soft lilac-bluish tones, just as Greeks would represent female skin. This peculiarityis plausibly explained as a new approach of andragatheia and tryphe (p. 51). The eyes of the lion are blue, like those of the men, making the animal a valiant opponent!

Consuelo Manetta presents some results of her PhD research on funerary painting in Thracia (monograph in press). These cist and chamber tombs were for princes and elite members of the Odrysians and Getans in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Painted tombs formed a minority (35 cases) within the corpus of some 200 instances. Various tombs exhibit ‘masonry style’ (also called “First Style” in Italian republican painting), viz. stucco reliefs rendering isodomic masonry and architectural elements like semi columns. Manetta distinguishes a ‘relief architectural style’ and a ‘painted architectural style’ (p. 71), which might be confusing and has the problem of keeping alive the often-criticized word ‘style’ for what is rather a fashion, trend, or technique. Figural themes include hunting as symbol of arete, banqueting as a status symbol, and references to heroization and the underworld. Together with other elements, this metaphoric iconography looks very Greek. Here, happily, Manetta tries to delve into the problem of peripheric cultures (from a Greek viewpoint). The Greek presence could be explained by the vivid exchanges of goods and ideas between Greece and Anatolia on one side and the Odrisian elite on the other. No slavish imitation but adaptation to local demands makes these tombs a fascinating dossier of Greekish artistic culture. Manetta briefly mentions technical painting aspects, but has had no opportunity to expand on this point, which might have formed a fascinating counterpart to Brecoulaki’s observations on technique.

Another border case is that of the fourth-century painted tombs at Poseidonia/Paestum, here contextualised in their Lucano-Greek environment by Tiziana D’Angelo. She follows previous interpretation of the tomb paintings as expressions of societal changes due to the arrival of Lucanians in the Greek colony of Poseidonia, but does not see them as expressions of immediate domination. The subjects in the tombs of the first decades refer to youths being trained to become good adult men, and reflect the position the Lucanians should play in society by virtue of integration thanks to a Greekish paideia. Later on, tomb painting becomes less frequent and changes in iconography reflect a changing perception of the Lucanians.

The next two papers are on famous artists and their lost treatises. . Franca Landucci discusses the historian Douris from Samos, following a monograph on him she published in 1997. She cannot add much to the little we know about this author of a Toreutice but is able to connect him with Poseidippos’ poems on sculpture and to stress his relevance for Pliny’s Natural History. Since we know nothing more than his title of a book on painting, Περὶ ζωγραφίας, his relevance for the volume under review is not great. The same is true for Tiziano Dorandi’s topic, Antigonos of Karistos. Antigonos’ works on toreutics and painting were read by Pliny, who mentions a remark on Pausias, but the paper does not offer new data.[2]

Turning to material culture, Chrysoula Paliadeli proposes a new reading of the Alexander Mosaic from the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii by seeing it as the partial reproduction of a frieze composition similar to the Hunt frieze in Vergina (see above). As in other proposals, the danger of a chain of hypotheses becoming factoids or facts in the course of the discussion looms in the background, but an attractive suggestion is to see the lower dark and upper white empty spaces as additions to adjust the image to the exedra’s ground plan in Pompeii .. All this might bring weight to considering the representation as a copy of a band of hundred figures composed by Aristeides II (mentioned in Pliny, NH 35.98) rather than by Philoxenos, Helena, or Apelles as the artist of the lost original.

Mantha Zarmakoupi delves into the genre of landscape painting in Roman art of the first century BCE and the first century CE. She observes a change of topic—from fantasy, sea and landscape towards depictions of seaside villas—as a reflection of the interest in villas during the early Empire. Series of tiny depictions of villas in the porticoes of actual villas (e.g., at Oplontis and Stabiae) would endorse a penchant for “villeggiatura.” This hypothesis, sustained by textual sources, sounds very attractive, but I wonder why such landscapes are so small and often extremely sketchy rather than more detailed and grand. Or, do we have to assume that their format did not matter within the ‘real time, real place’ villas themselves? Are they counterparts of the large maritime landscapes in townhouses like the Casa della Fontana Piccola in Pompeii, where they express the bourgeois wish of large estates?

