Friday, April 29, 2011


Maria Cistaro, Sotto il velo di Pantea: Imagines e Pro imaginibus di Luciano. Orione 3. Messina: Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichità - Università degli Studi di Messina, 2009. Pp. 356. ISBN 9788882680251. €60.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jaś Elsner, Corpus Christi College, Oxford and University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site

This publication of Maria Cistaro's doctoral thesis on Lucian's Imagines and Pro Imaginibus is warmly welcome. The book takes its place in the forefront of a rich vein of contemporary writing about ekphrasis, and in particular ekphrasis in the Second Sophistic, as well as certainly being the most significant secondary work to date on Lucian's great pair of dialogues on the heady mix of portraiture and panegyric.

The book is in 5 substantial chapters. The first, 'between eulogy and ekphrasis', after a brief scene setting section, explores the range of Lucianic ekphrasis with short but acute accounts of Herodotus, Zeuxis, Hippias, Hercules, De Calumnia, De Mercede Conductis, De Domo and Imagines. The bibliography is up-to-date, but the account may be seen largely as a creative interrogation of the outstanding 1994 introduction by Sonia Maffei (insufficiently known or referred to in the Anglophone literature) to her collection of Lucian's Descrizioni di opere d'arte (Turin: Einaudi, 1994, pp. xv-lxxi). Like Maffei, Cistaro does not discuss De Dea Syria, despite its very likely Lucianic authorship (as argued by Jane Lightfoot's outstanding 2003 Oxford edition and commentary) nor Amores, which most people still seem to think is not by Lucian although I cannot myself see why. The misfortune of this, in particular the exclusion of De Dea Syria, is that it cuts away the major piece of religious ekphrasis in Lucian's oeuvre (which takes him closer to Pausanias in some ways than to Philostratus), and thus fails to give a full representation of his remarkable ekphrastic range and sustained interest in a long career. Since part of the attack on Imagines in Pro Imaginibus is on its 'sacrilege and sin' (asebema and plemmelema, Pro Imaginibus 8, 12-13) in comparing Panthea to divine statues, and part of the defense is that the comparison was not with the goddesses but with the remarkable qualities of their statues' workmanship (Pro Imaginibus 23), it seems unfortunate that the complexity of the Lucianic corpus' account of religion is not given a little more play.

The second chapter, on the sources and the eclecticism of the mimesis in Imagines, is a super account of the dialogue and at about 100 pages arguably the heart of the book. Its discussions of both the statues and the texts bowdlerized by Lucian's speakers in order to create portraits of Panthea's body and soul are excellent, as is its discussion of the dialogue's structure. Cistaro's main concern is with the range of quotation, visual and literary, in which Lucian indulges, rather than with issues of encomium or indeed ekphrasis as such, which are at least as important. But ekphrasis was the topic of Chapter 1 and the problems of eulogy are effectively the theme of Chapter 3 on the Pro Imaginibus. The result is a very impressive exposition of Lucian's learning and the eclecticism of his mimetic enterprise in the Imagines. Chapter 3's discussion of Pro Imaginibus is shorter (just under 60 pp.), but explores with great interest and in detail that dialogue's discussion of the differences between flattery and praise and the fundamental problems of eulogistic discourse in an imperial context, which would characterize literary production beyond the Roman empire and into Byzantium. Perhaps a little predictably it divides the dialogue in two, dealing first with the case made against Imagines as too flattering and hence a false form of praise, and then the defense mounted by Lucian in the character of Lycinus.

For my taste here, perhaps there is not enough attention given to the complexity of recessions in both dialogues about the object of praise, and about who voices what. Panthea is never named in Imagines but only grasped in body through the part-objects (bits and pieces of famous statues and paintings) used by Lycinus to evoke her, and then in soul through the exempla quoted by Polystratus. Likewise, her response to Lycinus in Pro Imaginibus is neither directly given (it is retailed by Polystratus) nor does it respond to the actual speech made by Lycinus, but rather to Polystratus' account of it. In both dialogues there is a complex and deliberate recession of the referent of praise—gendered female, she is absent except through the descriptions made by male speakers. Even when she does speak in Pro Imaginibus, her words are ventriloquized through Polystratus' voice. The gaps in these texts between author, speakers, personas and objects are dazzling, surely orchestrated, and need to be accounted for in order to ground any full discussion. A potential model for an approach of this kind might be Ruth Webb's piece on Philostratus' 'Imagines as a Fictional Text: Ekphrasis, Apatê and Illusion' in M. Constantini et al. Le défi de l'art, Rennes, 2006, 113-36, which Cistaro cites but does not follow in regard to this theme.

The last two chapters, standing back from the texts to make wider reflections, are both interesting. Chapter 4 looks at some overarching themes in the two dialogues—notably paideia in relation to taste and judgment, and questions of theatrical metaphor and ridicule. Chapter 5 focuses on inter-textuality and meta-textual reflections—taking up the challenge of the book's title to go beneath the veil of Panthea. The discussions of literary hybridity and meta-ekphrasis are outstanding. Cistaro is to be congratulated on a fine discussion which will be invaluable to readers of these texts, to readers of Lucian more widely, and to anyone with an interest in Ekphrasis.

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