BMCR 2021.05.16

Psychologie de la couleur dans le monde gréco-romain: huit exposés suivis de discussions et d’un épilogue

, Psychologie de la couleur dans le monde gréco-romain: huit exposés suivis de discussions et d'un épilogue. Entretiens sur l'Antiquité classique, 66. Genève: Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'Antiquité classique, 2020. Pp. xii, 404. ISBN 9782600007665

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

The 66th Entretiens of the Fondation Hardt (Geneva, August 2019) aimed to highlight aspects of the interaction between colour and psychology in Greek and Roman antiquity. With Professor Katerina Ierodiakonou as main editor, the presentations have resulted in an eight-chapter volume, completed by an epilogue on the topic of colour in relation to contemporary psychological research, written by Professor Christine Mohr and PhD researcher Domicele Jonauskaite. In accordance with the international scope of the event, chapters are in English or French.

The collection embraces several methodologies and topics across ancient colour studies: chapters start from a psychological input and move between literary analyses on the function of colour within a single author, linguistic studies on ancient chromatic terminology, and historical-anthropological enquiries about colour and affections in a specific cultural area. Some papers lean towards a description of the interactions between colour and mind, others towards an interpretation of why, which and how exactly colours might have influenced selected aspects of human and non-human personality. As highlighted in the Introduction, heterogeneity is in this collection’s nature, and one of its strengths. Its ultimate scope is, indeed, to promote constructive dialogue between experts in different research fields and in various parts and periods of antiquity, with ancient Greece receiving the lion’s share of attention. These interactions are all the more valuable in light of the multifaceted, often interconnected applications of colour itself. Besides the interdisciplinary approach and variety of methodologies employed, a highlight of the volume is the international spread of its contributors, which has resulted in a wide and complete bibliography in all the main academic languages. The post-presentation discussions, reported after each chapter, are especially useful for drawing attention to less visible bibliography and for additional information.

Regarding the definition of ‘psychological research on colour in antiquity’, the Introduction emphasizes, as a fil rouge of the volume, how colours express and induce emotions. In fact, chapters are also concerned with other aspects of psychological research: in several contributions, the main theme appears to be perception, language acquisition, philosophy, or some combination of these topics. All of them possess links with affect, but it would be misleading to expect from them a strict emotional perspective. Instead of developing a rigidly defined theme, the volume gathers a richer variety of points of view, even at the price of a less coherent structure.

In the first chapter, Maria Michela Sassi discusses whether ancient philosophers considered colour as a source for understanding the truth or as mere deception. The first half treats the Presocratic philosophers, while the second focuses on Plato. Sassi disproves the assumption that Plato does not regard colour as an instrument of cognition. By analysing his treatment of artificial colors (cosmetics and painting) and of natural colours, she highlights his complex attitude to the matter. The paper culminates in the claim that chromatic sensations of brightness mediate the vision of intelligible Beauty. Its valuable analyses make this a paper whose psychological implications deserve further inquiry.

Elena Cagnoli Fiecconi gives coherent organization to Aristotle’s views on the affective power of colours and pictures, with particular attention to his statement that pictures stimulate affects in a mediated way. According to her reconstruction, Aristotle claims that colours, especially dark and light, produce pleasure and pain in themselves or provoke an emotional response incidentally. Pictures move us in a more complex way: immediately, for the artistic skill they show, or mediately, in virtue of the interpretations, deceptive sensations and associations that they raise as mimetic objects. The paper chooses a descriptive approach to Aristotle’s position on colours, pictures and affects.

The third chapter, by Katerina Ierodiakonou, examines accounts of Theophrastus’ lost work On Creatures that Change Colour. Her analysis focuses on his two case-studies, the octopus and the chameleon. Its main questions are: according to Theophrastus, do animals change colour because of an emotion? If yes, does the change occur as a reflex response to the emotion and from an in-built disposition (so that the chameleon instinctively changes colour out of fear because it is inherently cowardly)? Or can some animals change colour in response to specific emotions with some forethought (the octopus)? Is there a connection between the psychological and the physiological explanations for colour changing? Her mention of modern philosophical theories shows that very similar questions about animal cognition are still heavily debated.

In Chapter Four, Philippe Jockey refutes the common assumption that Pausanias, in his Periegesis, is insensitive to colour. In contrast, he carefully selects chromatic sensations to charge them with specific functions. The first paragraphs demonstrate both that Pausanias uses colour-terms and that he chooses them accurately: through lexical procedures such as superlatives and compound nouns, he expresses exact nuances. The following pages discuss in which contexts he offers chromatic sensations and which colours he adopts. The paper astutely suggests that colouring is always significant: it allows the precise identification of an object, communicates a specific range of emotions and emotional states through contrasts and tensions, or marks a deviation from the norm in order to provoke thauma.

Chapter Five, by Agnès Rouveret, explores how colours influence the educated reader’s rational and emotional cognition in Philostratus’ Imagines. By describing the chromatic features of a painting, Philostratus generates knowledge: he teaches the reader to appreciate different techniques and author-specific styles, offers an aesthetic experience to those able to correctly imagine them, provokes emotions, and, finally, connects the subject with other narratives. The fact of stressing a certain chromatic feature, indeed, can suggest an intertext with a similar tabula or with a parallel myth, or can even anticipate an event within the same plot (for instance, Narcissus’ purple hair anticipates his transformation into a flower). In certain cases, colours possess a symbolic meaning which contributes to the right interpretation of the scene: purple and gold surround Aphrodite as signs of her power. As Rouveret herself summarizes, Philostratus adopts a true rhetoric of painting. The intersection of the verbal and visual levels implied by ekphrases and Philostratus’ own composite use of colour make this enquiry complex and rich.

