Friday, November 28, 2014


S. Marino, A. Stavru (ed.), Ekphrasis. Estetica. Studi e ricerche, 1 / 2013. Roma: Aracne editrice, 2013. Pp. 275. ISBN 9788854865907. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, Göttingen (

Version at BMCR home site


The last two decades have seen an enormous increase in discussion and interdisciplinary work on the relation of text and image. Ekphrasis was a genre especially popular in the Second Sophistic but this useful collection of thirteen papers shows that it had a far wider range in time and culture (see the introduction of A. Stavru, "Ekphrasis ed enargeia. Figurare tramite parole e dire tramite immagini," 5-7); the contributions cover also many lesser-known aspects of the subject.

After the introduction, the first two contributions treat mainly methodical aspects; the following ten are arranged in approximately chronological order. F. De Martino, "Ekphrasis e pubblicità. Descrivere e valorizzare nell'antica Grecia" (9-22) gives an overview of the ancient theoretical treatises on ekphrasis and goes on to show that while in Lucian's time the notion was used almost exclusively for the description of works of art, it had initially a far wider range and could be applied to a variety of objects. G. Lombardo, "Aspetto verbale e tecniche dell'enargeia. La dimensione «aoristica» della descrizione " (23–34) explores the main concept of ekphrasis, i. e. the visualization (enargeia), the skill of the ancient author to make the objects he describes visible for the reader or listener (who thus becomes a viewer), a technique already splendidly mastered by Homer (cf. the description of the setting of the sun Od. 3,497).

The wide range of conceptions of ekphrasis is then impressively demonstrated by the two following papers investigating Plato's dialogues from this point of view (L. Palumbo, "Portare il lettore nel cuore del testo. L'ekphrasis nei dialoghi di Platone" (35-46) and J.-J. Wunenberger, "Lo specchio delle immagini. Gerarchia e traduzione delle rappresentazioni in Platone" (47-57). Enargeia is shown to be a psychological as well as a linguistic phenomenon, and Plato's verba videndi provided also a theoretical foundation for his theory of ideas (41-42). The search for truth has to use the medium of language (for lack of something better), which in turn makes use of pictures and examples (51-54).

A most impressive example of enargeia are the furies that Aeschylus literally puts before the public's eyes in Eum. 46-59 and that are treated in Ps.-Longinus's De subl. 15, 2, where another important issue of ekphrasis, the concept of phantasia comes into view, as a means to achieve the elevated style (P. Togni, "«Vedere le Erinni». La fantasia nel capitolo 15 del trattato Sul sublime" [59-79]).

M. Squire, "Invertire l'ekphrasis. L'epigramma ellenistico e la traslazione di parola e immagine" (81-107) is a brilliant tour de force, applying the definition of Theon, progymn. 118,7 to three examples in completely different media that demonstrate in different ways that ekphrasis is defined rather by its effects on the listener/viewer than by its object. The first (88-93) is a grave-stele from Sardis (2nd cent. BC) of a girl called Menophila in guise of a Muse and surrounded by objects of culture and learning that are described in an epigrammatic dialogue of questions and answers. The second example (93-98) is the five great panels of the "Casa degli Epigrammi" in Pompeii (40-30 BC) with epigrams that seem at first glance to explain the pictures (e.g. a fight between Eros and Pan). Those epigrams (included in the Anthologia Palatina), however, had at the time they were put on the murals in Pompeii long been known, but from a totally different context. This leaves the reader with the question what came first, and what the precise relationship between the epigrams and paintings might be. Finally (98-107), Squire presents some of the intriguing carmina figurata that were popular from Hellenistic to Imperial times and depict the objects they describe via the length and arrangement of the verses. Could this playful poetry still be called ekphrasis? While this might depend on how rigorously the definitions of ancient theoretical treatises on the genre are applied, in any case Squire's stimulating article demonstrates that seemingly straightforward cases are often more complex than it appears at first sight. All the examples presented here play with the topic of "putting in front of your eyes" and the intricacies of interaction between two media: is it the text that explains the image, or is it the other way round?

Equally interesting is the contribution of C. Roby, "L'ekphrasis e l'immaginazione scientifica in Tolomeo" (109-125), showing the use of the genre in a rather unexpected context, the mathematical and astronomical treatises of Ptolemy, where it is used as a means to convince the reader regarding his theories and for explaining imaginary experiments.

Somewhat disappointing is J. Pigeaud, "Note sull'ekphrasis in Filostrato, Luciano e Callistrato" (127-161), arranged in 26 often minuscule "chapters" the common thread of which eludes this reader. Beginning with Philostratus, Pigeaud mentions de Vigenères' first translation of the Imagines, and points out several times Goethe's fascination with the text, but gives no hint of the dispute that started in the 18th century about the reality of the gallery of images Philostratus describes.1 He also totally avoids engaging with important newer scholarship on Lucian's ekphraseis, e.g. the thought-provoking article of B. Borg.2 I also fail to see the specific connection of the "praise of phantasia" (130-137) with the authors treated. The part on Callistratus (157-160), finally, consists mainly of short summaries of some of his descriptions of statues, referring only to the translation of A. Fairbanks of 1979, without taking into account the most recent edition with commentary.3 Altogether this contribution seems rather a missed opportunity, for it does not really further the understanding of the three authors named in the title.

