Written by Michael Fontaine, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ever seen this picture? Titled The Calumny of Apelles, it’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Take a look, and use the labels I’ve added to figure out what’s going on.
Painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1495, there’s a little-known essay about it that is one of the wisest pieces of writing the ancient world has left us. Nobody reads that essay today, but 500 years ago everyone did, so much so that the greatest talents of the Renaissance competed to illustrate it.
Even better, I’ll show you here how one Renaissance master of the Classics used that essay, titled De Arte Bibendi, or The Art of Drinking, to create a literary masterpiece and troll his enemies for all time. It’s impressive. It’s also a chance to meet some lesser-known but hugely important figures in the history of art and classical wisdom.
Let’s start with a quiz! How many of these guys can you name?
- Pliny the Elder
- Hieronymus Bosch
- Albrecht Dürer
- Vincent Obsopoeus
- Friedrich Spee
Don’t fret it the only names you recognize are Ovid’s and Michelangelo’s. By the end of this essay, you’ll know them all and why they matter. Even better, you’ll have no trouble discussing them with confidence and relevance over a nice glass or three of wine.
So, here we go!
Obsopoeus and The Art of Drinking
Let’s start with Vincent Obsopoeus. In 1536, this German schoolteacher from Franconia—the region around Nuremberg—published a Latin poem in three books, the aforementioned De Arte Bibendi, The Art of Drinking. That’s the poem I translated as How to Drink. Here are the structural influences on each of its three books.
- For book one, which is all about learning how to handle alcohol, it’s totally obvious: Ovid’s Art of Love, books one and two.
- For book three—where Obsopoeus recants his admonitions to cultivate sobriety and teaches us his tricks and hacks to win drinking games—it’s also obvious: Ovid’s Cures for Love.
But what about book two? In that one, Obsopoeus expatiates on alcohol addiction and all the antisocial behaviors that go with it. The inspiration for that one kept eluding me while working on my translation – until, in a flash, it hit me like a ton of bricks the other day.
You see, book two begins with a magnificent allegory of alcoholism. Obsopoeus frames it as a hyper-animated description of a long-lost painting by Apelles, greatest of the Old Greek Masters:
“Among the paintings of Apelles—those monuments of old—that learnèd Greece celebrates in its writings, his ingenious hand left behind a masterpiece. … I’ll describe that picture, though its excellence outdoes my song and its precious art defeats my verses.”
And that’s exactly what he does. Obsopoeus spends the next few hundred lines describing an allegorical painting you could call “The Garden of Drunkenness.” It’s a sweeping story of people who cannot stop partying when the party is over, and it’s clearly the central masterpiece of the poem. (Click here for a summary.)
It’s totally made up, though. As I wrote in the introduction to How to Drink,
“In fact, no such painting ever existed. In creating the haunting allegory of addiction and alcoholism that follows, Obsopoeus took inspiration from (1) Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510) and (2) Renaissance re-creations of paintings by Apelles. The latter include … The Calumny of Apelles (1480s), which Botticelli re-created from a description of Apelles’ Allegory of Calumny in Lucian’s dialogue Slander, a Warning.”
That’s not wrong, but I should have left out Botticelli entirely. Obsopoeus was thinking of Lucian, and of a painting re-created from Apelles, but it wasn’t Botticelli’s.
The Calumny of Apelles is a terrible title. It’s like The Apology of Socrates, where you can’t tell if Socrates is the author or not. (He isn’t—Plato is). It’d be better to call the painting “Apelles’ Calumny,” because that’s what it’s supposed to be: a recreation of a lost allegorical painting by Apelles—the old master of Greece—titled Calumny, or Slander. (By the way, slander comes from the Hellenistic Greek word skándalon, “trap.”)
Anyway, who was Apelles?
Apelles, the Greatest Painter of Ancient Greece
The greatest painter of the ancient world was Apelles. His paintings are all long gone, but we know a lot about the guy and what some of his paintings looked like. He was the acknowledged master of the art, and Pliny the Elder—the Roman admiral who invented the idea of encyclopedias—tells a ton of anecdotes about him (you can Ctrl+F his name for them here).
One cool one is that Apelles knew when to say when. As Pliny puts it,
“Unlike his excellent rival painter Protogenes … Apelles himself knew when to take his hand off a picture.”
So Apelles would be a great model for anyone struggling with their drinking.
But that’s not the reason Obsopoeus invokes him in The Art of Drinking. As I say, Obsopoeus was thinking of Lucian, and of a painting re-created from Apelles, but it wasn’t Botticelli’s (assuming he ever even saw Botticelli’s).
He was thinking of a painting much closer to home—in fact, just 25 or 30 miles down the road—and a painting that nobody, and I mean nobody, would’ve missed.
Namely, this one:
This is a picture of Albrecht Dürer’s re-creation of Apelles’ Allegory of Calumny, as found in Lucian’s dialogue Slander, a Warning. Same scene as Botticelli’s, but a different interpretation—and a different spin. It was admired for over 400 years. Bombed by the British in World War II, a few photographs are pretty much all that’s left of it. There’s also an 1830s outline engraving in the British Museum (no image online) and another, possibly the same, in Jena, online here. Dürer’s preliminary drawing, which is in the Albertina in Vienna, is also online here. A sketch on p. 95 of this article puts the two side by side.
Albrecht Dürer, “the Apelles of Renaissance Germany,” and the Nuremberg Town Hall
Who was Albrecht Dürer? It’s a name to know if you don’t. Dürer (1471-1528) was the most famous artist of his age. He studied in Italy, lived in Nuremberg, and he created some of the most mind-blowing masterpieces you’ll ever see.
In 1512, Michelangelo had frescoed the Sistine chapel. It’s impressive. Ten years later, the good Germans of Nuremberg seem to have been inspired by it. They had their own Sistine chapel—their town hall (Rathaus), which was the largest Renaissance hall north of the Alps—and in 1522, they got Dürer to fresco its walls. The result was the single largest wall and ceiling painting in Europe at the time.
And unlike Michelangelo, who chose biblical subjects, Dürer illustrated one wall with his interpretation of one of the wisest essays to reach us from the ancient world.
Namely, Lucian’s essay Slander: A Warning.
Lucian and Slander: A Warning
Anyone interested in classical wisdom must—must—get to know Lucian. He is the ultimate godfather of trolling, and it’s a crime he’s not much read these days. Lucian lived in an age of superstition and bunkum and he saw through it all. Instead of getting angry, though, or picking fights or even trying to reason with people—he knew that rarely gets you anywhere—he trolled his targets in satirical essays that are shot through with unmistakable irony, but that make a serious point. And of them all, Slander: A Warning is one of the greatest.
Lucian was huge in the Renaissance, especially in Italy and Germany. Obsopoeus himself translated a bunch of his satires into Latin (here and here). He didn’t translate Slander, but he didn’t need to. By 1518, it had been translated no fewer than seven times into Latin!And that’s not all. Between 1515 and 1538, German humanists would also dramatize, versify, and translate it into German. (Most of them were frenemies of Obsopoeus’.)
In short, Lucian’s essay on slander was revered in Renaissance Germany..
Here’s the cover page of one contemporary printing:
So, what’s it say? Let’s look at some extracts in the Fowler translation (the whole thing is online here).
Slander is toxic, says Lucian, right from the get-go. False reports—and the ready credence we give them—destroy friendships, ruin families, and raze cities. We shouldn’t believe them. In fact, we should be actively on guard against them. As he puts it,
“By way of precaution against it, then, it is my design to sketch the nature, the origin, and effects of slander, though indeed the picture is already in existence, by the hand of Apelles.”
Apelles, you see, had been accused of slander by King Ptolemy (says Lucian). He survived it – barely – and
“The painter was impressed by his experience, and took his revenge upon Slander in a picture.”
(So says Lucian, anyway. The experts today say no such painting probably ever existed, and that this, like Obsopoeus, is all just Lucian inventing an imaginary picture to make his point. They’re probably right. But the Renaissance painters either didn’t know that, or they did and didn’t care.).
Lucian now describes Apelles’ picture in detail. I’ll quote his description alongside Dürer’s interpretation:
“On the right sits a man with long ears almost of the Midas pattern, stretching out a hand to Slander, who is still some way off, but coming. About him are two females whom I take for Ignorance and Assumption.”
“Slander, approaching from the left, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but with a heated, excitable air that suggests delusion and impulsiveness; in her left hand is a lighted torch, and with her right she is haling a youth by the hair; he holds up hands to heaven and calls the Gods to witness his innocence. Showing Slander the way is a man with piercing eyes, but pale, deformed, and shrunken as from long illness; one may easily guess him to be Envy. Two female attendants encourage Slander, acting as tire-women, and adding touches to her beauty; according to the cicerone, one of these is Malice, and the other Deceit.”
“Following behind in mourning guise, black-robed and with torn hair, comes (I think he named her) Repentance. She looks tearfully behind her, awaiting shame-faced the approach of Truth. That was how Apelles translated his peril into paint.”
Whew! Got all that? Great. Part 2 takes it to the next level!
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