I Heart Pliny the Elder

I’ve been reading snippets of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History over the past few days, and I can’t help but think that the ancient Roman and I would have been friends. I definitely feel as curious about the world as Pliny the Elder, but hopefully I am a little more practical (i.e. I wouldn’t risk my life to observe the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius).

There are two things that I like about Natural History. For one thing, I like Pliny’s little anecdotes about artists (I’m sure my penchant for anecdotes is no surprise, gentle reader!). Even though some of the stories seem a little too legendary and far-fetched (Vasari would have loved some of these stories for his Vite), they are still quite fun. For example, Pliny devotes a whole section to stories about the Greek painter Apelles of Cos (you can read some of the stories here). One such story involves speculation that Apelles painted Alexander the Great’s mistress Pancaste for Aphrodite Rising from the Foam (“Aphrodite Anadyomene,” shown above in a Roman mural from Pompeii (House of the Marine Venus, 1st century AD) which is thought to have been based on Apelles’ original work). 1

I’m especially amused by this story about Apelles and a picture of a horse:

“There is, or at least there once existed, a picture of a horse by Apelles. It was painted for a competition in which he sought judgment not from men but from dumb animals. For, seeing that his rivals were getting the upper hand by devious means, he showed the pictures individually to some horses he had brought in, and they neighed only at Apelles’ picture. As this frequently happened on subsequent occasions it proved to be a good test of the artist’s skill.” (Natural History XXXV:95).

The other thing I like about Pliny the Elder is his apparent passion and excitement for his subject matter. I love that he calls the pyramids “a pointless and absurd display of royal wealth.” (Natural History XXXVI: 75) (Not that I agree with that statement, I just love his frank opinion.)

I also can relate to his awe regarding the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, original c. 292-284 BC, shown left through a wood engraving reconstruction by Sidney Barclay, c. 1875). I’m always interested in how a sculpture’s scale compares to that of a human being, and Pliny seems to have that same interest: “No statue has commanded greater admiration than the Colossus of Rhodes made by Chares of Lindos, the pupil of Lysippus. It was about 105 feet high. Sixty-six years after its erection the Colossus was toppled by an earthquake, but even lying on the ground it is amazing. Few people can make their arms meet round its thumb, and the fingers alone are larger than most statues.” (Natural History XXXIV:42). (On a side note, it was announced about two years ago that the Colossus of Rhodes was going to be rebuilt as a giant light sculpture. Does anyone know if progress has been made on that project?)

Who here has read Natural History? Any likes or dislikes? If you haven’t had a chance to get to know Pliny the Elder and his thoughts on art, I’d highly recommend those few chapters from Natural History. Pliny the Elder is witty, opinionated, and just all-around interesting.

1 Pancaste could really be labeled as Alexander the Great’s ex-mistress. Pliny records that the ruler commissioned Apelles to paint Pancaste, and then Apelles ended up in love with his subject. In turn, Alexander gave Pancaste to Apelles, which Pliny noted was indicative of Alexander’s magnanimity. (Natural History XXXV:86-87).

  • H Niyazi says:

    Naturalis Historiae is an invaluable glimpse at the art history of the ancient world!

    I am glad you are enjoying it M.

    Just in case you missed it – I presented a BBC 4 podcast on this very topic!!

    Pliny post at 3PP

    I just LOVE how Raphael painted himself as Appeles in School of Athens!

    Kind Regards

  • heidenkind says:

    The main thing I know about Apelles is that the greatest artists of the Renaissance wanted to be "the modern Apelles," a term Leonardo da Vinci coined. The greatest sign of the modern Apelles is that he painted a woman so realistically she inspired desire in the viewer. This is probably what Leonardo was after when he painted the Mona Lisa, and why the eye's of Raphael's painted women will follow you around the room–they wanted to make their portraits of women as life-life and attractive as possible.

    I feel like I already talked about this, though.

  • M says:

    Thanks for including that link, H Niyazi. I've started to listen to the podcast, and I'm enjoying it so far.

    I've also read speculations that Raphael painted himself as Apelles in the School of Athens. (He was quite confident in his skills as a painter, I think, if he felt comfortable enough to compare himself to such a famous predecessor!)

    heidenkind, I didn't realize that Leonardo coined the phrase "a modern Apelles." That's really interesting. I'd heard the phrase before, but didn't know the background information about realistically painted women. I wonder if that goal is related to the fact that Apelles fell in love with Pancaste, Alexander the Great's mistress (whose story I mention in the footnote of this post).

    Whenever I think of Apelles and the Renaissance, I immediately think of Botticelli's painting "Calumny of Apelles", a work which was inspired by a lost painting by Apelles. If anyone is interested, you can read about this Botticelli painting here.

  • Dr. F says:

    Did you notice in the Pompey mural the awkward position of the part of the right leg below the knee? In the Sleeping Venus in Dresden Giorgione hid that part of the leg perhaps to create a smoother line.


  • H Niyazi says:

    Cheers Frank and M! Adding a bit extra to my Botticelli and Giorgione knowledge with those two wonderful comments!

    @Frank – I just adore the Dresden Venus.. I think it gets far lass praise than it should. I loved seeing the link to the classical depiction – I had not seen that before 🙂

    That Apelles painting must surely have been among one of Botticelli's final few on classical subjects!


  • M says:

    Dr. F, that awkward leg is very noticeable, isn't it? When I first came across this mural, that leg immediately grabbed my attention. I wish we had a more examples of Apelles' art; that awkward leg isn't a terribly flattering example for the renowned artist.

    I agree: Giorgione created a much better composition with his Sleeping Venus (and Titian obviously liked Giorgione's idea, since he used the same composition for his "Venus of Urbino").

    N Hiyazi is right: the Sleeping Venus gets far less attention than it should. It's a beautiful painting.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.