Biondi ~ Saturnalia

T’other day, Steven Saylor drew our attention to a very interesting sculpture:

Wikimedia Commons

It’s entitled ‘Saturnalia’ and is by Ernesto Biondi … I suspect you may have seen it at some point in your life in a textbook or internet site explaining what the Roman festival was all about (more photos here).  If you look at some of the figures, you can see a couple of priests, a priestess, a soldier, and assorted others who are clearly in the ‘spirit’ (apparently) of the Saturnalian season. But what is really interesting to note is that his particular sculpture is actually a copy, made in 1909, and currently residing in the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. According to the Wikipedia article on Ernesto Biondi, the original was displayed (with assorted other works by Biondi) at the Exhibition Universelle in Paris. The Wikipedia article also gives a hint of the controversy which surrounded the Saturnalia in the early 20th century when it was supposed to go on display at the Met:

In 1905 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City agreed to display the work for one year. It was shipped to the United States to be exhibited at the Pan-American exhibition at Buffalo and was set up at the exhibition grounds “Venice in America” in hopes for a sale. After the work did not sell, the director of the Met, General Cesnola, arranged for the work to be set up within the sculpture hall at the museum.[6] At a private viewing before the exhibition opened,[7] museum trustees were appalled by the “immorality” of the work.[8] and ordered it removed from display. Biondi sued the museum for $200,000 for breach of contract and for damages for the harm their actions caused his reputation.[7] The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the museum, stating that the museum director did not have the authority to enter into a binding contract without the vote of the board of trustees, and that the document Biondi thought to be a contract was actually a receipt for his work.[9]

Poking around the New York Times from the time (ick! sorry), the story becomes a bit more interesting and this appears to have been quite the ‘art scandal’ (for want of a better word) at the time and probably will have resonances for plenty of folks now. We’ll begin with a bit from the May 21 edition, which relates how Biondi came to America to see how his various sculptures we being displayed and was shocked when he came to the Met and found his Saturnalia languishing in the basement of the Met, in its storage crates — apparently because assorted museum types deemed it “immoral”. His reaction, inter alia:

“I was stunned,” exclaimed Signor Biondi yesterday, at his brother’s apartments.”To think that a moral lesson like the ‘Saturnalia’, designed to show the decadence of Rome under the Emperors, soon to be given a fresh lease of life by the strength of the barbarians and the influence of Christianity, should be smirched with the epithet immoral! As an artist, I was amazed that a group which received the suffrages of the greatest artist assembled at Paris, including Americans, should have been treated so ignominously. As a thinker I was aghast at the dullness of men who could so misconstrue the meaning of the group as to think it unfit for public exhibition. I looked about the hall and found the ‘Bacchante’ by

Met Museum Photo

MacMonnies, absolutely nude and dancing under the influence of wine. I found in the sculpture galleries the nude masterpieces of antiquity, the drunken Silenus, the inebriated Satyr, and a hundred instances of sculpture of the kind that contained no moral, no warning from history. So far as my group is concerned, there is no nudity at all, unless you call that woman nude whose dress has slipped down a little. My group is a warning to the modern world that a nation at the top of her powers which does not study higher things than luxury and self-indulgence must inevitably fall before a cleaner, higher-toned nation.

A couple of weeks later (June 10, 1904) we read that the Italian government decided not to get involved, but an official from the consulate did note that Americans did like to go to Italy to look at the nude statues. He added that he suspected it was jealousy from American artists which were behind the dispute. In the same week, we hear (June 12) of the Met offering the artist a thousand dollars or something like that to assuage his “hurt feelings” to which he responded with a plan to “appeal to twelve cities”, by which the sculpture would be sold to some syndicate and displayed in twelve American cities which would act as a ‘jury’ and render a verdict whether it should be displayed. Personally, I don’t quite understand that bit but there appears to have been a press conference of some sort at which the MacMonnie’s Bacchante was brought up again, and then Biondi actually explained what his Saturnalia was all about:

“It was twelve years ago while going over some ancient Roman manuscripts that I conceived a statue to represent the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. At first it was intended to be a much smaller group than it is. But the idea grew in my mind until it became a full life-sized group of ten figures. As every one knows, the feast of the Saturnalia were celebrated during three days every year. The greatest liberty was accorded the people — gladiators, soldiers, and slaves — and the era I have depicted is that one when the helpless soldiery, unable to oppose barbarian invasions, wreaked their vengeance on the citizens by tyrannizing over them. the old social organism was falling into decay — the rulers were feebly striving to postpone the swiftly approach end and at the same time to forget their anxiety by humoring their pleasures.”

