Pino Blasone

Mimesis in Ancient Art Still Lifes and Live Portraits

1 – Boy Feeding a Donkey, 5th century late sample of “rhopography”; Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul Xenia and Rhopographies A few original information about the ancient Still Life painting can be found in Latin works as the Natural History by Pliny the Elder and – indirectly – Xenia by Martial, or in the Greek writing Eicones (“Images”) by Philostratus the Elder. They are a scholar, a poet and a late sophist. Instead Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born about in 80-70 and died after 15 B.C., was a Roman architect, whose professional competences were closer to the practice of fine arts. In his treatise On the Architecture, he gives an etymology of the term prevalently used by Greeks and Romans, to designate what we understand for Still Life paintings:


“When the Greeks became more luxurious, and their circumstances more opulent, they began to provide dining rooms, chambers, and store-rooms of provisions for their guests from abroad. And on the first day they would invite them to dinner, sending them on the next chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and other country produce. This is why artists called pictures representing the things which were sent to guests xenia” (VI 7, 4; trans. Morris H. Morgan). At first impression, a reflected form of generous naturalism. Several examples of such a production re-emerged from Pompeii or Herculeaneum excavations, and nowadays can be admired especially in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples. Actually, in Greek xenia is the neuter plural of xenion, “guest-gift”: already employed by Homer in his poems, in the archaic form xeineion. Xenia are also the norms of hospitality. As a feminine singular noun, xenia is the concept of hospitality itself, an almost sacred relationship between host and guest. Yet the related adjective and noun xenos means “guest” and “stranger” at once. Maybe some reflection of such ambiguity was inherited by the meaning of xenia too, when later and generally referred to the figural representation of Still Lifes. In his Natural History (XXXV 112), Pliny narrates of the first Greek painter of subjects like those and genre scenes, one Piraeicus or Peiraikos famous at his own times.

2 – Hunting Dog with Bronze Vessel, emblema vermiculatum; Antiquities Museum in the New Library, Alexandria 2

Reliably, this painter from Piraeus lived and worked in Greece in the 4 th century B.C. He was called rhyparographos, “painter of vulgar subjects”, for the humble or trivial themes he depicted. They had to result trifling and strange, when the figurative arts were rather devoted to mythical or heroic characters and deeds. This complex of paintings was termed rhyparography or – more softly – rhopography, from the word rhopos, referring to the mean but usual objects of daily life. We have good reasons to deem that the genre xenia was included or closely assimilated to it. Anyway, Pliny adds that Piraeicus’ works were so successful, as to be sold at higher prices than the greater and larger ones of many others. His frequent subjects were: “barber’s shops, cobbler’s stalls, asses, eatables and the like”. According to Pliny himself, already classical painters as Zeuxis and Parrhasius had introduced Still Life elements into their compositions. Polemics about were not lacking, as it may be guessed and was reported in this passage from De elocutione or On Interpretation (Peri ermēneias), an essay inexactly ascribed to the Athenian orator Demetrius Phalereus: “The painter Nicias used to maintain that no small part of the artistic faculty was shown in the painters choosing at the outset a subject of some amplitude, instead of dwarfing his art to small subjects, like little birds or flowers. […] His view was that the subject itself was a part of the painter’s art, just as the ancient legends were a part of the art of poetry. So it need awaken no surprise that, in the province of style also, elevation results from the choice of a great subject” (§ 76; trans. W. Rhys Roberts).


3 – Still Life with Cat and Ducks, opus vermiculatum; National Archaeological Museum, Naples Nevertheless, in the Hellenistic period other artists as Callicles, Calates and Antiphilos, followed the rhopography manner, in part at least. Then, the most important artistic centre was no longer Athens in Greece, but Alexandria in Egypt. Mostly, only sculptures of this type and time survive, with some remarkable mosaic exceptions. One of them was discovered in 1993, during an excavation for the foundation of the new Library of Alexandria. By unknown author, this emblema vermiculatum dates from the 2nd century B.C., representing a hunting dog beside an upset Greek bronze vessel (askos). The original comicality of the subject, the accuracy of the execution and a round frame about it, suggest that it was an autonomous artwork, though inserted in an ornamental architectural context. These traits coincide with those of a similitude in a couplet by the Roman poet Lucilius, quoted by Marcus T. Cicero in his dialogue On the Orator, and satiric against a certain rhetorical fashion of their times: Quam lepide lexis compostae ut tesserulae omnes/ arte pavimento atque emblemate vermiculato! (“How charming his sentences put together, artfully like so many small dice in a floor mosaic, or in a wriggly inlaid emblem!”; III 171). The opus vermiculatum was made of minute tesserae, so disposed as to render what figured at best. Here, let us focus on the concept of emblema. Evidently, at first it was meant as a 4

generic picture, made of mosaic or else “inserted” in a wider context, according to the Greek etymology of the term. Its subjects could be various and possibly decorative. By time, some recurrent kinds of them grew strictly emblematic, in the later sense of a symbolic or poetic value (let us confront Horace’s Latin concept of Ut pictura poësis, “As in Painting so in Poetry”, and the European fashion of the “emblem books” in the 16th and 17th centuries). Emblemata and Simulacra If mere xenia and rhopographies had to stick as much as possible to everyday reality of the represented objects or scenes, the emblemata began to suggest or to express further and abstract meanings, through the figural composition itself. Even more than of nature, their arising symbolism makes them simulacra of the mind. A celebrated sample is the Mosaic of the Doves by Sosos of Pergamon, active in the 2 nd century B.C. He is the only mosaic artist cited in the Natural History, where also Pliny quotes Lucilius’ above verse (XXXVI, 184-185). Already described by Pliny, and representing four doves on the edge of a golden basin filled with water, the original “Still Life” and potential simulacrum is likely lost. Yet it is known by means of several imitations and copies, especially a reproduction discovered in Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli and today at the Capitoline Museums of Rome.


