Why Amor is a Little Boy (as explained by Propertius)

Eros evolved over time (much like humans themselves) by a process of neoteny (whereby juvenile features are retained into adulthood). In the early Iron Age and presumably earlier (see Hesiod (Theogony, 120) had him as the fourth of the original, primal beings (after Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (whence Light and the Cosmos)), “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.” Both Phaedrus and Acusilaus in Plato’s Symposium (178b) say that Eros was third, but agree with Hesiod that he had no parent. As an ancient deity he was involved in uniting the unruly forces of the primeval universe as well as inventing procreation, both essential for our production. He was, in short, a formidable Agency.

By Classical times poets had reduced Eros to a minor deity, but youthful and handsome, either bearing a bow with arrows (e.g., Theocritus, Idylls 23 [in English]) or with wings (Nonnus, Dionysiaca V:88ff [in English]). He no longer was the product of spontaneous generation, but his parents were not clear. Usually his mother was said to be Aphrodite by Ares (the same book by Nonnus), although fragments (including of Sappho) have him as the son of Iris, Gaia or Aphrodite by Ouranos. He is capable of inflicting desire on both humans and gods and he occasionally is mentioned in this connection, but it is not until Imperial Roman times that his own story with Psyche is recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass (Book iv, Chapter 22 [in English]).

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

It was in the Hellenized world after Alexander, however, that Eros became the chubby child Cupid represented in many works of art in various Hellenistic kingdoms, where children were a much more common subject than in Classical times. The small (15 ½”) terracotta statuette from Myrina shown in the recent Pergamon exhibition at the Met (which we reviewed) and seen at the right, is a particularly famous example, given its impish charm. The child god is hiding something behind his back with his left hand (the object has since disappeared), and he cautions someone with his left hand. He has a disrespectful or smirking expression on his face. Such insolence is never found on Classical representations of children, and the pose is certainly one that Classical artists would not try to reproduce. But Hellenistic artists were more interested in sui generis portraits representing intimate rather than abstract situations. The infantilization of Eros is an interesting example of how the Hellenistic world personalized and in some ways domesticated not only art, but also religion and common culture. It was a world not looking for Truth but rather diversion. Hellenistic poets did the same in literature.

Sextus Propertius (? ca. 50 B.C.E.–before 1 B.C.E.) wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and while he lived at the end of the Hellenistic period, he resided as an adult in Rome, not a Hellenized kingdom. But he modeled himself after the most important of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus, once a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.1 Propertius wrote four books of elegies. The first (published around 26 B.C.E. and titled in some manuscripts as Cynthia Monobiblos) mostly contained poems detailing his erotic obsession with a woman he calls Cynthia. Apparently that book made him immensely popular in Rome. The second book (published in 24 or 23 B.C.E.) describes his agony in Cynthia’s unfaithfulness and rejection. The third book (published in 22 or 21 B.C.E.) treats poetic topics other than just his love and by the end he finally breaks with her. The fourth (which is half the size of the other three, perhaps because he died before it was completed; it was published in 16 B.C.E. or later) shows that he outlived Cynthia but never really resolved the affair.2

Propertius was born in Assisi, in the modern Perugia of Umbria. (Assisi was later also the birthplace of the friar Francis, who venerated animals.) In his major autobiographical poem, what the ancients called a sphragis, the “signet” by which a poet gives his name and provenance (IV:i), Propertius implies that his wealthy father died when he was young, around the time that Octavian ordered the redistribution of land for his soldiers in 41 B.C.E. Propertius’s circumstances was thus diminished but he was not reduced to abject poverty as was Horace when his own father’s estate was seized. Perhaps his estate was treated more leniently because the Propertii were of equestrian rank (IV:i:131-34), whereas Horace’s father was a newly freed slave. Propertius says that he gave up study of law for poetry. He soon fell in love with Cynthia who dominated the rest of what we know of his life. By law, Propertius was unable to marry her because she was a prostitute (II:vii:7) and so chose to remain a bachelor.

When in Rome Propertius was part of the circle of Maecenas, the wealthy minister of Augustus. But he was not economically dependent, as were Horace and Virgil. (The first book was dedicated not to Maecenas but to Volcacius Tullus, nephew of the proconsul of Asia, and he treats him as an equal (I:i:9).) Yet Maecenas was a literary taste-maker so it was useful to curry his interest and even recite poetry in his great estate house. Whether it was envy of his wealth or independence or his middlebrow popularity, Horace took a dislike to Propertius, telling a correspondent that he had to stop up his ears to avoid hearing the second Callimachus (Epistles II:ii:87-104 [in English]). But it could simply be that Horace could not make the break from Classicism that the new Hellenistically-inspired taste demanded. In any event, Propertius’s poetic description of Cupid is a good example of how lightly tripped the lyrics of this new school and how easily the gods were treated, both things strange to those who studied to imitate the more austere masters.

Incidentally, the term “elegy” in Greek and Latin poetry is not the same as in English, where it describes a plaintive poem lamenting a death. In classical times an elegy was simply a poem written in elegiac couplets. In such a couplet the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (the epic meter used by Homer and everyone else describing monumental themes). The second line is in dacylic hexameter. The rules of prosody are a bit arcane and in any event can’t be reproduced in English. The basic idea is that the first line is made up of six feet and the second five. (The number of syllables in a foot, however, depended on the vowel quality of each syllable.) The effect is supposed to be of a rising cadence in the first line and a falling one in the second. Propertius’s “domestic” poetry uses the form rather than the spirit of the elegy, as we can see in his Elegy to Cupid’s Image.

Elegia XII
from Elegiarum, Liber Secundus
by Sextus Propertius
(edition of H.E. Butler, Propertius, Loeb Classical Library
(Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Pres, 1912))

Quicumque ille fuit, puerum qui pinxit Amorem,
nonne putas miras hunc habuisse manus?
is primum vidit sine sensu vivere amantes,
et levibus curis magna perire bona.
idem non frustra ventosas addidit alas,
fecit et humano corde volare deum:
scilicet alterna quoniam iactamur in unda,
nostraque non ullis permanet aura locis.
et merito hamatis manus est armata sagittis,
et pharetra ex umero Gnosia utroque iacet:
ante ferit quoniam, tuti quam cernimus hostem,
nec quisquam ex illo vulnere sanus abit.
in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago:
sed certe pennas perdidit ille suas;
evolat ei nostro quoniam de pectore nusquam,
assiduusque meo sanguine bella gerit.
quid tibi iucundum est siccis habitare medullis?
si pudor est, alio traice duella tua!
intactos isto satius temptare veneno:
non ego, sed tenuis vapulat umbra mea.
quam si perdideris, quis erit qui talia cantet,
(haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est),
qui caput et digitos et lumina nigra puellae,
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

Elegy II:xii
[translated by D.K. Fennell]

Whoever first painted Amor as a child
Had marvelous touch, don’t you think?
He saw just how childishly lovers behave
Forfeiting the great for the small.

He usefully added two fluttering wings
Divinely convulsing their hearts.
Indeed we are tossed on buffeted waves
Our wind never blowing one way.

And apt is he armed with aquiline shafts
A quiver from Crete on each arm,
Because we are struck without seeing our foe
A wounding from which one can’t flee.

Transfixed as I am with his darts and his form
But surely his wings have been lost.
Alas! from my breast he never takes flight
Instead he makes war in my blood.

What joy is there living within my dried heart?
Know shame; throw your darts somewhere else!
Much better to poison the ones still unscathed;
Not me, it’s my shadow that’s drubbed.

For if you shall waste me, then how shall I sing
(Though slight is my Muse, your glory is great)
Her head and her fingers, my lady’s dark eyes,
The delicate sound of her feet?

Text note: In line 18, other (better?) manuscripts have “puella” for “duella” and “tuo” for “tua.” A modern emendation is simply to replace them with “tela una.” In other poems Propertius plays fast and loose with diction and syntax so it is difficult to know precisely what he originally intended, although the general sense is discernible. In this sense his poetry contrasts with that of other Augustan poets, particularly Virgil.

Notes

1In III:i:1-2 Propertius writes: Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae, /  in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. (“Ghost of Callimachus and rites of Coan Philitas, / permit me, I pray, to enter into your grove.”) In IV:1:62-64 he writes: mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua, / ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris, / Umbria Romani patria Callimachi! (“Hold out for me your ivy leaves, O Bacchus, / So that my books may make Umbria swell with pride / Umbria, country of Rome’s Callimachus!”) [Return to text.]

2In IV:7:1 Propertius recounts the visitation of her ghost: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit. “Spirits are real: death is not everything.”) [Return to text.]

The Seductive Elegance and Startling Cruelty of Greece’s Baroque Age

Power, Pathos and Prestige in Pergamon
and Other Hellenistic Kingdoms

1. Head of Woman (the “Beautiful Head”). Marble. ca 200-175 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered at Pergamon (Terrace of the Great Altar) in 1879. As with all illustrations in this post, clicking on it will produce a larger version, and clicking on that version will produce a still larger one. (All illustrations in this post are of items displayed in the Met show unless indicated by an asterisk (*) before the illustration number.

The current show of Hellenistic Art at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition that will run until July 17, left me, the first time through, with an unsettled feeling. (I emphasize “first time” because, if you have time and energy, you will be compelled to view it again, the second time lingering over particularly haunting pieces.) On the one hand there is no doubt that the peoples who created and patronized this art were sophisticated humanists; they were in many ways (though not all) the inheritors of the intellectual and aesthetic tradition of Athens at the time of Pericles, as sterling a pedigree as any intellectual or art pedigree in all of history. It is also true any time a Hellenistic artist deviated from the principles of symmetry and compositional balanced developed by the classical Greeks, the sacrifice was a purposeful choice intended to draw the viewer into the work, often evoking a personal, emotion response of recognition, or empathy or identification. In addition, after seeing the nearly 200 items on display, it is difficult not to be convinced that the societies that produced these works were full of energy, confidence, belief in their own values and a marked fearlessness in the face of uncertainty that makes them entirely unlike ourselves, unlike what we have been for half a century at least.

However admirable the last point may be, it makes them alien to us, however appealing the art is. And there is another point of difference. Their sense of self-assurance seems to manifest itself in a kind of cruelty we recoil from. Not satire or demonization of overbearing superiors, but a kind of mean taunt or smug satisfaction in the fate of social subordinates, it is hard to to dismiss. It is as though the baroque aspect of the art indulged in excess exceeding the bounds of decency. It is a characteristic not at all common in classical Greek art, and while not characteristic of most Hellenistic works, it is common enough to influence how we understand their self-expressions. But more on that later. First an overview of the exhibition.

Pergamon and Hellenistic Kingdoms

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

2. Scale model of the Great Altar (from Pergamon Museum) showing the Gigantomachy frieze on bottom level and continuing up the stairs, the stoa with statues on three sides of the altar plaza and statues on the roof of the stoa.

The remodeling of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin gave the Met the opportunity to display nearly 90 of its items from the ancient site of Pergamon, which has been excavated by German archaeologists since the 1870s. The Berlin Museum was founded in the midst of the period of increasing European Great Power competition, which had already involved war between France and Prussia and would play itself out in a scramble for colonial possessions around the world as well as for allies to bank on in the event of a Great Power confrontation (which, to the great surprise of all the participants, actually did happen with catastrophic consequences). The Pergamon excavations were a chance to enhance German cultural prestige with a collection that could rival the ancient cultural treasures looted by the British Museum and the Louvre. In the Ottoman Empire, Germany found a willing partner. The Sick Man of Europe desperately needed a Great Power patron, and the two came to an arrangement allowing Germany to take away a large haul of stunningly beautiful artistic creations by a short-lived kingdom, that in its day devoted as much of its resources to artistic and scholarly collections as any state ever. The Germans took individual statues, statuettes, and large monuments. The most spectacular item of the haul, which exists now largely built into the walls of the Berlin museum, consists of architectural elements and friezes from the Great Altar of Pergamon, a structure so famous in the ancient world that centuries later the Christian Apocalypse referred to it as Satan’s seat (Revelations 2:12-13). Sculpture from that altar complex and one of the friezes (as well as oversized photos the spectacular Gigantomachy relief which followed the celebrant up the altar’s stairway) give the Met visitor a glimpse of what the acropolis of Pergamon must have looked like at its height.

3. Gallery of the Great Altar in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

4. Statuette of Demosthenes. Leaded Bronze. 1st century B.C.E. to 2nd century C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roman copy of Greek bronze statue, ca. 280-279 B.c.E by Polyeuktos.

In addition to materials from Pergamon, the Met assembled about 180 more items from almost four dozen other institutions. The show is a spectacular display of the best Greek art of the kingdoms that succeeded Alexander’s empire and includes statues, reliefs, figurines, jewelry, luxury goods and historically important coins from the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E to the suicide of Cleopatra (the Ptolemaic Queen Kleopatra IV) in 30 B.C.E. (It also displays field notes and artwork of the German archaeologists who excavated Pergamon beginning in the 1880s). The collection shows just how exhilarating is the art that is now called “Hellenistic.” The items breathe not only life, but also the ambitions and despairs of a people who were heirs to, but fundamentally different from, their classical Greek forebears. Philip II and Alexander had ended permanently Greek self rule and set up in its place a form of eastern monarchy, which Philip justified as the way to save the Greeks from the Persians. The Athenians, who suffered a catastrophic loss to Philip, and still used every opportunity to revolt, honored Demosthenes [see #4], even after it was clear that he had led them to a bloody and bitter defeat, because the Athenians prized liberty over life, as Demosthenes unapologetically proclaimed in his Funeral Oration.

5. Head of Alexander I (the Great). The “Alexander Schwarzenberg.” Marble. ca. 20 B.C.E.-20 C.E. Glyptothek, Munich. One of several Roman copies of Greek original by Lysippos (?), ca. 330 B.C.E.

