Irish Iliadic Inspiration?

From the University of Cambridge … I’m willing to bet this isn’t the only example of Classical Tradition being taken to ‘the next level':

As Ireland marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf – portrayed as a heroic encounter between Irish and Vikings which defined the nation’s identity – new research argues that our main source for what happened may be more literary history than historical fact.

The standard account of the Battle of Clontarf – a defining moment in Irish history which happened 1,000 years ago this week – was partly a “pseudo-history” borrowed from the tale of Troy, new research suggests.

The findings, which are to be published in a forthcoming book about the intellectual culture of medieval Ireland, coincide with extensive celebrations in Dublin marking the millennium of Clontarf, which was fought on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.

In popular history, the battle has been characterised as an epic and violent clash between the army of the Christian Irish High King, Brian Boru, and a combined force led by the rebel king of the territory of Leinster, Máel Mórda, and Sitric, leader of the Dublin-based Vikings. The disputed outcome saw the Vikings beaten off, but at huge cost. Brian himself was killed, and became an iconic figure and Irish martyr.

According to the new study, however, much of what we know about Clontarf may be rooted not in historical fact, but a brilliant work of historical literature which modelled sections of its text on an earlier account of the siege of Troy.

Rather than a trustworthy description of the battle itself, this account – Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (“The War Of The Irish Against The Foreigners”) – was really a rhetorical masterpiece designed to place Ireland’s legendary past in the context of a grand, classical tradition, stretching back to the works of Homer and classical philosophy.

The study argues that this in itself should be seen as evidence that the cultural achievements of Brian Boru’s successors in medieval Ireland were complex, highly sophisticated, and the equal of anywhere else in Europe.

It also means, however, that despite the widespread portrayal of Clontarf as a heroic, quasi-national conflict in which the lives of Brian and others were sacrificed in the Irish cause, the historical truth is unknown. While the advent of the battle itself and its significance is beyond question, the details of what happened are likely to remain a mystery.

The research was carried out by Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, a Reader in medieval literature and history at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. It will appear in a new book called Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative, published in Boydell and Brewer’s ‘Studies in Celtic History’ series and edited by Ralph O’Connor.

“The casting of Clontarf as a national struggle in which the aged, holy Brian was martyred still defines what most people know about the battle, and it has probably endured because that was what numerous generations of Irish men and women wanted to read,” Dr Ní Mhaonaigh said.

“Academics have long accepted that Cogadh couldn’t be taken as reliable evidence but that hasn’t stopped some of them from continuing to draw on it to portray the encounter. What this research shows is that its account of the battle was crafted, at least in part, to create a version of events that was the equivalent of Troy. This was more than a literary flourish, it was a work of a superb, sophisticated and learned author.”

Another reason that the story may have endured is a lack of physical evidence for the battle. No archaeological remains have been found, and the precise location, presumed to be somewhere around the modern Dublin suburb of Clontarf, is disputed.

Compared with the very basic information in contemporary chronicles, Cogadh provides by far the most comprehensive account of what happened. It was, however, written about a century later, probably at the behest of Brian’s great-grandson. Historians have rightly treated it as partial, but also as the written version of oral accounts that had been passed on from those who witnessed the battle itself.

The new research suggests that this pivotal source was even more of a cultivated fabrication than previously thought. Through a close study of the text, Dr Ní Mhaonaigh found that the imagery, terminology and ideas draw inspiration from a range of earlier sources – in particular Togail Troí (The Destruction of Troy), an eleventh-century translation of a fifth-century account of the battle for Troy.

In particular, the unknown author explicitly cast Brian’s son, who it is believed led a large part of his father’s army at Clontarf, as an Irish Hector, whom he describes as “the last man who had true valour in Ireland”. Tellingly, Togail Troí is also found in the same manuscript as Cogadh – suggesting that the author had this to hand when describing the battle.

Rather than pouring cold water on the millennial celebrations by showing the main account of Clontarf to have been an elaborate piece of story-telling, however, the study points out that the work bears witness to the cultural achievements of Brian’s successors.

The parallel between Murchad and Hector in particular was in fact part of a complex and deeply scholarly analogy which drew on the recurring classical motif of the “Six Ages of the World” and “Six Ages of Man”. It shows that whoever wrote it was not simply describing a battle, but crafting a brilliant work of art.