Adeline Grand-Clément, in Chapter Six, discusses the emotional function of colour in Greek religion through literary and epigraphic sources. The methodological section at the beginning of her paper is particularly valuable. Here, she states how far it is possible to apply a psychologically-oriented perspective to research on ancient cultures: the historian studies constructs (texts, images, objects) that mediate ancient people’s emotions through cultural filters, genre rules, or subjective intentions. Secondly, she helpfully clarifies the relationship between colour and emotion: a dynamic interaction, where colour can express and/or condition the emotional state of the audience. Grand-Clément’s concern here is how colour conditions emotive states within the field of Greek ritual. Her findings agree with Victor Turner’s anthropological arguments about the salience of white, black, and red in religion: these are, indeed, the prevailing colours in Greek rituals. Bright white suggests positive affections: besides reassuring the gods about the believer’s honest attitude, it induces reverence, joy, and hope for its visual connection with the vitality of the sunlight. Black, on the other hand, often represents negativity, as with the Arcadian Demeter Melaina: her dark colours express her anger and mourning and allow the believer to sympathize with her. However, a shiny black can also have the propitiatory function of white in offers to chthonic deities. Purple, finally, recalls the eternity and changing of the sea: this, and the brilliance of the dye purpura, make it a sign of divine majesty and power. In cults, it is employed to produce awe and respect, but its wearing is often regulated to avoid divine hostility. As the conclusion highlights, the connections between these salient colours and emotions are not strictly fixed, but differently enacted depending on the specific context.

The seventh paper shifts finally to the Roman world. David Wharton illustrates how desire for prestige, a psychological disposition, acts as a driving force for linguistic productivity within Latin colour terminology and for emotions like pleasure or envy. Just as in modern societies, Romans wished to improve their social image through the possession of prestigious goods. The necessity of distinguishing between valuable and less valuable products led to a progressive linguistic and cognitive specification of their properties, including their colouring. The increase of chromatic terms from Cato’s De agri cultura to Columella’s De re rustica reveals this process. Wharton helpfully explains that many new colour-terms were derived from traded materials perceived as prestigious, such as gold, purpura, or coccum (carmine), and were initially applied to material objects such as clothes or gems. His reading of Pliny’s Natural History further highlights that linguistic-cognitive distinctions between prestigious and non-prestigious colours could also change how Romans took pleasure (or not) from natural objects, like flowers, which did not normally confer prestige.

Denise Reitzenstein offers, finally, a fascinating contribution on the representation of morality through skin colour in literature dealing with the Roman world. Initially, she explores how authors express and induce a moral evaluation of male, female and slave characters by expressing their colours and colour change. Chromatic alteration generally implies a negative evaluation, while stable colour communicates virtue: for example, Mucius Scaevola’s courage is expressed by his unaltered colour in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, while Cicero often presents permutatio coloris as an admission of guilt. Afterwards, Reitzenstein addresses the issue of the norm, exploring the relationships between humanus color, color naturalis, color sanus and color bonus/malus. Her analysis confirms that a color bonus is not distinguishable from one’s natural complexion, conceived as unaltered by blushing, blanching, cosmetic falsification, or illness. Whereas there is a brief account of how Romans approached racial discourse, the aim of the chapter is to show how deviation or not from a non-altered state is decisive for the ancients’ interpretation and judgement of the individual.

An epilogue by Mohr and Jonauskaite contributes by clarifying further the perspective from which all these authors have conducted their researches. Not only does it give insight into contemporary psychological approaches to colour studies, but it also offers the key to interpreting the themes of the volume within a psychological perspective, providing guidelines necessary to distinguish between emotions and other affective states. Finally, it casts light on the differences and convergences between contemporary psychological research and ancient studies on emotion: while the latter describe the relationships between colours and affects as told within a precise cultural context, psychological methodologies allow for research on universals and may also make use of ancient evidence. In this way, the epilogue compensates for the lack elsewhere of explicit methodological precision and, at times, of an accurate naming of emotions, pleasure and pain. All in all, the volume succeeds in venturing into a relatively new field of study with a rich sample of methods, approaches and insights. In their diversity, all the contributions bring attention to the complex nature of colours: their properties of saturation, brightness, and hue have a decisive impact on multiple levels of human cognition.

Table of Contents

Preface – Pierre Ducrey
Introduction – Katerina Ierodiakonou
Maria Michela Sassi – The indiscreet charm of brightness: from early Greek thought to Plato
Elena Cagnoli Fiecconi – Aristotle on the affective powers of colour and pictures
Katerina Ierodiakonou – Theophrastus on non-human animals that change colour
Philippe Jockey – Couleurs et émotions chez Pausanias
Agnès Rouveret – Les couleurs dans les Imagines de Philostrate l’Ancien ont-elles une valeur cognitive?
Adeline Grand-Clément – “What color is the sacred?” Couleurs et émotions dans les rituels grecs, de l’époque archaïque à l’époque hellénistique
David B. Wharton – Prestige, color, and color language in Imperial Rome
Denise Reitzenstein – Showing one’s true colours in Roman history
Epilogue – Christine Mohr et Domicele Jonauskaite