Perhaps it was the irrevocable shift from self-determination to monarchy that subtly permeated all Greek art from Alexander on. Charismatic, self-assured, decisive, Alexander held in thrall the most ambitious military leaders of his time, as the wars of his Successors (the Diadochi) would prove after his death. And yet he himself proved to be intellectually inclined and cosmopolitan. Was it his teacher Aristotle who instilled in him the confidence to trust his own not only in matters of war and politics, but also in matters of art? Or was it simply his own self regard? In any event, Plutarch tells the story of how when Lysippos first carved Alexander’s likeness, it so impressed viewers (who saw it express a defiance of Zeus to keep to heaven because Alexander had claimed Earth) that Alexander decreed that only Lysippos was authorized to make statues of him because only he could “preserve his virile and leonine expression.” (De Alexandri magni fortuna aut virtute, 2.2.) For hundreds of years statues and statuettes of Alexander filled his former empire and Rome; for the Kings it was used to show their legitimacy, how their authority flowed from him. For others, his image probably represented the Fortune that never forsook his purpose. And perhaps in uncertain times (as was all Hellenistic times), Fortune would “rub off” from his likeness (Pollitt, p. 3). The likenesses deviated ever so slightly in intent from that of classical Greek art. Beauty was not the sole object, nor was emphasizing some abstract Platonian ideal, but rather self-expression was the goal.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

6. Metope with Battle Scene. Limestone. late 3rd-mid 2nd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Taranto, Italy. Found in tomb at Via Unbria, Taranto.

The art of Alexander and his immediate Successors was not only about self-expression. It was also, and mainly, about action. Military action was of course central to the art of the conquerors, and in those pieces physical movement, how the body functions, what it looks like in victory and subjugation, provides the fascination. While classical Greek statues portrayed bodies in motion, usually involving athletes or mythological figures, it was in the age of Alexander and afterwords that contortions, bodies push to the limits of endurance and even in the throes of death became common.

7. Statuette of Resting Herakles (Anticiter-Sulmona). Bronze and sliver. 3rd century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Villa Frigerj, Chieti. Copy of work by Lysippos (?).

Alexander supplied the Hellenistic age with artistic tropes and tokens other than military ones. There are numerous statuettes of Alexander hunting or riding, usually with animal skins. Inasmuch as Alexander associated himself with Herakles, Alexander is frequently seen hunting lions or with lion skin. (The first labor of Herakles was to slay the Namean lion, and Herakles himself is often seen carrying a lion skin [e.g., #7].) The Diadochi (the Successors of Alexander) followed Alexander’s model. Unlike the classical Greek portrayal of philosophers and statesmen as old and wise [e.g., #4], the Kings of the Hellenistic Kingdoms  showed themselves as young, virile and clean-shaven. As for Herakles, he will show up again in Pergamon, not because the dynasts of that city were Diadochi, or even because they saw themselves as warriors in the mode of Alexander. If anything, they saw themselves as philosopher-kings or at least patrons. Herakles, however, was the father of the traditional founder of Pergamon, who we will see is celebrated in a famous frieze in the altar complex which was Pergamon’s principal monumental achievement. First it’s useful to put its achievements in historical context.

A Brief History of the Pergamon Kingdom

*8. The Aegean World in Early Hellenistic Times.

Pergamon is located at a site that would be improbable for a good sized-habitation, let alone a cultural center of historic importance. It was within the province of Mysia, the region west of the Troad (the province in which Troy was located), bordering on the Sea of Mamara to the north and the Aeolian province (with Greek settlements) to the southwest. Pergamon is about 24 km from the Aegean Sea and not on any trade route. It sits atop an extremely high promontory that is inaccessible on three sides and rises about 1000 feet above the surrounding plains (1100 feet above sea level). Its chief virtue was that it was easily defensible; it was a natural fortress (the meaning of its name). Its major disadvantage was that it required extensive terracing on its accessible southern side to accommodate a sizable population. The upper part was eventually formed (by years of building activity) into four terraces. On the highest was the living quarters of the rulers (and in imperial Roman times a temple dedicated to Trajan). The second level, about 30 feet lower, contained the temple and precinct for Athena, Pergamon’s patron. The third level, about 80 feet lower, became the site for the Great Altar. The fourth level, still 45 feet lower, became the upper agora. [See model, #22, below.] None of that work took place until after the death of Alexander, however.

There are no historical records describing the settlement or early history of Pergamon, or indeed the settlement of Mysia. Homer said that the “lordly” and “stalwart” people of Mysia were allies of Troy (Iliad2.858, 10.430, 14.512). There was also Greek classical lyric poetry concerning the legendary founder of Pergamon.1 As for historical records, Pergamon is first mentioned by Xenophon as his last stopping point in the retreat the remnant of his mercenary Ten Thousand in 399 B.C.E.2

Pergamon fell from Persian control early in Alexander’s campaign, shortly after his victory in the Battle of Granikos River in May 334 B.C.E. He there installed Barsine, a Persian noble woman who became war booty and may have been his mistress and mother of his child.

9. Bust of Antiochus I Soter (?). Bronze. ca. 50-25 B.C.E. Meseo Archicologico Nazionale, Naples. This piece is a copy of a statue from the Hellenistic period and was excavated in 1755 from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Antiochus I was the son of Seleukos I Nicator.

After Alexander’s death, war broke out among the Diadochi (the Greek military notables who vied to be Successors to Alexander). Lysimachos, the Macedonian commanders who was appointed King of Thrace in 306 B.C.E., crossed into Asia in 302 to gain possession of certain Greek cities on the Hellespont. All of “Hither Asia” had been ceded to Antigonas in the Peace of 311, but when he died in battle in 301, the territories in Asia Minor (except Bithynia and Pontos) rapidly fell into the hands of Lysimachos. One of the early defectors to Lysimachos, Docimus, had in his employ one Philetairos, whom he evidently recommended to Lysimachos, because the latter appointed Philetairos commander at Pergamon. (See Strabo, Geography, XIII.4.1. In that passage Strabo notes that at the time the inhabitants of Pergamon were still living only on the very top part of the “cone” of the hill.) Lysimachos entrusted Philetairos with war booty in the form of silver coins, which were deposited in the fortress atop the Pergamon hill. (Lysimachos had at least three other hidden treasures of war booty, but this was probably the largest. Hansen, p. 14 n.5.) Philetairos served Lysimachos loyally for nearly twenty years. But then a series of court intrigues revolving around Lychimachos’s third wife, Arsinoë, resulted in Lysimachos executing his son by his first wife. This behavior (among other signs of irregular rule), of course, unsettled his subjects and allies and gave his opponents room to maneuver. Seleukos I Nicator (the Conquerer), Lysimachos’s Diadochi rival, seized the occasion, and Philetairos offered his services to him when the former went to war. Lysimachos fell to Seleukos’s forces at the Battle of Koroupedion [see Map, #8] in 281 B.C.E. With this Seleukos became the last living of the original Diadochi, but he was shortly thereafter betrayed and assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos (the Thunderbolt), who had been under Seleukos’s protection. Ptolemy Keraunos then seized the Macedon throne. Philetairos thus found himself ruler of Pergamon, though nominally under Seleukid rule, and Philetairos, quite fortunately, had Lysimachos’s large war booty at his disposal.

10. Herma of Philetairos of Pergamon. Pentalic marble. ca. late 1st century B.C.E. Museo Acheologico Nazionale, Naples. Roman copy (from Herculaneum) of Greek original ca. 250 B.C.E.

Using the silver Lysimachos entrusted with him (which amounted to 9,000 thalers of silver, an immense fortune), Philetairos began forging strategic alliances. Strabo (XIII.4.1) said that he opted “to manage things through promises and courtesies in general, always catering to any man who was powerful or near at hand.”3 Philetairos also used the funds to engage in significant urban improvement. The settlement was expanded, and the streets and roads were regularized. The temple and precinct of Athena in the upper acropolis was erected. Thirteen hundred feet south of that temple, Philetairos built another temple, this one to Demeter with its adjacent altar [see Plan #11 below]. With building on the lower acropolis, Philetairos had to expand the city walls and provide for defensive structures on the perimeters. Finally, and significantly, Pergamon added a large theater. The natural shape of the terraces in the area next to the plateau which would become the Great Alar (and raising above and descending below it) made for a natural seating area in something like a semi-circle. At first wooden chairs were placed on the existing levels, but during Philetairos’s reign stone seating was provided and a foundation supplied to make the seating area regular all around. On the stage a provision was made for a removable 122′ x 21′ scene building. The stage area was on a level 150 feet below the Athena precinct and on the same level as the stage was an altar and other structures. This building programme would be only the barest beginning of what was to come in the succeeding reigns, but the first ruler pointed the way and showed the ruler’s obligation to spend for public benefit.

11. Plan of Acropolis of Pergamon (Upper and Lower) before Imperial Roman times). From Hansen, between pp. 249-50. This plan includes all building through the end of the Attalid dynasty.

Philetairos was childless (possibly because, according to Pausanias (I:8.1), he was a “Paphlagonian eunuch”) and rule passed to his nephew Eumenes I (r. 263-41 B.C.E.), who set about heroizing his predecessor by putting his likeness on coins and having a heroic sculpture made of him [#10]. (By designating a successor Philetaros founded a dynasty, which was called, even by contemporaries, Attalid, after his own father, Attalos). These acts of sovereignty by Eumenes constituted a revolt against Seleukids’ dominion over Pergamon. The revolt was made good in 261 B.C.E. when Eumenes defeated Antiochus I near Sardis [see #8], and in the process expanded the state’s territory. His reign, however, was plagued from a different source—by plunder and marauding raids by the Galatians. Rather than fight them too, Eumenes used the same expedient as his neighbors; namely, to pay tribute to induce them to stop.

12. Galatian Warrior Crushed by an Elephant. Painted terracotta group. First half of 2nd century B.C.E. Louvre, Paris. Found at the Necropolis of Myrina.

The Galatians (or Gauls) (Γαλάται) were a group of nomadic, warring Celtic peoples from central Europe who having been repulsed in an attempt to invade Italy (around 390 B.C.E.), travelled through the Balkans and settled in Thrace around 280 B.C.E. The next year they drove through Macedonia killing its principal military leader and headed towards Thessaly. They were checked by a combined Greek force at Thermopylae. The invaders then marched toward Delphi and the Greek version has it that an assembly of Aetolian and allied forces only reached Delphi in time to prevent the invading Gauls from sacking the temple of Apollo. The Greeks repelled the nomadic warriors, who regrouped in Thrace. In 277 B.C.E. after sacking the territory of Byzantium, they crossed over to Asia Minor with the help of the Bithynians, who planned to use them as mercenaries. Once in Anatolia they wreaked havoc on their neighbors. It was Eumenes I’s successor who would deal the Galatians a crippling blow.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale--Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

*13. Ludovisi Gaul. Asiatic marble. Late 1st century-early 2nd century C.E. Museo Nazionale–Palazzo Altemps, Rome. Copy of Hellenistic bronze statue, ca. 230=220 B.C.E.

Attalos I (r. 241-197 B.C.E.), according to Pausanias (I:8.1), “received the kingdom from his cousin [first cousin once removed] Eumenes, who handed it over.” According to Livy (XXXVIII.16.12-13), Attalos took a decidedly different approach to the Gaulic threat than Eumenes and others in the region (including the Seleukids)—he refused to pay tribute and instead engaged the Galatians several times and finally met them in force at the headwaters of the Kaikos River [#8], where he won a decisive victory. As a result, grateful coastal cities gave him the title “Soter” (Savior) to append to his name. More significantly, he took for himself on monuments the title Basileus (βασιλεύς), a Persian title for “King” used exclusively by Alexander during his life and only by the Diadochi right after his death. Even in Attica, however, the title could not be disputed, for the Gauls were deemed as insidious as the Persians, perhaps more so since they were, after all, barbarians. Attalos celebrated his victory with a spate of public building. Outside the city he built a temple to Athena, the “Victory Carrier” (Athena Nikephoros). In the central plaza of Pergamon, the Athena precinct on the top level [Plan #11], he set up a monument to the Battle of Kaikos River. And he made a sacred walk space from the gate toward the city center, which contained larger than life-sized statues of the defeated and dying invaders, including the Dying Galatian (the “Trumpeter”) [#14], and the stunning “Ludovisi Gaul,” showing a warrior, having just killed his wife, in the act of killing himself. That piece [#13], unfortunately, is not part of the Met show.   If the evidence of Roman copies of two of the figures are a fair indication, it must have been a spectacular promenade.

14. Dying Gaul. Marble from Dokimeion, Turkey. First century B.C.E. or C.E. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Roman copy (excavated from Vila Ludovisi, Rome) based on original Greek bronze statue of late 3rd century B.C.E.

15. Head of a Dying Woman. Marble from Asia Minor. First half of 2nd century C.E. Museo Palatino, Rome. Found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Copy of Greek bronze, late 3rd century B.C.E. probably part of the “large barbarians” dedicaton by Attalos I at Delphi ca. 220 B.C.E.

The Kaikos battle was not the end of the Gauls or their threat to Pergamon. In fact an alliance of sorts took place between the Gauls and one faction of the Seleukids which formed after the death of Antiochos II under his younger son Antiochus Hierax. The combined armies of the Gauls and rebel Seleukids apparently chased Attalos to the gates of Pergamon, where he defeated them in the battle of Aphrodisium (Hansen, pp. 24-35). Attalos pursued and then defeated the Gauls further to the East, then followed the Seleukids, defeating them as they fled northward toward Bithynia, and then southward in Caria. Finally, in 228 B.C.E. Attalos drove Antiochus Hierax from Anatolia in a battle in Eastern Anatolia on the banks of Harpassus near Cappadocia, leaving him, Attalos, with most of Anatolia. Attalos celebrated this second defeat of the Galatians with monuments in Athens, Delos and Delphi. Between 226 and 223 a monument was erected in the Pergamon acropolis in Athens recording all the victories of Attalos, including the victory at Kaikos, the later ones over the Gauls and Antiochus Hierax and others. Some time later, perhaps when Attalos visited Athens in 200 B.C.E., the so-called Lesser Attalid Dedication was made. Pausanias (I.25.2) described the monument as consisting of four sculptural groups depicting: battles by Athens against the Giants and then against the Amazons, the Greek battle against Persia at Marathon and the Pergamon battles against the Galatians. Romans made marble copies of dead and dying Amazons, giants [#16] and Persians. The dedications at the other sacred sites in mainland Greece (such as the large head (9″) of the dying woman [#15]) probably took place in Delphi in 210 B.C.E. ten years after the large monuments of the Galatians were dedicated in Pergamon). Significantly, all the sculpture which has survived involve dead or defeated enemies and not any of the victorious fighters or commanders. Is this a quirk of preservation or was the enemy the sole subject of the monumental displays? If so, what does that show?

