Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Silke Knippschild, Marta García Morcillo (ed.), Seduction and Power: Antiquity in the Visual and Performing Arts. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. xvi, 370. ISBN 9781441177469. $120.00.

Reviewed by Genevieve S. Gessert, Hood College (

Version at BMCR home site


This collection of essays is the second publication to emerge from the innovative Imagines Project, a think tank of European scholars and practitioners devoted to the study of classical reception in the diverse media of the visual and performing arts.1 The group has sponsored a series of biennial conferences since 2007, each focusing on a significant theme or idea in classical reception; the 2014 conference "Sailing in Troubled Waters: The Ancient Mediterranean and its Legacy in the Performing and Visual Arts" will take place in October 2014 in Algarve, Portugal.

The publication of the first Imagines conference focused on media-based analysis, published as an edited volume in 2008.2 The volume under review, a publication of the conference papers from the second Imagines conference in Bristol UK in 2010, discards this approach and instead focuses on a thematic analysis of Power and Seduction, attempting instead to draw conceptual connections across media, periods, and cultures. The papers (both at the conference and in the volume) are organized chronologically corresponding to the ancient material under reception, not separated into sections but treated as a continuum to reveal the underlying themes. For ease of comprehension, I have divided the papers into three groups – arguably, this subjective division actually reveals some additional significant correspondences and themes.

Following the editors' brief introduction summarizing the interdisciplinary theme and the contents of the volume, the first group of chapters (2-11) deals with varying aspects of antiquity in performance. The group begins with Seymour's analysis of Verdi's Nabucco in Chapter 2, but is primarily concerned with the reception of Greek drama and/or the creation of modern performances based on ancient (mostly Greek) texts or themes. The performance genres are quite diverse, from film and television (Llewellyn-Jones on Stone's Alexander and Winkler on Rossi's Italian miniseries), to opera (Seymour above and Carruesco and Reig on modern works), and dance (Momigliano on the influence of Minoan Crete on Isadora Duncan and others), with the largest number on drama (Treu on Greek tragic heroines in pop culture, Clavo on Coca's Ifigènia, Capra and Giovannelli on the Italian reception of Aristophanes, and Lesher on the Heraclitean theme in Eliot's The Cocktail Party). Despite the diversity of genre and methodology, this section focuses distinctly on individual works of performance and upon particular auteurs whose visions of antiquity warrant detailed contextual examination. It is significant that within this group the aspects of Greek antiquity that inspire reception are primarily mythological and/or theatrical; the ancient characters and narratives thus provide the framework for universal power dichotomies (between male and female, domestic and foreign etc.) characteristic of those modes of expression.

An essay that deserves mention within this group is Eric Shanower's piece on his voluminous graphic novel of the Trojan War, Age of Bronze.3 The 2010 conference in Bristol included an exhibition of Shanower's original drawings for Age of Bronze at The Bristol Art Gallery, and the conference itself concluded with a talk by the artist. As a visual artist still in the process of reception, he represents a unique perspective within the volume, and his discussion of the use of both ancient and modern sources to enhance his work will be illuminating for scholars of classical reception in popular culture.

In contrast with the first, the next group of essays, on receptions of Roman-era works (Chapters 12-18), has a distinctly different focus: historical characters. Each essay takes as its subject one or two famous figures of Roman history – Claudia Quinta and Scipio Nasica (Castillo), Spartacus (Marchena), Cleopatra (Polo), Mark Antony (García Morcillo), Caligula (Lindner), Agrippina the Younger (McHugh), and Theodora (Carlà) – and analyzes his or her reception within a specific work or diachronically in a restricted cultural milieu. Here the discussions of power are more pointed, for as Castillo hints in his piece on seventeenth-century Viennese opera, the controlled presentation of historical Roman characters can be seen as an exercise of power in itself (p.156). In this vein, Marchena's chapter on Riccardo Freda's lesser known Italian Spartacus (1953) masterfully underscores how economic power is also wielded in the reception of popular ancient characters. "The fate suffered by the Italian film illustrates the problem of cultural dominance on the part of the powerful American film industry. In the same way, this business engine also imposed references from its own cultural tradition" (p.180). Though the methodologies and genres of reception similarly vary in this section, as Greek drama and myth dominate the first grouping, the singular influence of the biographical historiography of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch (and thereby Shakespeare) lies just below the surface here.

The final group (Chapters 19-21) is more theoretical overall, dealing significantly with antiquity in visual representation and the ways in which "artists were seduced by antiquity" (p.263). Rovira Guardiola's chapter on the Jonah statue in Santa Maria del Popolo ostensibly focuses on a single work, while Duplá and Ribeyrol examine groupings of works within discrete historical or artistic contexts (nineteenth-century Spanish history painting and the work of the English Aesthetes respectively); thus each piece links methodologically with several other chapters in the volume. But these chapters also tackle some unique questions of reception due to their focus on representation: the notion of artistic influence in a period with an evolving understanding of antiquity (Rovira Guardiola), the broad use of historical style and content to promote cultural prestige (Duplá), and the provocative potential of reception in the explication of both art and gender (Ribeyrol). The nature of the receptions here is less specific, not simply grounded in a particular work or character from antiquity, but highlighting the seductive power of antiquity and history for artists struggling with identity and legitimacy.

The volume concludes with an analytical essay by Knippschild, in which she attempts the monumental task of weaving together some unifying thematic strands in this varied collection of essays. In this endeavor she is quite successful, particularly in her acknowledgement of seduction "as a mechanism and instrument of power" and one not necessarily connected with sexuality or sensuality (a subtlety not heeded by all the contributors). "We should thus understand seductiveness and seduction not as qualities, but as actions upon an active recipient, which are not necessarily generated by an active agent" (315). But while Knippschild has remarkable insights into the thematic unity of the project, her avoidance of unities of genre/medium or chronology is also palpable. In the end the success of the thematic framework is debatable – is the volume's approach to reception powerful or arbitrary? Several essays are somewhat hampered by the need to explicate historical and/or artistic context, or differ strongly in tone or methodology from the surrounding contributions, thereby stretching the immediate thematic links quite thin.

Yet these criticisms do not bear upon the extremely high value and potential for the Imagines Project, but rather upon the limitations of the traditional delivery medium. If one reads Seduction and Power in a linear fashion as a stand-alone volume, the flaws described above may leave the reader with a superficial understanding of the rich potential of reception studies. The impact and importance of the volume must instead be considered in conjunction with the entire output of the Imagines Project, most notably alongside the first conference volume and the group's website cited in the introduction to this review. Though no strong proponent of e-publishing, this reviewer could envisage the utility of innovative electronic publishing strategies to allow readers to connect essays across publications, or to create their own collections of essays based on genre, culture, period etc. The development of additional web content, such as culture maps, hyperlinking/tagging, or even simple word clouds, could facilitate complex non-linear connections that are difficult within the traditional print format. The fact that reception organically inspires innovative delivery strategies testifies to the seductive nature of the subject matter and the methodologies for its study, and to the powerful potential of the Imagines Project. Readers interested in the future of reception studies should bookmark the Project's webpage and stay tuned.


1.   Imagines Project website
2.   P. Castillo et al. eds., Imagines: La antigüedad en las artes escénicas y visuals. Universidad de la Rioja, 2008; review in Italian BMCR 2009.01.42; for a review in English see F. Polo in Classical Review 60.1 (2010) 292-294.
3.   Age of Bronze

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