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March 27, 2015


What about e.g. Laocoön and His Sons? Antiquity had quite different styles in sculpting (and the art critics of the time did not differ that much from ours in usually condemning 'modern' excesses that the 'classic' artists would have been ashamed of).
Of course there is no doubt that something like that veil on the first statue would be unthinkable on a real work of antiquity (and I doubt that even Apelles was into photorealistic painting) but that is about technique. I would be not so sure about character, espcecially given the very selective filter of time. I would also assume that 'coy' sculptures ran on average a higher risk of getting wrecked by zealots.
We know that there were sculptures showing sexual acts but to my knowledge no large examples survived (what we have are e.g. vases and pendants/talismans).

This is not a purely academic discussion given the art market. There have been errors in both directions, real antiques declared fake for stylistic reasons and fakes praised as genuine classic masterpieces. I know of some Egyptian (style) pieces that are still hotly debated despite decades of analysis by both art critics and scientists. If we had no knowledge of Amarna and pieces from there would suddenly show up today, my bet is that they would at least at first be considered 'obvious' fakes. Cf. the discussion about the famous Nefertiti bust despite the impeccable archaeological pedigree (well duckomented indeed http://www.duckomenta.de/bilder/raum1/bild5-2.jpg )

Hartmut, that last link was a gem! Thanks!


While most of the material has been lost over the ages, there IS at least one surviving large-scale erotic sculpture from Antiquity (not sure what the Latin for "NSFW" is, so be cautioned)

Anything that gets people looking at Bernini's work is to be applauded.

The Romans were quite Victorian, dirty in private, prudish in public (with at times draconian laws against public indecency). A senator could lose his seat (and the accompanying privileges) for kissing his wife in public for example. And there seems to have been an almost universal belief in antiquity that soldiers should not have sex because it would undermine their fighting ability/spirit. It became such a topos that historians attributed many a victory or defeat to the (in this case sexual) virtue of the winners. Maybe most famously the disastrous Roman defeat at Carrhae got connected (by contemporary writers) to copies of the Milesiaka* found in the backpacks of Roman soldiers. Outside Rome conventions were far more liberal and the area around the Gulf of Naples was notorious (Roman moral guardians constantly preaching and warning against and about the detrimental effect on morals). So it's no surprise that one would find dirty works of art in Pompeii if anywhere.
Public displays of violence were of course OK in Rome. There was e.g. a stage play where the title character had to be played by a convicted felon since the play included his execution (for real!). It must have been quite popular since it was staged in both the Republican era and the principate on a regular base. Stage/theatre productions in general were usually financed by candidates for political office to increase their own popularity. I could see something like this becoming popular again during election season (but theatre these days is so elite, so maybe not).

*a famous Greek collection of smutty stories also very popular in its Latin translation

Executions as part of stage productions could also be a way to get around the 8th amendment. Freedom of the arts could again become a conservative thing. Vive le Grand GOPignol!

I would also assume that 'coy' sculptures ran on average a higher risk of getting wrecked by zealots.

?? I think we may be running into a translation problem.

By "coy" I mean the way the 19th-c Vestal's head is tilted, just a little bit like a pet begging for treats. Venus Genetrix is a *goddess*, she is more powerful than you.

I think the real difference between Classical and Neo-Classical female nudes is that Classical artists truly believed in these goddesses. It wasn't possible for Christians, or artists working in a Christian culture, to imagine a female deity with truly divine power.

And that goes triple for a nude female, goddess or not -- Manet's Olympia was shocking not least because she is *not* coy, she's looking straight at you.

Drat, obviously you meant one meaning of coy and I understood another. The word does a balancing act in my dictionary between actually shy (the blushing, insecure kind) and pretending to be in order to lure.

As for the artists believing, I would not be so sure about that beyond the archaic age and very doubtful about Rome in certain aspects. The 'flesh and blood' deities were a Greek import and originally quite foreign to the Italian concept that was far less anthropomorphic. In the Greek world we can deduce that at least from the Hellenist era onwards the art and the 'faith' could be completely separated and there are hints that this had already started in the classic era. An interesting case in question is the Kairos (personified opportunity) because there one can find a parallel development of the deity, the art and authors writing about both from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD. Language differences between Greek and Latin also give an indication that the perception of divine entities and their depiction in art are quite different things. A common trap set for new Latin students is to translate 'Death is Sleep's big brother', where the correct way is to use soror (sister) instead of frater (brother) because the grammatical gender (Mors is female) dictates the choice, although Greeks (where Thanatos is male)and Romans had otherwise basically the same idea about what Death means. Cf. the sex change the Holy Ghost undwerwent from Hebrew (female) over Greek (neutral) to Latin (male) with (Latin) Christian authors being the first to insist that this must be so and to derive dogma from grammar (and that was long before the 'minus' was detected in 'femina' thus 'proving' female inferiority). Educated pagans would have simply shaken their heads about this literalist nonsense (as we do about certain fumdamentalists today). Partially in disbelief, partially in despair.

That's a nice threadjack you got me into there, Doc. ;-)

Are we threadjacking? Does that explain (some of) Gaiman's inspiration for Death of the Endless?

Yes, primitive Romans had most likely a religion with a strong shamanistic bent. This is well shown in some of their ancient rites such as augury, cult of Vesta (i.e. hearth fire), the Salic college (very muxch like some Japanese shintoistix rites) and e.g. the story of Numa Pompilius getting taught by a spring nymph.

Yet, they did have also god-worship but it was likely somewhat non-idolic before the Greek influences overwhelmed their modes of worship. The most important of these was likely Mars-worship. He was the most popular god, both a war-god and the god of agriculture. The latter aspect was at least as important as the former. It is important to note that Mars was worshipped under open sky, on an altar without a temple surrounding it. Suitable for poor people but also reminiscent of old Indo-European sky-worship.

What is also difficult for us to understand is the importance of poets. If you read Herodotus carefully, you can see that he is constantly ranting about poets as liars. It is, at least to me, clear that Herodotus's contemporaries held poets singing on the religious myths to be somewhat prophetical. If the poet made a beautiful poem stating some mythological aspect to be so and so, it was so. Otherwise, Herodotus's criticism comes out as quite non-sensical.

The Roman term 'vates' was used for both prophets/seers and poets, although mostly poetically for the latter.
In Platon's Apologia he lets Socrates say about poets too that they do not 'know' what they are producing but that they are under the influence (spiritual not in the alcoholic sense), i.e. they can't be called wise because they can't explain how they create their poetry because it is not written by but through them. About sculptors and other artisans he said that they were merely specialists with no idea about anything else (that they did manual work disqualified them anyway, although it is not explicitly stated in this specific context).
Interestingly, writing poetry (or anything else that could be described as 'literature') was not considered proper for patricians in Rome before the late republic. Latin literature was born of Greek slaves and ex-slaves (that includes the first major works with Roman topics). Even later most authors still came not from the ranks of the patricians but the equites (and still ex-slaves and their offspring were in the business). Caesar was an exception (and his heir took care to get rid of anything but the commentarii).


Caesar was a hippie in his youth. He wore his tunic loose and dressed also otherwise in a dandyish manner. Writing poetry belongs to the picture.

Not to forget the songs about Pompey being the new king of Rome and Caesar his queen (plus that embarassing episode in the East with a client king that even the senate gossipped about). ;-)

The Roman term 'vates' was used for both prophets/seers and poets, although mostly poetically for the latter.

Latin seems to be somewhat prone to these multi-meaining nouns. The term "virgo" means either a) a young woman, or b) a virgin. Which causes some scriptural confusion, since both Hebrew and English have seperate words for the two different meanings. Thus the Hebrew scriptures, speaking of the messiah, say "a young woman shall concieve." But route that thru Latin, and then to English, and you can get a virgin concieving -- which is far more impressive, not to mention miraculous.

Latin also has alternatives. A woman stays a 'puella' (girl) until she is married, then she become an 'uxor' (wife) and after giving birth a 'matrona'.
Btw, the virgin birth trouble started with Greek when 'parthenos' (virgin) was chosen as the translation for the neutral Hebrew 'alma'. In German the distinction is between 'junge Frau' (young woman) and 'Jungfrau' (virgin). It can get confusing because 'Mädchen' usually implies 'little girl' while 'junges Mädchen' (young girl) means a young adult female and never a kid.
Language is one thing but what people deliberately do with it is another. And those Fathers of the Church were experts in torturing it (although their scholastic successors managed to top them).

Language is one thing but what people deliberately do with it is another.

i blame the Left

Chomsky: linguist.

I rest my case.

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