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

16. Dead Giant. Marble from Asia Minor. Early 2nd century C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copy of Greek bronze of early 2nd century B.C.E. Part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

17. Kneelling Persian. Marble from Asia Minor. ca. Early 2nd century C.E. Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. Roman copy of bronze statue of early 2nd century B.C.E. Possibly part of the Lesser Attalid Dedication in Athens.

The fighting was not finished in Anatolia. Achaeus, a general loyal to the legitimate line of kings, was able to retake Seleukid dominions in Hither Asia. Achaeus not only drove Attalos out former Seleukid holdings but also took lands long belonging to the Attalids like Aigai and Myrina [#8]. Pinned up behind Pergamon city walls, Attalos only could count on the loyalties of Smyrna and a couple cities in the Troad. Achaeus then took a step too far: he turned on Antiochus III. Attalos and Antiochos made common cause until Achaeus was captured (and viciously executed and mutilated4). In the end, Attalos regained more or less his original dominions and subject states, and with Attiochus busy with troubles to his east Attalos looked westward and inserted himself into Greek affairs, began creating a naval fleet and allied Pergamon with Rome.

*18. The Political States in the Aegean ca. 200 B.C.E. before the Peace of Apamea. (Modified from Wikipedia.)

Rome became interested in Greece when Philip V of Macedon entered into an alliance with Hannbal (whom Rome was fighting in the Second Punic War). Rome offered its assistance to the Aetolian League (which Philip was also threatening), and the latter reached out to Attalos. Pergamon’s fleet probably engaged Philip in the battle for Aegina, for when Philip was driven out, the League offered the island [see Map #8] to Pergamon for 30 thalers of silver. The island was useful as a naval station, but Attalos probably also was interested in its antiquities. The war ended in a stalemate (except Rome prevailed on Philip to break the treaty with Hannibal). Further adventures by Philip in the Aegean brought Pergamon back into the fight, this time with Rhodes as ally. When Rome finally defeated Carthage, it returned against Philip, this time defeating the Macedonians conclusively at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly [Map #18]. Attalos did not live long enough to see the allied victory. At a war counsil he suffered a stroke while addressing the Boeotian negotiators in Thebes. Taken back to Pergamon, he died shortly before the decisive battle in 197 B.C.E. Just three years before, the Athenians made him one of the eponymoi and in 200 B.C.E. named the twelfth “tribe” (phyle: φυλή) of Athens, Attalis, after him, and included his portrait in the statues of phylai heroes in the agora.

Tetradrachms of Pergamon

19. Silver tetradrachms minted in Pergamon. a. 263-41 B.C.E.; b. 241-197 B.C.E.; c. 197-159 B.C.E. Numismatic Museum, Athens. All these coins portray Philetairos on obverse and his name (ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ) with seated Athena (identified by “A” under throne), armed with bow, spear and shield with Gorgon’s head on reverse.

Under Attalos’s successors, his sons Eumenes II (r. 197-159 B.C.E.) and Attalos II (r. 159-138 B.C.E.), Pergamon reached the zenith of its political power. Philip V, of all people, explained the success of the Attalid brothers as an example for his own sons: “though [Eumenes II and Attalos II] succeeded to but a small and insignificant realm, they have raised it to a level with the best, simply by the harmony and unity of sentiment, and mutual respect which they maintained towards each other” (Polybius, Histories, XXIII.11.7).  The brothers, in fact, were remarkably devoted to one another (Attalos II even refused Rome’s suggestion to depose his brother with Roman help). Eumenes at first continued their father’s strategic alliance with Rome, Eumenes acting as head of state and military commander, Attalos as subordinate military commander and chief diplomat. Pergamon supplied Rome and the Achaean League with both soldiers and ships for their War against Nabis of Sparta in 195 B.C.E. In return Rome sided with Pergamon in its war against the Seleukids, who became quite aggressive almost immediately after the death of Attalos I. (Antiochus III had aligned himself with Philip V after the first Macedonian War and goaded Philip into adventures in the Aegean which so alarmed Pergamon and Rhodes that they prevailed upon Rome  to intervene against Macedonia again. This was the Second Macedonian War which ended in 197 B.C.E.) The Romans inflicted a devastating defeat on the Seleukids in the Battle of Magnesia in eastern Anatolia [see #18] in 190 B.C.E., and the resulting Peace of Apamea in 188 B.C.E. gave all the Anatolian lands of the Seleukids north of the Taurus mountains to Pergamon (and the rest to Rhodes). Eumenes would soon enough fall out of favor with Rome, but since Rome did not rule its clients in Anatolia with an iron fist (as it would elsewhere), this meant for the time being that Rome would simply deny assistance or engage is diplomatic intrigue. When it was time to put down a Galatian revolt, Pergamon defeated them without Roman help much to the gratitude of coastal states, which in turn conferred the title of Soler (Savior) on Eumenes. Acting without Rome’s active approval complicated the life of any subordinate power but there was no rupture in their relations (Rome’s attempt to suborn Attalos II notwithstanding).

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

*20. From Perkins, p. 145.

When Attalos II, at age 61, succeeded his brother (the son of Eumenes being a minor at the time), he was able to repair relations with Rome. He restored his brother-in-law Ariarathes V to the throne of Cappadocia. Attalos II added territory to his kingdom, and Ariarathes in turn came to Attallos’s aid in 156 B.C.E. when he was attacked by the Bithynians, who came dangerously close to storming Pergamon and desecrated the temple of Athena Nikephoros; they were successful in stealing the statue of Asklepios outside the walls. Attalos completed the building projects of his brother and added a few of his own, including a temple to Hera above the gymnasium [see Plan #12]. He probably also was responsible for the Little Donation of the Attalids [##16 & 17] in Athens, where he also build stoas as well as in the Anatolian city of Termessos.

Attalos II was seceded by his brother’s son, Attalos III (r. 138-33 B.C.E), who the ancient historians did not treat kindly. Justinus (XXXVI.4), for example, has him engaging in murderous rage against those he thought had harmed his mother and fiancée and then becoming a recluse. Many ancients record that he devoted himself to the study of natural history and medicinal plants, which he tested on prisoners (see Hansen, pp. 144-45). In any event, being without heir, he bequeathed the kingdom to Rome on his death.  The Republic made the kingdom its Province of Asia. Pergamon itself lost its central importance when the seat of government was transferred to Ephesos. It remained a health resort of sorts because of the cult of Asklepios, which had established a center for treatment (including the famous serpent therapy) outside the city walls as early as the reign of Eumenes I. Later, a temple was built for the emperor Trajan, but in the end, the inaccessibility and fortress-like remoteness of the elevated city, the thing that caused Lysimachos to select it for his fortune, the thing that made Pergamon important in the first place, was what caused its eventual decline.

21. Acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Thiersch. Pen and ink with watercolor on canvas. 1882. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Pergamon as Cultural Center

*22. Model of Pergamon Acropolis from Burn, p. 83 (“showing how the various buildings, complexes and levels are grouped and linked one with the next.”) labelled by dkf.

The brief golden age of Pergamon took place during the reigns of Attalos I, Eumenes II and Attalos II. Impressive as their adroit expansion of territory was, it would remain a footnote to an age where econoies were largely based on conquest and tribute. But the Attalid kings were renown in ancient times for their dedication to Greek culture not only in Pergamon itself but also in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A 2nd century B.C.E. poet hailed their fame: “The glory of the Kings of Pergamon, even though they are dead, shall remain ever living among us.”5

The glory of Pergamon is evident in the art on display at the Met. But before returning to it, two other aspects ought to be noted. First, the city itself was something of a marvel of urban design. Alexandria was praised in ancient times (see, e.g., Strabo, XVII.1). But Alexandria’s prestige largely came from Alexander having founded it and from its becoming the resting place for Alexander’s body. And it is of course easier to design a city on a flat ocean port. Pergamon was built on an uneven height, but the builders took advantage of the challenges and made, over time, a striking design. Burn (p. 82) describes it:

23. Statue of Athena Parthenos. Marble. ca. 170 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Discovered in Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon. Copy of mid-5th century B.C.E. chryselephantine sculpture by Pheidias in the Parthenon.

“As the city lies on a steep hill that rises suddenly from the surrounding plain, terracing was needed to accommodate the monumental new buildings and enclosures, and here it was employed to astonishingly brilliant effect. The main view of the city is from the west, dominated by the huge theatre sunk into the side of the hill. The arc of the theatre seems to rest upon the giant stoa set below it that both served the practical function of a retaining balustrade and provided a panoramic walkway for strolling theatre goers. The main terraces on which lay the other main public buildings of the city—the temples, the library and the altar of Zeus—radiated outwards from the theatre, and many of these structures too are defined and linked by stoas.”

Moreover, the building complexes were oriented in such a way to give optimal views of each other. All of them were decorated by marble-columned stoas, many of which hosted exquisite statuary. The nature of the public art was more like Athens than like Alexandria or Macedon. The Pergamon dynasts did not exhibit themselves as masterful warriors or oriental gods. Unlike the Ptolemaic pharaohs, the Seleukids and the Macedonians, the Attalids celebrated the Olympian gods, especially Athena, who was not only a warrior but also the deity of wisdom. The city was thus seemingly a living entity, a body unto itself. And the residents were part of that living polis, not subjects of military masters.

Second, the Attalids, during Pergamon’s golden age, were  ardently pro-Athenian. Their aesthetics were principally influenced by that of Athens in the time of Pericles. In the Met show, the 2/3 size copy (over 10 foot without the base) of the famous Pheidias Athena from the Parthenon (created three hundred years before the marble copy) greets the visitor entering the gallery of Pergamon and its arts. Eumenes II probably commissioned the work, which was placed in the precinct of the temple of Athena in the upper plaza of the acropolis of Pergamon. What remains of the statue corresponds closely with the Athenian original, including the birth of Pandora relief on the base. Only the helmet is slightly simplified. It is impossible to tell if all the accessories were originally similar. Perhaps, some (like the serpent signifying Athena’s status as protector of Athens) were omitted, in which case the image may have been repurposed to emphasize her function as goddess of wisdom and learning. This would have been logical given the the famous Library of Pergamon was connected to the Athena precinct.

*24. Map of the Upper Acropolis of Pergamon (with building through Imperial Roman times). From Hansen.

25. Triton (Acroterion from Great Altar’s roof). Marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,

It was during Eumenes’s reign (according to Strabo, XIII.4.2) that Pergamon founded its great Library. Accounts of it suggest it may have been the largest library in the Greek world, with more manuscripts than the Library of Alexandria and a better cataloguing system. Unlike Alexandria, Pergamon used parchment, rather than papyrus, for its manuscripts. (The term “parchment” derives from “Pergamon” because it was such a large producer of the skin-based books.) The collection must have been a source of great pride, but it was not collected simply for vanity. The Attalids actively sought scholars and intended the library for research. Attalos I made an unsuccessful attempt to lure Lakydes, head of Plato’s famous Academy and a philosopher whom Attalos had laid out a special garden for in Athens, the Lacydeum, but Lakydes declined, saying “statues are best seen from a distance.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IV.8.60.) Attalos, however, was successful in recruiting the historian Neanthes (the Younger) and the famous mathematician Apollonius of Perga, who produced a significant work on conic sections (Sandys, p. 151). Eumenes II also aimed for one of Athens’s pre-eminent philosophers and tried to entice the Peripatetic philosopher Lykon, but he also declined. He then offered the position to Krates of Mallos, who accepted. Nagy (p. 214) quotes a witticism that “[t]he Stoics came, and so the Stoa accepted what the Academy and Lyceum had declined.” The ancients tended to deprecate the scholarship of Krates, the Stoic, especially when compared to Aristarchos of Alexandria. Aristarchos devoted full time to editing Homer. As a Stoic Krates was especially interested in Hesiod, but work on Homer was considered the more prestigious. In fact, he was considered the font of all wisdom. Varro (De lingua latina, 8.23 and 9.1) is responsible for the conventional view that Krates used the critical tool of “anomaly” in teasing out the “correct” Greek of Homer, while Aristarchos applied the opposite principle of analogy. A belief also arose that as a “good Stoic” Krates sought an allegorical interpretation of Homer. Nagy argues that their approaches were more nuanced. Krates, however, inclined to retain the text of lines he believed spurious (with appropriate marginalia annotations), while Aristarchos often simply excised them. Krates’s Homer therefore tends to be more inclusive and larger than that of Aristarchos. Nagy argues that as an editor and critic of Homer, Krates at least rivaled Aristarchos.

*26. Scene of Athena subduing two giants; part of Frieze of the Great Altar. Installed in Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

However that rivalry may be, the arrival of Krates came around the same time that the Great Altar [#2] was being built (Kastner, p. 140). The altar itself was the kind of monumental architecture that Pericles would have approved. Its immense stairway was surrounded on three sides by a base which contained a very high relief of the Gigantomachy—the story of how the gods of Olympus defeated the Giants and saved our world from chaos. The stairway led to a flood on which the altar proper surrounded on three sides by porticos containing statues. The roof of the porticos also supported statues of  deities, horses in quadrigas and mythical creatures. On the courtyard wall were reliefs of scenes from the infancy of Telephos, legendary king of Mysia.

*27. Okeanos driving Giants up the stairs of the Great Altar. Pergamon Museum.

The Gigantomachy frieze around the Great Altar is a masterpiece of Hellenistic relief. The planners of the altar undoubtedly knew that the work would be significant, because they not only inscribed the names of the gods (above) and giants (below) in each scene of the work, but also the name of the sculptor who produced the scene. Each scene is firmly rooted in Greek classical principles of composition. Take, for example the scene involving Athena [#*25]. The arrangement of figures follows the geometric form of a triangle and reminds one of Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite from the East Pediment of the Parthenon, now at the British Museum. But while the statues from the Parthenon give a sense of order and calm (no matter what is being depicted), the Pergamon frieze is one of continual action. The frame seems to be moving in a clockwise manner as Athena pulls the hair up of one giant with her right hand and the other giant is being forced down. The faces and bodily contortions of the giants show their agony, the one on our right is shown trying to hold the goddess’s arm to prevent further harm. The serpent legs of the giants are writhing uselessly while on our right the eagles of Zeus are coming to further torment the enemies of order. The frieze has over a hundred figures, each larger than life, and each one participating in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat rendered with the highest technique. The scenes are so engaging that it is impossible to resist the elegant design and the dramatic narrative. But the artists took the effect one step further. In places the figures come so far out of the block that they appear to be entering “our” world. On the stairway for example, as Oceanus is forcing two giants forward, one has a knee resting on the step [#*27].