In the last three papers we turn back to sources, i.e. Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. Eva Falaschi examines the multitalented Plutarch’s scattered remarks on painting. Praising artists for their expertise (in comparison with laymen), he sees realism (ἀλήθεια or veritas) achieved with appropriate colours as the dominant agenda of the visual arts. Among the artists singled out are Apelles and Protogenes. But maybe more interesting are Plutarch’s observations on works of art seen in their setting and confronted with historical persons (e.g. Porcia and Brutus in front of a painting of Andromache and Hector that Porcia saw on the Velia, pp. 206-208). Falaschi prudently wonders whether or not Plutarch had actually seen the works he mentions , for which she offers some interesting speculations.

Alessandro Poggio reports on a project (“Mapping Pliny”) being carried out under the aegis of editor Gianfranco Adornato.[3] He gives examples of counting numbers in Pliny’s books on art (NH 34-36) and various forms of lists, like chronology, alphabet, and topography. This brings Poggio to explore georeferenced and searchable databases of the art works located in Rome.[4] The more than 200 instances are more or less equally divided over the three books and those dated to the fourth century BCE constitute the majority (some 40 %!). Sandra Citroni Marchetti concludes the volume with a paper on Pliny’s intellectual vision and , his virtual colloquies— with, among others, Cicero. She sees different approaches to the arts, but observes correspondences at the same time.

To conclude: this is an excellent set of studies about visual arts, mainly painting, and the relationship between arts and ancient texts. We might wish for more theoretical reflection or for a greater prudence in assigning importance to (lost) sources, but future discussions can add new thoughts to those expressed in this work.

Table of Contents

Gianfranco Adornato, Eva Falaschi, Alessandro Poggio – La pittura greca di IV secolo a.C. tra contesti e ricezioni: riflessioni e prospettive
Nadia J. Koch – Persuading the Eye: Sophistic Patterns in Visual Art
Maria Fernanda Ferrini – Dio e i colori (Pl. Ti. 67c-69a)
Hariclia Brecoulaki – Truth, Flattery or Good Imitation? Aesthetic and Moral Value of Representation in Greek Painting
Consuelo Manetta – Cultura locale e orizzonte mediterraneo: la pittura funeraria della Tracia tra l’età tardo-classica e la prima età ellenistica
Tiziana D’Angelo – Greek Power and Italic Identity in 4th-Century BC: Painted Tombs at Poseidonia
Franca Landucci – Duride di Samo e la storia dell’arte antica: il contributo di un intellettuale poliedrico
Tiziano Dorandi – Antigono di Caristo artista e scrittore d’arte
Chrysoula Paliadeli – The Alexander Mosaic and Its Lost Original: A Working Hypothesis
Mantha Zarmakoupi – Between Conceptual and Perceptual Space: The Representation of Landscape in Roman Wall Paintings
Eva Falaschi – Di fronte ai dipinti: Plutarco sulla pittura tardo-classica ed ellenistica
Alessandro Poggio – Mappare Plinio: opere d’arte nella Roma di età imperiale
Sandra Citroni Marchetti – La storia dell’arte nel sistema espressivo e simbolico della Naturalis Historia


[1] The editors have not aimed at a consistent form of quotation. Greek and Latin passages with or without translations as well as translations alone, appear both in the text and/or in notes. Many Greek and Latin technical terms are given without explanation. For non-classicists this inconsistency might complicate the reading of this volume.

[2] See Dorandi, Antigone de Caryste: Fragments. Paris 2002.

[3] See also G. Adornato et al., Restaging Greek Artworks in Rome, Milan 2018.

[4] At p. 222, note 48 there is a reference to “Mappare Plinio” which promises a view into the project. However I only got some general notices (accessed April 10, 2020). So not yet a “strumento di ricerca interrogabile” (p. 223).