“This bronze group shows the dawn following a night of orgy. A company of plebeians has met with some intoxicated pagan priests on the sacred highway. All three of the latter are the incarnation of the pagan world. They recognize in the group a patrician woman who has instinctively sought the protection of the gladiator, whose face is illumined by the spirit of revolt — a new Spartacus conscious of his power! — Near them is a child marching on to a new existence. On one side is a woman of the people, next to whom is a brutalized slave enjoying a moment’s license, next a mercenary soldier, and then a flute player. They swing along singing, opening thus, perhaps unconsciously, the funeral march of an era. Is that an improper conception?”

Things seem to have quietened down for a bit, then we hear in the August 29 edition, that the National Sculpture Society was removing its objection and that the sculpture might be put on display. The reason for the withdrawal of objection appears to be the death of some bigwig named “Mr Avery”, who had great influence and, being dead, of course, no longer had that influence. Within a couple of weeks, however (September 6, 1904) we read of assorted major religious publications decided to impose their definition of art on the sculpture. Henry R. Elliot of the Church Economist is quoted as saying:

“The theme is obnoxious. It is curious that a subject of this sort is so often tolerated because the details are treated in terms of two or three thousand years ago. It would not be art to depict a group of drunkards reeling down Broadway in evening dress, but is correct if the revelers are dubbed bacchantes or dressed in Roman or Grecian clothes. We have similar absurdities in music and literature. Lay the scene in Spain or in fairland, and anything is ‘art’. To dwell in detail on a debauch in the Tenderloin is low and not to be permitted. But to describe the revels in the streets of Rome during the Decadence is a work of art. There is too much of this in vogue, in my judgement, for public morals. The Saturnalia was a beastly orgy, which no city in the civilized world would now tolerate. Why make a characteristic group of such an evil debauch the them of a work of statuary? Suppose the treatment is masterly; what of it?”

Flash ahead to June 3, 1905 and the trial is under way. We then learn that the guy with whom Biondi had made the contract did not have authority to do so. We also learn that the sculpture had been put on display briefly for trustees and journalists, and it was decided not to go public with it. The matter of Biondi being offered a thousand dollars to cover his expenses — which he declined — was also brought up again. On June 5, the attorney for the Met, Robert W. De Forest, who was also one of the trustees, among other things, took the stand to testify, and another bit of sculpture you are familiar with came up (wait for it):

“I think,” said Mr. De Forest, “that the statue is an intensely realistic presentation of an extremely disagreeable and revolting subject.”
“Is not Hogarth regarded as one of the greatest artists that ever li ed?”
“He is regarded as one of the greatest English artists.”
“And you have seen his ‘Rake’s Progress’?”
“Yes”
“Do you consider the ‘Saturnalia’ more revolting than ‘The Rake’s Progress’?”
“I do.”
“Are you familiar with the ‘Laocoon’?”
“Yes.”
“Isn’t it revolting and horrible?”
“It is not revolting, but it is horrible in a sense.”
“Is the “Saturnalia’ more revolting than ‘The Laocoon’?”
“Decidedly more so.”

If you’re wondering about Rake’s Progress, it was a series of eight paintings on a vaguely similar theme. A few days later (June 9) we hear that Biondi did lose his suit because he didn’t actually have a contract at all. What he thought was a contract was a receipt stating that the Met wasn’t responsible for the safety of articles beyond ‘reasonable care’. Adding insult to injury, Biondi was allowed to take possession of the group, but was responsible for paying some $18,200 (that’s 1905 dollars!) which had accrued in customs duties. The story (as far as the New York Times seems to be concerned) comes a couple of weeks later (June 25) when Frederick E. Triebel — who was apparently a big sculptor in his day, but seems to be but a footnote on the internet — returned from the Yucatan to say he supported Biondi.