4 – Sosos of Pergamon (?), Doves on the Edge of a Golden Basin, opus vermiculatum; Capitoline Museums, Rome Better than replicas or imitations, sometimes they are variations on the theme. The birds can be less or more, not always doves, which Martial exhorted his readers to abstain from eating, because sacred to the goddess Venus. In a mosaic emblem from Pompeii now in the Archaeological Museum at Naples we have a pigeon and two exotic parrots, while a cat is ogling them at the basis of a pedestal under the water basin, what altogether can be also interpreted as the structure of a small fountain. To complete the Still Life, there are few fruits with leaves. Lovers of this genre will remember so many analogous modern paintings. Apparently, there is nothing symbolic in Sosos’ nice image. But the persistence of the exemplar had to be so impressive, as to promote its conversion into an allegory when the epoch was ripe for a new perception. The latest simplified version of it was inserted into the wall mosaics, inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, built in 425-430 A.D. That is in the Christian era, at the beginning of the Byzantine art, between the late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Two white doves are now pictured along with some apostles, while drinking from a vessel. Quite obviously, they can be interpreted as human souls, watering from a source of eternal life. In other words, a metaphor of the Holy Baptism.


Instead what was explicitly born as an emblema – in the emblematic sense, we give to our derived term – is an opus vermiculatum from Pompeii, dating back to the middle of the first century A.D. and currently in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples. Conventionally, it is titled Memento mori and defined as a Mosaic with Skull and Level. Actually a cranium and a level, as a mason tool, are the main but not only elements in the composition. There are a wheel and a butterfly too, which respectively and traditionally stand for the human fortune and soul. There are a sceptre with a royal purple, emblems of power, and a scrip with a stick, symbols of indigence. The meaning of the whole is clear.

5 – Mosaic detail; Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna Even more than a memento mori, it is a reminder of the foreseeable destiny that death is going to level worldly social differences. Rather than an Epicurean invitation to enjoy life at all costs, it looks a Stoic or Cynic one to moderation and philanthropy. However, it is one of the earliest Vanity Still Lifes in the history of art. The circumstance that this picture survived the volcanic eruption, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D., makes its moral message more and more striking. Nor were metaphysical compositions lacking, with a religious pagan background. For instance, a mosaic panel with scenic mask and attributes of the god Dionysus, from the Imperial Palace of Hadrian’s Villa, now in the Vatican 7

Museums, Gabinetto delle Maschere, Rome. The Villa was built between 118 and 138 A.D. Some artworks collected in it may well be older, dating to the Hellenistic period. Connected or not with the Dionysian cult, Still Lifes with comic or tragic masks are frequent anyhow. Even better than of 17th century Vanities and Still Lifes, emblemata like the Mosaic with Skull and Level from Pompeii and the panel with attributes of Dionysus make us think of some Surrealistic or Metaphysical paintings of the 20 th century. Despite different historical conditions, thanks to the medium of art antiquity and modernity seem to meet in a timeless psychological space. If we wish to probe into such a question, returning to read Vitruvius’ work could be somewhat enlightening. The architect liked to embellish the books of his treatise with literary emblemata, which are short philosophical narratives. Particularly one of them is more complex than the others. It deals with the origin of the Corinthian style. Indeed, this apologue is the story of an impossible portrait, the portrayal of an absence: “A Corinthian virgin, of marriageable age, fell a victim to a violent disorder. After her interment, her nurse, collecting in a basket those articles to which she had shown a partiality when alive, carried them to her tomb, and placed a tile on the basket for the longer preservation of its contents. The basket was accidentally placed on the root of an acanthus plant. Pressed by the weight, towards spring it shot forth its stems and large foliage, and in the course of its growth reached the angles of the tile, and thus formed volutes at the extremities. Callimachus, who for is great ingenuity and taste was called by the Athenians Catatechnos, happening at this time to pass by the tomb, observed the basket, and the delicacy of the foliage which surrounded it. Pleased with the form and novelty of the combination, he constructed from the hint thus afforded, columns of this species in the country about Corinth, and arranged its proportions, determining their proper measures by perfect rules” (IV 1, 9-10; trans. Joseph Gwilt).


6 – Omnia mors aequat, an ancient Vanitas; National Archaeological Museum, Naples What is involved here is the ancient conception of art itself, as a positive imitation of the nature, according to Aristotle, or as a copying of copies of an ideal world, in a Platonic negative sense. Vitruvius agrees with the former thesis, yet in his own way. For him, the mimesis is not a mere imitation. Rather, it is a transfiguration. The exemplar monumentum, in this case a Still Life, is a step from the particular of nature to the general of art, as standing between singular bios and universal zoē, the two faces of life in Greek culture. The piety of the nurse, the vitality of nature, the cleverness of the inspired artist, cooperate in a combined effort against death. In the background the dead maiden remains a silent spectator, till the Corinthian column grows her virtual portrait, since it “resembles in its character, the graceful elegant appearance of a virgin, in whom, from her tender age, the limbs are of a more delicate form, and whose ornaments should be unobtrusive” (IV 1, 8). Much more than an Aristotelian synthesis of form and matter, there we have a Stoic tension between quod significat and quod significatur, what appears elsewhere in Vitruvius’ work. Long before Peirce, De Saussure or Barthes, it sounds quite modern, if we consider its translation as “the signifier” and “the signified”. Unfortunately no signifier can fully render 9

or, with all the more reason, restore what is signified. It is also true, art is the highest grade of approximation we can dispose, even when the primary subject to represent is absent from our sight and memory. One may base himself only on traces and remains. Then the “perfectionist artist” – catatechnos or catatēxitechnos, in a variant of the text – is able to detect and recompose them, and to perpetuate and extend a simulacrum of presence at least. All that does not mean that Vitruvius renounces realism or naturalism, in the artistic representation. On the contrary he condemns certain illusionistic trends, almost Baroque long before the birth and development of this style, which misrepresented reality with no aim to transcend it, but simply to raise a superficial sensation of wonder in the viewer. A theorist of the mimesis in art cannot appreciate the excesses of phantasia, at any rate. As to the norm to depict with precision, the reasons of the architect prevail those of free creativity:

7 – Theatre Dionysian Masks, fresco fragments from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii; National Archaeological Museum, Naples “Monsters are painted at present, rather than objects whose prototypes are to be observed in nature. For columns reeds are substituted; for pediments the stalks, leaves, and tendrils of plants; candelabra are made to support the representations of small buildings, from whose summits many stalks appear to spring with absurd figures thereon. Not less so are those stalks with figures rising from them, some with human heads, others with the


heads of beasts. Similar forms never did, do, nor can exist in nature. These new fashions so much prevailed that, for want of competent judges, true art is little esteemed” (VII 5, 3-4). The Presence of an Absence When minding the ancient Greco-Roman painting, we are in a situation like that of Callimachus, without being catatechnoi or catatēxitechnoi. Mostly, we deal with the presence of an absence. We cannot rely but on random traces and remains, or on indirect testimony as Vitruvius’ itself. A secondary paradox, or bitter fate irony, is that a lot of those traces were preserved by a natural catastrophe as Pompeii’s burial, or thanks to the incessant routine of death, as for the so called Fayyum funerary portraits in Egypt. This gives us an opportunity to turn to survey on the portraiture. If most Still Lifes represent an absence or vacancy of the human, by their own nature portrayals should re-propose its live presence. In this case, we can profit not only by the skill of most anonymous artists and the critical advice of few “competent judges” of the past, but even by a contribution of the portrayed subjects. Often they have returned to look at us from their portrayals, eager to deliver a wordless dispatch on their presence-absence: as if they could not bear to be considered ancients, but rather our intimately contemporaries, beyond any possible individual or collective disaster. Pliny tells, the best Greek portraitist was Apelles of Kos (4th century B.C.). His masterpieces did not survive. Thus we must focus on later supposed copies or minor productions, some of them, indeed, not so much as it may be expected.


8 – The so called “Sappho”, Pompeii fresco: Naples Archaeological Museum; and Harriet Cany Peale, Agatharkhis (inscribed “Erinna” on verso, Private Collection; 1848) Let us begin with the discoveries in the Vesuvian area. Among a few very portraits from Pompeii, surely two will draw our attention, for a shared detail at least. That is a stylus, with writing tablets. In both cases an extremity of it is put on the lips of a woman, as if she is just meditating before starting to write. In the former case, the young lady with great eyes is alone. Fanciful archaeologists have named her Sappho, in memory of a Greek poetess. In the latter case, she is the wife of a well-off baker. He is portrayed beside her, clutching a parchment roll in a hand. They are common people, looking unaware of the impending danger and wanting to show a learned image of themselves when the majority, especially women, had to be illiterate. What is kind, in both pictures, is that the “writer” is the woman (3rd quarter of the 1st century A.D.; National Archaeological Museum, Naples). A wall painting in the Naples Archaeological Museum suggests that at Pompeii there were female artists too. And female were two Hellenistic poets, Herinna of Telos and Nossis of Locri, who wrote “ecphrastic” epigrams respectively in the 4 th and 3rd centuries B.C., lately reported in the Byzantine Palatine Anthology. In particular, this one by Nossis is loyal to the precepts of mimesis: “Melinna herself looks to have been created [again]. Behold how sweetly her face seems to gaze at us, and how truly this daughter is like her mother ’s image. So good, when children resemble their parents!” In a verse ascribed to Herinna, the topos gains a musing significance: “Some humans succeeded in rivalling you in wisdom, dearest 12

Prometheus. Whoever depicted this maiden, if only he could add her voice, it would have been Agatharchis at all!” Almost a forerunner of the Romantic Mary Shelley, hyperbolically the Grecian poetess equates the portraitist with a mythic demiurge, able to give women and men a sort of virtual, second life, within our minds at least. Even better than the Pythagorean-Platonic mimesis, what she evokes is the late Platonic concept of methexis, as an aesthetic “participation” in the making process of the world. For the first time in Western literatures, godlike creation and artistic creativity meet together in a simile or metaphor. For the little we know of the ancient portrait painting, in part at least its most extraordinary season was still to come. It was a half “clandestine” production, since these portrayals were destined to be applied on the mummies of the portrayed subjects. The modern discovery of circa 900 of such pictures, on wood or linen, has restored that visibility they had lost for a very long time. In fact, this Greco-Roman-Egyptian custom flourished from the 1st to the 3rd century A.D. all over Egypt, mainly in the Fayyum region. During the subsequent centuries, none could see them or even imagine their existence. Nonetheless those our virtual ancestors, mostly with Greek names, gaze at us as if everything is happening here and now. Especially if we consider that most authors and subjects are and will remain unknown, this is an amazing identitarian show performed in the history of art. Some of them look pensive and melancholic or even smile, like before the lens of a camera. In a quite joyful way, others show a small glass of wine and a flower garland in their hands, as to exorcize death. Not all these realistic pictures portray one person, male or female, young or old aged. Exceptionally, the subjects can be more, as in the portrait of the baker with his wife at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. For example, the tondo of the Two Brothers in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo represents two young men (2 nd c. A.D.). The different coloured skin of them, as well as small effigies of Greco-Egyptian deities in the background, confirm that at that epoch Egypt was a meeting place of races, cultures and religions. Yet, no doubt, this manner of painting is inscribed in the Greco-Roman tradition.