More modest in its scope, but much more rewarding and in-depth is the contribution of E. Prioux, "I colori di Filostrato il Vecchio. Dalla pittura delle emozioni e dei caratteri alle metafore dell'opera sofistica" (169-185) on the importance of colors in Philostratus's Imagines. Among the 180 references to colors, gold, black and white are predominant (163-165). Colors are usually mentioned to convey emotions to the reader (165-171), a procedure already known from Hellenistic poetry (e.g. Apollonius Rhodius); an especially impressive example is the use of a gloomy chiaroscuro to depict scenes with dead people or nocturnal tableaus (e.g. II 10, Cassandra; II 29, Antigone). While Philostratus apparently had something like a scientific interest in optical effects and their depictions, he also used color as a metaphor to express his aesthetic intentions: a black-and-white animal could represent a stylistic or literary hybrid (171-177). Attached to the article is a useful appendix containing the Greek names and context of the colors mentioned in Philostratus (179-185).

With A. Motta, "L'Ekphrasis del discorso. Una lezione neoplatonica sul miglior artefatto" (187-200) we move into the realm of late antique philosophy; he analyzes the Neoplatonic interpretations that regard Plato as the demiurgos who creates an intelligible picture of beauty.

D. Guastini, "Ekphrasis e tipologia tra cultura pagana e cultura cristiana" (201-216) focuses on the transformations of the genre in Christian contexts, first the ekphrasis as such that applied the models of classical times in an eclectic way, e.g. to describe Christian sacral buildings. I have some difficulties with the second part (208-216) on the question of typology, which according to Guastini blended Jewish prophetical tradition with Hellenistic principles. The result in a Christian context would have a very different meaning, often opposing the tradition that brought it into life. One would have wished for some specific literary examples to elucidate that point. Finally, with Quintilian's figura (inst. 9,1) replaced by Christian praefiguratio, the modality of the whole genre changes and is now oriented toward a future telos, as opposed to the pagan nostalgic retrospection toward a former Golden Age. Here, the connection of the topic with ekphrasis remains rather unclear; it would seem that this contribution deals with a rather different subject of research, i.e. the notion of time in pagan and Christian perceptions.4

P. Marzillo, "L'antro delle Ninfe. Da locus amoenus a locus functionalis" (217-231) shows the interval of time the fascinating interaction between text and art was able to bridge, for it was most likely Porphyry's De antro Nympharum, the Neoplatonic interpretation of Homer's description of the cave of the Nymphs in Od. 13, 96-112 that inspired a mural painting in the hypogeum (i.e. the burial place) of the renowned family of the Aurelii in Rome.

A. Vasilu, "Del divino nelle techniche. Descrivere in stile omerico alla fine dell'antichità" (233-268) finally gives an (at times somewhat lengthy) overview of the ways and techniques of ekphrasis to demonstrate the different forms of perception, the objects of ekphrasis and its connections to myth. She starts with the famous "foundation piece" of all ekphraseis, Achilles' shield in Il. 18,462-61, that inspired many later descriptions (237-243) and goes on to the complicated story of the two rings in Heliodorus's novel Aithiopika, where it is surprisingly not the one with the precisely described bucolic scene on the amethyst that plays the decisive role in the recognition of the protagonists, but the other one of which we are told nothing (243-250). Then she takes a further step forward in time (251-256) with the description of the palace of Cadmus in Nonnus' Dionysiaka 3, 131-183. The next paragraph takes us to the kind of "rhetorical exercise" that Gregory of Nyssa delivered in his 20th letter (256-261), in which we see astonishingly nothing of his Christian convictions. We return to Homer with the final example of the description of the portrait of the poet (262-266) by Christodorus in the baths of Zeuxippus (Anth. Pal. II): Via his description, the late antique author becomes himself a kind of new Homer.

On the whole the book is an interesting and welcome contribution to the current ongoing discourse about the subject. There are many varied aspects covered, including some rather remote and lesser-known ones, so no doubt other readers will find yet other topics of interest not mentioned by this reviewer.


1.   See O. Schönberger, Die 'Bilder' des Philostratos, in: G. Boehm, H. Pfotenhauer (Eds.), Beschreibungskunst – Kunstbeschreibung. Ekphrasis von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (München 1995) 157-173.
2.   B. Borg, Bilder zum Hören – Bilder zum Sehen: Lukians Ekphraseis und die Rekonstruktion antiker Kunstwerke, Millennium 1, 2004, 25-57; see also P. v. Möllendorff, Puzzling Beauty. Zur ästhetischen Konstruktion von Paideia in Lukian's 'Bilder'-Dialogen, Millennium 1, 2004, 1-24, and esp. M Cistaro, Sotto il velo di Pantea: Imagines e Pro Imaginibus di Luciano (Messina 2009).
3.   B. Bäbler, H.-G. Nesselrath, Ars et Verba. Die Kunstbeschreibungen des Kallistratos. Einführung, Text, Übersetzung, Anmerkungen, archäologischer Kommentar (München, Leizpzig 2006).
4.   See now: M. Ebner et al. (Eds.), Zeit, Jahrbuch für Biblische Theologie 28, 2013 (Neukirchen-Vluyn).

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