“Whoever wrote this was operating as part of larger, learned European tradition,” Dr Ní Mhaonaigh added. “People should not see the fact that it is a fabricated narrative as somehow a slur against Brian, because what it really shows is that his descendants were operating at a cultural level of the highest complexity and order.”

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Classics Confidential | Daniel Orrells on Illustrating Winckelmann

Here’s the blurb:

This week Classics Confidential was in Berlin talking to Dr Daniel Orrells about his Humboldt research project on Johann Joachim Winckelmann – the eighteenth-century German art historian who is perceived by many to be one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Classics. Dan tells us why Winckelmann’s work was so revolutionary for the field of Art History, how his masterwork Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (“The History of Art in Antiquity”, published in 1764) tied into broader intellectual currents, and how Winckelmann’s grand narrative of classical art was problematised and appropriated in later periods. In the second half of the interview we move on to discuss some of Dan’s past work on the history of sexuality, focussing on his 2011 book Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity.

Qatar and Greek Nudity Redux (With a Bit of ESPN too)

Back in April we mentioned an item wherein and exhibition in Qatar was having problems with a couple of nude Greek statues on display (Pass the Fig Leaf) … Dimitris Plantzos has written an opeddish thing for the OUP blog on the subject which has an interesting take on Greek nudity … here’s the concluding bit:

Religion is only the easy answer to this question and as such it cannot help us fathom the problem. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of hypocrisy seems to be at play here, as many of the 600 artefacts included in the Doha exhibition – supposed to work as a “bridge of friendship” between the two nations – showed bare-breasted women, yet the Qataris were happy to expose their schools and families to them. Still, it’s their museum, their rules. What I do find strange, however, is that Greece and the West at large insist on treating classical statuary as a true expression of their modern self. For classical nude had very little to do with aesthetics – it’s all social politics and I’m not quite sure we would be willing to subscribe to that in our societies. Greek nudity was invented in order to enforce specific social hierarchies — who, when and how is allowed or even able to do certain things – and, more to the point, to deploy strict gender asymmetries: only men were thought by Aristotle to possess the right body heat; women were thought of as mentally and bodily imbalanced creatures, therefore inferior to men. Male nudity, as a result, is the expression of an idealized, immortal self; female nudity, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness, vulnerability, and immorality (think of all those shy Aphrodites or debauched hetaerae lurking by the thousands in our museums). A slave could never become immortalized as a kouros, and heavy peploi and chitons made sure female bodies were kept in their proper place in art as in life. In a sense, what made Greece classical is what, in fact, ought to make us think twice before accepting the nude as an ideal form of human expression. Or is it that our needs and standards remain so much attached to those of ancient Greece that we can’t quite grasp the difference?

In this context, but before I had read this piece, I am often struck by the ‘Greekness’ of ESPN’s Body Issue, which includes nude-but-strategically-posed photos of assorted famous athletes. Some are kind of silly, but several do put one in mind of Greek statuary (e.g. the cover photo of Colin Kaepernick in the latest issue). Check out some the online versions here … there’s a link to back issues too. In the context of the above oped, it’s interesting to note the reaction in Poland to tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska’s participation in the issue (see, e.g. the Telegraph’s Agnieszka Radwanska defends her naked photo shoot). I guess this is why folks still have to compare Kenneth Clark (The Naked and the Nude) and David Freedberg (“The Power of Images: Response and Repression”) in Art History courses …

Classics Confidential | Phiroze Vasunia on the Classical Tradition in India

Here’s the official description:

In the sixth interview recorded during this year’s Classical Association meeting, CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni talks to Professor Phiroze Vasunia about his recently published book The Classics and Colonial India (OUP, May 2013).