28. Relief of Herakles finding his son Telephos nursed by a Lioness. Proconessian marble. ca. 160 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. From courtyard of Great Altar, Pergamon.

Unlike the art which sought to duplicate Athenian classicism [such as #23], the art of the Great Altar explores new manners of expression, emphasizing movement, promoting surprise and attempting to make the viewer experience a connection with the characters or respond to the drama or theatricality of the scene. Even when the subject is not frenzied activity, the bodies are often shown in positions unlike the formal posture of the classical figure [see, e.g., #22, above]. For example, the relief of Herakles discovering his son Telephos [#28] is one several scenes of the birth and childhood of Telephos. In this one block, Herakles rests on his club with one leg crossed in front of him. The posture shows how the muscles throughout his body are either tensed or relaxed. Telephos is being suckled by a lionness when Herakles finds him. The usual story has the infant being nursed by a hind, but evidently the artist here thought that the juxtaposition of the nursing lioness with the skin of the Namean lion Herakles killed [see also #7] created a contrast that provoked thought (a characteristic of the Baroque stage of Hellenistic art). The viewer has been promoted by this art from a mere spectator, an admirer, to a participant, one whose attention must be engaged.

29. Head of Karneades. Marble. Late first century B.C.E. Antiknmuseum Basel und Sammlung, Ludwig. Roman copy of Greek bronze ca. 120 B.C.E. The Greek original stood in the Agora of Athens near the Stoa of Attalos.

But engaged for what? Is there a lesson in the frieze of the Great Altar, and, if so, what? Pollitt (pp. 81-82) says that it sets Pergamon up as the Athens of the East, as the force to quell the chaos of barbarian Asia. Erika Simon sees it as a philosophical allegory influenced by Krates’s Stoicism. Krates, for example, allegorized Zeus as Ouranos and Helios. This would explain why the Titans were fighting on the side of the Olympian gods. Kleanthes in his Hymn to Zeus makes Zeus the enforcer of rational order. And on the frieze, Zeus is seen on each side, except the one representing Hades where order is abandoned. The deformity of the giants (with snakes for legs, for example) is consistent with the Stoics’ belief that passion (the cause of chaos) is a deforming disease. I am not sure a close allegorical correspondence is necessary, however. The art is on such a high level that the viewer can supply his own context, based on his own belief system. The ability to engage the viewer as a participant makes narrative explanation unnecessary.

Theatricality, Novelty  and Shock in the Baroque

Once you see the theatricality of the Baroque aspect of Hellenistic art, you notice it in all the work of Pergamon which is not a strict copy of a classical original. The Beautiful Head [#1], for instance, tilts her head and opens her lips slightly, as though she is about to speak to us. The fleshy cheeks of the Dying Woman [#15] are contorted by her curled lip to create an impression of immense despair. The head of the philosopher Karneades [#29] is slightly titled and his arched eyebrow, wide open eyes and parted lips give the impression of someone in rapt attention.

30. Small Heads with Theater Masks. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

31. Head of Menander. Marble. First century C.E. Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Roman copy of Greek statue probably set up in Athens, 3rd century B.C.E. From Tarquinia.

The theatricality of the art should not be surprising given how central (and long standing) the theater of Pergamon was to city life. And theater was widespread throughout the Hellenistic world.. The fact that small (3″ high) terracotta heads wearing masks [#30] were found in a tomb in northwest Asia Minor suggests that theater was a personal and important experience for the public. Hellenistic theater, like Hellenistic poetry, was far more intimate than classical theater. Tragedies were largely declamations and dance illustrating a myth presented abstractly to teach a philosophical or religious point. Classical comedy was satirical and topical, mostly related to the politics of the time. With Menander (ca. 342/41–ca. 290 B.C.E.) comedy became situational and centered on commoners. The plots were often formulaic and pandered to middlebrow tastes. But unlike classical comedy, emphasis was placed on characterization (albeit stereotypical) so that the audience could respond directly to the predicaments the characters found themselves in rather than as mere spectators to events beyond their control. The copy of the Athenian statue of the playwright [#31] was one of seventy found throughout the Hellenized word, and they testify to the popularity of the writer. His epigrammatic sayings were so widely disseminated that one ends up in a Pauline Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:33).

32. Emblema of SItinerant Musicians dress in New Comedy masks. Stone mosaic. 2nd-1st century B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. From Pompeii.

Lyrical poetry also became more personal, more concerned with temporal rather than rather than moral or metaphysical questions. Lovesick shepherds prevailed. Kallimachos (Callimachus), a scholar at the Library of Alexandria and influential lyricist of the era, actively advocated for poets to move from the epic and political to the small and personal. From his fragment Aetia:

“[T]he Telchines, who are ignorant and no friends of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on … kings or… heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale, though the decades of my years are not few. … Begone, you baneful race of Jealousy! hereafter judge poetry by [the canons] of art, and not by the Persian chain, nor look to me for a song loudly resounding. It is not mine to thunder; that belongs to Zeus. For, when I first placed a tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: ‘… poet, feed the victim to be as fat as possible but, my friend, keep the Muse slender. …”

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx om hp;f dryyomh. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

33. Cameo of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. Indian sardonyx om hp;f dryyomh. 278-270 B.C.E. Antikensammlung, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The celebration of the personal (they might have said: the personal is poetical!) is seen especially in the luxury art. There are the usual items of ostentatious jewelry, necklaces, hair pins, diadems, pendants and one spectacular pair of gold serpentine arm bands that terminating in the bottom (the distal end?) with a sea monster and at the top in a male and a female triton. But two items especially struck me. The first was a royal (Ptolemaic) cameo from the early third century B.C.E. [#33]. The piece is an extraordinarily rendered portrait of the royal couple in dazzling onyx. But more interesting is how the composition portrays a perfectly serene and nearly matched couple, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II, who were brother and sister before they were husband and wife. Their family relationship gives them nearly identical appearances. Although Ptolemy is fitted out as a warrior general, with a helmet sporting a serpent  and a portrait of Ammon on his neck guard, the portrayal resembles nothing like the heroic portrayals of any of the original Diadochi, of which his father was one, and perhaps the half-brother of Alexander himself). Arsinoe II wears the head covering of a bride, and this stone might have been carved to celebrate the couple’s wedding. Whatever the occasion, this piece is unmistakably “heterodox” in terms of classical aesthetics only one generation removed from Alexander.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

34. Head of Man Wearing a Kausia. Bronze with copper and alabaster (?) inlays. 3rd century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Kalymnos.

The second particularly striking piece of personal/luxury art in the Metropolitan show is a head of a mature man in a kausia [#34]. Of course the inlaid metal/mineral eyes immediately attracts attention, but a close inspection of the man’s face shows a spare beard of a few days’ growth. Although the kausia, a headwear designed to protect against cold, is sometimes seen in Hellenistic coins, it is unique among statues of warriors or rulers. A number of features point toward the conclusion that the man is Macedonian, and some have speculated that it might be of Philip V. If so, this item shows how far the Greek Baroque had by that time affected portraiture of men presumably interested in projecting power and authority. The gaze is fixed, and this possibly is designed to substitute for the youthfulness and vigor of earlier portrayals of Hellenistic kings. The figure conveys a sense of realistism, at least one step away from the idealized versions of Alexander and the Diadochi.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

35. Emaciated Youth. Bronze. 1st century B.C.E.-1st century C.E. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Copy of Late Hellenistic original found near Soissons, France.

The luxury items of the rich and powerful tended towards ostentation, on the one hand, and self memorial, on the other. For the less well off statuettes were available that veered into the grotesque. The Met show has two: one is a statuette of an old woman, the other is one of an emaciated youth [#35]. As for the latter, a recent medical opinion is that the young man is suffering from chronic lead poisoning. These two figurines belong to a subset of late Hellenistic art which Zanker (p. 125) lists as “boy-jockeys, old boxers, poor fishermen, drunken old women, dwarves, cripples and grotesques.” What could these images have meant to their owners? Did they provide humor (as Zanker suggests)? It is hard to imagine however, how having a severely diseased image could provide entertainment, no matter how decadent one imagines the society that produced them. Some new concept was aimed at, since such figures lay outside the boundaries of classical Greek art. According to Dasen (pp. 165-66):

“Greek artists, like Egyptians, had little interest in showing human physical anomalies. Monsters are usually composed of human and animal elements, otherwise normal when looked at separately. … [O]nly satyrs may have slightly unusual bodies, obese, acromegelic or hunchbacked. … [O]rdinary humans are very rarely individualized by physical deformities, apart from marginal figures, such as highwaymen or foreigners.”

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

36. Statuette of a Dwarf Dancing. Bronze. Early 1st century B.C.E. Musée National du Bardo, Tunis. Part of cargo of a shipwreck off Mardi, Tunisia possibly in the late 70s B.C.E.

The Met exhibition also has three renderings of dwarves. One, a late Hellenistic statuette now in the Louvre, probably was an object of merriment and ridicule, because it shows the man carrying a rooster which has planted one claw into his groin and had clamped its beak on the man’s lip. Another, a late Hellenistic or early Imperial Rome bronze statuette now in the Princeton University Art Museum, shows a dwarf jauntily carrying a small antelope across his back, his tunic failing to cover his disproportionately large penis. The third [#36] appears to me a representation of a dwarf as entertainer dancing. Dasen (p. 247) explains the difference between classical Greek and Late Hellenistic and Roman treatment of dwarfs:

The acceptance of dwarfs in Egypt and classical Greece contrasts with the centuries of exclusion which followed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when attitudes to physical malformation changed drastically. … The uneasiness created by their appearance still provoked rejection, but it was counterbalanced by laughter. All kinds of deformities, including cretinism and severe disorders, appear in a wide range of works, from small terra cotta and bronze statuettes to wall paintings and mosaics. … Dwarfs are shown with an exaggerated realism, often with additionally grotesque features, such as overlarge genitals, and grimacing faces. Many dwarfs earned a living by exhibiting themselves as entertainers in shows which staged, for example, fights between pygmies and cranes [see Iliad III:1-9]. Western Romans and emperors delighted in them, as later Europeans did.”

Levi gives another example of the use of dwarf iconography in late Hellenistic times. In a building at Jekmejeh near Antioch the second story contained an emblema of an evil eye being attacked by a number of weapons and animals. As a dwarf is walking away from it, his overly large penis, wraps between his legs and faces the evil eye. Levi (p. 225) speculates that this is an example of ἄτοπία, the principle of “unbecomingness.”

“Beings with a funny appearance or in which some obscene details are accented are good apotropia, as well as normal beings represented in indecent attitudes, making vulgar gestures or noises. Behind this magic conception, perhaps, lies something more than what is generally explained; more than a simple popular trick in order to avert the demons’ attention from their evil purposes: laughter is the opposite pole of the anguish produced by the dark forces of evil; where there is laughter, it scatters the shades and the phantasms. The magic papyrus of Paris … expresses this idea in the most expressive terms, by saying when the Creator laughed, for the first time, light was created. … Dwarfs and pygmies are especially fit to be used as ἄτοπία because of certain shocking disproportions in their bodies, appearing also in other representations beside the magic ones.” [Footnotes omitted.]

The superstitious use of dwarf images for magical and prophylactic purposes has the hallmarks of sources which the Greeks would call “barbarian.” But where did the revulsion and the ridicule come from? Did the baroque nature of the art, constantly pushing for more discordant contrasts, force wider the bounds of acceptable depiction? (Is this what we have seen in the twentieth–twenty-first century C.E.?) Or did the mixing of cultures that began with Alexander’s conquests inevitably lead to the need to create “others” to remind the “us” of our status especially in times of distress? (Is this another phenomenon we have seen?)

37. Hermaphrodite and Satyr. Marble. 1st century C.E. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia. Roman copy of Greek bronze (?) original in 2nd century B.C.E. Discovered at villa at Oplontuis at the foot of Vesuvius.

Whatever the explanation, we can see the the boundaries of decency pushed to their ancient limits in the final gallery where we see Rome as a Hellenistic-influenced city. There we find the nude female body (first introduced in post-classical times), in the form of a marble Aphrodite from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, not simply an object of beauty, but also an object of erotic desire. It is not far from there to the depiction of the sleeping hermaphrodite from the Met’s own collection—an object initially of erotic attractive from  behind, but one of surprise and possibly mirthful shock when viewed from the other side. The final step in this process of decadent eroticization is seen in the statue of the hermaphrodite fending off the attempted rape by a satyr [#37]. Here a deformed creature is portrayed as lustfully and violently pressing himself on a human that belongs to no “natural” sex. Not only does the work violate several of the “rules” that governed classical art, it seems also to show that art could be appreciated not only by how it conforms to “rules” but also by how it breaks them.

Regardless of one’s feelings about what the subject matter says about the patrons of such art, it is impossible to fail to be amazed at how the three dimensional composition of this work as well as the technical mastery required to produce two figures in such physical contortions. Both of these considerations are considerably beyond the conceptions of Athens during the classical period. And neither would be seen again for nearly a millennia and a half.  Whatever combination of Greek seed and foreign soil that Alexander and his followers sowed, the result was three centuries of art of imagination and quality at least equal to any other period of history. And the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation is a superb introduction, not to be missed if at all possible.

Notes

1According to Pindar, Telephus was king of Mysia when the Achaeans landed there mistaking it for Troy. Because he was most like his father Herakles, he was able to repel them. (Olympia, ix.12; Isthmian v.12.) Dionysus, however, caused him to trip over a vine, allowing Achilles to wound him. (Isthmian, viii.109: “Achilles, who stained the vine-covered plain of Mysia, spattering it with the dark blood of Telephus … .”) Telephus died from the wound. [Return to text.]

2Xenophon had gone to Pergamon to meet up with the Greek mercenaries who had assisted Cyrus in his expedition against his brother, the Persian King, and were now intending to join Thibron, a Spartan who had come to Asia Minor in force to free the Greek cities.
At Pergamon Xenophon met the the widow (Hellas) of a Greek defector, who was sympathetic to the Greek cause, and she suggested that Xenophon raid the estate of a wealthy Persian neighbor. The sons of Hellas came to Xenophon’s aid when surrounding areas came out against him, and eventually Xenophon obtained the treasures he was after along with the Persian family as his prisoners. Xenophon’s forces and Hellas’s sons then joined Thibron. (Anabasis, VII 7.57 & VII 8.7-23Hellenica, iii.1.6). After the end of Greek-Persian hostilities in 386 B.C.E., the Persians regained control and punished those dynasts and cities that aided Xenophon and Thibron (Hansen, p. 10). [Return to text.]

