Vassar’s Kaleidoscope Lecture Series

This sounds like a really interesting approach … do other universities do this sort of thing? From the Vassar Miscellany News:

Put an archivist, art historian, classicist and theologian into the same room, if you can, put a Northern Renaissance painting before them, and let them discuss and pick apart it. Students and faculty will have the chance to see these very four in action on Thursday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. when this semester’s Kaleidoscope lecture takes place. Kaleidoscope is a lecture series held once a semester that brings a group of Vassar professors—all from different departments—to discuss a work of art from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s diverse and impressive collection. Thursday’s speakers will include Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art Susan Kuretsky ’63, Professor of Greek and Roman Studies J. Bert Lott, Professor of Religion Marc Michael Epstein, and Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History Ron Patkus. The program will also include recitations by Vassar students of the biblical account of the first seven days of the creation in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English. A reception in the Art Center atrium will follow.

The lecture series began just two years ago when Andrew W. Mellon Coordinator of Academic Affairs Diane Butler arrived on campus. As an academic coordinator, one of Butler’s many responsibilities is to make the Loeb’s collection accessible and relevant to all students and professors, no matter what their field may be. “Our life is a barrage of fast imagery,” she explained. Too often, Butler explains, people do not look closely enough at the objects in front of them, even in a museum. Kaleidoscope will give students and professors a golden opportunity to do just that: look closely, thoroughly, at a work of art that lends itself to countless modes of inquiry. She chose for this semester’s lecture series a painting by Northern Renaissance artist Joos van Cleve (1490-1540) called “St. Jerome in His Study,” circa 1530.

As a classicist, Lott will look at the painting from an historical vantage point. He will take into account the central issues of the day during Jerome’s lifetime (347-420 A.D.), such as the Christianization of the Roman Empire and, by extension, Christianity’s transition from a criminal to state religion. As for Jerome himself, the painting’s very subject, he was a highly learned man whose most profound legacy was the Volgate Bible, a Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments, which were originally written in Hebrew and Greek, respectively. By translating these works into Latin, Jerome made these holy texts far more accessible than they had ever been previously.

Jerome’s image as a tireless scholar eventually became a model for emulation in Europe starting around the 16th century. His popularity during the Renaissance had much to do with the religious turmoil that typified this period. The end of the 15th century saw a dramatic shift in expectations regarding the path to salvation. Theologians and ordinary citizens alike believed that they would do better not to count on the rituals of the Catholic Church and to put greater emphasis instead on the word of God as presented in the Bible.

Jerome’s ability to translate the Bible into Latin—a language in which Renaissance scholars and theologians would have been well versed—opened up the possibility of translating the Bible into modern European languages. As Kuretsky points out, “Jerome is often called a patron saint of the Renaissance because he made possible—albeit indirectly—the democratization of knowledge and accessibility to the Bible that helped characterize 16th-century Europe.” In her discussion of the painting, Kuretsky will assess van Cleve’s painting as an object, both in its materiality and visual vocabulary.

Epstein plans to discuss the iconography of van Cleve’s work—that is, the symbolism and meaning of the objects surrounding Jerome. Many scholars have noted that paintings from this period often include a vast array of domestic, household items that also function as religious signifiers, or what art historian Erwin Panofsky has famously called “disguised symbolism.” By incorporating disguised symbolism into their work, Renaissance painters showed their viewers how they could lead their lives as good Christians in the day-to-day.

Patkus will consider the depiction of books in van Cleve’s work. The placement of books, the purpose of looking at books in a painting like this one, the presentation of books in relation to the composition as a whole; these are some of the core issues on Patkus’ mind and by extension, some of the issues that he will discuss. Like Lott, Patkus is also interested in the period during which Jerome was alive—specifically, the materials that were used to make books. Patkus will consider this in relation to the rise of the printing press that became so paramount during the Renaissance.

The four participating professors all agree that this event is a terrific chance to showcase Vassar’s unique interdisciplinary approach to learning through an exchange of knowledge: “I have no idea what I’ll learn, and that’s the wonderful part of it,” Kuretsky said.