He tells us about the impact of the Graeco-Roman classics in the age of empire (1750s-1945) and about the collision of cultures in India during this period. The very concept of the ‘classical’ was problematic in a culture with its own long-standing local traditions which included Sanskrit, Persian and Arab threads. These competed with the imported Graeco-Roman classics privileged by the British educational system (which encouraged the colonisers to view themselves as ancient Romans). Neoclassical architecture, now largely destroyed, also radically transformed the landscape of the country. Indians such as the writer Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31) and Mahatma Gandhi, however, opened up their own dialogue with ancient Greek culture and its literature. Inspired by British Romantic Philhellenism, Derozio’s poetry forged a passionate connection with both ancient and modern Greece, while Gandi’s admiration of Socrates informed his own political thinking. This is not, therefore, a simple story of empire, but one of a dialogue of traditions.
Phiroze also tells us about his work as the general editor of the Ancients and Moderns series which is published in the UK by I.B. Tauris and in the USA by OUP. The series explores how classical antiquity continues to inform modern thinking, and examines the encounter between ancients and moderns on topics such as gender, slavery and politics. Seven books have appeared to date, and more are forthcoming.

… and the interview:

Classics Confidential | Lisa Maurice on Romans and Jews in Popular Culture

The official description:

In the second interview recorded in April at the Classical Association conference in Reading Dr Lisa Maurice of Bar Ilan University talks with CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni about her twin passions: children’s literature and the portrayal of Jews in films about antiquity.

In this vodcast she talks about the popularity of the classical world in children’s literature and its impact on how ancient Rome is perceived in the modern world. At this year’s CA there were two panels devoted to the subject, testifying to the vibrancy of research in this area. Lisa discusses how the portrayal of Romans in fiction for children and young adults has changed over time. In the 1950s the Romans were seen as the great civilizers, but more recently they have become the villains. In the second half of the interview Lisa talks about her work exploring what it means to be Jewish in ancient Rome with particular reference to two televisions series: Masada (1981) and Rome (2005-7). The shifting portrayal of Jewish and Roman identity on the small screen allows us to reflect on our own understanding of both ancient and modern and the on-going dialogue between the two.

Recreating Roman Pantomime

Just a week or so ago we mentioned the Practicing Pantomime Project  … the folks involved should maybe talk to this guy, or he should talk to them … from Pressconnects:

For his final project as a Binghamton University undergraduate, local theater wunderkind Santino DeAngelo has decided to re-create an art form that’s been lost for 2,000 years.

No examples of ancient Roman pantomime — a popular entertainment that incorporated music, dance and storytelling – have survived in written form to the modern day. Scholars debate the reasons for that: Some think it’s because the pantomimes were considered “low” entertainment, while others speculate that many aspects of the performances were constructed through on-the-spot directions to actors and singers that were not preserved.

“It was basically the equivalent of television,” DeAngelo said in a recent interview. “Plays were known by their writers, but these pantomimes were famous for the artists — people would go to see the performer.

“We know that several famous Roman playwrights wrote pantomimes but didn’t attach their names to them because it was considered ‘low art.’ People would go every night to see them, though.”

DeAngelo’s re-creation, “Narcissus,” pulls directly from his undergraduate studies, which include classical civilizations, mythology and performance. He believes this is the first attempt at ancient Roman pantomime in the United States (with the only other effort in England during the 1970s).

Along with a full choral score (which will be performed by community members and BU students), DeAngelo also composed solo parts for local singers Judy Giblin, Jana Kucera and Charlie Hyland. DeAngelo himself will perform all the roles using a variety of masks.

Austin Tooley, a graduate student in BU’s theater department, will direct the production, and it will be recorded at the BTV studios on campus with the hope of broadcast at a later date. (A limited number of audience seats are available.)

DeAngelo said he hopes to capture the flavor of what ancient Roman pantomime would have been to an audience of that era.

“The great thing about reconstructing it is you’re putting yourself in the position of the writer, so I find myself thinking, ‘OK, if this has to be done quickly’ — they didn’t have a lot of time to put these together — ‘then how do I cut corners?’ If I can tell my chorus to do this and this, I don’t have to write it down,” he said. “There are many questions that come up.”

Classics Confidential | Judith Hallett on Teaching Classical Reception

Here’s the official description:

Last week we posted an interview with Professor Judith Hallett from the University of Maryland about her work on American women scholars and the Classics. Here, in a second interview with Anastasia Bakogianni, Professor Hallett discusses how classical reception can be used to engage students. She talks about how it can be incorporated into the teaching of Latin and more generally its value as a teaching tool in today’s competitive higher education climate.

