Thursday, July 29, 2010

About Perseus and Andromeda

Deultum. Coin for Macrinus (217-218).
Perseus bearing the head of Medusa frees
Andromeda from the cliff where she guarded by
a sea serpent.
I think that two essential considerations concerning Greco-Roman art are commonly overlooked. First, that only a small percentage of it was commissioned officially, and most of it was made commercially for sale. Second, that except in the real hinterland or the poorest little places it was highly competent and professional. Though we don't know what they were made of, professional artists had sketchbooks of their stock in trade, at least as good as Villard de Honnecourt's (just Google him!), but for their own media, including color, portable on sized cloth or skin, as codices or rotuli. Some works have to have been shipped or carted for delivery, finished or semi-finished; others, where the materials were widely available or portable, would be made on the spot. Sometimes, from Sunday School, we may get the impression that ships existed for apostles! It is extremely instructive to study ancient history in terms of the commerce in the figural arts.

I have thought that cumulatively essays on the topics that I couldn't use in coursework, since students ever increasingly demand questions with answers that can be proved but lack the languages that enable even framing them, might be illuminative by throwing into relief questions that are not less important because they are unanswerable. Too few histories were written, none that I know of came out of ateliers (Lucian tells us very little of all that he might have known, doubtless thinking it unliterary, artisan lore), and working handbooks were not what was copied. If there was a Cennino Cennini (again, just Google him) of the Imperial Age, we don't know of him, even as a name, and he might have been too concerned with prestige to tell us everything, either.

What the surviving pictures tell us in this case as in most others is that recognizability and artistic competence were what mattered—certainly not originality. For example, when the Roman colonia of Deultum (rudimentary references are at the bottom of the post) used the composition with Perseus rescuing Andromeda, using 8 reverse dies, from the reign of Macrinus to that of Philip I 'the Arab', it relied on its familiarity, without a label. Though, constrained to a coin, it looks like a pas de deux performed in a telephone booth, it not only identifies Perseus by his carrying the head of Medusa and the heroism of the rescue by including the sea monster at the bottom, it is the relation of one figure to the other that is essential. This composition is an ideal starting point for this blog, being manageable.

At the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples the largest
and the smallest versions of the Perseus and Andromeda composition
found at Pompeii. The small one is just a evocative sketch that was cut
from a solid-color wall-panel. The large one had a place of pride
in the "House of the Dioscuri".

The very large wall paintings in Pompeiian houses are meant to be copies and doubtless were priced accordingly; they had to be done by wall-painters who understood the art involved quite well, and they couldn't be done from a sketchbook of postcard-size thumbnails. For these, the wall-painters evidently could afford to own freehand copies, whether their own from in front of the original or derived, second-hand or third- or fourth-hand, with a sound pedigree. Such a copy, I imagine, was on a smooth, well gessoed board (yes, like an icon, and early modern icon painters worked from such models). Even so, let us emphasize, it was a freehand reduced copy and, as we all know (if not style-blind), the very best copyists cannot avoid something of their own time and of themselves getting into the copies. On the other hand, the copyist of the Andromeda (and of the Io from Pompeii that is properly considered with it) respected the original, which was Late Classical, with a bright sky and some blue sea as a simple backdrop (predating real landscape as a genre), with the figures up front, with the bowknot hair style on Andromeda, with a bronzed skin and an anatomy for Perseus rather like the Bronze Boy from the Bay of Marathon in Athens. In short, everything points to an original for this composition of the generation of Praxiteles, and it is quite likely that the large copies of Andromeda and Io were recognizable as those by Nikias, Praxiteles' favorite painter, said to have been the one who tinted Praxiteles' own marble statues. In sum, in these large copies, we are dealing with opera nobilia, in a class with our favorites that everyone knows (buying postcards of them by the tens of thousands). That is the place of the Andromeda in the history of art. We shall never know, of course, how true our 'pedigreed' copy was to the subtleties peculiar to Nikias' own style.
Now look: the little one, the rapid sketch which is all the more effective from a distance as part of a wall for being done that way, is itself perfectly recognizable as representing the same original. Then remember: what if Pompeii hadn't been buried, safely, in AD 79? How many more Andromedas, large and small, existed in antiquity? In a thousand years what fraction of our wall-paper, of our postcard collections, of our coffee-table books and art calendars will survive? Even vellum codices have had the help of monastery libraries (and Umberto Eco was so astute in burning that library he created for a wonderful recreation of a Benedictine monastery). Of course, we cannot demonstrate how many there "must" have been (and we ought always to look out for that telltale "must" in an argument!).

