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The Literary Sources

The first descriptions of works of art in Greek literature are as old as Homer, where costly and beautiful articles are all part of the glittering world of the heroes, "a wonder to see" (Hom. Il. 5.725, etc.). As befits his relentlessly objective, brightly illuminated portrait of a competitive society of conspicuous consumers, Homer places a high premium on beauty (equated with artistic realism) and skill his authority here will bias ancient attitudes on art to the end. Thereafter, authors of all periods commonly make reference to art works, sometimes merely for "local color", but often with some ulterior motive in mind.

J.J. Pollitt (Pollitt 1990) has conveniently separated these writers into four reasonably distinct groups: literary analogists, moral aestheticians, professional critics, and compilers of tradition. To take each in turn.

The use of the phenomenal world for literary analogy begins with Homer's similes; as an increasingly conspicuous part of his world, works of art were gradually likewise employed, though references to sculpture are rarer than to painting or decorative art. Examples are legion, but in each case, the work of art is but a tool, a springboard for a purely literary point. Thus around 485, Pindar may contrast his winged words of praise with a sculptor's offering, "doomed to linger only on the pedestal where it stands" (Pind. N. 5. l-3), while four centuries later the literary critic Dionysios of Halikarnassos can now compare a "classic" prose style "with the art of Polykleitos and Pheidias because of its august, dignified, and grand style" (T 61). Soon, the terminology of literary criticism was widely and often sensitively employed in this way, using lists of artists specially compiled by Alexandrian or Pergamene rhetoricians (e.g. T 115). Yet one must remember that such comparisons, while illuminating Greco-Roman perceptions of Greek sculpture, were often partially conditioned by prevailing neo-classical tastes, and that the analytical terminology of one discipline is seldom transferable to another without strain.

Ostensibly more independent are the literary descriptions of works of art; the genre ultimately derives from Homer's Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18. Yet even here rhetoric remains paramount: thus to Kallistratos, writing ca. A.D. 300, the iconography and style of Skopas's Maenad (Stewart 1990, fig. 547) matter little against such extravagances as these: "The statue of a Maenad, wrought from Parian marble, has been transformed into a real Maenad. For the stone, while retaining its own nature, yet seemed to depart from the law which governs stone; what one saw was really an image, but art carried imitation over into actual reality.... When we saw her face we stood speechless...." (T 114).

Finally, there is the humorist Lucian (ca. A.D. l20-180). Once a sculptor's apprentice, he tells how he switched to rhetoric because Education told him: "Even if you should become a Pheidias or a Polykleitos and should create many marvellous works, everyone will praise your skill for sure, but none of your admirers, if he had sense, would want to be like you; for whoever you might become, you would still be considered a laborer, a man who lives by his hands and has nothing but his hands" (The Dream 9). His remarks on sculpture (such as, for example, T 44 and T 91) are important; he also devotes a whole essay to selecting features from various female statues to form an ideal beauty, an eclecticism typical of his age (T 58; cf. Stewart 1990, figs. 314, 507):

“From the Knidia [the sculptor] takes only the head...allowing the hair, forehead, and that lovely brow-line to remain as Praxiteles made them; and the liquid yet clear and winsome gaze of the eyes shall stay as Praxiteles conceived it. But he will take the curve of the cheeks and the fore part of the face from Alkamenes' [Aphrodite] in the Gardens, plus her hands, graceful wrists and supple, tapering fingers. But the facial contour, its sides and shapely nose will be supplied by the Lemnian Athena by Pheidias, who will also furnish the meeting of the lips and the neck, taken from the Amazon. Sosandra and Kalamis shall adorn her with modesty, and with a faint, holy smile....

” Rhetorical criticism sometimes makes moral judgements, blaming as well as praising. This moral dimension of art first interested philosophers in the fifth century, when the Sophists began to discuss representation (mimesis) in the arts and to evaluate it as a skill or craft (techne). With unabashed relativism, the Sophist Gorgias hailed deception as the aim of all mimesis, so that while rhetoric entrances the ears, "the creation of statues and the working of images furnishes a divine sweetness to the eyes" (Helen 18), persuading by a sort of magical power. Philosophers who believed in universals responded quickly: conceding the power (and danger) of techne. Plato attacked it for its third-hand mimesis of "true" reality and absolute beauty. Painting, by now increasingly powerful and impressionistic, is particularly lambasted, but sculpture does not escape unscathed, as in his stinging indictment of "doctored" proportions in the Sophist (T 135). Such deception is morally damaging, and Plato (though no philistine) has to prefer Egyptian sculpture, timeless, unchanging, and ideal (Plat. Laws 656e). To Aristotle, however, techne not merely imitates but completes nature, since it uses natural materials to create objects unknown in nature. Mimesis thereby has its own purposes, laws, and "virtues" if pursued properly and in accordance with its true function; in particular, it should aim at the mean.