Classics Confidential: Paula James on Classical Symbols in Trade Union Banners

A bit of the intro:

Spring 2013 will see the publication of a ground-breaking book on The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850–1925, which is the product of a collaboration between art historian Dr Annie Ravenhill-Johnson and OU classicist Dr Paula James. For students of the ancient world, one of the most interesting elements of the book will be its treatment of how the banners incorporated elements from the classical artistic tradition, ranging from figures of gods and personifications to architectural motifs and Latin mottos.

In this interview filmed for Classics Confidential, Paula James tells Anastasia Bakogianni about how this collaborative project began and developed, and gives us a taste of the book’s content by introducing us to a banner made for the Dockers Union in the 1890s [...]

The Afterlife of Ovid ~ Conference Videos!

Last weekend, the Warburg Institute and the Institute for Classical Studies hosted a conference called The Afterlife of Ovid and a number of videos from the meeting have made it to Youtube. I’m going to sort of intersperse an ‘edited program’ with the videos (not all talks are there … not sure if they will be coming later today or what):

Thursday 7 March 2013

10. 50 Welcome: John North (IClS)

11.00 Professor Frank Coulson (Ohio State University)
Bernardo Moretti: A Newly Discovered Humanist Commentator on Ovid’s Ibis

11.50 Dr Ingo Gildenhard (University of Cambridge)
Dante’s Ovidian Poetics

1.50 Professor Gesine Manuwald (University College London)
Letter-writing after Ovid: his impact on Neo-Latin verse epistles

2.40 Professor Hélène Casanova-Robin (Université Paris-Sorbonne Paris IV)
D’Ovide à Pontano : le mythe, une forma mentis? De l’inuentio mythologique à l’élaboration d’un idéal d’humanitas

4.00 Dr Fátima Díez-Platas (Universidad de Santiago de Compostela)
Et per omnia saecula imagine vivam: The imaged afterlife of Ovid in fifteenth and sixteenth century book illustrations

4.50 Dr Caroline Stark (Ohio Wesleyan University)
Reflections of Narcissus

Friday 8 March 2013

10.30 Professor John Miller (University of Virginia)
‘Ovid’s Janus and the Start of the Year in Renaissance Fasti Sacri.

11.20 Professor Philip Hardie (University of Cambridge)
Milton as Reader of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

12.10 Dr Victoria Moul (King’s College London)
The transformation of Ovid in Cowley’s herb garden: Books 1 and 2 of the Plantarum Libri Sex (1668).

2.00 Professor Maggie Kilgour (McGill University)
Translatio Studii, Translatio Ovidii

2.50 Professor Hérica Valladares (John Hopkins University)
The Io in Correggio: Ovid and the Metamorphosis of a Renaissance Painter

4.10 Professor Elizabeth McGrath (Warburg Institute)
Rubens and Ovid

Note in passing: this is a pretty good model for recording a conference or panel session although it might be useful if handouts were posted at the original conference website.

Hydaspes and Persina

Interesting item over at the Root … here’s the incipit:

The image is the first in a series of 10 large canvases by the Dutch artist Karel van Mander depicting a remarkable tale of love, misadventure and reconciliation. The paintings illustrate the complex narrative related in The Aethiopica, a late antique novel written by Heliodorus of Emesa in Syria.

The epic became popular in the 16th century when it was rediscovered and translated from the original Greek. The Aethiopica flashed across the skies of the European visual imagination amid an energetic burst of interest in the story for about 50 years and then mysteriously declined.

The story begins in the middle with an encounter with pirates by the two protagonists: Theagenes, a descendant of Achilles, and Chariclea, a priestess of Artemis at Delphi. Only at this point is an amazing backstory revealed: Chariclea turns out to be the daughter of King Hydaspes and Queen Persina of Ethiopia.

During conception, which is about to take place in the picture here, her mother had looked at a painting of the mythical Greek figure Andromeda. In accordance with the theory of maternal impression, still current when this image was painted, this gaze caused her child to be born white. Fearing an accusation of adultery, Persina abandoned her daughter, who was eventually adopted by Charicles, a Greek priest. After many adventures, she and Theagenes arrive in Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia. Chariclea is reunited with her parents, and the couple weds.

