An anachronistic anniversary

What is the history of the English word ‘anachronism’? This is the sort of question that (barring the difference of language) might well have engaged the attention of the diners who contribute to Plutarch’s Table-Talk or Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. In 2017, it seems more appropriate to raise this question in a web post rather than at a dinner party. And this post will itself seek to commemorate (just in time) a hitherto unheralded anniversary.

Portrait of John Hales (1584–1656)
John Hales (1584–1656), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, whose 1617 sermon contains the earliest documented use of the term ‘anachronism’ in English.

In a 2009 article ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, a scholar of comparative literature, Joseph Luzzi, suggested that the word ‘anachronism’ was ‘first used in English in 1669’, a century after it had first appeared in Italian. Deriving the word from ‘a fusion of the Greek compound meaning “late in time”’, and so from ‘the oldest of Western high-cultural idioms’, Luzzi went on to suggest that the word ‘was actually created millennia after that culture had disappeared’: ‘the term’s etymology stands both as an ironic gloss on its semantic connotations and an allegory for its thematic claims.’ In other words, Luzzi is commenting on the fact that a classically derived word for belatedness was itself surprisingly late to appear on the scene (though scarcely, pace Luzzi, ‘millennia’ after the disappearance of ancient Greek culture). Luzzi’s ironic and allegorical reading of the etymology can be seen as a literal instance of a theme central to our project: he invokes the supposed history of the term ‘anachronism’ as a way of separating off antiquity from its aftermath. A compelling counter-claim would be that that Greek culture whose disappearance Luzzi misdates has never disappeared at all.

While Luzzi does not cite a source for his claim that ‘anachronism’ began in 1669, he presumably based that claim on the Oxford English Dictionary, where an entry for 1669 is indeed cited ‒ ‘This error sprang from Anachronisme, and confusion of Histories’ ‒ from the puritan Theophilus Gale’s work The Court of Gentiles (sub-title: A discourse touching the original of human literature, both philologie and philosophie, from the Scriptures and Jewish church). The problem is that this is the second entry the OED cites under ‘anachronism’. Its claim to priority is outdone by a quote from a chronological work by John Gregory (1609-1646), a chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Dating the birth of Christ ‘Anno Mundi 3949, Anno Period. Jul. 4713, Olympiad 197, and 748 of Nabonassar’, Gregory explained that ‘this Connexion of things is called Synchronism’ while ‘an error committed herein is called Anachronism: and either saith too much, and that is a Prochronism; or too little, and that is a Metachronism’. This passage is cited from Gregory’s 1649 Posthuma, and so dated ‘a[i.e. ante]1646’, the year of his death.
If one follows the OED entry, the intellectual historian Peter Burke, author of more than one treatment of the Renaissance sense of anachronism, seems to be making a better stab of it when he writes that it was ‘around 1650 that the term ‘anachronism’ (anachronismus, anacronismo, anachronism) began to come into use in Latin, Italian, French and English’ ‒ at least as far as the English term is concerned (Luzzi is right that the word entered Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century; instances of Latin anachronismus are earlier still). The influence of the OED citation of John Gregory is clear in the definition Burke offers of the word at its first appearance: ‘a mistake made in the course of “synchronism”, in other words the attempt to translate from one chronological system into another.’ Burke is here concerned to differentiate this early technical sense from the ‘sense of anachronism’ which is his main concern, namely an idea of historical difference. He concludes that ‘to speak of the sense of anachronism of Mantegna or Erasmus is … literally speaking, anachronistic’.

Burke’s conclusion is correct as far as the meaning of ‘anachronism’ itself is concerned ‒ though it is important to note that the concept of historical change could be expressed before the word ‘anachronism’ came to be applied to it. Implicit in his claim about the history of the term, however, is an ideological construction of space. Behind the Latin anachronismus lurks the Greek noun anachronismos, formed from the verb anachronizō, first attested around AD 200. The stem of ‘anachronism’ had been in existence for more than a millennium when Mantegna and Erasmus were alive, then, but only in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It was during Mantegna’s lifetime (c. 1431‒1506), however, that manuscripts containing the word were first transported to Italy, and during Erasmus’ (1466‒1536) that those manuscripts were first published. Burke’s claim about the anachronism of speaking of anachronism is as much a claim about where the word was used as it is about when or how.