… another one for the “If I ever win the lottery” list …

What Garret Fagan is Up To

Our fellow McMaster alum is giving the Davis Lecture at Samford University … from the Crimson:

There will be blood at this year’s Davis lecture.

Dr. Garrett G. Fagan will deliver “Watching the Fighters: Exploring the Roman Fascination with Gladiatorial Combat.” He will be discussing how the Roman ideas of sport translate into the modern American spectacle. The free lecture is October 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wright Center.

“We are Roman in so many ways–especially in how we relate to sports” said the history department’s Dr. Jason Wallace.

Wallace has arranged the Davis Lecture for the past five years.

Wallace is looking forward to hearing Fagan’s ideas on how the Romans’ “ritualized violence” in the form of gladiatorial games.

He sees clear correlations in American football and other sports.

“It’s like we have to satisfy that aggressive side of our nature….I watch football with my kids and see a bad hit, and tell them, ‘It’s a violent game.’” said Wallace.

Wallace sees connections to the “hero worship” of modern sports stars, as well. A gladiator was held above his fellow men if he performed well in the arena, just as sports celebrities like Chad Ochocinco, Tim Tebow or Dwyane Wade are celebrated and emulated for their accomplishments on the field or on the court.

Fagan is an associate professor of classics and Mediterranean studies at Pennsylvania State University. He has been featured on the History Channel and Nova. Fagan has also produced multiple courses for The Teaching Company on ancient Rome, Roman emperors and ancient warfare.

Fagan will be lecturing out of his new book, The Lure of the Arena. He will be selling and signing copies after the event.

The Davis lecture series began thanks to an endowment from former Howard College of Arts and Sciences Dean and English professor J. Roderick Davis. The lectures have brought internationally reknowned figures such as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and Dr. Kevin Davies, founding editor of Nature Genetics. This will be the ninth year for the series.

The Davis lecture also counts for a Convocation Credit in the Academic Lecture category.

Scott Simpson, an undeclared sophomore says he will attend the lecture.

“Gladiators are awesome. I know [Dr. Fagan] from the History Channel,” Simpson said.

Freshman music major Mark Ortiz is “very much so” interested in gladiators. He cannot wait to hear Dr. Fagan’s lecture.

Even more than gaining a deeper knowledge of the Roman games and lifestyle, Wallace hopes that students will leave the lecture with a better understanding of themselves.

“Games tell us something about ourselves and what we value. We need to remember there is a human side,” Wallace said.

Putin, Phangoria, Fake? Well duh …

Really? This is news? Did anyone REALLY THINK PUTIN ACTUALLY FOUND THOSE AMPHORAE? The Australian (and the others picking up the story) doesn’t give us much credit for intelligence:

THE widely publicised incident in which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pulled up ancient Greek jug fragments from the seabed on a diving expedition was staged, his chief spokesman says.

The August dive in the Kerch Strait that connects the Black and Azov seas was reported extensively in Russian and overseas media. Mr Putin is noted for his habit of appearing in vigorous and adventurous settings, including fishing while stripped to the waist and riding with leather-clad motorcyclists.

In video footage of the dive, Mr Putin holds two fragments of what are said to be 6th century BC Greek jugs and says “the boys and I found them” in about two metres of clear water.

But his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that the jugs had been found earlier by archaeologists and placed there for Mr Putin.

“Look, Putin didn’t find down there jugs that had lain there for many thousands of years. It’s obvious,” Mr Peskov said in response to questions from the interviewers.

“Of course, they were found in the course of an expedition several weeks or days earlier. Of course, they were left there or placed there. It’s completely normal. There’s no reason to gloat about this and everything else,” he said.Mr Peskov’s comments were an unusually candid glimpse into the cultivation of Mr Putin’s image as a tough man of action.

Previous image-boosting appearances, which have shown Mr Putin hunting, riding horseback and admiring a tranquilised polar bear, have contributed to his popularity, but have also prompted bitter comments on blogs and social media.

Mr Peskov’s rare interview with a television station that has been critical of the government could reflect authorities’ concerns about a negative attitude to Mr Putin’s re-election bid among the nation’s intellectuals and middle class.

Mr Putin, who was president in 2000-2008, is almost certain to return to the Kremlin in next March’s election. He and President Dmitry Medvedev announced last month they had agreed that Putin would run for the presidency and Mr Medvedev would be named prime minister.

… in case you missed our previous coverage:

Romans and Africans

An account of a talk given by Paolo Asso at Harvard … from the Crimson:

“Since the life of the mind finds expression in art and literature, the literary imagination is where we go to access, teach, explain, divulge, and question the official mythologies of history,” said Paolo Asso, W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow and Scholar-in-Residence at Harvard and assistant professor of classical studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as part of his talk on “Ideas of Africa in the Roman Epic” last Wednesday. Speaking from research he had done for his as yet unfinished monograph called “Africa in the Roman Literary Imagination,” Asso went on to examine the ancient Roman identity as seen through its mythology. “In exposing mythologies and genealogies, I am chiefly interested in the mindset that emerges from the ancient sources,” he said. He proceeded to examine African portrayal in two Latin epics: Virgil’s “Aeneid” and the longest poem in ancient Latin literature, Silius Italicus’s “Punica.”

Speaking as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Fall Colloquium Series, Paolo Asso explained how the Roman characters perceive Africans as cunning, barbarous, and savage in both texts. “I’ve read the Aeneid before, but I didn’t notice how native Africans were portrayed as people to be feared,” said Elliot A. Wilson ’15. “I’m not going to look at the poem the same way again.” However, as Asso points out, Africans were described in both the “Aeneid” and “Punica” with as much awe as fear. Indeed, Asso explains that racism did not exist in the modern sense of the word; Romans were both fascinated and frightened of African war and African physique, but they were never prejudiced against Africans.

To defend his claim, Asso used excerpts from each epic, replications of ancient European and African maps, and even a photograph of an ancient silver bowl depicting a woman with an elephant trunk on her forehead. By the end of his talk, he was able to link all of these representations of art to his central argument: Romans saw themselves as a part of a nation defined by the territories it conquered, not by the race of its people. This unique perception of identity of both the conquerors and the conquered became Asso’s focus.

According to Asso, Africans were considered inferior to Romans, but in the third century B.C.E., when Rome intended to conquer the world, virtually every other territory was considered an inferior enemy—at least until the territory became Roman. In this sense, the Romans were an open-minded people willing to accept different ethnicities into their Empire. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil describes blacks from Africa as having skin that was burned by the sun, a description that suggests that Romans saw no difference between themselves and those whom they conquered, as long as the conquered people called themselves Romans as well.

Audience member Rayshauna Gray, a Somerville resident, said that she was drawn to the talk because Greek and Roman mythology reminded her of slave narratives from the antebellum United States. “I was able to get a glimpse of the origins of black perception, and to see how these [black] identities developed,” she said. Indeed, many members of the audience asked during the discussion section about the difference between the perception of the African in Ancient Rome and of the black American in the modern day.

While the Romans were busy chiseling statues that venerated the human body, they did not discriminate the ideal body by race. The silver bowl that Asso showed during his talk was discovered as part of the Boscoreale Treasure—a trove of buried silver—after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It depicts an African woman whose body is idealized, not depicted a joke or a terror. Art was something to be immortalized, so the Romans were careful to make the proportions of the bust exact and the maps of their empire all-inclusive.

The next step for Asso in understanding the Romans’ perception of self was to examine their artifacts in more depth. “I’m interested in the ways in which ancient Greek and Roman literary sources treat Africa, her gods, peoples, animals, plants, and inanimate entities.” Maps with distorted geography and alternate names could reveal a lot about what the Romans perceived the lands they conquered.

The toughest part of understanding the ancients, according to Asso, is the language barrier. To view Latin text or art merely as a passing scholar is difficult without great familiarity with the language. “I feel sometime I need to let students ‘borrow my eyes’ to read the Greek and Latin words behind the English ones,” said Asso, “because the original music of the ancient tongue is just as crucial as the meaning that the words have in English.” In examining the “Aeneid” and the “Punica” with a fresh perspective, Asso not only provides a unique look at ancient texts as a window into the Roman identity but also makes this identity relevant to our own perceptions today.