3Indeed his monetary “courtesies” were widely bestowed, such as to such far flung cities as Greek Pitane (he paid part of the debt owed to Antiochus), Aeolian Aigai (his contribution was reflected in a dedication to the Apollo Chresterios) and Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara [#8] (over a five year period he gave significant sums to pay for such things as games, horses for defense, troops to protect against the Galatians, etc.). Inscriptions in mainland Greece also give evidence of substantial contributions by Philetairos to various temples (Hansen, p. 19). [Return to text.]

4Polybius, Histories VIII:23: “… the council met, and a long debate ensued as to what punishment they were to inflict upon Achaeus. Finally, it was resolved that his extremities should be cut off, his head severed from his body and sewn up in the skin of an ass, and his body impaled.” [Return to text.]

5Pseudo Scymnus in [Heinrich Theodor Dittrich (ed.)], Scymni Chii Periegesis quae supersunt. Recensuit et annotatione critica instruxit B. Fabricius (Lipsiae [Leipzig]: B.G. Teubneri, 1846), p2, lines 16-18, which can be viewed at Hathi Trust. There is, unfortunately, no English translation of this poet who seems to have flourished around 150 B.C.E. [Return to text.]

Sources

Burn, Lucilla, Hellenistic Art from Alexander the Great to Augustus (Los Angeles, California: J. Paul Getty Museum, c2004).

Chamoux, François, Hellenistic Civilization trans. by Michel Roussel (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, c2003).

Dasen, Véronique, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Dreyfus, Renée  and Schraudolph, Ellen (eds.), Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar (San Francisco, California: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, c1996).

Fowler, Barbara Hughes, The Hellenistic Aesthetic (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c1989).

Hansen, Esther V., The Attalids of Pergamon (2nd ed.: Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, c1971).

Holm, Adolph, The History of Greece from its Commencement to the Close of the Independence of the Greek Nation trans. Frederick Clarke, vol. 4 (London: Macmillen and Co., 1902) (at Google Books).

Kastner, Volker, “The Architecture of the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Kuttner, Ann, “Republican Rome Looks at Pergamon,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 97, pp. 157-78 (1995).

Levi, Doro, “The Evil Eye and the Lucky Hunchback,” Antioch on-the-Orantes vol. III: Excavations 1937-1939 ed. by Richard Stillwell (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941).

Nagy, Gregory, “The Library of Pergamon as a Classical Model,” Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Perkins, Charles C., “The Pergamon Marbles. I. Pergamon: Its History and Its Buildings,” The American Art Review, vol. 2, no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 145-150 (at JStor).

Picón, Carlos A. and Hemingway, Seán (eds.), Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, c2016).

Pollitt, J.J., Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1986).

Sandys, John Edwin, A Short History of Classical Scholarship from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915) (at Google Books).

Simon, Erika, Pergamon und Hesiod (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1975).

Stewart, Andrew “Narration and Allusion in the Hellenistic Baroque,” Narrative and Event in Ancient Art  edited by Peter J. Holliday (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Thomas, Christine M., “The Sanctuary of Demeter at Pergamon: Cultic Space for Women and Its Eclipse,”Pergamon, Citadel of the Gods: Archaelogical Record, Literary Description, and Religious Development edited by Helmut Koester (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998).

Zanker, Graham, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, c2004).

Herbie Nichols: “It Didn’t Happen”

One of the great unsung composers and pianists of mid-twentieth century, Herbie Nichols is probably best known for composing “Lady Sings the Blues,” a piece to which Billie Holiday added the lyrics, and it became one of her signature pieces. But Nichols was perhaps even more astonishing when he improvised on the piano. Here is a take of his composition “It Didn’t Happen” with bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Art Blakey. It was recorded May 6, 1955 at Rudy Van Geller’s studio in New Jersey.

While McKibbon propels the piece with his walking bass, both Nichols and Blakey show remarkable ambidexterity, all in the service of a witty melodic head with intricate variations.

The period from the death of Charlie Parker to the death of John Coltrane was one of extraordinary inventiveness, harmonically and rhythmically. Both of those experiments join fluently here.

Turner’s Whaling Canvases (and a little Melville)

A small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan (through August 7, 2016) shows that in the late 1840s it was not just Herman Melville who was thinking about the business of whaling as a subject fit to expand an art form. The Met has re-assembled the four oils that Turner painted around 1845 that treat the dangerous, bloody and seemingly existential business of whaling by putting together in the same room for the first time since they were in Turner’s studio its own Whalers together with the related ones now owned by the Tate. While these few paintings might seem a thin reed to base a Melville-Turner connection, if you read to the end, you might find some interesting points of connection (and some wild conjectures).

Turner and the Sea

1. Fishermen at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. ca. 1792. Oil on canvas. Tate. London. (BJ 1.) (As with all the illustration in this post, click to enlarge and click again to enlarge further.)

For some, Turner was principally, if not exclusively, a landscape painter. At the Met last week, I was surprised when a woman remarked to me (out of nowhere), “I thought Turner was a landscape painter.” John Ruskin, Turner’s early and greatest champion, also saw him as principally a landscape painter, and that’s how he’s treated in Modern Paintings.1 But maritime works were a core part of his output. The first painting the 21 year old Turner exhibited, his Fishermen at Sea, [#1] was a maritime picture but also a breathtaking production that made the familiar dramatic with bold lighting from the moon illuminating a boat atop an undulating sea defined by dark water and white crests, white reflections and white birds. The chiaroscuro effect emphasizes the power of the sea and also implies that the water nests the fishermen who appear serene in the midst of the surges. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1802. when he was 27, owing in large part to his Dutch Boats in a Gail [the “Bridgewater Seapiece”] (1801; BJ 14), which was a popular success when exhibited to the Royal Academy in 1801 and was considered by Henry Fuseli and Benjamin West to surpass the Dutch models and even Rembrandt! From then on maritime subjects became a staple for Turner. A maritime painting was the first of Turner’s paintings to be engraved. (The painting The Shipwreck (BJ 54), exhibited in 1805, was engraved by J. Burnet in 1853.) Hermann (p. 1) found that 150 of the 541 oils catalogued Butlin and Joll have the sea as its central feature, and this doesn’t count historical/mythological pictures or views of harbors or Venice.

2. The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J.M.W. Turner. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1810. Fundaçao Calouste Gulbendikan, Lisbon.) (BJ 210.)

The sea with the men and vessels on it was a subject that was not only dramatic in itself, but also one central to the psyche of the island nation who allowed its rulers to impress foreign seamen so that its own navy and merchant marine could continue to supply the “nation of shopkeepers” with its economic vitals. Britannia took pride in ruling the oceans, and Turner was more than willing to become its visual chronicler, booster and sometime critic. Between Dutch Boats in a Gale and Wreck of a Transport Ship [#2] Turner had a “decade of painting grand seapieces” which he would no return to until the late 1820s (BJ 210). When Turner took up seascapes again, this time more or less regularly, with Port Ruysdael, exhibited in 1827 (BJ 237), he would concern himself with churning seas, which Ruskin described as the “white, wild, cold, comfortless waves of the north sea” which in the composition are “almost subordinate to the awful rolling clouds.” (Modern Painters I:379.)  To Ruskin Turner was the undisputed master of both the sky and the sea:

3. Margate from the Sea: Whiting Fishing by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1822. Private collection.

“it may be generally stated that Turner is the only painter, so far as I know, who has ever drawn the sky, (not the clear sky, which we before saw belonged exclusively to the religious schools, but the various forms and phenomena of the cloudy heavens,) all previous artists having only represented it typically or partially; but he absolutely and universally … He is the only painter who has ever represented the surface of calm, or the force of agitated water; who has represented the effects of space on distant objects, or who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural color. These assertions I make deliberately, after careful weighing and consideration, in no spirit of dispute, or momentary zeal; but from strong and convinced feeling, and with the consciousness of being able to prove them.” (MP  I:138-39).

4. Regulus by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1828, reworked 1837. Tate, London. (BJ 294.)

To achieve mastery of skies and seas, particularly turbulent ones, the treatment of light (including reflection, chiaroscuro and diffusion) as well as color (although the more experimental approaches to color came later) needed to be subordinated to his overall approach. Like many romantic painters (including those of the more-or-less contemporary American Hudson River School) Turner began with a fondness for lighting the picture from a central source in the background. As time went on, Turner used sunlight in both seascapes and landscapes that approached closer to the horizon (see Margate from the Sea [#3]). As he increased the intensity of the light, it threw the forms on both sides into something like relief. In Regulus (rev. 1837) [#4] the viewer sees sunlight so intense that it obscures the objects on either side of its direct rays. The effect was one that Turner vigorously applied himself to create. John Gilbert, whose own exhibit was on the opposite wall to Turner’s at the British Institution exhibition, saw Turner rework the piece in 1837:

5. Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1838. Private Collection. (BJ 375.)

“The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing in it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke. The sun, as I have said, was in the centre; from it were drawn—ruled—lines to mark the rays; these lines were rather strongly marked, I suppose to guide his eye. The picture became wonderfully effective, just the effect of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object.” (BJ 294.)

6. Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 398.)

A similar concept (also of an ancient historical setting) was used the following year in Turner’s Ancient Italy—Ovid Banished from Rome [#5]. The critics were not charitable to these experiments. Ruskin, after Turner’s death (in his 1857 Notes) found Regulus to be “very disgraceful to Turner,” and the Anthenaeum (May 12, 1838) concluded on the basis of Ancient Italy that it was “grievous to think of talent, so mighty and so poetical, running riot into such frenzies; the more grievous, as we fear, it is now past recall.”

7. Peace—Burial at Sea by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1842. Tate, London. (BJ 399.)

Storms at sea as well as night on the ocean required Turner to understand how to express the absence of light, and he engaged in a similar path of experimentation. In Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead [#6], he painted a swirl of light and dark encircling a craft listing in mortal danger. Turner added a subtitle: “The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich.” It is less important that the documentary evidence does not support this claim than the fact that Turner called himself an “Author” not “Artist.” The painting was intended to be journalistic; that is, recorded by an observer. And to our eyes the painting has real authenticity. But the contemporary critics found the work insufficiently representational. Punch and other satirists routinely compared Turner’s work of this period to various salads and the Anthenaeum (May 14, 1842) condemns Turner for using “his whole array of kitchen stuff. Where the steam-boat iswhere the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel … are matters past our finding out.” The idea that the piece should be criticized for expressing the emotional intensity of experiencing the storm’s ferocity instead of subordinating it to a “literal” depiction of physical forms and relationships (one that could not be seen under the circumstances portrayed) seems odd to us who have absorbed a century and a half of developments in painting and other pictorial technology. But the radicalness of the approach, pre-Impressionism and before the New was celebrated, can be perhaps best understood by considering that Ruskin himself expressed (privately) his view that the was nothing more than “whitewash and soapsuds.”2 When Turner combined his mastery of intense light, pure blackness and his experiments with reds and yellows of early 1840s, he produced Peace [#7], a visual threnody of surprising power. What did the most informed art writers of his time think of it? Clarkson Stanfield of the Royal Academy thought the sails were too black. The newspaper critics were uniformly hostile, with the Spectator (May 7, 1842), insinuating its lack a patriotism (or its radicalness) by dubbing it “rouge et noir.” Other newspaper commentators competed to make even less witty disparaging remarks. But even Ruskin (in his 1857 Notes) criticized the “unnatural blackness of the sails.

8. Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (BJ 385.)

The most effective of Turner’s black-red-yellow experiments was Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840; BJ 385) [#8]. Turner here subordinates composition to the interplay of colors. The most clearly defined object is a human leg surrounded by fish in the right foreground. Hands appear to be sticking up from the sea further back. We see a ship somewhat obscured by the mist or fog. What the painting essentially consists of is the layering of black, yellow, red and white (with a few other colors for details). The interplay of the colors makes up the sea, which imperceptibly becomes the sky, which takes up half the canvas. Turner regarded it as the noblest sea Turner ever created, and, therefore, “the noblest ever painted by man.” The ship is forcing its way through uneasy surf, moving away from the central light (lightning?) but framed in an ominously red sky. The production heaves with moral revulsion.

9. Van Tromp’s Shallop at the Entrance of the Scheldt by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1832. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut . (BJ 344.)

The newspapers once again objected to the lack of sharp definition of objects. And it is certainly true that the works of the 1840s were considerably less “representational” than those of the 1830s, such as the Von Tromp’s Shallop [#9]. The earlier paintings followed the approach that had come to be accepted among Dutch painters earlier in the century. The Dutch painters attempted a sort of “verisimilitude” that made the objects throughout the painting distinct, even though a person viewing the scene in nature could not see the actual scene in that way, most of the scene being confined to peripheral vision. But in the 1830s Turner had departed from the Dutch models by adding atmospheric perspective so that German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen considered Turner’s approach as “a crude painted medley with a general foggy appearance” constituting a “total want of truth.”3 Ruskin expends a great deal of effort in defending Turner from this kind of criticism by way of a minute explanation of the nature of atmospheric perspective (the effect of air, depending on its moisture content, to make more obscure and paler distant objects, to the extent of their distance), although he had no term for it, simply calling it one of the intentional “mysteries” of Turner’s painting. (MP, IV:68-79.) It is in the context of Ruskin’s defense of Turner’s renderings of skies and clouds (and by extension distant objects) that Ruskin makes his provocative statement: “We never see anything clearly.” (MP IV:58.) That defense, however, depended upon rendering the forms “definite”: “You can only show how the light affects the object, by knowing thoroughly what the object is; and noble mystery differs from ignoble, in being a veil thrown between us and something definite, known, and substantial; but the ignoble mystery is a veil cast before chaos, the studious concealment of Nothing.” (MP IV:73.)  But this is where Turner and Ruskin (at least the younger Ruskin) parted ways. And it is why Ruskin denigrated the first of the whaling canvases at the Met exhibit.4

Turner, Whales and Whalers

*10. The Whale on Shore by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1837. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio. (The asterisk—*—indicates the piece is shown as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition.)

