the Elder and the Rediscovery of Classical Art During the Renaissance
In 1506, Laocoön,
a group sculpture representing a famous episode during the Trojan
War, was unearthed in Rome. The Trojan priest and his two sons
are shown being crushed to death by serpents sent by the gods
favoring the Greeks to prevent Laocoön from warning his compatriots
about the “Trojan horse.”
The Humanists of the Renaissance immediately identified this major
archeological find as the work extolled by Pliny the Elder in
his Natural History (36.37):
“. . . the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the
Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to
any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It
is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well
as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds.
This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists,
Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.”
Coveted by Francis I, the Laocoön Group was acquired
by Pope Julius II, who exhibited it at his Cortile del Belvedere
alongside such other great antiquities as the Apollo Belvedere
and the Belvedere Torso. This sculpture has inspired numerous
artists down through the centuries, such as Peter Paul Rubens,
El Greco, Ossip Zadkine, and Étienne Bossut.
The linking of archeological discoveries to Pliny’s text
greatly contributed to the progress being made in Renaissance
art, as Vasari testifies:
“The artisans who followed them succeeded after seeing the
excavation of the most famous antiquities mentioned by Pliny:
the Laocoon, the Hercules, and the great torso of Belvedere, the
Venus, the Cleopatra, the Apollo, and countless others, which
exhibit in their softness and hardness the expressions of real
flesh copied from the most beautiful details of living models
and endowed with certain movements which do not distort them but
lend them motion and the utmost grace. And these statues caused
the disappearance of a certain dry, crude, and clear-cut style
which was bequeathed to this craft.”
Yet, beyond the artistic creativity thus inspired, there was also
a reflection on art that leaned on a reading of Pliny: “Pliny
was to be found on Wincklemann’s table and his patterns
of interpretation had already deeply influenced the artistic literature
of Humanism, beginning with Lorenzo Ghiberti,” writes the
historian of Roman Art Salvatore Settis.
Pliny the Elder, A High Official in the Service of Knowledge
Pliny the Elder (23-79)
was a top-ranking official of the Roman Empire, close to the Flavian
emperors, who wrote accounts in various fields (history, art of
warfare, the Latin tongue). His final work, the only one preserved
in its entirety, is an encyclopedia of nature, the Natural
History (Naturalis Historia) in thirty-seven books
devoted to the following fields: the world, man, animals, plants,
remedies drawn from animal and plant substances, and mineralogy.
This final part contains digressions on art history, which is
treated as a way of developing or exploiting materials that exist
in nature (metals and stones for sculpture, soils for painting).
For Pliny, the history of art appears as a peripheral subject
and is treated without any continuity. Despite this, and given
the loss of the prior texts, Pliny constitutes a source of prime
importance on ancient art, in particular classical Greek art.
He also relates a great many anecdotes about artists, which have
nourished both artistic productions (for example, François-André
Vincent’s Zeuxis Choosing Models from the Beautiful
Women of Croton and Nicolas Vleughels’s Apelles Painting
Campaspe) and the biographical approach that presided in
art history until Wincklemann (in particular with Giorgio Vasari’s
Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,
The Cyclical (Biological) Conception of Art and Its Descendants
Pliny handed down the main way of reflecting about art in Antiquity,
as was applied to art by the bronze-founder and art theorist Xenokrates
of Sicyon (fl. c. 280 BCE). This was a cyclical model, also called
biological, according to which art follows the arc of living things,
with a birth, growth, an apogee, decline, and death.
This pattern of thinking
was gradually taken up again during the Renaissance, in particular
by Dante, Petrarch, Ghiberti, Leon Battista Alberti, and Vasari
(the biological model was applied at the time to literature as
well as art). In the eighteenth century, it was also followed
by Wincklemann (“A history of art has to return to its origin,
following its progress and changes until its decline and its death.”)
and by the person who continued his work, Jean-Baptiste Séroux
d’Agincourt in his Histoire de l’art par les monuments
depuis sa décadence au 4è s. jusqu’à
son renouvellement au 16è s.
According to Xenokrates, as handed down by Pliny, progress in
art occurs in accordance with the criterion of mimesis, the imitation
of reality. Thus does Pliny define the five best artists as the
painters Apollodorus, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, Euphranor, and Apelles
and the sculptors Phidias, Polyclitus, Myron, Pythagoras, and
Lysippos. The apogee of art was attained by Alexander’s
official artists, Apelles and Lysippos. Moreover, mimesis supplies
the subject matter for numerous anecdotes reported by Pliny, in
particular within the context of competitions among artists over
the issue of realism: thus we have “Apelles’ horses”
(35.95: real horses whinnied at the horses painted by Apelles,
thereby earning him a victory over his rivals) and “Zeuxis’
grapes and Parrhasius’ curtain” (35.66: Zeuxis, having
represented some grapes, gloried in the fact that some birds came
to peck at the picture, but he admitted defeat when he himself
was deceived by the curtain painted by his rival, which he took
for a real curtain concealing the picture).