So there you have it, the story of Biondi’s Saturnalia. From what I have been able to figure out, the original was returned to Rome (remember, the photo we began this lengthy post with is a copy made a few years after this brouhaha) and put in the National Museum of Modern Art in Rome. Oddly, however, I have been unable to ascertain whether it is on display there or not … if someone knows, please feel free to enlighten us!

* By the way, if you want to read the New York Times pieces yourself, google Biondi Saturnalia New York Times

Reviews from BMCR

  • 2012.08.13:  Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Christophe Cusset, Euphorion. Oeuvre poétique et autres fragments. Fragments, 14.
  • 2012.08.12:  Philip Freeman, Quintus Tullius Cicero. How To Win an Election: an Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians.
  • 2012.08.11:  Gianpaolo Urso, Dicere laudes: elogio, comunicazione, creazione del consenso. Atti del convegno internazionale, Cividale del Friuli, 23-25 settembre 2010. I convegni della Fondazione Niccolò Canussio, 10.
  • 2012.08.10:  M. Migliori, L. M. Napolitanio Valditara, A. Fermani, Inner Life and Soul: Psyche in Plato. Lecturae Platonis, 7.
  • 2012.08.09:  M. L. West, The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary.
  • 2012.08.08:  Édith Parmentier, Francesca Prometea Barone, Nicolas de Damas. Histoires; Recueil de coutumes; Vie d’Auguste; Autobiographie. Fragments.
  • 2012.08.07:  Jennifer Trimble, Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. Greek culture in the Roman world.
  • 2012.08.06:  René Treuil, L’archéologie cognitive: techniques, modes de communication, mentalités. Cogniprisme.
  • 2012.08.05:  Cécile Corbel-Morana, Le Bestiaire d’Aristophane. Collection d’études anciennes. Série grecque, 144.
  • 2012.08.04:  Verity J. Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Greek culture in the Roman world.
  • 2012.08.03:  Imre Tóth, Fragmente und Spuren nichteuklidischer Geometrie bei Aristoteles. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Bd. 280.
  • 2012.08.02:  Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: the Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art.
  • 2012.07.57:  David Raeburn, Oliver Thomas, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a Commentary for Students.
  • 2012.07.56:  Nikolaos Vakonakis, Das griechische Drama auf dem Weg nach Byzanz: der euripideische Cento Christos Paschon. Classica Monacensia, Bd 42.
  • 2012.07.55:  Harvey Yunis, Plato: Phaedrus. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics.
  • 2012.07.54:  Katerina Servi, The Acropolis: the Acropolis Museum.
  • 2012.07.53:  John Glucker, Charles Burnett, Greek into Latin from Antiquity until the Nineteenth Century. Warburg Institute colloquia, 18
  • 2012.07.52:  Ian Johnston, G. H. R. Horsley, Galen: Method of Medicine. Volume III, Books 10-14. Loeb classical library, 518.
    Ian Johnston, G. H. R. Horsley, Galen: Method of Medicine. Volume II, Books 5-9. Loeb classical library 517.

Also Seen: Roman Piracy and Pulp Fiction

No, not the movie … the original meaning of ‘pulp fiction’ as in cheaply/mass-produced fiction which was most likely what protogeeks spent time reading after they had read Lord of the Rings but before the internet was invented. Anyhoo, Roman piracy was apparently a popular theme in many such novels and Golden Gazette News has a nice little feature on same:

I am the very model of a staunch Roman Republican

I don’t think we’ve ever posted this one here before and a tip o’ the pileus to Joanne Conman for reminding us of its existence … goes to some Gilbert and Sullivan tune, of course … here’s the first verse:

I am the very model of a staunch Roman Republican
I like to read from Cato because things were so much better then
I uphold all the virtues, except when they’re really bugging me
I think I’m so superior with my Stoic philosophy […]

… read the rest at Nova Roma

CJ Online Review: Munteanu, Tragic Pathos

posted with permission:

Dana LaCourse Munteanu, Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 278. Hardcover, £60.00/$99.00 ISBN 978-0-521-76510-7.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Belfiore, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Munteanu’s book demonstrates admirably that new approaches can provide illuminating insights into much-studied topics. As she states in the Introduction: “The novelty of my study lies in recovering various cultural facets of the emotional responses to tragedy through a synthesis of sources, such as philosophical descriptions …, fragments of comic poetry, and dramatic scholia …, reports about the original tragic performances, and emotional expressions of the internal audiences (i.e. characters and chorus witnessing the suffering of others within drama). … In the treatment of each tragedy, most original are the assessments of the relationship between the emotional expressions of internal audiences and the likely and reported reactions of the external spectators” (2).

After a broad survey of issues concerning aesthetic emotions (Introduction), Part I provides some background on Indo-European drama, and studies the views of Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle, whose ideas about catharsis are wisely relegated to an Appendix: “As the meaning of catharsis is perhaps unattainable, I have tried to turn to a more practical type of analysis of the emotions—which is an Aristotelian thing to do, after all” (250). Part II puts the theoretical ideas presented in Part I to good, practical use, by studying four plays, including one by each of the three major tragedians.

I found two key ideas, presented throughout, to be of particular interest and importance. First, Munteanu’s emphasis on the two audiences—internal and external—helps her to arrive at many original interpretations of entire plays and individual scenes, and insights into the possible responses of the original Athenian audience. She argues, for example, that Aeschylus’s Persians would have aroused in the external audience the kind of fear for the Persian army that the Queen expresses within the play, while descriptions of the army by the Chorus would have aroused fear of the enemy (Chap. 6). Prometheus Bound (Chap. 7) contains numerous appeals to pity, as Prometheus himself invites both audiences to watch and sympathize (169). Nevertheless, many of the internal responses are unlike those discussed by theorists (179–80), and the complicated responses of the internal audiences may have challenged contemporary ethical, political and religious ideas (164). Chap. 8 provides some excellent analyses of metatheatrical elements in Sophocles’ Ajax that arouse pity, and discusses ways in which the play exemplifies Aristotle’s views about tragic pity, while also going beyond Aristotle to suggest that this emotion can have the ethical benefit of sophrosynê (p. 202). I would, however, take issue with her statement that Odysseus’ pity for Ajax does not lead to direct action in this play (232–3). It could be argued that his pity leads him to help Ajax to gain burial after his death. Chap. 9 examines Euripides’ departures from the Aristotelian norm in his Orestes: “The dramatist . . . plays with the convention, suggesting infinitely more possible reactions to tragic events” (225).

Second, Munteanu focuses on the idea of seeing events in the mind’s eye, expressed in Aristotle’s injunction to the poet to bring the events “before the eyes” (Poet. 17, quoted p. 78): “Seeing with the mind’s eye, imagining, in Aristotle’s theory is the essential feature in the formation of pity: the emotion relies on one’s ability to relate to the suffering of another by envisioning a future or past similar misfortune with respect to the self. Aristotle prefers tragic plots that are so well designed that they can be imagined even without being directly seen” (231). She also calls attention throughout to the “frequent verbal references to seeing and sight” in the tragedies (231). Her detailed analyses of many specific examples help the reader to understand Aristotle’s ideas, and the powerful emotional effects of the tragedies. Her study will also enable readers to appreciate similar ideas in modern art forms, from what was called “the theater of the imagination” in the early days of radio, to this statement in Dickens’ David Copperfield (beginning of Chap. 55): “As plainly as I behold what happened, I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.”

Less convincing is Munteanu’s account of the “proper pleasure” of tragedy, a kind of pleasure that in some way derives from the painful emotions of pity and fear (103ff.). She provides some good correctives to views (including my own) that tend to emphasize cognitive pleasure at the expense of emotion. Her ideas, however, could be better explained and supported. She identifies the “proper pleasure” of tragedy with what Aristotle calls a “supervening completion” (108ff.), but fails to provide adequate discussion of this highly controversial concept. Moreover, her statement that “the ‘proper pleasure’ of tragedy is cognitive” (131) might appear to support the very views she opposes. Finally, although Munteanu gives a good account of the pleasure of mourning as involving memory of the past (117ff.), she neglects passages in ancient sources that could be used to support her own views about the importance of non-cognitive responses. For example, in Homer, mourning often seems to be the satisfaction of desire (eros), like the desire for food or sex (e.g. Il. 24.227), and Plato writes of the tragic poet who “fills up” that part of the soul that “is starved for weeping … being of such a nature as to desire (epithumein) such things” (Rep.10.606a; see my Tragic Pleasures, Princeton, 1991, 228–9).