9 – A Baker and his Wife, Pompeii fresco; National Archaeological Museum, Naples Not few portrayed ladies are beautiful and elegant. An incredibly expressive image (British Museum, London), one of them has been nicknamed Hypatia by the archaeologists, in memory of an unlucky alexandrine female thinker of the 4 th-5th century A.D., imaginarily depicted by Raphael Sanzio in his renowned fresco The School of Athens. Yet the Fayyum fair lady had lived in the second century, as well as the poetess Sappho in the 6 th B.C., whereas the Pompeii woman dubbed with her name lived in the first A.D. This attitude of modern scholars betrays an intent to distinguish, but also to ennoble those anonymous individualities. Nearly an affective ecphrasis or emotional narration of the images, further than a description and interpretation as in the original meaning of the Greek term. Instead of the writing tools of the Pompeian ones, these women prefer to show off rich necklaces and other jewels, particularly earrings. In both cases we have common people, even if not ordinary in a strict sense, as they could be just reflected in the Hellenistic rhopographies or genre scenes. Past the third century, the diffusion of Christianity will reduce the spaces for figurative arts, or they will be reserved to sacred subjects. In the 14

Byzantine era, only saints and princesses or emperors will continue to be portrayed, albeit no longer in a verisimilar way and not seldom in an imaginary or sublimed form. A series of mosaic tondos, with busts of apostles and the Christ, in St. Andrea’s Chapel at Ravenna (ca. 494-519) may be highly indicative about the completion of such a transition. A partial exception is the handicraft of miniature-portraits, as the gilded glass medallions showing the head of a bearded man in the Catacomb of Priscilla at Rome, or a late Roman lady with a boy and a girl, who have been supposed to be the empress Galla Placidia with her son and daughter (Museo Civico, Brescia; ca. 400 A.D.). The multiple representation appears still realistic. In particular the half bust length figure of the lady, whoever she is, may remind the female portrayals of the Fayyum. Her simple pearl necklace and eardrops are so precious details, as to overshadow any other painted jewellery. Her wide staring eyes already prelude the Byzantine style. Her face looks a bit sad and so serious, as to run a risk to result expressionless. Otherwise, it is what we are used to term a hieratic one.

10 – Fayyum Tondo of the “Two Brothers”; Egyptian Museum, Cairo Some effects of the live portrait lesson did not disappear. For a while, something of it filtered into religious painting. Especially in Egypt, certain nimbed representations of Jesus 15

and of the Madonna or saints may work as clues about a hypothetic descent of Byzantine icons from Fayyum portrayals. The encaustic pictorial technique is the same. The holy personages are portrayed in a frontal position, with not too much stiffness. Above all the pathos, that is expressive intensity, is still strong, though obviously the individuality is no longer stressed as in the private portraiture tradition. Dating from the 6 th-7th century, a Virgin and Child (Museum of Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko, Kiev), Christ the Pantocrator and St. Peter (St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai), are all fine examples. The enthroned Virgin and Child with Ss. Theodore and George (and angels in the background: St. Catherine’s, Sinai; 6th century) is a hieratic composition, similar to a coeval fresco in the Catacomb of Commodilla at Rome. If we focus on Mary’s face, will realize that it keeps a few portrayal features, together with some Near Eastern influences. With her wide bright eyes, this Our Lady in majesty does not look at the painter or at devotees; rather toward her left, as if absent minded from our mundane earth. Indeed it is a diversion, for there we meet with the gaze of a young St. George, seemingly deputed to collect our prayers and to bear them to the Queen of Heaven and Son. More immediate and popular Marian icons as the Byzantine Eleousa or Glycophilousa, “she who sweetly loves”, will come soon. The Complement of Ecphrasis Just as a pretext for narration, a similar device can be found in the novel Satyricon by the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter. We have an almost pictorial illustration of nice landscapes, in the production of the Latin poet Papinius Statius too. Yet the best example of ecphrasis, critical or literary description of visual artworks, is the Images by the late sophist Philostratus the Elder of Lemnos, born about in 190 A.D. They are something more than a simple description, in two books, of 65 paintings housed in a gallery near Naples. What may well be a fiction, but not all the commented pictures seem to be fruit of literary invention, so similar they are to what we directly know of the Greco-Roman painting. The Greek author pretends to show and explain them to a very young and curious friend, like in a didactic or popularizing initiation to art, even better than in a conventional rhetorical exercitation.


11 – Fayyum Portrait of a Young Lady, the so called “Hypatia”; British Museum, London Most relevant images deal with mythological topics and characters, allowing Philostratus’ phantasia to evocate or narrate their legends. What the Greeks called megalographia, that is painting of lofty subjects, historical scenes included. Nevertheless, descriptions of xenia or Still Lifes are not lacking. Their characteristics coincide with those of the few Pompeian surviving samples, we can still admire today. What represented in the panels is almost the same, we will watch in so many European Still Lifes on canvas of the 17th century: fruits, game, other foods and related objects, not rarely living animals (perhaps, the attention for them was greater than in modern Still Life painting). They must appear nearly truer than the models, according to the imitation of nature. Yet the figure of a hare within a trap-cage tells us that it is a domestic or tame nature, not really a wild one. The effect on the viewer, a minor kind of Aristotelian catharsis or “purification” of his soul, ought to be that of delighting and reassuring him. Likely, a Pompeian one did not 17