It was during his new, more expressionistic, departure in the 1840s that the whaling projects were conceived. Turner had only once before taken any interest in whales and that was a watercolor [#10] designed to be engraved for an illustration to a multivolume collection of Walter Scott works (specifically to an abridgment of The Pirate). The work is strikingly busy. The scene represents an important plot point in the novel. During an attempt to kill a whale the pirate of the title (who had earlier been saved by the hero) rescues the hero from drowning. Their obligations now cancelled out, they may begin their rivalry for the same love interest. Even given the elaborate and fully populated scene by Scott, it is remarkable how many things are going on in Turner’s picture. The whale is near shore in the midground right. The rescue takes place in the foreground. A thunderstorm is off shore to the left. And the whale is being harassed by boats and attacked with all sorts of weapons including muskets. The picture is filled with scores of people. The composition was perhaps designed to give a flavor of the fanciful nature of the novel. In the midst of the chaos, the whale itself is quite odd. Hamilton (p. 94) says that it has the look of a “post-medieval bestiary woodcut illustration.” It is interesting to note, however, that the whale is clearly a right whale, the kind of whale most common in the North Atlantic, and not a sperm whale, which Turner would paint in his canvases.5 Neither the style nor the content of the painting, however, prefigures the whale canvases.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored acquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

11. Peche de la Balein by Frederic Martens. Uncolored aquatint after a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, published by Rittner & Goupil, Paris, 1834-35.

Hamilton (p. 92) suggests as a possible guiding influence on Turner’s mid-1840 departure in maritime works Captain Elisha Ely Morgan, an affable old Yankee mariner, who regularly appeared in London, owing to his packet service between New York and London and Liverpool. While in London Morgan cultivated the foremost literary and artistic lights, including Dickens and Thackeray. Turner became such an enthusiast of Morgan’s tales of the open sea (Turner himself never made an ocean voyage) that the two became so close that Morgan added Turner to the list of his intimates who were sent a box of American cigars when Morgan returned to New York. Hamilton speculates that Morgan’s stories may have influenced Turner’s evolution in sea painting from the academically-based paintings of the 1830s to the dramatic and emotion-filled pictures of the 1840s. (It may not be a coincident that Morgan was an abolitionist, and Turner painted the Slavers in 1840.) Morgan had also spent a year whaling in Greenland, so that might have been an impetus to the specific project. But Turner had other sources of inspiration.

12. Boats Attacking Whales by William James Linton. Engraving published as frontispiece to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839).

Natural history, and the order of the living world, was a component of English cultural conversations in the 1840s and for many years before that. The five volumes written by various naturalists under the supervision of Charles Darwin describing the specimens he collected during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle were published from February 1838 to October 1843 (under the general title Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle). Darwin’s own Journal and Remarks on the voyage (which contains references to whales and whaling throughout) was published in 1840.6 The Beagle was only one of a number of government sponsored expeditions, designed to explore sea routes but also to report on and collect new or little known organisms as a matter for scientific research. Specifically with respect to whales, although the British whaling industry was at depression levels owing to foreign (mainly Yankee) competition, whaling still captured the public’s attention. There was a fair amount of conventional art, including popular engravings [e.g., #11], as well as travelogues, histories of voyages and even literature. (Melville’s Typee, which was first published in London in 1846 and well received, portrayed sailors from the whaler The Dolly). Perhaps most important of the authentic descriptions of whaling was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), which both Turner and Melville consulted.7 While the illustrations were fanciful [e.g., #12 with sperm whales frolicking and leaping wholly out of the water in the manner of dolphins], the text, written by a British surgeon, strove for accuracy not only about whales but also about a whaling voyage that Beale himself undertook.

13. Wreckers–Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore b y J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1834. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

Financially Turner’s biggest inspiration probably was the rich spermaceti magnate Elhanan Bicknell, who had long been in the whaling business but had liquidated his investments before the bust. He was now a wealthy connoisseur of British painting, including Gainsborough, Landseer, Stanfield, Etty and others,  and had previously patronized Turner. According to Sutton, he became a champion (or at least a purchaser) of Turner before even his friend John Ruskin did. In the year before Turner painted the first two whaling oils, Bicknell purchased eight canvases by Turner.8 (The year 1844, however, was the year after the first volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters was first published, and it caused something of a bull market in Turner works.) Among the works of Turner he bought was Wreckers, a work that received universal praise on its exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1834 and the British Institution in 1836. Turner’s attempt to reel in Bicknell was not only unsuccessful, however, it also resulted in a permanent breach in their relationship.

*14. Whalers by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Tate, London. (BJ 414.)

In 1845 the 70 year old Turner was interim president of the Royal Academy. For his contribution to that summer’s annual exhibition (he was a member of the hanging committee) he selected his two whaling paintings [##14 & 15] together with four Venetian scenes. The whaling canvases both involve what whalers called the “chase,” and in the 1845 catalogue both refer to chapter XIII of “Beale’s Voyage” (i.e., Beale, Natural History of the Sperm Whale) for a description of the action. Beale describes the chase and capture as follows:

*15. Whalers (The Whale Ship) by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1845. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (BJ 415.)

“When in pursuit of the whale with the boats, it occasionally happens that just at the moment the harpoon is about to be plunged into its body, the whale suddenly descends, leaving nothing but a vortex to mark the spot where but a moment before it was seen floating; but its course, however, has been observed, and the boats are placed in a position to be as near as possible to it when it again rises to breathe; the time, as has been before stated, when he will do this is known to a minute. If they should be more fortunate in the next rising of the whale, and they succeed in darting the harpoon into its body, then immediately after the first struggles of the wounded animal and when he is lying exhausted from his enormous exertions to escape, or free himself from the harpoon, the boat’s head is placed close to its side, and the headsman begins to destroy it by thrusting his lance into its most vital parts, which lie near the fin, or darting at it from a distance; at the moment of lancing, he cries ‘stern all’; the oars are then immediately backed and the boat’s stern becoming its cutwater, it is thus removed from danger without the loss of time and trouble in turning. Again, when feeling the lance, the whale plunges and throws itself in all directions, lashing the water with its tail, or rearing its enormous head, and threatening destruction with its formidable jaw, (see cut, p. 154).” (pp. 159-60).

16. South Sea Whale Fishery by William Huggins. Engraving on p. 154 of T. Beale (1839).

The two paintings represent sequential events. The first (BJ 414) [#14] shows the whale boats in the process of harpooning the whale. The harpooner in the stern of the boat (the foremost of the human figures) is about to throw. The one slightly behind has no harpoon in hand and is perhaps cheering a hit. The whale, which is seen as only a brown mound to the right. His spout is slightly pink, showing that it has been injured enough to be exhaling blood. The men are pulling back the oars, the very thing Beale describes they do after the headsman cries, “stern all.” What is most remarkable about the painting, however, is the whiteness of the spray which obscures the scene and blends into the sky and sails of the distant ship. The oval effect created by the spray and clouds curving over the heads of the whalers creates a sense of urgency to the action. But it is the color that Turner uses to create the bright pacific sun over the sea that is most noticeable. The Spectator (May 10, 1845) remarked on the “prismatic brilliancy” of the “hues of light.” The Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845) concluded that Turner’s “scale of color has never … been approached by any other man;  … it is a development of elements essential in nature, carried far above her usual aspects.” The color must have faded over time, because the Morning Chronicle (May 7, 1845) praises the effect of the “red clothing of the sailors in the boat” which now appear brown. This may be an example of Turner’s point that owing to the materials used, Turner’s colors are not permanent.9 But even with the fading, the sense is one of blinding white sunlight in the mist.

Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

17. Anonymous engraving at T. Beale, p. 173 (1839).

The second painting (BJ 415) [#15], which shows the whale’s breach which followed its sounding on being harpooned, is at initial glance a more iconic composition. The head of the whale is seen in the foreground with the ship seemingly chasing it. To the right there is a large splash, possibly caused by the whale’s fluke. On closer inspection, between the whale and the ship are the boats stuggling against the waves caused by the whale’s actions. One boat seems ot have capsized, another is in the process of being upended with whalers holding the sides, and the third seems just beginning to feel the effects of the upheaval of the ocean. The story from Beale (pp. 173-76) is of an operation off Japan in June 1832. It was late afternoon when the whale was harpooned and successfully lanced, but it sounded deep and when it breached it hit one boat with its head upending it. It circled the men in the water, but did not harm them. When the whale was again lanced, it died and sunk, never to be seen again. The men, however, were all rescued. The culmination of the two scenes then is a near death experience ending in ultimate futility, a conclusion that Turner often urges for all manner of human endeavor, especially by quoting from his (never found) poem “Fallacies of Hope.”

Like its companion piece, in the second Whalers the atmospheric perspective is made through a brilliant foreground lighting effect rather than solely through darker tinted backgrounds. And unlike Regulus [#4] and its “huge lump of flake white forced into all the crevices of the canvas,” the brilliance of the surface was made up of different hues and tints. While Punch (January-June 1845, p. 233)  compared its effects to that of “lobster salads,” the critic for the Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845), while preferring Turner’s earlier work (because it did not “sublimate truth” to imagination) saw that the “handling of the tints, and their harmony, allowing for the exalted pitch of prismatic brightness, are astonishing. Splintered rainbows thrown against the canvas is a better comparison than … lobster sauce … .”

Bicknell took home the second of the Whalers but discovered that it was finished in part with water color, and he took that as a sign that Turner had not given enough time or care to finish the work properly. He attempted to remove the watercolor himself and damaged the work. A confrontation with Turner arose when he returned it for Turner to re-finish. Turner dug in his heels, and the dispute soon merged with another one,10 the combination of which seems to have ended their personal relationship.

*18. Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’ by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 423.)

Nothing discouraged, Turner undertook to paint two more whaling paintings for the next year’s Royal Academy show. The first, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish! [#18], depicts the “cutting in” process for a whale that has been hauled in (see chapter 67 of Moby Dick for a description) and the “baling of the case” (Moby Dick, chapters 77 and 78). The second, Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves [#19], shows the final stage of the process of rendering fat into commercial oil. But like the first pair, this pair begins with a euphoric moment (a catch that fills the hold?) and ends with a potential disaster—the ship trapped in packed (flaw [sic]) ice. In fact, if you look at the four paintings in order, you can discern the sequence of the business of obtaining spermaceti and other oils from the sperm whale: first the chase, then the (unsuccessful) kill, then the cutting in and retrieving the spermaceti from the head and finally boiling the blubber for residual oil. But the two sets are also distinct. Not only do the 1845 paintings and the 1846 ones take place in different seas (a point I will discuss below), but their focus is also different. The first set observes men confronting nature, and they do it with sheer brute manpower. There is no sign of machines or technology (beyond simple Iron Age tools). In the 1846 set the focus is on the manufacturing aspect of whaling: retrieving the spermaceti, cutting in and rendering the blubber. The last painting shows how industrial methods have been brought to this far-away sea by means of the try-works (see Moby Dick, chapter 96). It is true that disaster faces this crew too (in the form of the ice pack), but that is simply part of the order of things: the fallacy of hope; it is not a condemnation of industry itself.

*19. Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 426.)

For a long time art historians had seen this second pair as depictions of whaling in the Arctic, and then criticized Turner for details that were unrealistic. There was no commercial whaler known as Erebus, sperm whales are rare in the Arctic, Arctic whalers did not boil blubber and so forth. Wallace (1988), however, persuasively showed that the painting were of Antarctic waters and that Erebus was not a commercial whaler but rather a former bomb ketch refitted as a research vessel, sent (with another converted bomb ketch, the Terror, which had seen service in the War of 1812 against the United States) to explore southern sea lanes, to investigate the magnetism of the earth and also to “use every exertion to collect the various objects of Natural History which the many heretofore unexplored countries about to visited would afford.” (Richardson & Grey, p. v.) The youngest member of the expedition (which took place from 1839 to 1843) was the 22 year old Joseph Dalton Hooker, who would become one of the eminent botanists (specializing in geographical botany) and evolutionists in England and Darwin’s closest friend, defender and confidant. (He wrote the “Summary of the Voyage” which introduced Richardson & Grey’s first volume of the zoology of the voyage.)  As a member of the Anthenæum Club, Turner would have known a number of persons familiar with the voyage, including Hooker’s respected father, William Jackson Hooker.11 Wallace speculates that Turner might have even talked with expedition commander Captain James Clark Ross when he returned to London in 1843.

20. Cartoon published by Almanack of the Month (June 1846), p. 350.

The relevance of the location depicted may have to do (as Wallace argues with the nature of the illumination of the objects in the two pictures. Unlike the bright light of the first set of whalers which runs towards a warm color temperature, the color temperature of the second set is decidedly cooler, more bluish, even though the intensity seems the same. Wallace (1988, p. 27) says that the 1846 paintings give off “a wondrous radiance that is almost benedictory in its quality”; the first one having a “copper calm” and the second a “shimmering azure transparency.” Sympathetic contemporary critics struggled to explain what Turner was trying to achieve but they nonetheless remarked on the handling of color. About the first painting [#18] the Literary Gazette (May 9, 1846) said: “So entirely is the eye carried away by a sort of indistinct and harmonious magic, that we seem to consent to the abandonment of solid truth and real nature altogether, and allow dark ships to be chrome yellow, whales glittering pink, human beings sun or moon beams, and little thick dabs of paint ethereal clouds.” The Anthenaeum (May 9, 1846) praised the Boiling Blubber picture for allowing the viewer to make out forms, although color still predominates: “one can make forms out of those beautiful, though almost chaotic colours. The sea-green hue of the ice, the flicker of the sunbeam on the waves, the boiling of the blubber, and the tall forms of the ice-bound vessels, make up an interesting picture.” Given the Ruskin’s remark about the impermanence of Turner’s colors and the inference that the color of the sailors’ outfits in #14 faded considerably, it is probable that we do not today see the intended brilliance of the hues. Nevertheless, they are still striking. Those who denied any merit to the works simply ignored what Turner was attempting because they had long ago given up on Turner altogether. Instead of analysis they reverted back to the by-now-hackneyed lobster salad quip. The Almanack of the Month (June 1846) extended the quip beyond its already thin breaking point and added a caricature of Turner [#20] for those who failed to get the point.

What was Turner intending? Wallace argues (1988, p. 28), plausibly I think, that Turner intended to portray the unique atmospheric effects of the Antarctic region, which he learned of through reading Hooker’s journal (in December 1840-January 1841) or possibly through the impressions Hooker conveyed to his father, relayed to Turner at the Anthenæum Club. Hooker made the point that the meteorology and light of the Antarctic was distinct from that of the Arctic. And then he writes a passage that could describe the light effects of the second set of whalers:

“The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approaches the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden, yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column; one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward!”