The problem with Burke’s reliance on the OED entry for ‘anachronism’ is that that entry itself commits an anachronism. The search facilities provided by the online OED throw up an earlier appearance of the word under ‘hysterosis’ in William Lisle’s 1623 edition with translation of A Saxon treatise concerning the Old and New Testament, written by a monk called Aelfricus. Lisle took a phrase used by Aelfricus, ‘Lingua Britannica’, to be a reference to old English, ‘by Hysterosis or Anachronisme (a figure much used in Historie, yea even in the Bible)’. Here the word is not used in the chronological sense of a breach of synchronism but as a term of literary criticism ‒ the sense in which it is most commonly used in Byzantine Greek.

As the OED advances alphabetically, it reveals a still earlier usage of ‘anachronism’, again as a literary figure. In a sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church in Oxford in Easter week, 1617, John Hales, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed the Biblical text ‘Which the vnlearned and vnstable wrest, as they doe the other Scriptures, vnto their owne destruction’ (2 Peter 3.16). His aim was to warn against unwarranted projections of Calvinist doctrines onto obscure Biblical passages:

The Iewish Rabbines in their Comments on Scripture so oft as they met with hard and intricate texts, out of which they could not wrest themselues, were wont to shut vp their discourse with this, Elias cum venerit, solvet dubia: Elias shall answer this doubt when he comes. Not the Iewes only, but the learned Christians of all ages haue found many things in Scripture which yet expect Elias. For besides those texts of Scriptures, which by reason of the hidden treasures of wisdome, and depth of sense & mysterie laid vp in them, are not yet conceau’d, there are in Scripture of things that are ὕστερα πρότερα [‘later earlier’], seemingly confus’d, ἐναντιοφανῆ [‘opposite-seeming’], carrying semblance of contrarietie, anachronismes, metachronismes, and the like, which bring infinite obscuritie to the text: there are I say in Scripture more of them, then in any writing that I knowe secular or divine.

Why the mistake in the OED entry for ‘anachronism’? The misleading date it gives for the first appearance of the word could, at a pinch, be taken as a subtle in-joke, the entry for ‘metachronism’ metachronically revealing an anachronism in the entry for ‘anachronism’. But it is easy enough to understand why the editors of the original OED (or rather: A new English dictionary on historical principles), despite their formidable filing systems, failed to pick up these earlier usages; and the dictionary itself appeared in fascicles over the course of 44 years, with the entries for ‘anachronism’, ‘hysterosis’, and ‘metachronism’ first appearing in 1884, 1899, and 1906. Those editors are rather to be admired for their coverage: using digital resources such as Early English Books Online I can find no earlier instance of the word in English.

Our anniversary-conscious age has made much of Luther and Lenin this year. The first recorded use of ‘anachronism’ in English is not quite in the same league as the Reformation or the Russian Revolution. But it is still worth remembering that sermon delivered in Oxford a century after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, three hundred years before Lenin travelled by train to the Finland station. Even if this anniversary may itself one day be shown to be an anachronism …

References

  • Peter Burke, ‘The sense of anachronism from Petrarch to Poussin’, in C. Humphrey and W. M. Ormrod, eds, Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, 2001), 157-74.
  • Joseph Luzzi, ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, Comparative Literature 61 (2009), 69-84.