suspect that nature itself was going to show him its obscure, most destructive side. Philostratus writes after the disaster, moreover setting his ecphrasis nearly in the same area. Although never mentioning it, he could not be ignorant of such a tragedy. A precursor as Pliny the Elder, cited here above, had been a victim of it. Even more than a sublimation, Philostratus’ ecphrasis seems to be a removal and a way of evasion from nature into art, almost like into a topical virtual reality or artificial life. For the late sophist art is a “second nature”, if not truer at least safer than the original, or dramatic just only in a scenic sense. This virtual trip into an idealized nature is particularly evident in the long description titled Islands, in the second book of the Images. There the portrayed nature is just a bit wilder and more exotic, than in the xenia paintings. Like an Ulysses on a fun fair boat, the author literarily enters the picture, describing far much more than what could be represented in it. “On this island,” he recites, “my boy, we have put ashore; and though I do not know what its name is, I at least should call it ‘golden’, had not the poets applied this epithet at random to everything beautiful and marvellous” (II 17, 12; trans. Arthur Fairbanks). As modern occasional tourists, something in this description makes us think of Capri, Ischia or Procida, isles about that Naples gulf itself, where our guide shams his visit and sightseeing.


12 – Fayyum Portrait of a Young Woman; Egyptian Museum, Cairo So, we have to guess a further psychological motive, moving the writer’s imagination. Probably once in our lives, each one of us wished and imagined to enter a nice painting, such as a landscape picture, to wander it freely with no actual risk. Philostratus’ ecphrasis is a kind of artistic video-game. In this very moment, what we themselves are writing or reading is a little ecphrasis of an ecphrasis, perhaps searching for a transitory catharsis from daily life worries. In a later Neo-Platonic sense, philosophy itself will be a contemplative ecphrasis of the World of Ideas, understood as emanating from the absolute. When we observe and feel observed, facing Pompeian or Fayyum portrayals, it happens like for Philostratus’ ecphrasis with his “golden” islands. For a while, we enter the cultural space of the pictures. Nay, the fair play is mutual, for the portrayed subjects invade our existential one too. It is an imaginary neutral dimension, as if we all meet in a theatre backstage, where casually or by destine we enter the scene in different times. Then, to be


classicist might imply one considering history, especially that of culture, our contemporary. Nor does it mean that we have to renounce any critical perspective. Anyhow, this virtual space closely resembles an artistic unconscious, where even the future can spring and grow. Is the mimesis, wearily invoked by Philostratus in his introduction, a mirror game? Is the history of culture itself something like that? Reliably, our sophist and the architect Vitruvius have different opinions about, but not so much as at first impression. Again let us read his On the Architecture, where Vitruvius translates the Aristotelian conception of mimesis from dramatic to visual arts. “We should imitate nature,” he writes, “as it may be observed in growing things: for instance, in straight trees” (V 1, 3). What already discerned in the episode of the Corinthian girl, and the origin of the symbolically related artistic style, grows evident: Vitruvius’ idea is dynamic, not a static one, according to the vitality of nature itself. All the above apologue, indeed, sounds conceived as a mirror reflection game.

13 – Fayyum Portrait of a Young Man; Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow


If the Roman author can affirm that the Corinthian order imitates the “appearance of a virgin, in whom, from her tender age, the limbs are of a more delicate form”, it is also true that this figure can get generic and grow general, because the original model has dead. She can no longer be portrayed as an individual, even by an artist as Callimachus. Here the motif of the mimesis blends with another one, typical of the Greek culture: that of metamorphosis. An active relation between mimesis and metamorphosis, figuration and transfiguration, is the hidden device of a true art. This is the broad sense of Vitruvius’ peculiar ecphrasis: the metamorphosis as a higher catharsis, especially when the mere mimesis results impossible. The quest for genuine human traces is a consistent theme, in another pregnant Vitruvius’ story. It generally concerns the field of civilization and the transmission of culture, even when they run a risk to be submerged together with our existences. In this case too, they are visual even more than oral or written traces. Yet they are enough, to restore a confidence in the human capability to overcome any catastrophe: Aristippus philosophus Socraticus, naufragio cum eiectus ad Rhodiensium litus animadvertisset geometrica schemata descripta, exclamavisse ad comites ita dicitur: “Bene speremus! Hominum enim vestigia video” (“Shipwrecked on the coast of Rhodes, the Socratic philosopher Aristippus is told to have noticed some geometrical figures, drawn thereon. Then, he exclaimed to his companions: ‘We may well hope. In fact, I see traces of humankind…’”; VI, Praefatio, 1). These figures descripta on a beach of Rhodes isle and the basket with tile and foliage of acanthus in the tale of the Corinthian maiden, or else the hare in a cage by Philostratus, are all various traces of the human even more than representations of an absence of it. Furthermore, they can be considered “ecphrastic” Still Lifes. Their exemplars are lost or never existed. On the contrary, there will be illustrations of Vitruvius’ basket or of the whole scene with the artist Callimachus. Instead of descriptions of an image, we have icons drawn from an ecphrasis. Eicones is the original title of Philostratus’ work, as well as Ecphraseis (“Descriptions”) is that of an analogous one attributed to the sophist Callistratus.