The blubber rendering operation with its resulting plume replaces in the Boiling Blubber canvas the volcano in Hooker’s journal, and with this change the description of atmospheric effects seems to match.

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

21. The Hero of a Hundred Fights by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca. 1800-10, reworked 1847. Tate, London. (BJ 427.)

The final two whaling canvases, however, are about more than lighting effects; they also have a narrative component. The Hurrah! painting (as we noted above) describes the processes of cutting in and baling the case. The painting shows the decapitated head of the sperm whale hoisted above the deck by a kind of windlass. (And it is distinctly a sperm whale as opposed to the right whale in #10.) The body of the whale lays on the side of the boat while the sailors cut at the layers of fat in order to unspool the blubber in one piece as the body rotates in the water (while sharks nip at the bleeding mass, according to Melville).  None of this requires any of the tools developed by the Industrial Revolution that began only a quarter of a century before Turner was born. No did the rendering of the fat in the Boiling Blubber painting. In fact, the entire Ross expedition of 1839-43 was somewhat pre-industrial—it was the last major British exploratory expedition undertaken wholly without steam power. But the second painting fits within Turner’s late depiction of technology, which as Turner saw it late in life involved dangerous blinding fire in the midst of darkness. This is how Turner depicted the casting of the bronze monument to the Duke of Wellington in The Hero of a Hundred Fights [#21], the only painting Turner exhibited in the Royal Academy’s show the following year. He would not submit any work thereafter. But that blasting light was also used by Turner in a series of religious and mythological paintings over the course of the next several years. The most striking of these, perhaps, is Angel Standing in the Sun [#22], which was exhibited at the same Royal Academy show as the second set of whaling pictures. The Angel of the Apocalypse in that painting (Revelations xix:17-18 is noted in the original catalogue) invites the fowl of the air to feast on the great men of earth.  The blinding light has come to signify the Fallacy of Hope itself. Was this perhaps the terror of a man facing his mortality? This peculiar form of Turner chiaroscuro appears around the time of Peace [#7], which commemorated the death of his friend, David Wilkie, an event that profoundly affected Turner.  However that might be, the Boiling Blubber painting is part of this group, pregnant, as it is, with incipient terror, for the ice-pack that is surrounding the ships could easily present mortal danger. Hooker explained how difficult it was to extricate from an ice pack which stranded the expedition from December 1841 to February 1842 (Richardson & Grey, pp. vii-vii). Captain Ross described the immense peril they were in when a storm struck while in the ice-pack in January 1842:

22, Angel standing in the Sun by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 1846. Tate, London. (BJ 425.)

“The storm reached its height at two p.m., when the barometer stood at 28-40 inches, and after that time began to rise. Although we had been forced many miles deeper into the pack, we could not perceive that the swell had at all subsided, our ships still rolling and groaning amidst the heavy fragments of crushing bergs, over which the ocean rolled its mountainous waves, throwing huge masses one upon another, and then again burying them deep beneath its foaming waters, dashing and grinding them together with fearful violence. The awful grandeur of such a scene can neither be imagined nor described, far less can the feelings of those who witnessed it be understood. Each of us secured our hold, waiting the issue with resignation to the will of Him who alone could preserve us, and bring us safely through this extreme danger; watching with breathless anxiety the effect of each succeeding collision, and the vibrations of the tottering masts, expecting every moment to see them give way without our having the power to make an effort to save them.”  (Ross, pp. 169-70.)

As it turned out, both Erebus and Terror had or were experiencing this very event at the time the second set of paintings were being exhibited at the Royal Academy, this time in the Arctic and this time with more formidable technology at their disposal. Both vessels had been refitted with steam engines to search for the illusive northwest passage. They were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845. It was later learned (in 1853, after Turner’s death, and confirmed in 1866) that the vessels were trapped by pack ice and abandoned by the crews, all members of which perished. All reprieve from the Fallacy of Hope is merely temporary.

A Melville Connection?

23. Title page of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale with note in Melville’s handwriting. volume from Houghton Library, Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Image from Melville’s Marginalia.

It is natural nowadays to associate Moby Dick with any reference to whales, sperm whales in particular. Given that Turner’s whaling paintings were shown in 1845 and 1846, and remained in his collection until his death in 1851 shortly after Moby Dick was published in London) and given that Melville visited London in 1849, the question is natural whether Melville ever saw the whaling paintings or any other oil by Turner, and if so, did it affect his writing?

There is the very slightest of documentary evidence. The only reference to Turner in Melville’s hand is a notation on the cover page of his copy of Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which he bought in New York on July 10, 1850, on which he wrote: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.” [#23.] So before Melville finished the book, or even a substantial portion of the work, he knew of Turner’s Whalers. Did he see them? On that there is no direct evidence. His journal of his 1849 trip to England and Europe makes no mention of Turner, although he did visit many art collections. So how did he know about Turner? Well, we know (Sealts, p. 80) that his father-in-law had borrowed the second volume of Modern Painters from the Boston Anthenaeum and it was still outstanding when Melville visited him in July 1848. His friend and literary “agent” Evert Duyckinck had a complete set, and while there is written evidence that Melville freely borrowed books from Duyckinck, there is no evidence that Melville borrowed Ruskin from him.

But he had to know of Turner from somewhere, the marginalia on his Beale book shows that. So what did he know and what influence did it have on him? If you read Moby Dick with Turner’s works in mind, you find all sorts of parallels. I pointed out one a few days back. Harold Beaver in his notes to Penguin’s 1972 edition of Moby Dick identified Whalers (The Whale Ship) [#15] as the painting hanging in Spouter-Inn on which Ishmael expends much energy contemplating in chapter 3. Here is the passage:

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

Ishmael’s impression of the painting is much like contemporary critics’ reaction to the late Turner work, including the whaling pictures. What is particularly striking is the phrase “nameless yeast,” so similar it is unlikely to be a coincident that Ruskin uses the phrase “masses of accumulated yeast” to describe the “creamy foam” in Turner’s Snow Storm [#6], which is another plausible inspiration for the Spouter-Inn painting. (MP I:380-81.) But the problem comes when Ishmael finally resolves (at least for hiself) the import of the painting:

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The image, therefore, is more like the frontispiece of Beale’s book [#12] than any of Turner’s work. Moreover, what made the painting obscure, or indistinct and mysterious (as Ruskin refers to Turner’s work), is the accumulated smoke and grease of the inn, the effort of the artist. Finally, although Melville visited the National Gallery while in London in 1849, Snow Storm and the whaling paintings were in Turner’s gallery, which Melville makes no mention of in his journal, as Wallace points out (1991, p. 57).  On the other hand, Ruskin’s own writing provides more than enough basis for Turner’s imagined painting (which after all is not described with any degree of detail or analysis), and Ruskin’s footnote’s reference to Shakespeare’s “yesty waves” was itself enough to catch Melville’s attention, given his then current obsession with Shakespeare.

Still if you trace Melville’s work from Typee onward, you get the sense of a writer whose visual sense has greatly improved. So could any conclusions be drawn if someone systematically compared the writer and artist over time? Would any connections turn up?

24. Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne by J.M.W. Turner. Watercolor on paper. 1845. Tate, London. From the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks. (Turner Bequest CCCLVII 12.)

Fortunately Robert K. Wallace made the attempt, and he did so meticulously in Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992). Wallace is perhaps uniquely able to ferret out relations between art forms, having previously written studies on the relations between Jane Austen and Mozart and Emily Brontë. (I have read neither of these books; I merely note their existence and Wallace’s previous attempts to relate literature to other art forms.) He also, as demonstrated by his 1988 article  on the Antarctic source for Turner’s latter two whaling pictures showed that he has a talent for teasing out sources by mapping out possible relationships, both historical and literary. If anything, however, that piece also showed that he sometimes built possibility upon possibility to draw conclusions that go well beyond what the evidence supported and often what seemed plausible. His suggestions of the many layers of meaning to “Fish” in the title to the third whaler [#18], for example, seemed literary sleight of hand. It is too convoluted to repeat here, but suffice it to say: If Turner’s layered his title with so many different and interlocking meanings, he was a greater literary punster than James Joyce, nearly a century before Finnegans Wake. Another example from the article involves his “reading” of a watercolor sketch given the name Dark Clouds over the Sea, possibly near Boulogne [#24]. Is the dark mass on the horizon a whale, rather than a vessel’s bow? If so, Wallace speculates that Turner saw a whale, and it stimulated his interest in painting the whaling pictures. But the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbooks probably date from after the 1845 Royal Academy show (Hokanson, p. 46 n.23), and so could not have been one of the inspirations. That speculation might have been enough for most scholars but Wallace sees a whale’s skeleton in the clouds and a weasel’s skull (!) attached to it. Why so? Well, it comports with the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius in Hamlet III:ii:368-73:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

What this speculation suggests is that Wallace is less interested in sources as bases for inspiration for a particular artist than sources as inspiration for critical comparisons. In other words, Wallace is seeking not what influenced an artist but rather what might have influenced him, evidently believing that the possibility is enough to enhance our understanding of the artist’s work. And that is how he proceeds in his very large (664 page) book.

On page 575 Wallace sets out the conclusion that Turner play the role of “Melville’s spiritual father” and that Moby Dick could not have been written “without England’s greatest modern painter in his mind’s eye.” This is a breathtaking conclusion, and unless the terms “spiritual” and “mind’s” mean to contradict what they modify (much like the legal term “constructive” does), there is simply nothing offeried in the way of proof for those propositions. After an introductory tour of Turner’s life and aesthetics, which he reduces to the term “indistinct,” relying heavily on Ruskin’s quote—”We never see anything clearly,” he proceeds to give a biography and then chronological tour of Melville’s work, closely keyed to Turner’s works that Melville had engravings of. These mainly come from the collection of the Berkshire Anthenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and all but one or two are known to have been acquired by Melville well after he wrote Moby Dick. Wallace scrutinizes the first five novels with an eye to anything Turnerian, and compares passages of Melville to work of Turner’s that Melville could not have seen at the time he wrote them. Before getting to Moby Dick, Wallace retraces Melville’s 1849 stay in London, and piles up the possibilities of what he could have discussed with those he met. He comes to the conclusion that Melville may have seen engravings of Turner and might have had in-depth conversations about Turner with others. But the fact is, there is no proof of any of this. When he delves into Moby Dick there is much imaginative legerdemain drawing connections between passages and plot points and Turner paintings. It is the kind of writing that would merit extreme praise in a freshman humanities seminar (“Gogol’s treatment of the father-son relationship is much like Homer’s in the Iliad …”). It is mostly interesting because it reveals how Wallace processed the two artists whom he clearly admires. It reminded me of the works of Peter Conrad. In other words, it is neither scholarship in any traditional sense nor literary-artistic criticism. Maybe it is postmodern criticism, a form in which the works are only useful in showing the connections which a particular reader-viewer can make in his mind.

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

25. Figures on a Beach by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on millboard. ca. 1840-45. Tate, London. Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Turner Bequest M 1974 .

After this detailed tour of fanciful connections, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wallace makes too much of Turner’s influence, which could only have been indirect in any case. He oversells the premise by looking to Turner to the exclusion of other, more direct influences on Melville. But more importantly, I think he proceeds on incorrect assumption about the nature of Melville’s aesthetic in Moby Dick. Wallace, as I said, makes the case that Turner’s approach was to render the visual world “indistinct” in order to emphasize the sublime and possibly metaphysical realms. He relies on Ruskin for this, but Ruskin does not go as far as Wallace does. His discussion of “mystery” is really only about atmospheric perspective, in the paintings up to the mid-1830s. And Ruskin’s point is that Turner is rendering physical reality true to how we actually see it (because the atmosphere, depending on moisture content, makes distant objects more or less distinct compared to closer objects). His discussion on this point had nothing to do with the more abstracting effects of light and atmosphere and darkness that Turner explored in the last decade of his life. In fact, Ruskin expressly dismisses these later Turner works, including the whaling paintings. But whatever one makes of the merits of describing Turner’s artistic view as intended obscurity, that is decidedly not the approach of Melville in Moby Dick.

The narrator, Ishmael, tries in every way he can to explain everything. From his reasons for undertaking the voyage, appealing to the reader’s knowledge of psychology (chapter 1), to the variety of whales and how they relate to each other (chapter 32), the nature (including financing) of the industry, the obtaining and processing of the oil from chase to cleanup, to the anatomy of whales and to the extent known their behavior, social and otherwise. Ishmael goes to great length to explain things in meticulous detail and with precise language. His description of the whales’ heads (chapters 74 and 75), their skeleton (chapter 103) and fossils (chapter 104) owe considerably more to the style of Charles Darwin than to anything Turner ever painted. When he gives a list of the pictorial representations of whales that he has seen, he gives a comprehensive list (and Turner is not among them) and he then discusses their accuracy (chapters 56 and 57). Even when he tells a story, a fish story so to speak, for example the “Town-Ho’s Story” (chapter 54), he offers to swear an affidavit before a priest to its veracity. There is no attempt to pare down, to reduce to the minimum (as in Turner’s late oils on paper, e.g.Figures on a Beach, [#25]). Even as Ishmael grows to comprehend that physical reality seems to suggest metaphysical truths, Ishmael tries to explain each phenomenon as he understands it. There is no attempt to obscure anything. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the ultimate question: Is the universe run randomly or is there a malicious order behind it all? There may be no answer, but the question could not be clearer, and the evidence is laid before the reader much as a lawyer would before a jury.

Even with the laser-like focus on Turner that Wallace seems to have, it is nonetheless peculiar to suggest that Turner supplied Melville with the moral/metaphysical quest that is the heart of the story; Melville’s Calvinist mother was vastly more influential, let alone philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and anti-philosophers (like Carlyle). And what could Turner teach about the sea, about how it looked and the existential dread it represented? Turner never was on the deep ocean, even overnight. Could Turner’s canvases given any insight into the terror of Pip or even the visual aspect of the South Seas or night on the forecastle? Melville had experienced those things, and Turner had not. At best Turner learned of such things second hand, and yet, according to Wallace, he was supposed to have be “indispensable” to Melville, who actually experienced those things but only knew of Turner by repute or interpretation of others (who probably had only conventional opinions). And finally, the character of Ahab, and especially his final diatribe (chapter 132: “The Symphony”), are both clearly Shakespearian, and Melville in his correspondence was clear on how fundamental he saw Shakespeare’s works, and yet said nothing about Turner. The fact is that if Turner contributed to Melville’s thought process at all, it was not in essential ways.