Capitoline Museum (before remodeling). Pictorial reliefs adorn the
wall behind Imperial busts. A load of marble reliefs derived from details
on the Parthenos Athena's shield, found in the wreck of a ship sunk in
the Piraeus harbor (excellent ballast) are now on view in the Piraeus Museum.
Those are rather true to Phidian style, but the Julio-Claudian Pictorial reliefs are
Neo-Attic, made to be set into walls as decor of grand houses, and these made
the trip to Italy safely.

The sculpture studios that made the Perseus and Anrdomeda and other comparable pictorial reliefs had evolved this special emotionless style, in several generations, of archaistic, neo-Severe, neo-post-Phidian, and dreamily Hellenistic elements, skillfully combined. It seems to have remained popular until newer pretty styles were devised for Hadrian and the Antonines. They might take elements from any or all media. Obviously, not only Rome (but Rome not least) loved it, and so did some Renaissance and NeoClassical and Victorian craftsmen and their patrons. It was their purpose not to copy, not to reproduce anything but only to use it: consider, finally, Wedgwood: the magical combination of charm and inanity. The pictorial relief of the Perseus and Andromeda certainly is not independent of the painting of Nikias, but neither is it faithful to its mood, and the Pompeii paintings, even the sketches, cannot have relied on any such work. Together they attest to the currency of the composition, but the idiosyncrasies of rocks and drapery, for instance, are proper to the pictorial-relief workshops.
Now, the Deultum coins, the first of them dating about two centuries later, were, as Dimitar Draganov emphasized (p. 160), unique to that mint. They can't have been copied from Pompeii, of course, or (I should think) from a pictorial relief. The famous Nikias might still have been on view in Athens (the Herulians hadn't come yet), unless, of course, it was in Rome (but Pliny only singles it out as 'large'). The coins are so good that it is tempting to think that Deultum may have possessed a work in this composition (but not 'must have', and who can tell in what medium?) of their own.
This what I meant by unanswerable questions. Deultum was unquestionably a prosperous port and city, a privileged colonia. The site has been carefully excavated (work still in progress) and well studied. Yet if anyone in Deultum wrote its history, no one made copies of it, let alone got it into a curriculum.
Questions such as why Deultum alone issued Perseus and Andromeda coins, a subject so far as I know ONLY of artistic importance, are among those that the mute stones do not speak of.
These questions, however, are worth keeping in mind, because all this specific, concrete ignorance has some bearing on our reading of the facts that we do possess. The inscribed copper plate of AD 82, of T. Avidius Quietus found on the Esquiline in Rome is the very best piece of written evidence that we have for Deultum (Draganov, pp. 25-26).
This and all such essays here are posted subject to further evidence.
Basic references:
For Nikias: J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece, Sources and Documents, CUP, 1990 (earlier edition, Prentice-Hall)
For Deultum and her coins: Dimitar Draganov, The Coinage of Deultum, Sofia, Bobokov Bros. Foundation, 2007 (the SNG fascicle has no continuous text, and the monograph by Jurukova is out of date).
For Perseus and Andromeda: Nina Hristova, Perseus and Andromeda. One moving motif in the roman province coinage. – Studi sull’oriente cristiano, 9, 2005, 75-80

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