11 April 2024

From late Greek fun to aristocratic Roman Gardens (1)

By the time of the Seicento, many people throughout Europe, but not least in Rome, were impressed to see before their own very eyes, gleamingly white statues from antiquity; and great profit was made by those enterprising individuals who dug them up, restored broken arms and noses, and sold them on to their fellow-countrymen or to visitors from the North who were performing the Grand Tour. You can, for example, see a splendid collection at Petworth, where bits continues to be tacked on at the end of the House to provide more exhibition space for the Earl's collection.

But, in an important respect, viewers and collectors alike were being deceived. Those statues were not planned or executed in order to be gleaming white marble. They were, in Antiquity, polychrome. (There is a fine book on this published in Copenhagen by the Carlsberg Glyptothek.) What Winckelmann admired and Thorvaldsen carved is so different from the Classical realite as to be, plausibly, a different genre. 

And the same conventions, apparently, reached down the scale of social dignitas. The rooms and gardens of first-century palaces were full of such 'furniture'. And levitas replaced dignitas. Old women, habitually drunk, clutch an amphora. Nymphs, fauns, and hermaphrodites struggle to accomplish or to escape rape. Two boys are fighting over a game of knucklebones ... originally, this was deemed to be a boy eating another boy's leg! Also in the Townley Collection, before most of it was stashed away in cupboards by the BM Trustees, a young fisherboy sported an extensive membrum virile ... before English propriety modified him. Another fisherman was "a clinical study of old age", but he would accompany well the Old Market Woman in the NY Met ("her delicate , diaphanous chiton and elaborate sandals imply a hertaira fallen upon hard times"). Most of these pieces of fun were mass-produced for wealthy Romans, for their homes and gardens: that is why the last few centuries have unearthed so many products of the same pattern-books. Pan, it appears, was a mighty if tumescent educator: he is so often see teaching a boy to play the pipes while simultaneously grooming him.

Even the gods of Olympus manifest a jocose facade: on Delos, a smiling Aphrodite wards off Pan with the worn sole of a sandal. Realism has displaced divine maiestas: the great Apollo who slew the monstrous Python becomes a sinuous youth regarding ... a tiny lizard climbing up a tree trunk. And this prioritising of the ordinary, the every-day, extends to the animal world: two dogs courting' were among Townley's acquisitions; a fine dog, usually categorised as a "Molossian Hound", sits beside the lake at Petworth and is to be found elsewhere.

Precisely the same movements can be detected in literature. Aristophanes is displaced by Menander and the Roman writers o f domestic 'New Comedy'. Homer gives way to Callimachus: long epics with heroic heroes metamorphose into short epyllia, so that the title (Aktaia) of Callimachus' "little epic" is a describer of its heroine, a peasant woman called Hecale. She entertains Theseus, and we read a detailed account of the homely peasant meal ... and the homely home. In Latin, Ovid was to employ the same generic tropes in his Philemon and Baucis. 

D'you know: I have often wondered whether the lack of hospitium in the reception offered to the Holy Family in the Lucan Infancy narrative alludes to the same literary tradition: after all, Acts 14 intersects neatly with Ovid's Metamorphoses.

How many swallows ...

 To be concluded with our Lady of Loreto.

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