BMCR 2021.11.30

The novel of Neronian Rome and its multimedial transformations: Sienkiewicz’s “Quo vadis”

, , The novel of Neronian Rome and its multimedial transformations: Sienkiewicz's "Quo vadis". Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 352. ISBN 9780198867531. $100.00.

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

Classicists familiar with Quo vadis most likely know it from the 1951 MGM film version, staring Peter Ustinov as the Roman emperor Nero, but they may not be as familiar with Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel itself. Originally serialized in Poland in 1895-1896, Quo vadis was published in novel form in Poland in 1896 and quickly found international success, translated into numerous languages at a rapid pace, including Jeremiah Curtin’s successful 1896 English translation, popular in the United States. While Sienkiewicz wrote other novels, rooted in Polish history, the success of his novel of ancient Rome and Christianity during the time of Nero contributed to his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, and it remains the novel for which he is best known outside of Poland.

The edited volume under review here, part of Oxford University Press’ Classical Presences series, opens with an introduction (chapter 1) written by its editors, in which they emphasize immediately the impact the novel has had on classical reception, around the world over the century after its publication, and the immense popularity of the Neronian period. As editors Monika Woźniak and Maria Wyke note, “The novel and its reformulations crossed national boundaries, cultural categories, and media and, along the way, provided a powerful discursive structure through which to explore Christian faith and oppression by, resistance to, and triumph over tyranny” (p. 1). They explain that this volume is “a study in classical reception, in terms of its broad engagement with issues of nationalism and the genre of the historical novel, and its more specific focus on this particular Polish novel, its late nineteenth-century literary context, and its translations and multimedial reworkings across the twentieth century” (p. 1). They further emphasize the novel’s visual aspects and subsequent influence on numerous non-literary versions of all sorts, which rendered Quo vadis, as they describe it, “one of the first truly worldwide and enduring transmedial phenomena after the Bible” (p. 16). Because of this and the novel’s impact on shaping 20th-century visions of ancient Rome, they argue that Quo vadis “deserves to be brought back up from oblivion and to have close critical attention paid to it and its multi-medial transformations” (p. 17). With the exception of Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth’s 2009 Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television (on the various screen versions), book-length studies on Quo vadis are lacking. Yet Woźniak and Wyke return to their argument for using Quo vadis as a case study in classical reception, using its multiple reiterations rather than examining a range of different Neros or representations of the period, emphasizing that “scrutiny of its mutations across the twentieth century brings into the spotlight the iterative variability of Neronian Rome in popular culture – its nuancing according to different national, cultural, linguistic, aesthetic, historical, and social contexts of production” (pp. 20-21).

The volume offers a wide-ranging exploration of not only the novel itself (and its and its author’s Polish background, including in the introduction) but, as the title indicates, a range of media, some lowbrow or considered part of popular culture, including stage adaptations, promotional materials, and films, which drew on, were inspired by, or expanded on the novel, ensuring that the novel, its characters, and themes lived on globally. As the volume moves away from the novel itself into the various media, it also encompasses a wide chronological span and geographic range. Beginning with the late 19th-century context of the novel’s writing and publication, the volume covers reworkings and adaptations from over a century, including a 2001 Polish TV version. While the volume appropriately opens and closes in Poland itself, the adaptations and versions under consideration here also come from America, England, and Italy. This international scope is reflected further by the nationalities of those contributing chapters, including Polish, Italian, British, and American scholars, with a range of backgrounds, areas of expertise, and methodologies.

The volume is divided into three parts, based on time period and, to a certain extent, medium, balanced with five chapters for each section. Part I, “Literary Context”, examines aspects of the novel itself, including American responses to it at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Part II, “Quo vadis up to the Second World War”, considers stage adaptations, illustrations, promotional materials, and the earliest screen versions of the novel in the first half of the 20thcentury. Part III, “Quo vadis after the Second World War”, looks at film and television, with the emphasis on the 1951 film, and covers the second half of the 20th into the early 21st century. Due to the number of contributions, 15 total, I provide a brief overview of each section and chapter.

Chapters 2-4 of Part I begin with Sienkiewicz and the novel itself. Jerzy Axer offers a close study of the role of Classicism in Poland and Sienkiewicz’s background, including his study of Latin and the remarkable Latinity of his Polish prose. Adam Ziółkowski examines Sienkiewicz’s background in the city of Rome itself and his archaeological familiarity (and a possible error in the novel), while Ewa Skwara discusses Sienkiewicz’s descriptions of clothing and costumes in the novel, what they reveal about the characters, and possible influences he may have drawn from contemporary paintings. The next two chapters move the novel to the United States and its reception there at the turn of the 20th century. Ruth Scodel analyzes the novel’s influence and contribution, for example, to the increased visibility of Petronius and the Satyricon in the United States, and the accompanying issues arising from this at the time, while Jon Solomon focuses on the reasons that Quo Vadis underperformed or remained less popular in the United States (in contrast to its greater success in Europe) than its near-contemporary historical novel Ben-Hur.

Part II opens with David Mayer’s examination of stage versions (or toga plays) of the novel, focusing on three early 20th-century Anglo-American versions and why they failed or how the novel did not work in this medium, as it would prove better suited for film. Stella Dagna’s contribution bridges Mayer’s chapter and the next one by examining the 1913 Italian silent film version (directed by Enrico Guazzoni), a film influenced by various stage versions of the novel but which itself not only successfully translated the novel to screen but also became extremely influential for Italian film making at the time. Maria Wyke continues the study of the 1913 film, exploring its distancing from the novel’s original Polish roots and its refashioning and “reindigenizing” within a distinctively Italian context. The next two chapters move into the realm of illustrations associated with the novel. Raffaele De Berti and Elisabetta Gagetti examine illustrated editions of the novel, postcards, and film brochures (both from Guazzoni’s 1913 film and D’Annunzio and Jacoby’s 1925 silent film) from Italy dating from 1900-1925. Ewa Górecka narrows the scope of her study to postcards, including scenes of violence, death, or danger, but widens the net throughout Europe. The selection of, new emphasis on, and even the changes to scenes or characters of the novel evident in these illustrations provide an unexpected additional layer to the visual reworkings of the novel.

The first three chapters of Part III examine the 1951 film version Quo Vadis, produced by MGM and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Jonathan Stubbs offers a comprehensive overview of the complicated production history of the film, focusing on its trend-setting move abroad (to Italy) to film, and examines the impacts of this, especially from an economic and labor perspective, in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Chapters 13 and 14 look at the film more as a case study of, or setting the standard for, ancient Rome on screen. Martin M. Winkler focuses on how some of the film’s features, including Nero’s performance (and actor Peter Ustinov’s performance as Nero), have influenced later films set in antiquity (and film in general), while Monika Woźniak examines the film’s dialogue, including its Americanization of Latin and Roman culture, and its close relationship with translations of the novel itself. Monica Dall’Asta and Alessandro Faccioli move beyond the confines of Quo vadis itself by examining the legacy of an individual character from the novel/film, that of the strongman Ursus, and how he influenced the character type in strongman films, especially in Italy. In the final chapter, Elżbieta Ostrowska returns to the roots of the novel by examining the 2001 Polish TV version, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Once more we see how the novel is reworked for its context of time and place, situated against both contemporary Polish film (and a degree of star text with the Polish actor playing Petronius) and Poland after communism in the early 21st century, highlighting the ever changing and shifting meanings of the novel and its themes and characters.

Each section builds or expands on the previous one, as do individual chapters within a section, highlighting how the adaptations and reworkings intersect and complement each other. But each section and individual chapters can also be read on its own. Common themes through the chapters include: fidelity to the novel itself; the success or failure of an adaptation, what does and does not work and why; the influence of context on an adaptation, from time and place to the audience itself, including class and potential level of familiarity with the novel itself; how one reinterpretation could influence another (including across media); what a particular genre or medium adds, builds on, or even downplays in its reworkings; the intersection of an adaptation with its own medium’s development or characteristics (e.g. how features of the 1951 film influenced other films set in the ancient world); and the distancing, even separation, of the novel from its original Polish roots over time.

