BMCR 2023.03.07

Visualizing the poetry of Statius: an intertextual approach

, Visualizing the poetry of Statius: an intertextual approach. Mnemosyne supplements, 449. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. 360. ISBN 9789004498853

Visual impact has been a part of critical assessments of Statius’ poetry both in antiquity and in scholarship since the Renaissance. Certainly, there has been no shortage of books and articles on specific aspects of this. In this vein, Christopher Chinn’s earlier work will not be unfamiliar to researchers on Statian visuality, and this book follows on from his papers on the topic. Chinn’s book, Visualizing the Poetry of Statius: An Intertextual Approach, proposes to set itself apart in two ways, firstly through a holistic approach to Statius’ oeuvre, which is often separated by genre, and secondly through the application of more recent theory to these visual scenes. This book therefore proposes to set out how these poems intertwine their cultural expectations and their metapoetic intertextual approaches with their visual scenes. Both of these points of focus are welcome and the book therefore occupies a useful niche within Statian studies.

The author identifies three main theoretical approaches in his introduction, alongside some relatively short comments on ancient theories of vision. The first is “gaze theory” particularly following the work of Laura Mulvey and Helen Lovatt, with which the text presumes quite a level of theoretical familiarity on the part of the reader.[1] The second is a theory of visualities, by which the author means a culture surrounding viewing as it emerges from intertextual analysis. In reconciling these two the author looks to intertextual relationships that clarify the relationship between implied viewer and the culture around viewing. At the same time a third element is introduced, that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.[2] The author suggests that “existence is essentially embodiment in the world, and that embodiment is based on vision”, and therefore that interactions between characters in a text and their own viewed images in the context of a broader historical and cultural narrative form the basis of their own embodied identity. Elsewhere the book draws, without much discussion, on the language of narratological focalisation. These theoretical frameworks are not always overtly used in the analysis of the later chapters. While there are a number of areas in which I could identify the value of theories of gendered gazing and likewise viewing as culturally situated activities, even where it is not discussed more explicitly, I could not (perhaps showing my ignorance of the niceties of the theoretical framework) easily identify the value of phenomenology to this work. The author himself suggests that it is particularly relevant to the interplay of viewed and viewing narratives in chapters four and five.

Beyond its modern theoretical framework, the book tends to avoid the difficult definitional problems that are associated with the term “ekphrasis” by replacing it with terms like “visual representation” and “visual poetics”, reserving the term ekphrasis for “large-scale, set-piece descriptions”. For example, Chinn notes on page 97 in reference to the description of the house of Mars “The programmatic hic (“here”) marks a narrative pause and hence signals that the passage as ekphrastic”. This change is a welcome one in the context of the book’s broader focus on general visuality, allowing the reader to more easily put aside their own definitions which may be at odds with Chinn’s. This being said, a more extensive discussion of ancient approaches to visuality would have been welcome, since Aelius Theon’s definitions are dealt with quite briefly and nothing is made of the theories of description in Cicero, Quintilian, or other near contemporaries. In fact, while he does make use of ancient theories of vision, Chinn employs ancient rhetorical theories of ekphrasis minimally if at all (with the exception of a discussion of Menander Rhetor’s advice on page 257). The book consequently uses a broad and modern approach to the category of descriptive text.

Visualizing the Poetry of Statius is set out in nine chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, over three hundred pages, and consequently each chapter is quite short and limited in scope. The first four chapters focus on descriptive sections of the Thebaid. Chapter one, “Statius’ Catalogue and Tragic Visuality,” begins with a reflection on the parallels between the catalogue of Thebaid 4 and the sequence of shields with responses in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. This is generally convincing and Chinn emphasises the parallels in viewed interpretation of the two scenes by certain viewers, since both the viewers of the Thebaid and Eteocles manipulate and interpret the images that they see. Gendered viewing is also in focus here, especially the responses of Argia and Atalanta. Chapter 2, “Statius’ Catalogue and Epic Visuality,” continues the focus on catalogue scenes, this time in relation to Statius’ epic predecessors. This chapter is less clearly focused but broadly dwells on the ways in which Statius’ catalogue scenes incorporate and re-order Vergilian and Homeric descriptions from a variety of places. Chapters 3 and 4, “Ekphrasis, Adultery, and Metanarrative” and “Statius’ Shields,” examine sequences of images, descriptions with references to adultery and descriptions of shields. The latter is more clearly connected with recollections of specific images creating a “metanarrative” commenting upon the shields’ owners. The former is harder to follow with more complex conclusions being drawn from the interplay of imagery. Nevertheless, there are a great many interesting observations and connections suggested that reward the reader’s interest.