Of the many depictions of The Aethiopica, van Mander was the only one to unambiguously embrace this distinction of black and white. He treated the whole course of the narrative, not just the episodes taking place outside of Ethiopia, while most of his contemporaries significantly downplayed the blackness of Hydaspes and Persina.

He brings this ancient tale to life through a vigorous, unrestrained treatment of action and facial expression, and a lively portrayal of the black protagonists. In fact, there is evidence that at least some of the figures were based on actual models — that is, black people living in northern Europe, most likely Denmark, where Van Mander was serving as court painter when the series was created. [...]

… the original article includes the painting which is remarkable in its portrayal …

Socrates Found Guilty!

Well, this is different … as far as I recall, this is the first time we moderns followed the ancients on this one. The Sun Times seems to have the best coverage … here’s the last half or so:

[...] Former assistant U.S. attorney Patrick Collins again teamed up with Fitzgerald to do battle with Socrates’ equally formidable defense team consisting of former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb and personal injury attorney Bob Clifford. All this despite the fact that Socrates actually defended himself.

Fitzgerald argued that history’s view of the original conviction is biased because the only records of the trial are written by Socrates’ student and friend, Plato.

He urged jurors to give the Athenians, “who had the full trial transcripts,” the benefit of the doubt.

Collins mixed Athenian and Chicago lore in his appeal to convict Socrates of creating and worshiping a new God:

“You cannot dis the Gods, the Gods are jealous. The Gods hold a grudge. For God’s sakes even here in America in 1945 a man brings a goat into Wrigley field — there has not been a World Series game in Wrigley since. The God’s have a memory!”

Presiding Judge Richard A. Posner — who sits on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals — equated the charge of corrupting the youth to the modern era charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

“Socrates would teach young men, for over 50 years, things such as virtue, he’d teach them a method of thinking about their lives and the problems they encounter in their lives,” said Webb, who, unlike his fellow attorneys, maintained a serious tone throughout.

“The accusers have told you he taught young people to disrespect democracy … and engage in violence and threaten the democracy of Athens.”

The mock trial was presented by the National Hellenic Museum. A jury of leading politicians, lawyers and media stars joined members of the audience in voting for a verdict and recommended sentence.

After arguments, Posner said he couldn’t give the death sentence to a “70-year-old loudmouth.”

His co-judges also weighed in on the amount Socrates should be fined.

Anna H. Demacopoulos, a Cook County criminal judge, suggested 3,000 silver drachmas.

“I’d fine him two bucks and let it go at that,” said William J. Bauer, who also sits on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As alluded to above, previous ‘retrials’ in New York and Athens both came down on the side of Socrates (see: Yet Another Retrial of Socrates) … this trial seems to have had a more ‘tongue in cheek’ (for want of a better phrase) aspect to it.

Alexander the Great and Mali

History Today pulled an interesting and timely piece from its archives t’other day … here’s a taste in medias res:

[...] On reading the epic [sc. the Mali Epic/Sundiata] one is struck by the frequent references to Djoula Kara Naini , the Mandinke corruption of Dhu’l Quarnein, the horned Alexander of the Middle Eastern romance tradition, the sixth great conqueror of the world and the defender of civilisation against the forces of Gog and Magog, who is mentioned in the seventh book of the History of the Jewish War of Josephus (ch 7) and in the eighteenth Shura of the Qur’an. On three occasions in the epic, Sundiata is referred to as ‘shield’, ‘bulwark’ and ‘seventh and last conqueror of the world’, excelling Djoula Kara Naini , respectively. There are two explicit references in the epic to Sundiata’s admiration for Alexander: as a child, at the feet of his griot, he ‘listened enraptured to the history of Djoula Kara Naini , the mighty king of gold and silver, whose sun shone over half the world’. Years later, while on campaign, he listened to the holy men who ‘often related to him the history of Djoula Kara Naini , and several other heroes, but of all of them Sundiata preferred Djoula Kara Naini the king of gold and silver, who crossed the world from west to east: he wanted to outdo his prototype both in the extent of his territory and wealth of his treasury’. The latter quotation itself suggests an instance of Sundiata’s ‘imitation': that is, his preference for the tales about Alexander corresponds to Alexander’s preference for the Iliad and for its hero whom he emulated. Indeed, Plutarch, in the seventh chapter of his life of Alexander, relates that Alexander used the Iliad as a vade mecum on his campaigns and kept it in a special casket. Alexander’s emulation of Achilles is attested in all the extant Alexander histories. [...]