14 – Painted glass medallions: portrait of Marcia Otacilia Severa (half of the 3rd century A.D.; Palazzo Madama, Turin); and the so called “Galla Placidia and Sons”, detail (Civic Museum, Brescia) That is, eicon means nothing but “image” or “icon”. In Greek, another meaningful word originally designates an image: idea. Thus, eicones and ecphraseis look reversible. The best ecphrasis seems to be the translation of an image into an idea, a pictorial one into an image of mind, or vice versa. Now, the moral of Vitruvius’ apologue may be updated. Our task and desirable catharsis should be to go back such a chain of traces as the images and ideas, with no aim to attain an improbable ideal world, as in the Platonic considering the artistic images bad copies of transcendent ideas. Rather, the hope might be to recompose the view of a human world, in order to renew or found it again while longing for better times. Still Life, or “natura morta”? What portrayals and Still Lifes share is an attempt to stop life, capturing it into an image, like a modern photogram. It is also true that Still Lifes very often portray inanimate or dead items, as usual things, cut flowers or fish and game. Sometimes living animals and human beings are also present, but mostly in an accessory position or in the background. This is why at the beginning of the Modern Age, when painted Still Lifes returned to be autonomous compositions, mainly in the Latin countries they were defined as “nature


morte” (here we give the Italian definition), what literally means Dead Lifes. That is a bit contradictory and sad one, approaching them to so many Vanity Still Lifes with their skull. In the substance Latin Still Lifes do not differ from Northern Europe ones. Yet the different definition may be interpreted as a tacit allusion to the relation between mankind and nature, whereas Vanities rather concern its relation with this human world as a transitory one. We have just said above, after Vitruvius, in reality all these representations are direct or indirect traces of the human, reflecting or presupposing a men’s existence, work or intervention. Today more than ever, the representation of a dead or even killed nature might work as a cautious warning for a better respect of nature. On the contrary, Vitruvius’ schemata and especially his emblem basket invited to cooperate with nature. Not less than the hare in a cage by Philostratus, they look like rebus figures in a picture puzzle.

15 – Painted glass male portraits: National Archaeological Museum, Naples (1st century A.D.); and Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome (4th century) For the thoughtful architect, not only art but the whole culture ought to be a pondered mimesis of nature. The surviving and development of civilization strictly depend on such an imitation-transfiguration. Let us complete our reading of the very parable, regarding the shipwrecked Aristippus. Encouraged by the marks of civilization, then he makes his way: “And straightaway making for the city of Rhodes, he arrived at the Gymnasium; where, disputing on philosophical subjects, he obtained such honours, that he not only provided for himself, but furnished clothing and food to his companions. When his 23

companions had completed their arrangements for returning home, and asked what message he wished to send to his friends, he desired them to say: that the possessions and provision to be made for children should be those which can be preserved in case of shipwreck; inasmuch as those things are the real supports of life which the chances of fortune, the changes of public affaires, and the devastation of war, cannot injure” (VI, Praefatio, 1-2). As intuitable, in this optimistic vision we deal with the fruits of learning, instead of those of nature. According to the author’s culture, presumably they are kindred with the geometrical figures depicted on the shore, we have met at the beginning of the latter apologue. They are technical and artistic abilities, but also scientific and philosophical cognitions. Unfortunately, not all things in nature and in the human world possess such a geometrical perfection. Oftener they resemble the emblematic basket in the former Vitruvius’ tale above quoted, where roughness and casualness play their role, just inside Callimachus’ Apollonian dream. That is, a Dionysian force is the core of the emblem itself.

16 – Pompeian xenia, or fresco Still Life, with Eggs and Thrushes; National Archaeological Museum, Naples No wonder, in the adolescence of modernity we meet with another famous basket. This is full of picked fruits of nature, incredibly akin to Philostratus’ descriptions or to those 24

pictured on the walls of Pompeian mansions, which the modern author could have never seen. Was nothing changed, after the parenthesis of Middle Ages, so many centuries and more than one catastrophe? Let us zoom in on the Still Life with a Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an oil currently in the Ambrosian Gallery at Milan (ca.1600). The perfection of the rendering is exalted by a little Vanity detail, an imperfection of the subject: an apple so ripe, as to start to be rotten. He used to put as much effort in painting a basket of flowers, once the artist commented, just as for human figures. The Caravaggian naturalism concerns the human nature, as much as its natural context. Even if the revival of Still Life painting was shortly precedent, the Caravaggism became a landmark experience for several Still Life or genre scene painters and portraitists, all over Europe during the 17th century. Nonetheless, it was a practical, not a theorized lesson. If we search for an aesthetic theory, which had already influenced the Renaissance fine arts, once more we must refer to Vitruvius’ ancient treatise. Albeit mainly syncretic of Aristotelian and Stoic elements, his philosophical background looks a quite original view. Through not few humanists, architects and artists, his ideas dropped into early modernity. Cum in omnibus enim rebus, tum maxime etiam in architectura haec duo insunt: quod significatur et quod significat (“Such as in everything all over, with all the more reason in architecture two are the aspects which matter: the signified and the signifier”; I 1, 3): of course, here the privileged signifier is the architectonic project. We have seen that for Vitruvius other signifiers are very important, as the traces of the human and of nature itself. Which is the difference, between these two kinds of signifiers? The former kind regards the future. It has to be “geometrically” clear, so that the project can be realized at the best. Yet it has to be well founded too. Respectively regarding the past and the present, a correct interpretation of the traces of the human and of nature is a good basis for such a foundation.


17 – Pompeian xenia, or fresco Still Life, with Glass Bowl of Fruit; National Archaeological Museum, Naples In a broad cultural sense, this dialectic between foundation in the past and planning the future sounds modern and progressive. The problem of interpretation grows crucial, almost a password from past to future. At last, we can better interpret the former apologue, narrated by Vitruvius in On the Architecture. The roofed basket, wherein few articles of the Corinthian girl lie collected and preserved by her nurse, hugged and tied up by the leaves of acanthus, results so emblematic for it is both a signifier and – in part, at least – what signified. A double faced figure of the signification, whereof two faces seem interchangeable. By means of his art Callimachus the Catatechnos is able to loose the knot of its significance, translating it into the project of a new artistic order, which is also a cryptic memory of the unlucky maiden. A world wide Still Life and a serial portrait, at once. Vitruvius’ affabulation reflects on the complexity of life. Better than of mere imitation, the relation between art and nature is of ideal continuity and practical development. A root of art was the human effort to exorcize death, perpetuating memory despite corruption or calamities. By the way, art may catch what deadly inside life, what vital is latent in death. The invention of the Corinthian style by Callimachus is an example for the latter case, as well as the former can be exemplified by Caravaggio’s perfectionist imperfection, in his Basket of Fruit. That is a Still Life and “natura morta”, at the same time. 26

By contrast or affinity, also the portraiture attempt to “immortalize” the portrayed subjects can help to explain some a pregnancy of the Italian definition. In this case, the shared etymology does not sound a simple pretext for a play on words. Ambiguously, In Medusa’s Gaze is titled a sharp essay on Still Life painting by Norman Bryson. That mythic gaze could petrify life, delivering it from corruption and mortality, till Perseus’ intervention. Art is like one actor, who changes mask and plays both roles in the fable, that of the monster and that of the hero. What is immortalized are not human beings, but emotions and feelings.

18 – Basket of Fruit, fresco detail; House of the Vettii, Pompeii Will of Representation Though this paper has been devised without footnotes, a few annotations may be useful, in order to introduce an eventual further speech. In the Latin literature, already Marcus Terentius Varro in his treatise De lingua Latina had translated the corresponding Greek concepts of semainon and semainomenon into the phrases quod significat and quod significatur (VIII 21). Yet Varro’s concern was limited to a linguistic sphere and to verbal communication. Instead, Vitruvius’ originality consists in his applying such concepts to visual expression. We cannot know if this extensive conversion was already present in the


original Stoic theory, since the relevant logic and semantics works mostly perished. We can rely on few fragments of them, and the little we know denotes that the ambit was linguistic. “Such as in everything, with all the more reason in architecture…”: this Vitruvius’ “reason” is evident. Whereas the link between a verbal signifier and what signified is mostly conventional, for instance varying with languages, a visual one possesses a higher degree of necessity and universality. It is also true, most verbal communication designates what does exist, whereas an architectural project mainly regards what is not yet. Generally, the artistic representation may be thus double faced. Indeed the Stoics realized such a problem, theorizing an eidos or a phantaston too, as mental mediums between possible existence and signification. What actually confirms a role of the phantasia or imagination especially in the artistic creation, along with the ideation suggested by the imitation of nature: let us remember, a Nature which for the Stoics was a living entity, the signifier of signifiers. Their mimesis is also imitation of life, like most probably in an early Orphic-Pythagorean view. If Greek remnant sources are insufficient in order to consider the guess of a Stoic contribution to ancient aesthetics – and a passage in Cicero’s Orator, 8-10, chews again a fully Platonic idealistic view –, we can resort to a supporter of the imitation of nature in art such as Seneca. The Latin thinker merges consistent Platonic and Aristotelian with Stoic elements, in his 65th Epistle to Lucilius. And, in the 58th, he even describes the ideation of a portrait. In the translation below we have restored the Greek word eidos, used by Seneca and before him by Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics in different ways. Rather than in a generic sense, here the term is understood as a mental “shape”, distinct from the referred to “form”. This version of the mimesis closely resembles a Stoic interpretation of Plato and Aristotle:


19 – Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit; Galleria Ambrosiana, Milan “Suppose that I wish to make a likeness of you. I possess in your own person the pattern of this picture, wherefrom my mind receives a certain outline, which is to embody in its own handiwork. That outward appearance, which gives me instruction and guidance, this pattern for me to imitate is the ‘idea’. Such patterns nature possesses in infinite number – of men, fish, trees, according to whose model everything that nature has to create is worked out. […] When an artist desired to reproduce Virgil in colours, he would gaze upon Virgil himself. The ‘idea’ was Virgil’s outward appearance, and this was the pattern of the intended work. That which the artist draws from this ‘idea’, and has embodied in his own work, is the eidos. Do you ask me where the difference lies? The former is the pattern, while the latter is the shape taken from the pattern and embodied in the work. Our artist follows the one, but the other he creates” (trans. Richard M. Gummere; just adapted to this context). By chance, we have a real portrait of Virgil. Indeed it is a 3rd century mosaic, today in the Bardo Museum at Tunis, said to be a copy of a portrayal of the Roman poet. Most likely it is not a live picture at all. To use Stoic terms, rather than an eidos it looks a phantaston, nay an allegoric composition. In the middle, a full length Virgil is seated, with a written scroll open on one knee. He is flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, 29

muse of tragedy. The whole is an allusion to Virgil’s famed poem Aeneid. Also epic poetry is a kind of imitation of nature, of the human nature, such as it unfolds and reveals itself in the tragedy of history. Historiography may well be a description or interpretation. Yet, not much less than art and in its own way, poetry is a transfiguration far better than an imitation. If we want to update the whole speech to a psychoanalytic fashion, we could replace the Platonic abstraction of a World of Ideas, or the Aristotelian conception of a form immanent in the matter, with a natural unconscious as the background of any subject to imitate in ancient art. Closer to the Stoic worldview, this explanation could better work, when considering the actual artistic production with its realistic and symbolic components. From a quite static relation, the mimesis grew a dynamic process: a linkwork between natural unconscious and creative conscience, not seldom open to the history of culture. It becomes a “re-presentation”, in the literal meaning of making present again or otherwise.