Anachronism and Antiquity: Configuring Temporalities in Ancient Literature and Scholarship

The Anachronism and Antiquity team is delighted to announce ‘Anachronism and Antiquity: Configuring Temporalities in Ancient Literature and Scholarship’, a conference to be held at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, on March 23-24, 2018. Speakers and their titles are:

  • Carol Atack, St Hugh’s College, Oxford, ‘Plato’s Queer Time: Dialogic Moments in the Life and Death of Socrates’
  • Emily Greenwood, Yale University, ‘Reading Across Time: Thucydides’ History as Literature of Witness’
  • Constanze Güthenke, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, ‘“For Time is / nothing if not amenable” – Exemplarity, Time, Reception’
  • Brooke Holmes, Princeton University, ‘The Temporal Relation: Flow, Fold, Kairos
  • K. Scarlett Kingsley, Agnes Scott College, ‘Euripides’ Scholiasts: Blending Temporalities Heroic and Present’
  • Ellen O’Gorman, University of Bristol, ‘Reception and Recovery: Rancière’s Authentic Plebeian Voice’
  • Mark Payne, University of Chicago, ‘The Future in the Past: Hesiod and Speculative Fiction’
  • Tom Phillips, Merton College, Oxford, ‘Shelley’s Plastic Verse: the “Hymn to Mercury”’
  • Barnaby Taylor, Exeter College, Oxford, ‘Archaism and Anachronism in Lucretius’

The conference will run all day Friday and Saturday morning, ending with lunch on Saturday. There is no charge for registration but we ask that people register so that we can have an accurate account for meals. If you are interested in attending or have any questions, please email John Marincola at jmarinco@fsu.edu.

We’ll add more details about the conference programme to our Events page as they become available

Anachronism and Antiquity is a Leverhulme Trust-funded project, running from 2016 to 2019, is undertaking the first systematic study of the concept of anachronism in Greco-Roman antiquity and of the role played by the idea of anachronism in the formation of the concept of antiquity itself. The project, led by Professor Tim Rood and Professor John Marincola, with research associates Dr Tom Phillips and Dr Carol Atack, looks at both classical and modern material, pairing close analysis of surviving literary and material evidence from classical antiquity with detailed study of the post-classical term ‘anachronism’, and with modern theoretical writings that link the notion of anachronism with the conceptualization of antiquity.

Thermopylae business: exemplarity and historicity

‘A new age is begun.  An age of great deeds.  An age of reason.  An age of justice.  An age of law.  And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.’

‘We’re with you, sir, to the death.’

‘I didn’t ask.  Leave democracy to the Athenians, boy.’

The heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae can be taken as exemplary of exemplarity itself. No one can know what the men said to themselves the night before they met their end (the knowing allusion to the fame of their sacrifice quoted above is from 300, Frank Miller’s graphic re-telling of the Thermopylae story). But the famous Thermopylae epitaph ‒ ‘Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obeying their laws’ ‒ imagines them speaking from beyond the grave, establishing themselves as an example to the Spartans at home and by implication to all who come across their message, starting with the ‘stranger’ who is to convey it to Sparta.

David's Leonidas at Thermopylae
Leonidas at Thermopylae, Jacques-Louis David, 1814, Louvre, Paris.

The Thermopylae paradigm was often picked up in antiquity. In an excerpt from his Annals that is quoted by Aulus Gellius, Cato the Elder set the self-sacrifice of a Roman tribune in the First Punic War alongside the death of the Spartan king Leonidas (F76 FRHist) ‒ in full consciousness that he would go on to recount his own (supposedly decisive) role in a later battle at Thermopylae, the Roman defeat of Antiochus III in 192 BC. While Thermopylae is naturally enough absent from the list of Persian War battles on which the Athenians’ own patriotic rhetoric was fixated, it had its place alongside Marathon and Salamis in the rhetorical schools of the early Roman empire: Lucian’s satire An Instructor in Rhetoric includes the advice that the would-be declaimer should ‘cap everything with references to Marathon and Cynegeirus, without which you cannot succeed at all … Let Xerxes flee and Leonidas receive admiration’ (41.18).