While the volume opened with a solid and well-done introduction, it lacks a conclusion, which even in a few pages could have summed up the changes Quo vadis underwent and traced the novel’s trajectory through decade, country, or medium. It includes plentiful illustrations (e.g. contemporary paintings, postcards and promotional materials, film stills), in additional to various tables, but some of the images, especially the stills, are either too small or too dark to effectively add to the author’s argument. A chronological list of plays, films, and/or television versions of Quo vadis at the end of the volume would have been much appreciated. Any typos or errors were negligible.

I personally would have liked more variety (for example, on Nero’s wife Poppaea) and perhaps a little less on Petronius, who receives more attention at times than any other character. Some versions of Quo vadis (the 1925 silent Italian film and a 1985 Italian television version) are glossed over, giving an unbalanced feel to the volume, yet at the same time that emphasizes the success, importance, and influence of certain reworkings, such as the 1913 and 1951 films.

The volume, however, successfully accomplishes what its editors set out to do and highlights the influence and transformations of the novel across several countries over a century, and through a wide range of media, typically relegated to the categories of lowbrow or popular culture. The Novel of Neronian Rome and its Multimedial Transformations: Sienkiewicz’s “Quo vadis” is a significant contribution to the field of classical reception in general and specifically on the various permutations of Quo vadis. Whether within an individual chapter or section or the entire collection, teachers, students, and scholars of Nero, ancient Rome on screen, and the reception of Rome in general will find much useful and interesting material.

Authors and titles

Chapter 1, Monika Woźniak and Maria Wyke, Introduction

Part I Literary Context

Chapter 2, Jerzy Axer, The Paradoxes of Quo vadis: the Polish Classical Tradition in Action
Chapter 3, Adam Ziółkowski, Sienkiewicz and the Topography of Ancient Rome: the Riddle of

Ostrianum in Quo vadis
Chapter 4, Ewa Skwara, Costumes in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo vadis and their Literary and Painterly Sources
Chapter 5, Ruth Scodel, Quo vadis and Ancient Rome in the United States, 1896-1905
Chapter 6, Jon Solomon, Comparing the Reception of Quo vadis and Ben-Hur in the United States, 1896-1913

Part II Quo vadis up to the Second World War

Chapter 7, David Mayer, Quo vadis on the Stage
Chapter 8, Stella Dagna, Dangerous Liaisons: Quo vadis? (1913, dir. Enrico Guazzoni) and the Previous Theatrical Adaptations of Sienkiewicz’s Novel
Chapter 9, Maria Wyke, Word and Image: Competitive Adaptation in the Feature Film Quo vadis? (1913)
Chapter 10, Raffaele De Berti and Elisabetta Gagetti, Illustrating Quo vadis in Italy (1900-1925): between Cultivated Tradition and Popular Culture
Chapter 11, Ewa Górecka, Horror amid Sweetness: Kitsch and the Intertextual Strategies of Quo vadis Postcards

Part III Quo vadis after the Second World War

Chapter 12, Jonathan Stubbs, ‘A more permanent world’: Quo Vadis (1951), Runaway Production, and the Internationalization of Hollywood
Chapter 13, Martin M. Winkler, MGM’s Quo Vadis: from Historical Fiction to Screen Spectacle
Chapter 14, Monika Woźniak, ‘O omnivorous powers, hail!’: Film Dialogue in Quo Vadis (1951)
Chapter 15, Monica Dall’Asta and Alessandro Faccioli, Ursus as a Serial Figure
Chapter 16, Elżbieta Ostrowska, The (In)discreet Charm of the Romans: Quo vadis (dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 2001)