Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Mario Baumann, Bilder schreiben: Virtuose Ekphrasis in Philostrats "Eikones". Millennium Studies, Band 33. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. x, 218. ISBN 9783110254051. $120.00.

Reviewed by Michael Squire, King's College London (michael.squire@kcl.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


After a century of comparative neglect, work on the Elder Philostratus' Imagines appears to be booming.1 In an age obsessed with (inter)mediality and representation, it is easy to explain this resurgence of interest. Philostratus' described gallery of paintings speaks volumes about ancient traditions of ecphrasis. At the same time, the author's sophisticated games with sophia reveal much about the self-referential world of the 'Second Sophistic' more generally.

Baumann's book – derived from his 2010 Giessen doctoral dissertation – builds on earlier scholarship by examining modulations of form and sequence in the Imagines. Taking its cue from musicology, in particular the 'virtuosity' of musical performance, Bilder schreiben examines Philostratus' varied principles of structured composition. The framework gives rise to a series of virtuoso readings. For this reviewer, though, Baumann's musicological leitmotif risks drowning out some of the higher critical registers, in particular Philostratus' playful contestations of word and image.

The volume proceeds in six interconnected chapters. An introduction (1–15) elucidates the Philostratean art of theme and variation with two interconnected case studies (Im. 1.21, 23). Baumann then relates this aesthetic to overarching theories of 'Virtuosität': such an interdisciplinary frame, the chapter explains, helps contextualise the competitive environment in which the Imagines was staged, as well as its express interest in rhetorical performance.

With the theoretical framework (briefly) established, the short second chapter (17–35) develops the 'virtuoso' line with reference to the 'Zugriff des Sprechers auf die Bilder' (17). The Imagines is less interested in pictorial form, Baumann argues, than in performative techniques of animation – hence Philostratus' concern with 'non- picturable' elements like smell and sound (20–1). There is a specific 'Hermeneutik' (22) at work here, explained with reference to Im. 1.1. The tableau of 'Hunters' (Im. 1.28) allows Baumann to relate these ideas back to his opening frame: the vacillation between drawing the audience 'in' and drawing the image's significance 'out' demonstrates 'den aneignenden Zugriff des Sprechers auf die Bilder in seiner maximal virtuosen Form' (34).

Although Baumann brings the performative aspect to life, the argument sometimes loses sight of the medial fun and games. Given the book's title, it is unfortunate that Baumann never picks up on the fundamental pun of graphê and graphein (repeated some 130 times in the Imagines), pertaining at once to 'drawing' and 'writing' alike: when the speaker exclaims that audiences 'should look at ta gegrammena', he is not simply talking about 'pictures', as Baumann translates it (Im. 1.28.2: '"so laß uns das Bild betrachten, denn ein Bild ist es, vor dem wir stehen"', 31). Rather, the text is playing more self-referentially with its multiplex artifice of combining picture, speech and written text.2

The third chapter makes some headway here (37–90). Baumann's subject is the 'Struktur der einzelnen Ekphraseis' (37), analysed according to two respective poles ('Fragmentierung und Totalisierung'): on the one hand are tableaux which segregate our ecphrastic 'view' into multiple parts (exemplified by Im. 1.6); on the other are those which construct a single narrative or descriptive whole (explained with reference to Im. 1.26). Individual pieces are said to oscillate between the two extremes (e.g. Im. 1.28 and 2.17). This is not just variation for variation's sake, Baumann suggests. At stake in the 'Skala' between 'fragmentation' and 'totalization' are broader interstices between the pictorial vs. the textual, 'showing' vs. 'telling', and audience involvement vs. authorial distance. Readers never know where in this spectrum any individual description will end up. We're back with the 'virtuoso' master: 'Wie er eine Beschreibung formen wird, ist nicht antizipierbar' (90).