Moving on from the Thebaid, chapter 5, “Achilles’ Blush,” begins by discussing the meanings attributed to blushes in Roman texts, beginning with a useful overview of first-century CE comments on blushing in adult and adolescent men in particular. The chapter then focuses on its deployment in the Achilleid discussing the visual description of Achilles as a young man. It argues convincingly that the descriptions of blushes are relevant to a specific discourse of viewing within Roman culture, and that the interpretation of blushing in this context is in line with normative views. Such an analysis is occasionally made confusing by the author’s initial apparent unwillingness to separate the similarly described redness of skin due to exertion and the blush of shame or modesty, clarified later in the chapter when it is recognised as distinctively relevant to his ephebic status. Chapter 6, “Silvae 1.1 and the Visuality of Empire,” joins a growing list of scholarship about the poem. Especially useful are the discussions of visual connections to the prophetic scenes of Aeneid book 6 and an excellent overview of the use of epic forge scenes in epigram. However, the chapter complicates its overview of the relationship between the Silvae and epic by first emphasising the intertextual relationship and then emphasising the distancing effect created by the smaller-scale, epigrammatic context. Chapter 7, “Silvae 4.6 and the Visuality of Satire,” perhaps most effectively demonstrates what the author’s approach brings to the poem with convincing analyses of Horatian visual intertexts and the relationship of this poem to Silvae 1.1. The close relationships between Horace’s descriptions of banquets and Statius’, combined with the intertextual and generic relationships between Silvae 4.6 and satire, create a compelling case for visual parallels. Similar visual relationships are shown to be at play between Silvae 1.1 and Silvae 4.6, and the book very effectively identifies parallels in viewpoint and reaction to create a compelling analysis. Chapter 8, “Visualizing the Good Life: the Villa Poems,” moves on to the villa poems of Silvae 1.3 and 2.2. It argues that in the first of these Statius, drawing on the Horatian moral discourse of Ep. 1.10, recategorizes the luxury of Vopiscus’ villa as both natural and morally upright. In addition, it attaches metaliterary meaning to the discussions of trees and streams. However, in doing so it overlooks crucial details, such as the emissas per cuncta cubilia nymphas of Silvae 1.3.37, which are surely relevant to plumbing, and perhaps overstates the metaliterary interpretive possibilities of the text. Is well-laid plumbing really the solution to Horace’s aesthetic objections? Discussion of Horatian engagement in Silvae 2.2 is more concrete and therefore more convincing. There follows an excellent examination of the epic intertexts for the description of the bay of Silvae 2.2. Chapter 9, “Statius and the Erotic Gaze,” turns to Silvae 1.5 and 2.3 and attempts to draw comparisons to modern analyses of the erotic gaze. Chinn’s view of Silvae 1.5 as a Horatian take on Ovidian eroticism is compelling. The analysis of Silvae 2.3 is more complex and perhaps less compelling in its conclusions, although it provides a good account of the Ovidian and Horatian background of the poem. Finishing off the book, the conclusion summarises and then looks to the reception of Statius in later Latin poetry, that of Dracontius, Claudian and Ausonius. The examples are intriguing, but it is hard to identify the same visual strategies, even where the intertextual parallels are clear. The author himself mentions, in the case of Claudian, that it is not clear how such features contribute to the work overall.

The book is valuable and thought-provoking, although it comes across as a little disjointed primarily due to its wide scope. There is not enough space in each chapter to cover each topic as thoroughly as one might hope. Nevertheless, the ideas presented are interesting and worth the reader’s time. In places there is a tendency to draw more tenuous connections than some readers might prefer. For example, the connections made in chapter 4, section 2, between the very interesting analysis of Theseus’ shield and equally good analysis of Cybele-cult imagery in the Thebaid are neither direct nor clear. However, these types of digression are frequently interesting in themselves. Occasionally it is difficult to situate Chinn’s work within the rapidly growing corpus of Statian scholarship. The problem is primarily one of style, since references and examinations of previous scholarship are generally relegated to short and occasionally unclear footnotes. In chapter 6, for example, there is no extensive discussion of Geyssen’s overall arguments, only scattered references, despite the fact that Geyssen’s commentary argues strongly for similar connections to Aeneid 2, 6 and 8 as Chinn in this chapter.[3] In this instance it might be particularly useful to have this discussion in the text so that the reader can understand whether, for instance, there are compelling reasons for not including the building of the Trojan horse in Aeneid 2 as an example of Minerva’s building activities, considering that it is explicitly mentioned in Silvae 1.1, or whether the author considers the topic to have been sufficiently covered in previous scholarship. Despite these issues, the book will be of great interest to scholars with an interest in Statius generally, visuality, and the culture of viewing in Flavian Rome.



[1] Chinn highlights especially Laura Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Screen 16 (1975): 6–18 and Helen Lovatt, The epic gaze: vision, gender and narrative in ancient epic from Homer to Nonnus. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013).

[2]  For which see especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l’invisible. (Paris: Gallimard 1964).

[3] John Geyssen, Imperial Panegyric in Statius: A Literary Commentary on Silvae 1.1. (New York: Peter Lang, 1996).