Such theorising had little practical effect on art itself. The notion that form may follow function indeed pervades Hellenistic art, but Aristotle's opinions hardly caused such a development, however well they may have appeared to justify it. The same goes for the last great aesthetic theory of antiquity, the so-called phantasia theory. Probably working from a definition of techne by the Stoic Chrysippos (ca. 280-207) as "a skill proceeding methodically by the aid of mental images (phantasiai)", (Long-Sedley no. 42A), its adherents held that the creative artist's intuition could penetrate as if by divine inspiration directly to the heart of his subject. It first appears in connection with the classical "Old Masters", particularly Pheidias (T 54), and Hellenistic-Roman neo-classical attitudes to art. Thus Cicero praises Pheidias's "perfection" then adds that "when he created his Zeus or Athena, he did not contemplate any persons from whom he drew a likeness, but rather a sort of extraordinary apparition of beauty resided in his mind, and, concentrating on it and intuiting its nature, he directed his art and his hand towards reproducing it" (Orator 2.9; cf. Stewart 1990, figs. 361, 372).

Finally, there are the early Christian fathers, whose attacks on idolatry regularly included descriptions or catalogues of such idols, of widely varying fidelity. Fairly typical of these, though more informative than most, is Clement of Alexandria's Exhortation to the Greeks or Protreptikos, published around A.D. 200, whose fourth chapter is entirely directed against image-worship of all kinds, from primitive xoana to Sarapis and the statues of the Emperors. He regularly cites his sources but in the heat of divinely-inspired invective tends to paraphrase them sloppily. Nevertheless, his witness is crucial for the history of such important cult-images as the Samian Hera and the Alexandrian Sarapis (T 14 and 149; Stewart 1990, figs. 14-15, 632-34).

Greek moral philosophy, then, gives us a series of individual intellectual perspectives on art. With the possible exceptions of Sophistic relativism, the phantasia-theory, and Christian iconoclasm it can seldom have influenced either artists themselves or their wider public, though both may at times have responded to other aspects of the intelligentsia's thinking, such as their ideas on the Gods. For example, both Pheidias and the materialistic philosopher Anaxagoras were friends of Perikles (T 47), though whether they all ever saw eye to eye is problematic.

The case of Polykleitos is different. The ambience which produced his Canon (T 62, 66-9), the mathematical treatise on ideal proportion that is the first known example of professional criticism in sculpture, was fiercely competitive: the nude male was the focus, achievement of absolute beauty the goal, recognition the prize, and a treatise a prime way to assert one's claims. The intellectual roots of his work are obscure, though in architecture a long line of such books had been inaugurated by the sculptor-architect Theodoros of Samos ca. 550. Two prime ingredients may have been a workshop tradition of handing down proportional schemes for (cf. T 21), perhaps verbally or in simple diagrammatic form, plus the number-theory of the influential philosopher Pythagoras (active around 500). With mathematics in its infancy and still closely tied to geometry, sculptors and philosophers could talk the same language.

Polykleitos's Canon, now lost but for two or three fragments, dominated its field for a century and more, though around 350 Euphranor and Silanion published "alternative" canons (T 117; Vitruvius 7 praef. l4), and finally in the early third century, the sculptor Xenokrates (T 145-6) wrote a treatise that attempted a historical perspective for the first time, enthroning "the new and hitherto untried canon" (T 124) of his own "master" Lysippos, as the culmination of the entire tradition. Symmetria (commensurability), rhythmos (composition), and akribeia (accuracy of detail) were Xenokrates' criteria, and his writings, now lost but probably the source for some remarks of Pliny's (T 40, T 43, T 62, T 124, T 145, T 146), were the first true art history of antiquity.