Finally, I note a few problems and errors.

(1) The argument is sometimes hard to follow, attempting to cover too much in too short a space. Chap. 1, on Indo-European ritual, is not sufficiently detailed to be very useful, and Chap. 3, on Plato, covers too many dialogues and subjects in too little detail. In particular, more careful analysis could have been given to important passages in Rep. 10.

(2) More attention could have been paid to relevant work on narrative theory. For example, Munteanu does not cite Irene de Jong’s important study (Narrative in Drama: The Art of the Euripidean Messenger-Speech, Leiden, 1991), which contains (108–14), good accounts of the reactions to messenger speeches of “internal addressees” and “external addressees.”

(3) There are a number of careless errors. For example, the header on p. 103, “Proper pleasure as a species of mimesis” should read “as a species of the pleasure of mimesis,” as p. 105, bottom, indicates: “tragic hedonê does appear to belong to the larger category, the hedonê of mimesis.” The capitals in the Greek quotation on p. 195 are confusing, and are not in the text of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, the date of which is incorrectly given in the bibliography.

(4) The translations by the author are sometimes inaccurate or poor. For example, τοῦ θρηνώδους (Rep. 10.606a8-b1) is confusingly translated as “this mourning” in the long quotation (64), but accurately translated at the bottom of the same page as “the ‘grieving part’.” Important phrases are sometimes omitted from translations, e.g. διὰ μιμήσεως (71), αὐτῆς (79–80), and μᾶλλον (91). ὢ πόποι is translated by the unfortunate phrase “Oh wow” (126).

Although Tragic Pathos is not always easy to read, it well repays careful study. Munteanu opens up important new ways of approaching old problems, and a broader perspective on ancient texts. Her book has important implications for further studies of literary, philosophical, and political issues, both ancient and modern.

Archaic Colors @ the Acropolis Museum

That ancient statuary was coloured is, of course, well known to all who wander through these pages and in recent years (weeks, even) there has been an upsurge in interest, it seems, in ‘recolouring’ things. Accordingly, the Acropolis Museum has mounted an exhibition devoted thereto … here’s a bit from the blurb:

Commencing Tuesday 31 July 2012 and for the next twelve months, the Acropolis Museum wants to conduct research on its unique collection of archaic statues, which retain their colors to a small or large degree, and to open a very extensive discussion with the public and various experts on color, its technical issues, its detection using new technologies, its experimental use on marble surfaces, its digital reconstruction, its meaning, as well as the archaic period’s aesthetic perception of color. So far, scientific research into the color found on ancient sculpture has made great progress and reached surprising conclusions that to a large degree refute the stereotypical assumptions regarding ancient sculpture. It turns out that color, far from being just a simple decorative element, added to the sculpture’s aesthetic quality.

For ancient Greeks and their society, color constituted a way to characterize various attributes. The blond hair of the gods projected their power; the brown skin of warriors and athletes was a sign of virtue and valor, while the white skin of the korai expressed the grace and radiance of youth.

The Μuseum’s initiative on Archaic Colors is based on very careful observation, on spectroscopic analysis, on special photography sessions, on efforts to reproduce the colors of antiquity and then to apply them on Parian marble, and naturally, on searching through written sources for valuable information on the pigments.
The statues’ crisp, saturated colors, on bright garments and tender bodies, combined with the rich jewelry, frequently made of metal, and elaborately curled hair created a singular aesthetic pleasure, making the archaic statues “wonderful to behold” for the people of the period. […]

If you have kids, or are bored, or want to kill time, scroll down that page and you can colour the Peplos Kore in whatever gaudy goodness you want. The instructions are in Greek, but it’s not difficult to figure out …