… plenty of comparanda and Classical Reception things in this one to keep you busy on a cold day …

Roman Tapestries

Tip o’ the pileus to Amy Burvall for alerting us to this art project … a bit of the official description should be enough to get you to click through:

In “Heavenly Bodies” NASA is playing a part in the maintenance of our gods. Cesar Augustus was declared upon his death a god in 14BC. We see a marble bust of him strapped in a space suit awaiting his ascension. Apollo’s lyre is in need of repair. From the International Space Station’s cupola we see him awaiting his upgrade. Romans meet at the Saturn moon Enceladus. Caligula on Mars!

Keep Calm and Carry On

So last night I was wondering why departments aren’t festooned with posters like this and/or students sporting the latest memeish Ovidian attire:

… just in case someone searches for “Keep Calm and Carry On” in Latin; we Classics types were keeping calm and carrying on since the fall of the Republic or thereabouts … the full quotation is
perfer et obdura! dolor hic tibi proderit olim;  saepe tulit lassis sucus amarus opem (Ovid, Amores 3.11a.7-8 (from the Latin Library … can’t seem to find it in Perseus) or perfer et obdura; multo graviora tulisti (Tristia, 5.11.7) … created with the Keep Calm-o-matic

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’?”
“Do you consider the ‘Saturnalia’ more revolting than ‘The Rake’s Progress’?”
“I do.”
“Are you familiar with the ‘Laocoon’?”
“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

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:

Ancient Olympics Compendium

As might be expected, there has been a pile of attention in the popular press being paid to the ancient version of the Olympics and I figured it would be a useful thing to gather a bunch of them together in one post to give you some way to kill time while you were waiting for the opening ceremonies, or if you wanted to read something instead of watching the opening ceremonies, or whether you missed the opening ceremonies, or whether the opening ceremonies made you wonder what the ancients did. ‘Nuff said? Ecce and enjoy … you should be able to kill a couple hours with this one:
First and foremost, the fine folks at Cambridge Journals have made a huge selection (20+) of articles available (for free) which touch upon the ancient Olympics/athletics in some way:

I mentioned this as a Blogosphere post, but it bears repeating … the Ancient Olympics blog has a feature on the Ancient Opening Ceremonies, such as they were (and there’s plenty of other items of interest at the AO blog, of course):

A video break … the Iris Project’s Lorna Robinson talks about the Olympics 2012 project (tip o’ the pileus to the Classics Confidential folks):

Ages ago, BBC Magazine had a nice feature on the ‘basics’ of the ancient games:

Tip o’ the pileus to Arthur Shippee for drawing our attention to an NPR interview with Tony Perrottet about poetry and the Olympics:

You can get a sense of the focus of the London Evening Standard‘s feature on Olympia and the ancient games from the headline:

In a similar vein is the Daily Mail‘s offering, which actually is a semi-review of Neil Faulkner’s A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics:

Margaret Butler (Tulane) has some commentary on the ancient game v. the modern ones which will be showing up in various forms this weekend, I suspect:

Self-explanatory, from the University of Sydney (tip o’ the pileus to John McMahon):

Greek Reporter seems to not have liked a British Documentary:

We can do some more clearing of our email box by noting that the Nemean Games revival also has been getting some press attention … first (and most recent), an ITV news report:

… and from the Spenborough Guardian (the date on this is today, but it’s older):

… and the other Guardian … they also have video:

And now some more videos which I came across in my idleness (not recent, but useful):

An Emory-sponsored lecture by Dr. Hans-Joachim Gehrke on excavations at Olympia:

I suppose we should include the Horrible Histories coverage:

… and since I still can’t find a video of Boris Johnson’s complete performance of Armand D’Angour’s ode, here’s a performance of the first part of a modern adaptation of Pindar’s first Pythian: