“You know… everyone likes to talk about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles issue…it gets all the headlines, but when you think about it…”
“I haven’t even had my coffee yet!” my poor husband interjected.
“Right… Right… but the Venus de Milo….”
“Hey – this is supposed to be a holiday!”
You see dear reader, last week we were still celebrating the end of a successful Symposium with a holiday dash to the Greek islands. We had already enjoyed the Minoan archeological sites in Crete and the clear turquoise waters admired from a high perch in Naxos. So our final segment was the tiny inlet of Firopotamos on the volcanic island of Milos, picked for seclusion, poor internet and excellent cliff diving.
The idea was NOT to work… but of course that’s a bit impossible when you are A) Me and B) on a historic Greek island.
In my basic planning of the day, I’d already stumbled onto cool midday heat escapes into Christian catacombs…
A conveniently located ancient theatre with impressive acoustics and a view to boot…
And the very spot where one of the most famous statues from antiquity – and arguably of all time – was discovered… sadly marked with a pithy plaque.
Now, I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing… I hadn’t realised that the Venus de Milo came from Milos until…. I saw all the little souvenirs upon arrival on the island.
The moment of realisation was both exciting and immediately disappointing, because obviously I knew that famous hellenistic amputee was not here… or should I say there.
The Parian work of Alexandros of Antioch, Venus de Milo (or a more accurately titled: Aphrodite of Milos), is one of the great draws of Paris’ main museum, the Louvre. Indeed, it was designed to be so.
After the discovery of the statue by either Yorgos Kentrotas or Yorgos Bottonis (the origin story is still unclear), it was sold to a French sailor made its way up north… but it wasn’t an international icon until the French authorities decided to make it one.
This was a masterful tactic to deal with the blow following a series of repatriation of famous works. Napoleon’s looted art collection was returned to their countries of origin, and in this move the museum lost some of its most iconic pieces, including Rome’s Laocoon and His Sons and Italy’s Venus de Medici.
To cover their prides, they promoted the one that didn’t get away as a greater treasure than those lost…
So that, dear reader, is the story of our torsoed beauty.
But where should Venus de Milo be today? Should she stay in Paris? Should she go home?
And now that you know she was a marketing tool…. Does she have less value?
Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Greek art and drama was pivotal in the development of artistic expression the world over. From the earliest Archaic Greeks to the masters of the Classical age, the Greeks have produced art that has inspired Western civilization for thousands of years.
The Greeks established the foundational methods for practical stone-working that are still used today, particularly in limestone, clay, and marble. The bold lines and district curves that are an essential feature of Greek art also opened doors for the exploration of human anatomy and medical experimentation. The Greek thirst for knowledge and beauty paved the foundation stones of modern scientific discoveries in chemistry, physics, biology, and natural geometry.
Capturing bodily movement and mastering correct composition became incredibly important to the Greeks during the Classical period (480-323 BC) and the Golden Age. As anatomical knowledge and sculpting techniques became more sophisticated, so too did the artist’s ability to express various emotions. These new capabilities allowed sculptors and painters to experiment with different artistic styles in new and innovative ways.
This idea was adopted by the British Empire at the height of its power. The British Museum was primarily built as an educational center for the public in 1759, but it also served as an example of status and a symbol of Imperial dominance.
The museum is still home to many relics from ex-colonial territories, and the architects built the external columns (known as Elgin Marbles) to match those of the Parthenon in Athens. Interestingly, the museum has on display several columns that were taken from the original Parthenon. Controversy still surrounds the museums’ ownership of the original columns which still hold great cultural significance for modern Greeks.
The Golden Ratio, the expression of absolute beauty using the principles of geometry and optics, was discovered by Greek artists and proponents of early Greek medicine. Through experimentation with the human form and the obsession with capturing motion in stone, the Golden Ratio emerged as the sum of perfection by both mathematical and artistic standards.
In mathematical terms, the Golden Ratio is a ratio of 1 to 1.618 (the Golden Number) and is expressed using the Greek letter phi. A resurgence of the use of the divine ratio appeared in Renaissance Italy, then known as ‘The Divine Proportion’. Most notably, the Golden Ratio was utilized by the master artist Leonardo Di Vinci in his most famous work, The Mona Lisa, a portrait that continues to attract millions of tourists every year.
But Greek art was not limited to experimentation with geometry and the mathematics of beauty; it was entangled with myth and legend. As Greek art evolved away from the Egyptian style and the natural Greek aesthetic was born, gods were bought to life in stone, and placed in a living and relevant context. The idea of ‘God as Man’ is an ideology that fascinates us to this day.
Scottish-born artist REILLY has created a digital gallery of composite images that collage famous people of color such as Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, and Rihanna and merge them with iconic Greek statues. The collection is an invitation for modern audiences to reframe the ancient work in a modern context. It also reminds us that the Greek and Roman worlds were more multi-cultural than we think (the white marble being a symbol of white, masculine power structures).
However, the collection also represents the human desire to revere the Gods. As the modern world becomes increasingly secular, people have given celebrities an almost ‘God-like’ status. The desire to immortalize important individuals in stone – or in this case, print – is a natural human desire that dates back to the very beginnings of civilization and artistic endeavor.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Greek art was no longer reserved for ancient temples and the long-decayed villas of the rich. As Grand Tours became popular among European merchants and aristocrats, Greek-inspired mosaics and pottery began to appear in homes across the continent.
Many wealthy visitors to Greek ruins and artifacts commissioned local artists and potters upon returning home, seeking to recreate Greek designs on their floors and walls and demanded furnishings to match. The famous pottery maker Josiah Wedgewood capitalized on the craze and specialized in Greek-inspired vases that were popular among the wealthy.
Ancient Greek art remains influential. Sculpture and architecture have evolved over time, but the Greek arts have become the baseline from which later art forms have emerged.
From stone, to paint, to print, European artists hold Greek art in particularly high regard. Greek art and sculpture still has the ability to spark our imaginations, capture our emotions and even influence the way we feel about the nations we live in. Greek art has been kept alive and passed along, almost like a gift, from one generation to the next.
Parts I and 2 of this series can be found here and here, respectively.
Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Since ancient times, the Greeks have respected their gods and goddesses. Political events often lead to the building of divine temples and structures—and sometimes their destruction. It wasn’t until the Athenian victory over Persia in 490 BC that Athens was appointed the Defender of Greece, and smaller city-states began paying tribute to the city for their protection.
Wealth poured into the city, marking the beginning of the Golden Age. During this time, many temples were built. Huge, illustrious monuments dedicated to the gods were also erected to demonstrate Athens’ power and wealth.
This period saw the development of the three Classical Greek architectural styles, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. They are distinguished by distinct styles of columns and entablature (structures that columns support, such as the frieze, cornice, architrave, etc) and appear mainly in marble, which replaced earlier wooden structures.
Early eighth-century temples were constructed with wood and thatched roofs, but during the sixth and seventh centuries, the Greeks began to utilize more lasting materials. Some buildings used a mixture of marble and wood, while other more important buildings like temples used limestone with a marble coating or marble dust stucco.
The temples and buildings in ancient Greece were more than just marble and mortar, however. They held important political and cultural significance. Just like the Egyptians, the Greeks used their mastery of masonry to preserve their history, religion, and culture for contemporary and future generations to admire, study, and enjoy.
The Parthenon and Acropolis
The Parthenon of Athens is perhaps the most iconic example of Doric architecture. Built between 447 and 432 BC during the Greek Golden Age, the Parthenon (which means the Apartment of the Virgin) was built in honor of the goddess Athena. The project was supervised by the sculptor Phidias and featured eight Doric columns on the narrow facades and seventeen columns along the sides. The friezes and metopes depict over 360 humans in famous battle scenes as well as gods and animals.
The Acropolis, in which the Parthenon stands, was first constructed as a military base due to its advantageous position atop the Hill of the Muses. This strategic position allowed defenders to spot any approaching enemy for miles. There is evidence that the area was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC.
The Acropolis is a reflection of the wealth and power of Athens, and as the city grew in strength, so did the Acropolis. Architects and master builders added several magnificent structures to the Hilltop: the Erechtheion, Propylaea, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Acropolis hosted many festivals, the most important being the Panathenaea, a grand festival of sacrifice in the Cult of Athena.
The Golden Statue of Athena
Inside the Parthenon, there was statue of Athena made out of solid gold and ivory. Such grandiose materials were reserved for only the most highly-regarded gods and goddesses. Sculpted by Phidas in 447 BC, the statue stood at approximately 37ft and was the focal point of the Parthenon. It showed the goddess holding the goddess Victory in her right hand. The statue of Athena was continuously assembled and dissembled in parts and weighed, to ensure that no one was slowly chipping away at the costly statue. If any of the weights came up short, it was said that the citizens of Athens would suffer the wrath of Athena.
However, over time, such superstitions were ignored by the Athenians. The gold was stripped away in 296 BC by the tyrant Lachares to pay his troops, and further damaged by fire in 165 BC. It was modestly repaired in bronze and retained only some of the original material. It is said that this replica was finally removed from the Parthenon by the Christians and displayed in the Forum of Constantine in Byzantium. Thereafter, all traces of the statue were lost. It is believed that the statue was destroyed in 1204 during the sack of Constantinople during the Crusades.
Stoa of Attalos, Agora
As the Etruscans were weakening against a fledgling Roman Empire that would one day rule Athens, the Athenians continued to revel in their power. This sense of invincibility emanated from the Agora, the busy and bustling center of the Athens. Here stood the marvelous Stoa of Attalos, constructed as a gift from the Anatolian leader Attalos II of Pergamon in gratitude for the education he received there.
The Stoa of Attalos was larger and more decadent than the earlier buildings installed at the Agora. Since 1931, more than 100 ancient buildings and over 2,000 antiquities have been uncovered in the center of the modern city, but none compared to the scale and magnitude of the Stoa. Built in Pentelic marble and limestone, the structure spanned 115 by 20 meters and required skillful work to complete.
At the time of its construction, most Athenians believed in their educated democratic government, despite issues like slavery and corruption. It was in the Agora that the first jury system was conceived, another features of democracy we recognize to this day. However, not even systems of law were free from Athenian superstition; many Greeks believed that murderers polluted the sacred rooms of justice, so murder trials were held outside.
Destroyed by Germanic tribes in 267, the remains of the Stoa were used as a defensive military wall until its 1952- 1956 reconstruction by the American School of Classical Studies. This is now a museum dedicated to the ancient Agora.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Acropolis
Set afoot the southwest slope of the Acropolis is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in the memory of his wife Aspasia Annia Regilla. Although principally an outdoor theatre, the regional structure featured an expensive Lebanese cedar roof and a three-story front wall.
Ancient inscriptions record theatrical contests held there in 503 BC: in effect, this was the ancient Greek equivalent of the Golden Globes or the Oscars. At the Odean, physical and artistic expression was expressed publicly to wide acclaim. Today the structure has been rebuilt in Pentelic marble and is a modern venue for a variety of Greek and international musical and theatrical performances.
Temple of Artemis, Corfu
Known as one of the greatest masterpieces of its time, the temple of Artemis was built in 580 BC in the ancient city of Korkyra on Corfu, now modern-day Garitsa.
Constructed in the Doric style, the temple of Artemis was the largest of its time. Decorated with mythical figures and depictions of Achilles and Memnon, it is believed that the temple of Artemis influenced the design of Italy’s St. Omobono church, a testament to the legacy of Greek architecture.
Acropolis of Sparta
When we think of the Acropolis, we are reminded of the magnificence of Athens, but Sparta – ever the rival – also built an impressive Acropolis during its brief period of dominance.
Sparta reached the height of its power in 404 BC after defeating Athens in the Second Peloponnesian War. During this time, the Spartans built an impressive Acropolis. Today, only a few ruins are left. Handwritten accounts from non-Spartans discovered a few kilometers away from the ancient city help us imagine this once-glorious structure.
At least three buildings were located within the Spartan Acropolis. The one that survived the best is the Temple of Athena Chalkoikos, which was designed by the architect Vathyklis of Magnesia. It was said to have an interior adorned entirely in copper (chalkikos means copper).
The Acropolis also housed a theatre on its south side. The remaining wall has preserved inscriptions and sculptures of Spartan rulers during the Roman period. There was no permanent stage at the Spartan theatre. Instead, the Spartans used wooden pallets to easily move stages in and out of place during different performances.
This feature, along with the existence of many other structures of unknown significance found at the site, demonstrates that Sparta was not only a military state but also one in which ingenuity, art, culture, and poetry prospered. In fact, more poetry belonging to Sparta than Athens has been discovered.
The Decline of Greece and Athenian Supremacy
When Athens was conquered by Spartans and the Athenian spirit waned, several political and environmental upheavals ensured that Athens’ Golden Age was well and truly over.
First, a devastating plague swept across Athens taking thousands of lives. According to Thucydides, people despaired, disrespecting the laws and the temples because they felt they were already living with death. As plagues, wars, and religious doubt mounted, Athens’ glorious monuments were at risk. The city of Athens was no longer in a position to protect anyone, not even herself.
The Greek city-states received a crushing blow when the Romans invaded and plundered many towns. They were, however, extremely respectful of Greek education and culture and willing to preserve certain aspects of Greek civilization. It is thanks to Roman admiration for Greek society that many artifacts and buildings survived.
During the Turkish invasion of Greece in 1456, the Turks installed and a mosque inside the Parthenon and the Turkish military kept their war machines and ammunition stored there. Later, in 1687, the Venetians bombed the Parthenon,setting off all the Turkish ammunition. With this act, the Acropolis, the epicenter of Greek influence and thought, was finally and destroyed. No one looked to the Parthenon as a center of culture and history anymore. Instead, the Athenians hauled broken marble away to build homes and other public houses. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Greek government began the painstakingly intricate task of restoring the entire Acropolis, work that continues on to this day.
Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Evolution of Greek Art
Western modern society owes a lot to ancient Greece. Known as the “Father of Europe,” Greece was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, science, literature and—most importantly for our purposes—some of the greatest art known to history.
When one thinks of ancient Greek art, famous monuments and statues such a Venus de Milo and the Parthenon Frieze are the first to come to mind. Most of us visualize the bold lines, white marble, and perfectly polished torsos that mark the height of the Greek artistic renaissance. These have been further immortalized by popular culture, and the post-industrial architecture that remains interwoven with our modern cityscapes.
In reality, Greek art underwent several changes throughout its history. Each era marked its distinctive artistic aesthetic. Below is a brief overview of Ancient Greece’s most notable artistic pieces, and how they reflect changing cultural, societal, and political landscapes of ancient Greece.
Greek Ideals of Physical and Moral Perfection
Personal conduct and the development of interpersonal relationships were highly important to the ancient Greeks. Therefore, the human form was a popular subject of interest in Greek Art.
During the sixth century BC, the Greeks begin to refine the image of ‘Perfection’. Kalos Kagathos is the Greek word that describes gentlemanly conduct, the Greek ideal of the male archetype that describes inner and outer perfection. Kalos Kagathos can be likened to the medieval idea of chivalry, an ideal male is strong and courageous whilst remaining modest and gentle of heart.
Sixth-century Greek statues borrowed heavily from ancient Egypt. Egyptian statues are presented face forward in an angular pose, with the left foot forward and weight resting on the back leg. However, the Greeks kept their unique artistic style and presented the male statuettes nude, to demonstrate physical prowess and the Greek ideal of perfection.
Towards the end of the sixth century and into the fifth, we find further examples of art reflecting the Greek ideal. The Panhellenic games were an opportunity for men from across Greece to display their physical abilities publicly, and winners commissioned statues for public display. Soon enough, stadiums became adorned with examples of the male body beautiful, where idealized male forms were immortalized in marble and often copied by others.
Physical and emotional excellence was closely tied with honor in Greek society. The pursuit of both qualities occupied those of high rank or noble birth. These were men who excelled in athletics or public speaking, gave their lives in battle, or were known to be involved in a famous love affair.
However, the first duty of every free-born man was his duty to the polis (city). Hellenistic Greeks were linked by language, religion and modern values, but were often at war with one another.
Fifth Century and The Rise of Democracy
During the fifth century, Athenian red-figure vases began to experiment with visual effects by using foreshortening to give figures a 3D effect. This artistic shift coincides with a fledgling democracy, where more free-born male citizens were able to influence the political system.
At the dawn of the fifth century—with its epic battles like Marathon—experimentation in art accelerated. After Athens was sacked and invaded by Xerxes, King of Persia, hundreds of sculptures were destroyed and later rediscovered by archeologists in the 19th century.
One of the most famous examples exhumed from the sacking of Athens is the Kritios boy, an early Classical Greek statue that is an example of the softer edges, and curves of the human body. The Greeks had begun to express their own style of bodily representation which eventually replaced the angular, Egyptian form. The Kritios Boy leans all of his weight onto one leg, one hip lifted slightly, highlighting the shift in the alignment of the torso. He stands casually with the head turned to one side. This marks a step towards realism in Greek art.
Greek natural philosophy emphasized the balance of complementary forces, and this was reflected in art. The Ionian enlightenment saw the emergence of experimentation with primary opposites (hot & cold, light & dark etc). Healing was seen as an art unto itself, wherein physicians adjusted opposing elements in the body. Harmony, symmetry, balance and rhythm were key to Greek representational art as much as they were a reflection of practical medicine.
The ancient Greeks also showed interest in the biomechanics of muscle structure, particularly when weight-bearing. Raised and lowered limbs in balance were constructed by precise measurements to represent perfection. In this sense, art became more like architecture.
Artists inspired by the scultpor Polykleitos’ Canon—in which he sets out the mathematical proportions of the ideal male body—began to publish written treatises explaining their art, dimensions and representations. In the Doryphoros pictured above, one leg bears the weight, whilst the other leg remains free. This marks a shift in art to figures suspended in animation and the exploration of human anatomy.
In contrast, males were often depicted nude and it was the norm for men to go naked in public places where women would not be present, such as the gymnasium. Men were depicted with small genitals intentionally, to understate the sexual aspects of nudity. Athletes were discouraged from sexual relations so they could conserve energy for sporting events. Conversely, males were depicted with extra-large penises in the comic theatre to humor the public. Lust was considered a war against reason and looked down upon.
In ancient Greece, men were considered the representation of order, and women were manifestations of chaos. Women’s lives were heavily controlled to make up for their perceived lack of self-control. Female participation in public life is believed limited to funerals and cult worship, particularly in major cities. Statues of women were always robed, but even so male artists found subtle ways to enhance and highlight the female form.
Although they were always clothed, women used clothing to their advantage— either to signal their place in society, exhibit status or to attract a husband or lover. Funerals were the primary social event for women, and the funeral setting often became the place where unmarried women found husbands, and married women allegedly sought lovers. In art, women were depicted clothed and often shown receiving a child or a gift. They are also depicted weaving wool, processing textiles or undertaking household chores.
However, in cult circles and religious ceremonies, women were considered the gateway to the divine. Religious plaques feature women holding the key to the temple door, depicting their power as gatekeepers to the higher realms.
Although artistic changes were subtle, the Greeks paved the way for realism in art. The veneration the Greeks held for physical and moral perfection carried across cultures and found a revival in the Italian renaissance. However, politics and war also played their role in the development of Greek art, which will be explored in part two of this series.
Whew! Got all that? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please first read Part 1.)
Now watch this, because it’s relevant to Obsopoeus. Lucian:
(2) the allegorical women he’s “described” to
(3) the peer pressure that thrives among courtiers in the Hellenistic world—including
(4) the pressure to drink alcohol.
Take a look:
“At Alexander [the Great]’s court there was no more fatal imputation than that of refusing worship and adoration to Hephaestion. Alexander had been so fond of him that to appoint him a God after his death was, for such a worker of marvels, nothing out of the way. The various cities at once built temples to him, holy ground was consecrated, altars, offerings and festivals instituted to this new divinity;if a man would be believed, he must swear by Hephaestion. For smiling at these proceedings, or showing the slightest lack of reverence, the penalty was death.”
Peer pressure and compulsory drinking thrived at court, too:
“Demetrius the Platonic was reported to Ptolemy Dionysus for a water drinker…. He was summoned next morning, and had to drink in public.”
These are the connections Obsopoeus saw, and the potential he developed, in creating his own glorious “lost allegorical painting by Apelles” of the perils that lie within The Garden of Drunkenness.
It’s important to realize that Renaissance Germany (“The Holy Roman Empire”) was a lot like the Hellenistic world. It was a patchwork of petty kingdoms and principalities, each with its own court—and each one crammed with courtiers, anxious and insecure about their position. Obsopoeus noticed the same pressures to conform erupting in his own day that Lucian had seen in his.
As he writes in The Art of Drinking,
“No other vice [than drinking] has so gotten a grip on the courts of the mighty… At times the courtly life is one of perpetual drunkenness, on par with the drunkenness that captures citadels, and at times a treasurer, knight, mayor, muleteer, scribe, or cook who shows up for work sober is an unwelcome sight to that bloated court.”
And so on. (He goes on about this at great length.)
Seeing that essay so dramatically illustrated right down the street just a few years prior, by no less than Dürer (pictured above), would have made it famous, and Obsopoeus’ allusions unmistakable, to all the literate public. Nuremberg was the center of German Renaissance culture at the time, and everyone knew it.
What’s more, Nuremberg is the very city where Obsopoeus failed to get a job a decade before he wrote The Art of Drinking—failed, that is, because of his reputation for drinking!As I wrote in The Pig War:
“Vincent Obsopoeus (?-1539) was a gifted translator, a superb Latin poet, a minor figure in the Reformation, and he was, by all accounts, an obnoxious guy. He delighted in twitting others for their failings, however minor. It is only too believable that he could have written The Pig War. Five years earlier [in 1525], he had angrily accused [Philip] Melanchthon of passing him over while recommending people for jobs at the new Gymnasium in Nuremberg; Melanchthon had (said Obsopoeus) ridiculed him on various grounds, not least his drinking.”
So, that would all be cool all by itself. But now, get ready for something even cooler: the master stratagem, the immortal troll .
The Immortal Troll
How do you slander someone? Well, says Lucian,
“The usual method is to seize upon real characteristics of a victim, and only paint these in darker colors, which allows verisimilitude. A man is a doctor; they make him out a poisoner; wealth figures as tyranny; the tyrant’s ready tool is a ready traitor too.”
How do you slander someone who enjoys wine? The question answers itself – and it shows how Obsopoeus played chess six moves ahead of his enemies.
In it we learn that Obsopoeus – a gifted translator – had recently lost out on some commissions to translate classical literature, apparently on the grounds that he wasn’t a serious enough person to handle great “works of art.” And that’s why, he says, he turned his attention to the one “art” that everyone thought he was worthy of: the art of drinking.
Dripping with venom, he declares,
“My other reason for [writing The Art of Drinking] is the false opinion some people have of me, and the smears that certain trash talkers have put out there. When they go accusing me to one and all of being a ‘world-champion wine drinker’ (which isn’t true, and nothing I’ve ever done to them ever provoked them to say that, other than their being unable to live without blackening someone else’s good name); — those stupid idiots don’t understand that they’re actually ‘insulting’ me in the most honorable way possible….
You see, I do like wine more than water, but I’ve always controlled my enjoyment of it with such moderation that I’ve made sure that no one’s ever gotten misled or hurt by my drinking.
Meanwhile, those sobriety-worshippers who are slandering me—who go around signaling their virtue in public while binging in private—they’ll surely spell the doom of no few people with their destructive teaching, contaminated as they are by far more disgraceful sins and behavior.”
I see what you did there, Obsopoeus. In addition to its inherent wisdom, all of book two is an ironic immortalization of those sobriety-worshippers who slandered you. You used Lucian’s essay to box them in – and anyone who ever went down the street to Nuremberg’s famous town hall to see Dürer’s fresco would have known it.
Well played, sir.
A Coda: Friedrich Spee and the Witch Trials of Franconia
There’s a sobering coda to add about Lucian’s warning—or rather, the failure to heed it. When Dürer frescoed the Nuremberg town hall, he added a motto in Latin: Nemo unquam sententiam ferat priusquam cuncta ad amussim perpenderit.
“No one should ever convict without considering everything scrupulously.”
He put the same idea in German just off to the right:
Ein Richter soll kein Urthel geben.
Er soll die Sach erforschen eben.
The point was hard to miss: Don’t just listen to an accusation. Facts and motives matter, too. You must do your all to search them out when someone tells you something awful.
Alas, a century after Dürer laid his brush down, a horrific spate of witch trials broke out around Nuremberg. Hundreds were falsely accused and burned at the stake. Overzealous prosecutors breached their procedures and abused their power to secure convictions, accepting all kinds of absurd slanders as “evidence.”
A whistleblower named Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), a confessor priest, published an important book itself titled Slander, A Warning (for that is the meaning of Cautio Criminalis) in an effort to deter prosecutors and halt the madness. In the moment, it achieved little. Later, when asked why he’d gone prematurely grey, Spee replied with grim humor:
“The witches turned my hair white”
—not by magic, but—
“…out of the grief I feel for the many innocent witches I’ve accompanied to the stake.”
It all goes to show that the earth spins, but little changes. Looking back now, Lucian was right all along.
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
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 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).
“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!