20 – Print detail from Les dix livres d’architecture de Vitruve, edited by Claude Perrault; Paris, 1684 More and more, art became not only a mirror of nature – or of the sacred, such as highly in the Middle Ages – but a looking glass of times too. What makes the scholar Elizabeth Mansfield, in her ample study Too Beautiful to Picture: Myth and Mimesis in 30

Western Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), write of one “cultural unconscious”. A possible limitation is that it would be a collective, no longer an universal or a cosmic background. To see well, that is an inevitable limit for any phenomenological approach to the history of art. Yet a Romantic as Friedrich Schiller, in his Aesthetic Letters, wrote: “As long as we feel the want even only of finding a beautiful appearance or phenomenon, this implies that of the existence of certain objects. It follows, our satisfaction still depends on nature, considered as a force: a nature, disposing of all existence in a sovereign manner”. We like to conclude our survey by focusing back on the portrayal of Hypatia, frescoed by Raphael as a detail of The School of Athens, between 1510 and 1511 in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Not less than Virgil’s portrait in the Bardo Museum, it is an ideal one, although we are informed of the support of a living model. Nevertheless, it appears a milestone in the history of portraiture and a true emblem of Renaissance at once. It is a hint of how ours is a civilization of the “re-presentation”, although what represented can never be fully identical with itself, as well as a signifier cannot be with what signified. Yet, in this case, an impression is that the result is even truer than an anachronistic identity. A victim of few early Christian fanatics, the Alexandrine philosopher is looking out, just as Raphael himself on the opposite side of the picture. Standing white clad like a martyr, she sharply gazes at us, as if warning against the peril of any sort of integralism. Even your modernity, she seems to say, might be like Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, with its imperceptible deadly imperfection. The synchronistic School of Athens is when an artistic unconscious rises as cultural consciousness, tacitly awaiting until the times get ripe for the message can be discerned and updated again. In one sense, Raphael is a new catatechnos. His recomposed Hypatia is the major sister of Callimachus’, and Vitruvius’, Corinthian girl.


21 – Raphael Sanzio, presumed fictional Portrait of Hypatia and Self Portrait, details of the fresco The School of Athens; Stanze di Raffaello, Vatican It does not mean that there were not varying opinions. For Leonardo da Vinci, the mimesis is nearly a scientific knowledge, which “is truly the legitimate daughter of nature, for it was engendered by nature. To be exact, we shall call it the granddaughter of nature, for nature has produced all visible things, and from them painting is born. We shall therefore rightly call it the granddaughter of nature, related to God” (trans. Margaret Walker). Leonardo goes as far as to condemn artists, presumably Byzantine, who dare “to correct nature”. In his Baroque treatise En defensa de la pintura, the Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca will develop Leonardo’s ideas, as far as to figure God himself like a painter. Later, in his Philostrat’s Gemälde und Antik und Moderne, Johann W. von Goethe will invite Neo-Classic painters to learn from Philostratus’ Images. What would have meant the imitation of an ecphrasis, at least because most there described originals had got lost. More than sculpture or architecture, among fine arts ancient painting for its own fragility has been exposed to the wreck of time, or even to human iconoclastic destructivity. More than ever, the work of archaeologists and the criticism of art historians bump into a casualness of relics and testimonies, or into a resurgent wildness of nature and the contradictions of culture. Just to say so, the shape is parting from its form, the signifier from 32

what signified, the significance from the signification given by a peculiar context. Inside those traces, sometimes art itself may be able to intercept and realize a live force of persistence: their will of representation, of being present and signifying after all, or else of escaping the new casualness of a forced museal dispersion. All that, exceptionally at the cost of some an alteration. With reference to Latin literature, rather than an Epicurean correspondence between simulacrum and exemplar, like in Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, this results the extreme chance of an Ovidian metamorphosis. Just paraphrasing Schopenhauer and Nietzsche here, the mimesis reveals itself as a compromise between an Apollonian persistence and a Dionysian dissolution of forms. Not necessarily, the fruits are original artistic products. Frequently they are copies or fragments, reflections or descriptions. Yet this is enough, as to let us suspect that always “inspired” art has a bit of such an arrangement. In spite of any monumental temptation, a not negligible worth in painting may be its own frailty and reproducibility, like for the basket of mementos on a poor tomb inspiring Callimachus’ capital, multiplied at the top of thousand columns. In the cases of a portraiture painting, we could adapt what referred to Pierre Klossowski by the philosopher Michel Foucault, in his essay La prose d’Actéon (issued in La Nouvelle Revue Français n. 135, March 1964): “Here, the simulacra are neither things nor traces, not even fine still forms as the Greek statues, but human beings. [...] Like traffic lights, they appear at windows: perhaps, in order to send signals or to show that they are doing that, whereas they make only a feint? [...] Live or dead, this does not matter. Inside them, an oblivion watches over the Return of the Identical. They signalize nothing, just only simulating themselves”. As for a few subjects so lucky as to succeed in preserving their pictorial miens, this circumstance may be the recurring occasion for a paradoxical fancy. “Chaire,” they seem to hail from their temporal windows, “we also had a dream. What an absurdity now this screen, keeping us from communicating to each other!” Such is the case of an alleged “Maenad” frescoed in the House of the Cryptoporticus at Pompeii. It is the figure of a naked woman, doubtless drawn from a living model, almost the effigy of a Freudian Gradiva or an involuntary premonition of the Nietzschean “Return of the Identical”. Reliably, we are dealing with the most valuable Pompeian portrayal. A cruel chance made us acquainted with this artwork, simulacrum and emblem at once. Her dismal gaze reminds that, it is true, often art has been told to rise from empathy. Yet let us enjoy and respect it, even had it become a 33

question of contiguity, since its “human, all too human” frontiers are those of an improbable – but not un-verisimilar, indeed – globalization of time, even more than of our world space.

22 – Maenad (?), fresco detail; House of the Cryptoporticus, Pompeii Copyright 2009 Articles by the same author on like topics, at the Websites below: 34

23 – Will of Representation, computer artwork by Hossein Ali Olia, Rome 2008