The spell of the example of the 300 Spartans has remained strong in the last two centuries. Thermopylae was invoked by Goering in a radio appeal in January 1943 to the German Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad. It was also applied to many conflicts in the US expansion across North America, from the Alamo to the war against Mexico (‘they will consecrate their camp as an American Thermopylæ’) and Custer at Little Bighorn. More expansively, an American journalist at the time of the Mexican War used the ancient battle to cap an encomium of the United States as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the followers of liberty throughout the civilized world’: ‘This is, indeed, the world’s Thermopylæ’ (New York Herald, 1845). Knowingly or not, this writer was using an image of British self-promotion during the war against Napoleon (the phrase ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ is found in an 1803 sermon by Robert Hall and the 1814 poem Greece by William Haygarth).

The power of exemplarity is often thought to be based on the notion of a stable human nature ‒ a notion that tells against sensitivity to historical change and a sense of anachronism. Yet the exemplary power of the story of Thermopylae has often been unsettled by the interplay of past and present. Thucydides (4.36.3) alluded to Thermopylae precisely to show up the failure of the Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria to match the example set by their forebears two generations earlier. In similar vein Mary Boykin Chestnut, wife of a confederate general in the American Civil War, referred to the retreat of the confederate army before Sherman as a failure to do ‘Thermopylae business’. Alternatively the present can trump the past: the Texan boast ‘Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none’ glorifies the complete destruction of the defenders while the expression ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ holds out the promise of ultimate victory in a more global conflict than the Greco-Persian wars.

To move to the twentieth century, Anthony Beevor’s classic Stalingrad evokes from first-hand evidence the disillusion felt by the Germans within the city as a heroic paradigm was thrust upon them by a distant leader with no grasp of their suffering. And in the aftermath of the war a sense of the fragmentation of ancient exemplarity was conveyed by Heinrich Boll in his 1950 short story Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa … Boll’s story tells of a severely wounded young German soldier who comes to realise that he is back in his old school as he sees the words (Schiller’s translation of the Thermopylae epitaph, now partly erased) that he himself had written on the blackboard just three months earlier. Like many modern receptions of ancient exemplarity, Boll offers a thoughtful interrogation of concepts of historical distance and proximity. That sort of interrogation can even be seen in rather blunter form in Frank Miller’s ‘leave democracy to the Athenians’: is that a distancing of Spartan militarism and masculinity ‒ or a hint that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be? However it is read, it is a message that is now subject to its own historicization, in the wake of the Iraq War, the subsequent film based on Miller’s comic, and the rise of Trumpism.

In antiquity, the paradigmatic use of Thermopylae and of the other Persian Wars battles underwent a major change after the Roman conquest of Greece. We have already noted that Leonidas’ example was cited by Cato, himself a participant in that conquest; on one reading, Cato’s point in juxtaposing Roman and Spartan heroism was to hint that the now conquered Greeks were excessively given to self-praise. From the Greek perspective, reflections on the changes made by the Roman conquest can be found in Plutarch’s essay Precepts of Statesmanship. Plutarch advises that the great themes of the Persian Wars ‒ ‘Marathon, the Eurymedon, Plataea, and all the other examples which make the common folk vainly to swell with pride’ ‒ should be left to ‘the schools of the sophists’. He does nonetheless recuperate for present use some seemingly less glamorous deeds by the Greeks of old: the statesman can still ‘mould and correct the characters of our contemporaries’ by recounting events such as the amnesty at Athens after the downfall of the Thirty Tyrants (814a-c).

The pax Romana did not hold, and with its passing came the possibility of new uses of the old exempla. A spectacular illustration of the new possibilities has recently re-surfaced with the discovery in palimpsest in a manuscript in Vienna of some excerpts from the third-century AD historian Dexippus (subject already of my previous post, Oft of one wide expanse had I been told). It was already known that Dexippus told of the contemporary Gothic incursions that marked the end of the Roman peace. The new discovery has revealed a previously unsuspected battle against the Goths at Thermopylae ‒ for Dexippus, inspiration for an oration in the classic historiographical style: ‘For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochus, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command’ (translated Mallan and Davenport). For the Greeks, it seems, a new age had begun, and it was once more time for Thermopylae business.