In this chapter, as throughout, Baumann is at his strongest when analysing individual passages (especially Im. 2.17: 76–87). More problematic, in my view, is the impoverished 'weitere Forschungsliteratur' (a mere five pages of widely spaced entries: 206–11). The chapter falls back on one Classical archaeological discussion in particular; 3 ancient discussions and debates go unmentioned (the Simonidean analogy between 'silent poetry' and 'speaking painting', Dio Chrysostom's twelfth, 'Olympic' Discourse, the 'ecphrastic' conceits of epigrams on artworks etc.). A wider critical frame would have made for a much weightier analysis; it would also have saved the author from various naïvities of argumentation ('Nicht daß ein Bild etwa nicht erzählen könnte – Narration gibt es in Texten wie in Bildern, was auch für die Antike gilt: Viele antike Bilder weisen eine Narration auf', 51, etc.).

Where the third chapter analyses the structure of individual tableaux, the fourth turns to the 'Struktur der Eikones als Gesamttext' (91). This stimulating discussion accounts for around a third of the book's total length (91–164), delivering its most substantial scholarly contribution. Exploring the overall structure of Philostratus' descriptions, Baumann begins by refuting earlier reconstructions:4 we cannot sustain Karl Lehmann-Hartleben's theory of a 'topographic' model, whereby the text accurately reflects a 'real-life' gallery of five identifiable rooms (94–105); there are also methodological flaws with Nina Braginskaya and Dimitri Leonov's interpretation, which traces a series of cyclical 'symmetries', 'patterns' and 'equilibriums' in each book, largely on the basis of subject and length (105–115).5 The problem with such readings is their insistence on single modes of unlinear succession: they foreclose other possible interpretations. For Baumann, by contrast, the speaker's virtuosity lies in his performative variation, which gives suggestive rise to an almost infinite miscellany of potential readings. This concern with audience participation – with 'showing' as much as with 'telling' – is said to form part of Philostratus' larger project of 'performative Involvierung'. But it is also related to the 'Medialität der Eikones als Ensemble' (158–61): Philostratus tends to sketch relationships rather than simply state them.

Baumann's argument about a 'mehrfaches Lesen der Eikones' (194) is innovative and important. In terms of the closing comments about 'mediality', though, one wonders again about the larger critical stakes: how do these questions of order relate to the Imagines' literary archaeology on the one hand, and to its expressly visual frame on the other?

As far as literary context is concerned, it is worth remembering that Philostratus' Imagines is not the only text to play with order and sequence. Over the last quarter century, numerous studies have been dedicated to the semantics of ordering poetry collections, not least anthologies of epigrams (a venture fuelled partly by the discovery of the 'Milan Posidippus');6 by extension, scholars have traced parallel artistries across a whole spectrum of poetic and prose genres (one thinks, for example, of recent work on Cicero's Epistles, or indeed the Epistles of the Younger Pliny).7 All this goes unreferenced: Baumann is concerned with Philostratus' Imagines, and with the Imagines alone. But when it comes to tableaux on paintings, such questions about order take on an even greater significance. Although the supposed 'programmatic' links between Philostratus' textual pictures have fuelled a whole industry of 'proving' connections between Pompeian assemblages of paintings, ancient viewers and readers were much more sensitive to the different 'ordering' resources of words and pictures.8 Inspect the literary and artistic products of antiquity, and we find writers and artists alike contemplating the parallel ways in which visual and verbal media construct (and indeed deconstruct) relationships: from practical discussions about images as mnemonic devices for rhetorical ordo, to objects like the Tabulae Iliacae, ancient critics thought long and hard about how visual media order ideas like and unlike verbal texts.9 In the context of Philostratus' self-confessed Eikones, both the literary and artistic backdrops arguably come into play: the intermedial ruse lies in sketching relationships that are both verbal and visual at once, and in simultaneously competing and collaborative ways.