Roman Particularities and Moralism
And yet, even though
he is dealing in the main with Greek art, Pliny no less offers
a Roman view. As in the rest of his encyclopedia, his perspective
is centered around Rome, and his work turns out to be an inventory
taken from the standpoint and for the benefit of the Vrbs,
of all that the Roman Empire contains and possesses. In the field
of art (as in that of knowledge in general), Pliny strives to
note the particularities of Roman practices, Rome not being the
mere imitator of Greece. Thus, for statues, “the Greek practice
is, not to cover any part of the body; while, on the contrary,
the Roman and the military statues have the addition of a cuirass”
(34.18). His history of art is also marked by a moralistic outlook
that permeates the entire encyclopedia. This outlook is expressed
through critical judgments about the attitude of emperors toward
works of art: “The most celebrated of all the works, of
which I have here spoken, have been dedicated, for some time past,
by the Emperor Vespasianus in the Temple of Peace, and other public
buildings of his. They had before been forcibly carried off by
Nero, and brought to Rome, and arranged by him in the reception-rooms
of his Golden Palace” (34.84). We also have this anecdote
about Lysippos’ Apoxyomenos, which testifies to
the people’s affection for works:
“Lysippus was most prolific in his works, and made more
statues than any other artist. Among these, is the Man using the
Body-scraper, which Marcus Agrippa had erected in front of his
Warm Baths, and which wonderfully pleased the Emperor Tiberius.
This prince, although in the beginning of his reign he imposed
some restraint upon himself, could not resist the temptation,
and had this statue removed to his bed-chamber, having substituted
another for it at the baths: the people, however, were so resolutely
opposed to this, that at the theater they clamourously demanded
the Apoxyomenos to be replaced; and the prince, notwithstanding
his attachment to it, was obliged to restore it” (34.62).
Greek Works and the Art Market in Rome
From the imperialistic perspective of the capital of the empire,
Pliny endeavored to relate the fate of works as they moved between
the Greek world and Rome: those works were brought over en masse
by victorious generals in the name of the spoils of conquest (34.34:
Rome took Volsinii in 265 for its 2,000 statues). Thus did they
become the immense private and public collections that adorn the
city of Rome. Pliny carefully lists these statues by the places
where they were exhibited and by artists who made them, especially
in Book 36, where Pliny copies down official lists established
by the Roman administration. Such lists testify to a veritable
Beyond their nature as booty, works also became objects for purchase.
Pliny provides here valuable testimony to the existence of a market
for classical art. “At the same time, also, flourished Cydias;
for whose picture of the Argonautae the orator Hortensius paid
one hundred and forty-four thousand sesterces, and had a shrine
constructed expressly for its reception on his estate at Tusculum”
(35.130). Agrippa purchased an Ajax and a Venus for 1,200,000
sesterces from the inhabitants of Cyzicus (35.26). By way of comparison,
in Pompeii one tunic was worth 15 sesterces and a liter of wine
Insisting on the properly Roman contribution to the development
of art, Pliny recalls (35.22-23) that the price of works in Rome
increased when victorious generals exhibited pictures representing
the scenes of their battles. Thus, Messalla (consul in 263) was
the first to exhibit in the Curia Hostilia, with the painting
of his victory over Carthage in Sicily.
“The same thing was done, too, by L. Scipio, who placed
in the Capitol a painting of the victory which he had gained in
Asia; . . . Lucius Hostilius Mancinus, too, who had been the first
to enter Carthage at the final attack, gave a very similar offence
to Aemilianus, by exposing in the Forum a painting of that city
and the attack upon it, he himself standing near the picture,
and describing to the spectators the various details of the siege;
a piece of complaisance which secured him the consulship at the
To sum up, Pliny constitutes our principal written source on ancient,
and in particular Greek classical, art. His information on works,
artists, and patterns of thinking about art have nourished knowledge
of ancient art, but also artistic creativity and reflection on
art starting with the Renaissance. Yet, far from being an impartial
witness or a mere intermediary as regards lost works and texts
(as had been thought for a very long time), Pliny situates his
passages on the history of art within the general perspective
of a Natural History that is centered on Rome and that is marked
by imperialistic and moralistic attitudes. Here we have the contribution
and main orientation of Pliny criticism today.
For the English translation: Pliny the Elder, The Natural
History, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley, 1855: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plin.+Nat.+toc&redirect=true
We have used Gallimard’s L’univers des formes
art history series: Naissance de l’art grec, Grèce
archaïque, Grèce classique, Grèce hellénistique,
L’Italie avant Rome, Rome, le centre du pouvoir, Rome,
la fin de l’art antique.
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Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2003.
Chevallier, Raymond. L’artiste, le
collectionneur, le faussaire. Pour une sociologie de l’art
romain. Paris: A. Colin, 1991.
Hoffmann, Philippe and Paul-Louis Rinuy.
Antiquités imaginaires. La référence
antique dans l’art occidental de la Renaissance à
nos jours. Paris: Presses de l’École normale
Kris, Ernst and Otto Kurz. Legend,
Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: An Historical Experiment.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979 (first German
Naas, Valérie. Le projet encyclopédique
de Pline l’Ancien. Rome: École Française
de Rome, 2002.
Pommier, Édouard. Ed. Winckelmann:
la naissance de l'histoire de l’art à l’époque
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_____. Ed. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art. Vol
1: De l’Antiquité au XVIIIe siècle.
Paris: Louvre/Klincksieck, 1995.
_____. Winckelmann, inventeur de l’histoire de l’art.
Paris: La Documentation française, 2003.
Reinach, Adolphe. Textes grecs et latins
relatifs à l'histoire de la peinture ancienne. Recueil
Milliet. Paris: Macula, 1985 (first ed. 1921).
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de la peinture ancienne. Rome: École Française
de Rome, 1989.
Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists.
Trans. with an intro. and notes by Julia Conaway Bondanella and
Peter Bondanella. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,
Les “Vies” d’artistes. Acts of the
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