References

C. Mallan and C. Davenport, ‘Dexippus and the Gothic Invasions: Interpreting the New Vienna Fragment (Codex Vindobonensis Hist. gr. 73, ff. 192v–193r)’, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 203–26.

Alma-Tadema: antiquity at home in the nineteenth century

A group of women look down to the sea from a stone parapet. The vivid blue of the sea and the clear bright light suggest a warm location – perhaps the Amalfi Coast, rather than the promenade in an English or Dutch sea-side resort. Their costume, and perhaps the ship glimpsed arriving below, suggest the world of ancient Rome, as does the marble parapet on which they lean; but beyond the antiquity suggested by the statuary and their costumes, this elegant group could be anywhere in time or space. This scene, Coign of Vantage (1895) is one version of a recurring image in the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), seen in several other pictures also displayed in the current exhibition at London’s Leighton House Museum, ‘Alma-Tadema: at home in antiquity’; elegantly dressed figures arranged on stone seating, with the sea in the distance. This recurrent image might be linked to a significant turning point in Alma-Tadema’s life, his 1863 honeymoon, which took him and his first wife Pauline through Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, and appears to have changed the course of his career.

Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Coign of Vantage (1895), private collection.

In 1863 Alma-Tadema was emerging as a talented history painter with a taste in scenes from the early mediaeval period, often depicting the encounters of powerful royal women with writers or churchmen (for example in Queen Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetextatus, 1864). But his experience of Pompeii and the ruins and landscapes of the Italian coast redirected him towards classical antiquity, and it was his incorporation of classical scenes and domestic life into the genre of history painting that became the hallmark of his work. Monuments from Pompeii can clearly be seen in his work: An Exedra (1871) incorporates seating and a tholos from Pompeii’s Via dei Sepolcri, repositioned to permit a distant glimpse of the sea. This exedra, or a version of it, recurs in many paintings in the show, often with an inscription carved into it. Other scenes use adaptations of it, such as the seats marked with names as if they were cathedral choir stalls in 1881’s Sappho and Alcaeus, sadly not in this show, or 1903’s Silver Favourites, in which the exedra is part of a sea-side parapet, and surrounds a pond containing the fish of the title, being fed by one of the exquisitely dressed women as her companions look on languidly (baths and fountains are another Alma-Tadema visual trope).

Alma-Tadema, An Exedra, 1869
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, An Exedra (1869), private collection.

History painting had become a significant genre in nineteenth-century art. Perhaps in step with developments in historiography and the rise of ‘scientific history’, artists sought to represent scenes from history and literature through accurate depiction of the appropriate material culture. This involved both reproduction and recreation. Alma-Tadema’s constructed cityscapes and interiors evoke the earlier genre of the capriccio, in which disparate buildings and works of art are included in the same scene, enabling the knowing viewer to recognise the artists’ distortion. Some of his work comments on the process of gathering evidence – he paints collectors and art lovers amid their treasures, as in his A Roman Lover of Art (1868). The technical proficiency in handling materials, detail and perspective which Alma-Tadema deploys on architectural detail, sculpture, and mosaic is reminiscent of the earlier Dutch tradition of depicting house and church interiors. Indeed, many of his classical scenes are domestic interiors evoking mood rather than a historical event, showing women making offerings, playing with pets, or admiring flowers, rather than illustrative history paintings such as Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884). A Hearty Welcome (1878), for example, shows a woman greeting a girl in a garden; the models are Alma-Tadema’s second wife Laura Theresa, and his daughter Anna. Alma-Tadema’s focus on domesticity means that his commitment to historical accuracy may be better realised in the individual material objects, than it is in the family groups he so often depicts. In moving the emphasis of the genre painting from the historical recreation of famous scenes and episodes to the more timeless world of the everyday interior, he anticipates the interests of social historians.

Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome (1878), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

There may be a tension between Alma-Tadema’s depictions of domesticity and what the exhibition labels describe as the ‘contemporary fascination with decadence in the ancient world’ seen in some of his work, and that of his contemporaries. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works in the exhibition, especially his larger-scale later works, suggest the complication of the gaze, and the complicity of the paintings’ subjects in staging the scenes depicted and their awareness of events within them – the emperor watching from the dais as his guests are covered in falling petals, and the woman staring out to the viewer in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The domestic Alma-Tadema on display here avoids the explicit eroticism of near contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Gérôme’s eroticised views of antiquity share the tenor of his orientalist paintings in depicting women as the object of the male gaze, most clearly in Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), in which the famous courtesan displays her exquisite body to the ancient court and to the modern viewer. Decorative panels from Alma-Tadema’s Roman-themed London home and studio, contributed by many artists, are more suggestive of Gérôme’s approach. Both Andromeda (Frank Dicksee, 1891) and A Christian Martyr (Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888) depict women naked and constrained, while Lord Leighton’s Bath of Psyche (1887) offers a more typical opportunity for artistic voyeurism. Alma-Tadema himself painted several bath-house scenes, such as In the Tepidarium (1881) and the late A Favourite Custom (1909), but while the languid women of Alma-Tadema’s later works offer further evidence that he participated in the eroticisation of antiquity, his domesticised version of the ancient material world offers a contrasting vision.

Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, 1909, Tate.

As one of the final displays of this exhibition demonstrates, Alma-Tadema’s vision of the Roman world has influenced many cinematic depictions of the past, and what we may recognise as a Roman setting is actually an Alma-Tadema creation. Setting his pictures alongside clips from films from The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) – itself a version of a Victorian historical novel, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – to Gladiator (2000), the show demonstrates that Alma-Tadema’s interiors have influenced set-designers’ three-dimensional attempts to recreate Roman interiors, notably in the emphasis on domestic bathing. In his focus on the family and the household, Alma-Tadema created a distinctive vision of the ancient world, perhaps anticipating later interest from both story-tellers and historians in personal lives, and in social and cultural rather than political history.

 

An anachronic conversation: Cy Twombly and classical art

Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.

Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.

Cy Twombly's Venus (1975) in Athens
Cy Twombly’s Venus (1975) on display with Anadyomene (1981) and a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite. Photo Paris Tavitian, © Museum of Cycladic Art.

Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.

Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.

In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.

The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.

The Francois Vase
The François Vase, in its usual setting in Florence. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 4209.

But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?

The art of synchronism

Since antiquity artists have made use of themes, formats, and styles from the ancient world, and responded to specific surviving works of art. The ancient world, its stories and its art, offer many possibilities for creative re-use and re-imagination as well as generating synchronisms and anachronisms, when elements from different periods or their associated styles are worked together. Looking at the way in which artists combine elements from past and present, and considering what they choose to emphasise, in representing the ancient world or bringing objects and ideas from it into the modern, may be one way to tell the story of anachronism.

The ancient and the contemporary

Over the last few weeks we have had a visiting undergraduate research assistant, Mycroft Zimmerman from Duke University, North Carolina, working with us on anachronism and synchronism in the visual arts, and these are two of the images and objects that he has found particularly striking in their conjunction of ancient and more recent worlds, and in their creators’ handling of temporality.

The nine heroes

hector
‘Hector’, from the Nine Heroes tapestry in the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 47.101.2d.