This retrospective atmosphere intensified during the Hellenistic period with the sense that Greece's period of true creativity was over. Scholars turned to classifying and recording, to writing handbooks on every subject imaginable, and it was inevitable that sculpture would soon be among them. Among these compilers of tradition, Douris of Samos (active ca. 280; cf. T 124) produced a set of anecdotal and highly-colored lives of major artists, and Antigonos of Karystos (active ca. 240: cf. T 78 and T 145) combined this biographical approach with the professional criticism of Xenokrates. In the second century, Polemon of Elis wrote a critique of Antigonos, while Heliodoros of Athens published a guidebook to the Akropolis and elsewhere (T 145). Finally, in the first century, the neoclassic sculptor Pasiteles wrote five volumes on the world's masterpieces of sculpture (T 145, T 163) and Strabo included many statues in his Geography (e.g. T 21, 49). Two Romans continued the practice: M. Terentius Varro (116-28) paraphrased these Hellenistic authors extensively in his works (T 145, cf. 62, 163), and C. Lucinius Mucianus (died before A.D. 77) wrote an account of Asian antiquities.

Strabo survives, but of the others only fragments remain, chiefly in Pliny's encyclopedia or Natural History, published in A.D. 77. Books 34 and 36 deal with bronzes and marbles respectively, and give us a cut-and-paste synopsis of Hellenistic and Roman connoisseurship. In book 34, brief histories of alloys, statue-types, patronage, and technique are followed by a chronological list (the only one extant) of bronze sculptors by Olympiads, beginning with Pheidias in Ol. 83 (448-445 BC) (T 1). Its accuracy, poor at the beginning, improves markedly for the fourth century, until with Lysippos' pupils in Ol. 121 (296-293 BC) "the art ceased". A classical revival by "inferiors, yet still men of repute" is put in Ol. 156 (156-153). Accounts of the major artists come next, enlivened by anecdotes from Douris and brief analytical passages from Xenokrates, then a catalogue of lesser masters and their works. Book 36 (marble sculpture) is straightforwardly chronological, from supposed beginnings under Dipoinos and Skyllis in Ol. 50 (580-577 BC) to Greco-Roman sculptors like the masters of the Laokoon and Pasiteles. Throughout, Pliny rarely offers extensive descriptions or praise other than for realism (e.g. T 124), which sits uneasily with his generally classical bias: Hellenistic sculpture is seldom mentioned and never dated. Some works were apparently selected specially to flatter the emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus (e.g. T 171).

Our only other extant account of Greek sculpture was also a late offspring of Hellenistic curiosity. The traveller Pausanias wrote his Description of Greece around A.D. 170, covering Greece as far north as Boeotia. A careful, pedestrian writer, he is interested not only in the grandiose or the exquisite but in unusual sights and obscure ritual. He is occasionally careless, or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him; yet his honesty is unquestionable, and his value without par. He dutifully lists sculptures of all periods, but reserves detailed descriptions and real praise for Pheidias and his pupils (T 50, 77), and for their second-century imitator, Damophon of Messene (T 156; Stewart 1990, figs. 788-92). Yet his tastes were not wholly conformist: the Athena Lemnia, not the Parthenos, "is the best of all Pheidias's works to see" (1.28.2; compare Lucian, above; cf. Stewart 1990, figs. 313, 361), and, more surprisingly, he has a special affection for certain pre-Pheidian masters, particularly Pythagoras of Rhegion, "a good sculptor, if ever there was one" (T 41) and Onatas of Aegina, "second to none of the successors of Daidalos and the Attic school" (T 38). He even appreciates archaic statues, "somewhat uncouth to the eye, but with a touch of the divine in them nevertheless" (T 7).

Without Pliny and Pausanias our knowledge of Greek sculpture would be meager indeed. Yet with imagination one can flesh over the bare bones of now-vanished glories which they offer from another source, still virtually untapped: the entire span of Greek literature. Thus archaic poetry may tell us what delights the gods in their sanctuaries, and so help to unveil the meaning of kouroi and korai; classical prose writers may address the problem of the individual and polis, and so contribute to an understanding of contemporary portraiture; and a late fourth-century hymn may present an unusual picture of Dionysos and Apollo, and so lead to insights into syncretism in early Hellenistic art. The possibilities are great, the horizons as yet unmarked.

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