In his fifth chapter, Baumann's findings about 'die Kunst der Kombination' are applied to the text's 'explizite Ästhetik' (165–89). This gives rise to some important discussions of critical language – in particular, Philostratean ideas about symmetria, harmonia, chrômata and sophia. Where the Imagines have sometimes been read as a 'paragonal' text,10 Baumann champions the 'synergetic' workings of painter and writer (184). Not all the described pictures would be impossible to paint (182), Baumann argues, and the pitching of words against pictures hardly emerges as dominant theme (183); still more importantly, the very rhetoric of performance downplays competitions between word and image.

Not everyone will be convinced by this particular interpretive manoeuvre. As the very title suggests, the Eikones brings together words and images. Operating behind the work, though, is an interrogative concern with what images can do that words cannot, and vice versa. This theme is set up right from the outset, not least in the opening description of the Homeric Scamander (Im. 1.1): Philostratus returns to the issue again and again – hence his recurrent interest in (verbalising) pictures after literary texts (perhaps nowhere more masterfully than at Im. 2.9.1). In the hands of the Younger Philostratus, the underlying conceit would lead to arguably the most ontologically complex tableau of all (Im. 10), drawn from the prototypical Homeric ecphrasis of Achilles' shield (Iliad 18.478–608): this textual circumscription of a painted picture – which in turn circumscribes the Homeric ecphrasis of the shield's wondrously fictional images – encapsulates the grand paragonal game.

What, then, should we make of Baumann's varied chapters as a collection? A 'Fazit' brings together the miscellaneous arguments, restating the conclusions elaborated at the end of each individual chapter (191–4). The virtue of a 'Virtuositätsmodell', the author reiterates, lies in its emphasis on multifaceted modulation: 'grundständig deswegen, weil es von vornherein Variation und Kombination als wesentliche Gestaltungsprinzipien im Blick hat' (192).

This is an important book, and future studies will want to take it seriously: the Imagines emerges as an immensely intricate work, and Baumann sustains his readings with both close analysis and macroscopic reflection. Less compelling, in my view, is the overarching 'isolationist' methodology. If we can be sure of one thing, it is that the Imagines assumes an audience who knew their literature and art history alike. It is therefore unfortunate that the book pays such minimal attention to the intertexts, or indeed to the 'interpictures'. One might assume from Baumann's discussion of thauma at Im. 1.1 (22–3), for example, that this critical ecphrastic language were a Philostratean or Lucianic invention (the Homeric archaeology, in the context of an expressly (un- )Homeric picture, goes unmentioned). Likewise readers will search in vain for any reference to Graeco- Roman images. As recent interpretations have emphasised, Philostratus reiteratively engages with tangible visual traditions.11 Baumann's Philostratus, by contrast, appears to be writing in a literary and artistic vacuum.

For all the many virtues of Baumann's book, this 'isolationist' methodology strikes me as problematic in two distinct ways. First, from an intellectual historical perspective, it risks underestimating the text's original cultural frame – its resonance against broader debates about the limits of seeing and understanding (e.g. Vit. Ap. 2.22), themselves arguably reflected in (and in turn shaped by) the artistic developments of later antiquity.12 Second, and perhaps still more importantly, such a framework downplays the text's critical importance today. For Baumann, the significance of the Imagines lies in its lessons for theorising 'virtuosity': while focussing on the Philostratean performance of speaking, Baumann is less concerned with the Philostratean paradox of speaking for pictures. In my view, by contrast, what drives the Imagines is its prophetic critique of the grander 'art historical' project: a virtuoso performance, yes, but Philostratus' staged virtuosity lies in problematizing how images are turned into verbal discourse, and indeed verbal discourse back into images.


1.   There have been three new Italian translations in the last five years alone: L. Abbondanza, Filostrato maggiore: Immagini (Turin, 2008); A. L. Carbone, Filostrato, Immagini (Palermo, 2010); G. Pucci, La Pinacoteca di Filostrato Maggiore (Rome, 2010). For an introduction to the contemporary cultural frame, see esp. M. Constantini, F. Graziani and S. Rolet (eds.), Le défi de l'art: Philostrate, Callistrate et l'image sophistique (Paris, 2006).
2.   On the ambivalences of graphein, see esp. F. Lissarrague, 'Graphein: écrire et dessiner', in C. Bron and E. Kassapoglou (eds.), L'Image en jeu: de l'antiquité à Paul Klee (Paris, 1992), 189–203. On the Hellenistic literary backdrop, compare I. Männlein-Robert, Stimme, Schrift und Bild: Zum Verhältnis der Künste in der hellenistischen Dichtung (Heidelberg, 2007). Baumann cites neither work.
3.   Luca Giuliani's summary of Lessing's Laocoon (no mention of Lessing himself): L. Giuliani, Bild und Mythos: Geschichte der Bilderzählung in der griechischen Kunst (Munich, 2003), esp. 25–9.
4.   No reference, though, to pre-twentieth-century reconstructions, in particular Goethe's interpretations: see e.g. G. Siebert, 'Goethe, lecteur de Philostrate', Revue des Études grecques 123 (2010): 387–96.
5.   Cf. K. Lehmann-Hartleben, 'The Imagines of the Elder Philostratus', Art Bulletin 23 (1941): 95–105; N. V. Bragniskaya and D. N. Leonov, 'La composition des Images de Philostrate l'ancien', in M. Constantini, F. Graziani and S. Rolet (eds.), op. cit. (note 1, above), 9–29 (summarising earlier work published in Russian). Compare also, most recently, J. de la Villa, 'Los grados de la ficcíon: la ékphrasis' pictórica de Filóstrato', in J. Martinez (ed.), Mundus vult decipi: estudios interdisciplinares sobre falsificación textual y literaria (Madrid, 2012), 427–442.
6.   Cf. e.g. K. J. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context (Berkeley, 1998), esp. 227–322; eadem, 'A new Hellenistic poetry book: P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309', in B. Acosta-Hughes, E. Kosmetatou and M. Baumbach (eds.), Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309) (Cambridge MA, 2004), 84–93.
7.   Cf. e.g. M. Beard, 'Ciceronian correspondences: Making a book out of letters', in T. P. Wiseman (ed.), Classics in Progress (Oxford, 2002), 103–44; R. Gibson and R. Morello, Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2012), esp. 36–73; C. L. Whitton, 'Grand designs/ Unrolling Epistles 2', in I. Marchesi (ed.), Betting on Posterity: Pliny the Younger as Bookmaker (Oxford, forthcoming).
8.   Cf. M. L. Thompson, 'The monumental and literary evidence for programmatic painting in antiquity', Marsyas 9 (1961): 36–77, esp. 61.
9.   Cf. e.g. M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory (Cambridge, 1990), esp. 71–5; C. Baroin, Se souvenir à Rome: formes, représentations et pratiques de la mémoire (Paris, 2010), esp. 73–88; M. J. Squire, The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on theTabulae Iliacae (Oxford, 2011). For an excellent discussion of these themes in late antiquity, see J. Heath, 'Nomina sacra and sacra memoria before the monastic age', Journal of Theological Studies 61.2 (2010): 516–49.
10.   Cf. L. Giuliani 'Die unmöglichen Bilder des Philostrat: Ein antiker Beitrag zur Paragone-Debatte?', Pegasus 8 (2006): 91–116.
11.   Cf. e.g. J. Elsner, 'Making myth visual: The Horae of Philostratus and the dance of the text', MDAI(R) 107 (2000): 253–76.
12.   For the argument, see esp. J. Onians 'Abstraction and imagination in late antiquity', Art History 3 (1980): 1–24, developed in idem, Classical Art and the Cultures of Greece and Rome (New Haven, 1999), esp. 217–78.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I mostly agree, BUT, dearest Mike, you seem to be taking the images as more important than the narrative "describing" images. Huhn oder Ei -- this is the never-ending discourse that cannot be resolved. An image ALWAYS is a comment on a written or oral text, and vice versa. I think that art historians are blowing this up in order to secure their position. No need to do so. Just keep it soft. We are looking at two media here, none of which can claim to be dominant over the other.