A group of tapestries from the southern Netherlands, and most likely made in the 1400s CE, now in the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts a collection of figures often dubbed the ‘Nine Heroes’ or ‘Nine Worthies’. These consist of three groups of three celebrated figures from the pagan, Jewish and Christian eras or worlds. This grouping was a favourite of mediaeval and Renaissance artists, with surviving examples in sculpture, print and tapestry. The heroes cross the boundaries of history and myth (pagan antiquity includes Hector and Julius Caesar, the Christian era King Arthur and Charlemagne), and artists typically depicted all in contemporary dress and with contemporary symbols of power and authority.

Mycroft writes: ‘Hector is clothed exquisitely in a cape and armor as a sign of military affiliation, implying valour by way of his war-time accomplishments. Additionally, he wears a crown, signaling virtue as a result of nobility. The objects in Hector’s environment on the tapestry, are also distinctly Medieval. He wields a sword in the style of a knight and clutches a shield emblazoned with a lion coat of arms. Moreover, Hector’s surroundings are exclusively comprised of iconography from the Middle Ages: flying buttresses support the framework, vaulted arches loom over him and his compatriots. Perhaps the only characteristic of this Hector that unites him with depictions of him from antiquity is his long, manly beard.’

De Chirico’s Ariadne

ariadne
De Chirico, Ariadne, 1913, 1996.403.10, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978) frequently used classical imagery in his work, often returning to the same objects, such as the statue of Sleeping Ariadne from the Vatican Collection. Here this statue is the focus of Ariadne, a painting from 1913 now in the Metropolitan Museum. The ancient statue is depicted with timeless elements, such as the arcade, shorn of architectural detail that would tie it to a specific period, but also more modern elements such as the steam train that crosses the background.

Mycroft writes: ‘If de Chirico had elected to include Ariadne as a living figure in the painting, he would lose the effect of contrasting ancient art and modern design directly. The statue stretches from the foreground to mid-ground of the work, and leads the viewer’s eyes up toward a steam engine, a tower, and a boat. The temporal incongruence of these objects is readily apparent. The gray tower, with its varied blend of period styles, becomes a tool to perpetuate metaphysical tension in the work rather than an effort to recreate any particular structure from any particular period.’

 

Sappho’s Memories

The use of exempla in ancient poetry, rhetoric, and historiography has often been thought to be anchored in the notion that historical processes take place in predictable patterns. Exemplary characters and stories can be repeatedly reused in different contexts because the circumstances to which they pertain do not alter significantly. Odysseus’ endurance on his voyage home or Andromache’s mourning for Hector will remain paradigmatic as long as people journey at sea and families are afflicted by war. Aristotle gives expression to this attitude when he says that ‘generally speaking, future events are similar to those of the past’ (ὅμοια γὰρ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολὺ τὰ μέλλοντα τοῖς γεγονόσιν, Rhet. 1394a7–8). But the vagueness of Aristotle’s phrasing allows for the possibility that ‘future events’ may differ from what has happened previously, and a consciousness of this fact and its potential consequences is central to reflections on exemplarity in the fourth century and later. Cicero laments that men no longer seem able to follow the exempla bequeathed by the past because behaviour has changed (Pro Caelio 39–40), while Maximus of Tyre claims that Homer is exemplary in his discussions of erotic desire, but less so about military tactics or medicine, because men of later times knew better (Or. 18.8).

Sappho and Alcaeus vase
Alcaeus and Sappho, Attic red-figure kalathos, Brygos Painter, c. 470 BC. From Acragas. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, 2416; ARV2, 385, 228.

Yet even at the earliest stages of Greek literature, we find exempla being used in a way that suggests a sophisticated grasp of the differences that changing contexts make to how they can be understood. Particularly striking is Sappho fr. 16, which begins by positing a general truth about the nature of beauty, and proceeds to exemplify this with reference to Helen, who abandoned her home and husband because of her love for Paris:

ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν
ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται·

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι    
π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέ̣θ̣ο̣ι̣σ̣α
κ̣άλ̣λο̣ς̣ [ἀνθ]ρ̣ώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τ̣ὸν̣ [     ].στον

κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ̣’ ἔβα ’ς Τροΐαν πλέοι̣[σα

Some say an army of horsemen, some an army of infantry or ships is the fairest thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatever one desires. It is certainly easy to make this comprehensible to everyone. For she who exceeded all mankind in beauty, Helen, left her … husband and sailed to Troy …

Helen’s love causes her to forget her past: she departs for Troy ‘not remembering at all’ her ‘child and dear parents’ (κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων / π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάσθη). By contrast, the poem makes listeners recall how Helen is presented in the epic tradition (although it is unclear whether the Iliad and Odyssey in the form we possess them were known to Sappho and her early audiences). Such recollections will have constituted the background against which Sappho’s account emerges. By adding an emphasis on Helen’s interior life and perspective that is less strongly developed in epic, the poem invites us to revise the understanding of her that we have inherited from other accounts. In undertaking such revisions, we enact a process which, the poem implies, Sappho herself has already undergone by framing Helen’s story to fit her insight into the connection between desire and beauty. Even as it pictures Helen ‘forgetting’, the poem creates new memories.

Whereas desire makes Helen forget, it makes Sappho remember. The transition from the Helen story to Sappho’s own situation is fragmentary (12–14), but something about it (perhaps Helen herself, perhaps Aphrodite) ‘reminds’ Sappho of Anactoria, who ‘is not present’ (νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι- / σ’ οὐ] παρεοίσας). These memories ground a fresh assertion of the claim for the supremacy of erotically-charged experience: ‘I would rather see her lovely walk and the glitter of her face than the Lydian chariots …’ (τᾶ]ς <κ>ε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα / κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω / ἢτὰ Λύδων ἄρματα …). With ‘the glitter of her face’, Sappho gives us a snapshot as evanescent as it is arresting. What is recalled is not the precise contours of a specific face, but a visual impression the motility of which carries over into recollection. Her ‘lovely walk’ similarly blends immediacy and fleetingness. The phrase flickers with Anactoria’s physical allure, but the particular qualities that made her beauty distinctively hers, as well as the wider context in which it occurs elude us (is she walking towards or away from Sappho? Is Sappho remembering a ‘walk’ that she sawoften, or just once?). As we try to imagine Anactoria and realise how little we have to go on, we replay Sappho’s longing for her past.

Alma-Tadema, Sappho Listening to Alcaeus
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Sappho Listening to Alcaeus. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore 37.159.

These emphases on recollection affect how we might conceive the exemplum’s function across time. The poem changes our sense of how Helen’s actions might help us understand the world; similarly, Helen’s flight to Troy would have resonated differently for Sappho when Anactoria was ‘present’, and after her departure. The poem also suggests how an exemplum can be understood from multiple perspectives, moving from an implicit comparison between Sappho and Helen, to an implicit comparison between Sappho remembering Anactoria and Menelaus remembering Helen. Yet for all the suggestiveness of the parallels, Helen’s life is not Sappho’s, and the exemplum can only take Sappho so far in coming to terms with her situation. Her understanding of love’s importance does not mean that she can easily overcome Anactoria’s absence, although it is unclear how or even if this issue was developed(it is unclear whether the fragmentary stanzas that follow ‘the Lydian chariots’ belong to this poem).

Far from positing a minimally-changing field of applicability, the poem shows how an exemplary figure can be understood variously in changing circumstances. Rather than using an exemplum in order to model behaviour, as later writers often do, Sappho explores the limits of its applicability to individual experience. Taken together, the obliqueness of both the exemplum and our access to Sappho’s memories complicate what is involved in the supposedly easy task of ‘making comprehensible’ (σύνετον πόησαι) the poem’s general claim that the fairest thing is the object of one’s desires. Individuals’ experience of desire as a criterion for beauty is both changeable and difficult for others to access. In foregrounding the tension between the exemplum’s explanatory power and the variegations of experience and memory to which it is applied, the poem stages desire’s paradoxically evanescent force.