So why do so many scholars and others (even casual viewers of Turner and museum curators) link the too? The answer is that maritime drama must draw on the same elements, whether in a story or a picture (and music too probably). When the two draw on these elements in their own way, we connect them, especially because they were contemporaries and their wolrd view was necessarily similar, even though they were innovative in their own fields. Turner would be the artist you would use to illustrate Moby Dick because he was attempting to break out of the confinement of Romanticism much as Melville was. If we were to listen carefuly to Berlioz or Wagner in connection with Moby Dick we would likely find similarities there as well, but less so since neither wrote expressly “maritime” dramatic music (except for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman). We are constitutionally designed to see patterns and trace connections; it’s part of our social equipment. Scholars develop these innate skills in peculiar ways and sometimes beyond what is useful, especially in these days when “inter-disciplinary” generates cachet in a way that analysis of the text itself does not.

None of this, however, should discourage you from seeing the canvases at the Met, before three of them are returned to the Tate and the story told by Turner (not an imagined one by Melville), in the manner of his groundbreaking final phase (which needs no connection with others, even one as significant as Melville), can not longer be seen in the way Turner originally conceived it.

Notes

1Ruskin tells the story of being startled on coming across a reference to Turner as a sea painter as early as 1832. (Dialecta, pp. 1-2. See n.* on p. 1). [Return to text.]

2Ruskin revised his opinion in Modern Paintings, describing the “most hopeless, desolate, uncontrasted greys …” as “of the very finest pieces of colour that have come from his hand.” And extolling the work as “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion,  mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner. Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are …” (MP I:381-82). [Return to text.]

3G.F. Waagen, Works of Art and Artists in England. vol 2 (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 151, quoted by Ruskin in MP IV: 68. [Return to text.]

4Ruskin’s only reaction to the first two whaling paintings was: “Of the [Royal Academy] exhibition of 1845, I have only seen a small Venice, (still I believe in the artist’s possession,) and the two whaling subjects. … The Venice is a second-rate work, and the two others altogether unworthy of him.” (MP I:138.) [Return to text.]

5If you forgot the difference between the two types of whales, Melville meticulously explains the anatomy of both in Chapters 74 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head”) and 75 (“The Right Whale’s Head”) of Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, Ishmael shows some disdain for the fishing of right whales. [Return to text.]

6The full title of what is now commonly referred to as The Voyage of the Beagle was Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1840). [Return to text.]

7Turner provided page citations to Beale for the source of the two paintings exhibited in 1845, as we will see below. Melville purchased Beale on July 10, 1850 (Sealts, p. 40), a year and a half before Moby Dick was published. [Return to text.]

8In addition to Wreckers Bicknell bought five other paintings from Turner in one transaction in March 1844: Calder Bridge, Cumberland (1810) (BJ 106); Port Ruysdael (1827) (BJ 237), Palestrina—Composition (1828) (BJ 295), The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein) and Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’ (1835) (BJ 361) (although Turner did not allow delivery until 1845), and probably Ivy Bridge Mill, Devonshire (1812) (JB 122). Bicknell bought two others in 1844: Helvoetslus—the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea (1832) (JB 345); Van Goyen looking out for a Subject (1833) (BJ 350). Before 1844 Bicknell purchased Giudecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (1841) (BJ 391) at the Royal Academy show in 1841, and Campo Santo, Venice (1842) (BJ 397) at the Royal Academy show in 1842. After their estrangement in 1845, Bicknell continued to purchase Turner works but not directly from Turner: In 1851 he bought two paintings at a Christies sale: Grand Junction Canal at Southall Mall (1810) (BJ 101) and Saltash with Water Ferry (1812) (BJ 121). In 1865 Bicknell probably bought Off the Nore: Wind and Water (BJ 476) from a lot at a Christie’s sale. [Return to text.]

9“One point … it is incumbent upon me to notice, being no question of art but of material. … No picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted. The Walhalla cracked before it had been eight days in the Academy rooms; the vermilions frequently lose lustre long before the exhibition is over; and when all the colors begin to get hard a year or two after the picture is painted, a painful deadness and opacity comes over them, the whites especially becoming lifeless, and many of the warmer passages settling into a hard valueless brown, even if the paint remains perfectly firm, which is far from being always the case. … It is true that the damage makes no further progress after the first year or two, and that even in its altered state the picture is always valuable and records its intention; but it is bitterly to be regretted that so great a painter should not leave a single work by which in succeeding ages he might be estimated. The fact of his using means so imperfect, together with that of his utter neglect of the pictures in his own gallery, are a phenomenon in human mind which appears to me utterly inexplicable; and both are without excuse.” (MP I:136 n.*.)  [Return to text.]

10According to Ruskin’s father (in a letter to Ruskin in September 1845) the other factor leading to the estrangement involved the engraving of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’: “[Bicknell] gave [Turner] 120 Gs for loan of Tameraire to engrave & Turner beside demands 50 proof. Bicknell resists and sends 8.” (JB 377.) [Return to text.]

11That William Jackson Hooker was a member of the Anthenæum Club, see Joseph Dalton Hooker, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of Sir William Jackson Hooker, K.H., D.C.L. Oxon., F.R.S., F.L.S., Etc.: Late Director of the Royal Gardens of Kew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [digital reproduction of original 1903 text]), p. lxxxvi. [Return to text.]

Sources

Beale, Thomas, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. To which is Added a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage (London: John van Voorst, 1839) (online at Google Books and Archive.org).

Brown, David Blayney, Turner in the Tate Collection (London: Tate Publishing, 2002).

Butlin, Martin and Joll, Evelyn, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol . 1 (2d ed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1984). [“BJ ___” refer to the catalogue number of the work in Butlin and Joll’s first volume, not the page number or the plate number of the work in volume 2.]

Gowing, Lawrence, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art [1968]).

Grigsby, “Patina, Painting and Portentous Somethings,” Representations vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 140-44 (Spring 2002).

Hamilton, James, Turner: The Late Seascapes (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, c2003).

Hermann, Luke, “Turner and the Sea,” Turner Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-18 (Summer 1981).

Hokanson, Alison, “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 4 (Spring 2016).

Joll, Evelyn, Butlin, Martin and Hermann, Luke (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (specifically the articles on “Bicknell, Elhanan,” “Ruskin, John,” “Shakespeare, William,” and “Whaling”).

Mazis, Glen A., “‘Modern Depths,’ Painting, and the Novel: Turner, Melville, and the Interstices,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 70, no. 1/2, pp. 121-44 (Spring/Summer 1987).

Reynolds, Graham, “Turner”s Late Sky Studies,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 17-21 (New ork: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Richardson, John and Gray, John Edward, The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, under the Command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, during the years 1839 to 1843. By authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, vol. I: Mammalia, Birds (London: E.W. Janson, 1844) (with “Summary of the Voyage” by Joseph Dalton Hooker (pp. iii-vii) (online at Archive.org).

Riding, Christine, Turner & the Sea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

Ross, James Clark, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-43, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1847) (online at Archive.org).

Ruskin, John, Dilecta: Correspondence, Diary Notes, and Extracts from Books Illustrating Præterita. (Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1886) (online at Hathi Trust).

Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, vols. I & IV (New York: John Wiley & Sons: 1886) (from Works of John Ruskin, “Popular Edition”) (a similar (unattributed) version, with the same pagination, is online at Project Gutenberg: References here are to  Volume 1 and Volume 4).  

Salander, Lawrence B., “Turner’s Necessity,” Exploring Late Turner, pp. 13-15 (New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, c1999).

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., Melville’s Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed (Madison: Universioty of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

Sutton, C.W., “Bicknell, Elhanan,” Dictionary of National  Biography ed. Leslie Stephen, vol. 5, pp. 9-10 (New York: Macmillen & Co., 1886) (online at Google Books).

Wallace, Robert K., “The Antarctic Sources for Turner’s 1846 Whaling Oils,” Turner Studies, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 20-31 (Summer 1988).

Wallace, Robert K., “Bulkington, J.M.W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore,'” Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts ed. Christopher Sten (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), pp. 55-76.

Wallace, Robert K., Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, c1992).

Warrell, Ian, Turner’s Sketchbooks (London: Tate Publishing, 2014).

Wilton, Andrew, Turner and the Sublime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Ziff, Jerrold, “John Langhorne and Turner’s ‘Fallacies of Hope,'” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 27 (1964), pp. 340-342.

A Provenance Tale More Intriguing than the Forgery

You may remember the excitement, then controversy, when Harvard Divinity Professor Karen L. King (now holder of the Hollis chair, the oldest endowed chair in the country), announced in 2012 (in Rome, the belly of Christianity) the existence of what she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The “gospel” she proffered was a papyrus with eight broken lines of Coptic script on one side and unrecoverable text on the other. The most prominently quoted words were “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife …'” Professor King argued from this scrap that it reflected a second century Greek original gnostic gospel that assumed an equal role for women in the teachings of Jesus.  Modern high tech analysis of the papyrus and ink discovered no reason to deny a 4th century origin of the manuscript. But philological problems existed (the duplication of a typo found in a Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas) made others doubt the document’s authenticity.

The controversy seems to have ended, with the conclusion that the work is a forgery, by the shoe leather provenance detective work of journalist Ariel Sabar, reported in the July/August Atlantic. Sabar used a few ambiguous clues to track down the person who gave the papyrus to Professor King, and from that he unravelled a curious tale of pure con and its strange motivation. The detective work is interesting in itself, but the story that results, involves an Egyptology department in a prominent German university, the operation (and theft from) a Stasi museum in (formerly East) Germany, the bankruptcy of an auto parts company Florida and a couple who posted pornographic videos of “gangbang” with “America’s #1 Slut Wife” on the internet (as well as the porn star who claims to channel angelic messages). If you agree with Dan Brown that sex, intrigue and the gospel has visceral appeal, you really should read the article, entitled “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.” It has even shaken Professor King’s belief in the authenticity of the document, although she still maintains some faith, perhaps even a bit bigger than a mustard seed.

You needn’t be interested in Christian Gnosticism or its modern defenders to be reminded of the power of confirmation bias, on which this forgery played. And you certainly don’t need to know anything about it to be intrigued by the bizarre path this particular forgery took.

Luck be a Wingnut Lady

Fans of up-and-coming loud, unhinged, rightwing know-nothings will know Michele Fiore. She is something of a favorite here. We highlighted her Christmas Facebook greeting which featured her entire extended family from the cradle to the grave all packing. Her congressional campaign “sponsored” the Nevada Republican presidential caucus this year, in an innovative use of privatization to attempt undue influence. And who could forget her lyrical, if untethered to reality, musings all night as one of the voices we heard that memorable last night stand of the four “freedom fighters” who tried, but failed, to prevent a federal occupation of the Malheur bird sanctuary? Surely this resume entitled her to hope to move on from her current position in the Nevada state legislature where she is reviled so much she was stripped of her chairmanship of the tax committee, largely because her failure to pay $1 million in federal taxes. (She was quite right to explain that the Republican state legislature was engaging in a “war” against true conservatives. After all, isn’t it a Republican mantra that paying federal taxes only feeds the beast? Wasn’t it her patriot, nay conservative, duty to pay as little as she could get away with?)

Well, as luck would have it her federal congressman was leaving his seat to run for Senate. So she rolled the dice in the Republican primary for the Third Congressional District of Nevada, the area just south of Las Vegas. But in yesterday’s voting she came up snake eyes. Danny Takenian, son of famed UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian (“Tark the Shark”), won the nomination with 31.97% of the vote, and Fiore came in third with 18.21%. This probably does not mean Michele lacks a secure future, following the footsteps Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle and the many other members of the deep bench of reactionary entertainers. After all, if the voters get sick of her permanently, she will always have Fox News or one of the Right Wing not-for-profit “education” organizations. What happened yesterday may simply mean that in Republican politics in this small desert area near Las Vegas a shark will trump a loon.

Once again

Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used in the Sandy Hook School shooting, displayed by Connecticut State Police officer in 2013.

Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used in the Sandy Hook School shooting, displayed by Connecticut State Police officer in 2013.

In 2004 the Federal Assault Rifle Ban (part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994) was allowed to expire. (Its original enactment in 1994, supported by Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan among others, included a sunset provision effective in 10 years.) The bill was in response, at least in part, to the shooting of 34 children in Stockton, California, in 1989.

When in 2004  a bill to shield gun manufacturers from liability was amended to allow the assault rifle ban to be reimposed, the bill was defeated in the Senate 90-8. The vote came after a direct order texted by Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, to the Senators he had bought and paid for. (Many Senators needed the instruction being unaware which their masters wanted more: limitation of liability or ability to sell military weapons on the open market.) He chortled about his victory to the Times; you can easily imagine him snorting with delight as he detailed the DNC chair’s defeat on the issue. See Stolberg, Sheryl Gay, “Senate Leaders Scuttle Gun Bill Over Changes,” New York Times, March 3, 2004, p. A1, A20. The arms makers got their special immunity from liability claims the next year in the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. But the assault rifle ban has never been re-enacted.

In the meanwhile, the following massacres have been among those in which a AR-15 style rifle was employed:

The Aurora, Colorado movie shooting: 12 killed; 58 wounded.

The shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013: 26 killed; 2 injured.

And again, yesterday in Orlando: 50 killed; 53 wounded.

According to Christopher Ingraham in today’s Boston Globe: “In the past 10 years, assault-style rifles have been used in 14 public mass shootings. Half of those shootings have occurred since last June.”

Why does the NRA (and its full time employees who moonlight as representatives in Congress) so vigorously defend the assault rifle? Not because it’s needed in quail hunting. Nor is it particularly useful (because hard to handle in close quarters) in defending against a burglar. The only use for a weapon designed for military assaults is military assaults. So why are civilians allowed to buy them with nary a question asked? The fact is: it is the largest and fastest growing segment of gun sales. In other words, Death Makes a Profit. And Profits Buy our Congress.

Unless Congress is capable of prohibiting military weapons from being part of normal commerce in this country (indeed, as it now stands, with less regulation than automobile or home ownership), then this country is no longer a rational, representative democracy. It will be nothing more than a cynical, naked plutocracy. And our public servants will have as their only function to express their prayers and thoughts for the victims’ families, because they are too craven to do a simple thing, one that had been done before, to prevent the carnage.

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