Friday, April 15, 2016


Emma Scioli, Dream, Fantasy, and Visual Art in Roman Elegy. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 278. ISBN 9780299303846. $55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Paul Roche, University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Emma Scioli examines elegy's visual sensibility through an analysis of dream narratives (including fantasies and visions) found in Propertius, Tibullus and at the opening of Ovid, Fasti 3. This is at heart a narratological study: dreams and paintings are "tools used by narrators as a mode of description and communication" (p. 12). The method adopted throughout is to offer a close reading of a particular dream narrative and to compare its composition and modes of representation with contemporary visual arts, mainly wall-painting. The close readings are, on the whole, executed with sophistication and are instructive for considering narrative dynamics; the visual material is generally well-chosen and points to shared modes of viewing and composition that I found to be useful context for the dream narratives. Both dreams and the visual experience in classical literature have been increasingly frequent subjects of scholarly attention; Scioli acknowledges Walde 2001 as fundamental for establishing different categories and narratological functions of dreams in classical poetry1; she differentiates her contribution from Walde's on the grounds that her study offers parallels for dream narratives in other modes of description and in other poems within the elegists' oeuvre. Scioli cites Hubbard, Boucher and Leach as important for her own work on the relationship of dreams and visual art2; her interpretation of vision in elegy builds on work by Greene, O'Neill, and Raucci3; and influential studies of ecphrasis also underpin her work: Bartsch, Whitmarsh, Elsner.4

The introduction (pp. 3-23) considers the challenge of representing the visual experience of dreaming. Prop. 3.8.15-16 is read as offering an implicit link between dreams and paintings—as abstracted representations of reality—and their capacity to move. The epigraphic/inscriptional convention κατ' ὄναρ / κατ' ὄνειρον or ex uiso / uisu suggests a cultural association between dreams and vision. Hom. Il. 2.16-34 and Virg. A. 2.270-97 give normative models of the epiphany or message dream, wherein the dreamer's position as recipient—their perceptual experience of the dream—is emphasized rather than their invention of the dream. In contrast to these, Scioli examines "episode dreams," internal visions experienced exclusively by the dreamer; these are presented as cognate to other modes of description such as ecphrasis and simile, and other phenomena of viewing such, as fantasy and hallucination.

Chapter one (pp. 24-54) seeks to establish a lexicon for dream description in Latin literature and to show how this lexicon is transferrable to other types of description. The semantic force of uidere / uideri is carefully weighed; an attempt is made where possible to separate its use in descriptions of cognitive and visual processes. That dreaming was characterized in Antiquity as a type of visual experience is neatly illustrated by Cic. Acad. 2.51-2. The chapter concludes with an analysis of [Ov.] Am. 3.5 that gives some common characteristics of the elegiac dream poems: a locus amoenus with the static feel of a painted landscape; a shift from active to passive verbs at points of ambiguity; attention to paradoxes born of dreaming and seeing; color words and similes to enhance the reader's "visual experience."

Chapter two (pp. 55-89) reads the fantasy at Tibullus 1.5.21-34 as "an imagined alternative to reality" (p. 56). It is unfortunate that the study proper does not begin with an actual dream, but its inclusion is justified (e.g. by its relationship to the saeva somnia of Delia at 1.5.13-14), and the narrative patterns established here correspond with the dream narratives of the remaining chapters. The narrator's marginalized viewer within his own tableau is established as standard for dream narratives. Scioli presents the fantasy as narrated in a primarily visual mode: as phantasia, as an inherently creative process. She aligns the fantasy, as fashioned object of narration, with poetic production (the lover as creator of images mirrors the poet as creator of images) and she suggests that the fantasy shares important common ground with ecphrastic descriptions of works of art. To quibble on a point of detail, the suddenness of Messalla's appearance, used by Scioli to suggest an epiphany, is not at all explicit (cf. the narrator at Tib. 1.3.89-90); Messalla appears as an epiphany because he is venerated (lines 33-4, noted on p. 65).

The Tibullan fantasy is productively compared to the "frieze style" of landscape painting such as appears in the Sala del Monocromo in the so-called House of Livia. This style of painting offers parallels for the kind of visual imagination at work in Tibullus 1.5.21-34 through (i) its heavy framing, which discontinues panels and scenes; (ii) its representation of human activity in a dynamic but non-continuous narrative; and (iii) the tension between realistic depiction and the ghostly, dream-like effect of their setting. Tibullus' analogy of Delia as Thetis at 1.3.43-6 offers further comparative material for the fantasy and may recommend itself through the echo of line 35 (haec mihi fingebam) in 47 (haec nocuere mihi). The reader's attention is drawn to the triumph of the visual (her body) over the verbal (her curses), and to a marginalized Peleus viewing Thetis, evoking a marginalized Tibullus viewing Delia within the fantasy. The comparative material diminishes in value at the end of the chapter: the painting of a Nereid riding a sea-creature from Stabiae offers little and might better have been omitted.

Chapter three (pp. 90-133) examines the nightmare recounted in Propertius 2.26a, and posits the narrator's shift between description and commentary as a key strategy. Scioli draws on von Blankenhagen's reconstruction of the viewer's experience of the Polyphemus and Galatea fresco from Boscotrecase for the similarity of perspectives described in poem and fresco: an internal viewer on the shore watching a figure at sea, and for "intensity of engagement" (this could have been established without von Blankenhagen).5 Scioli then compares the manner in which Prop. 1.3 overlays multiple points of comparison for Cynthia in a mode that is both atypical of waking reality and suggestive of visual paradigms of beauty. Emotional intensity is achieved in 2.26a by its sudden beginning in medias res, while its programmatic opening word uidi points to the importance of the visual in the reader's experience. At the same time, Scioli argues, uidi ego suggest autopsy and the veracity of the material to follow (cf. 3.10.1's opening mirabar): a paradox for a dream narrative overlaid with mythological comparanda. Cynthia's hands and hair in 2.26a are compared to their appearance in 2.1 and 2.2 to argue (unconvincingly, I think) for her "metamorphosis" in the drowning narrative (pp. 103-6, from object of beauty into disconnected, drowning body parts).

In the discussion of the visual style of the poem, Scioli applies Keyssner's work on the visual arts and Propertius,6 and argues that Propertius privileges stylistic qualities specific to painting in the poem. These qualities are: (i) its attention to contrasting colours and textures (well supported by Plut. Mor. 1.16b-c); (ii) a static quality of composition in which common types of Phrixus and Helle are referenced to contextualize a narrow focus upon Helle's drowning and the narrator's occupation of a typically feminized space, on the shore looking out to sea; (iii) paired and (iv) pendant images.7

Chapter four (pp. 134-72) argues that Prop. 3.3's dream narrative is a visual tableau that explores the effects of illusionism in a manner similar to visual art. The poem's manner of evoking visual imagery and encouraging a particular mode of viewing is compared first to the frescoes in room M from the villa at Boscoreale, and then to the Archelaos relief, in the British Museum, showing the apotheosis of Homer. The stance of Apollo when he appears at 13-14 is compared to the same god's "Cyrene" statue type, suggesting the narrator as an incubator in a temple. This Propertian play with the mimetic power of sculpture is compared to 2.31 on the portico of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. The interplay of ars and natura in the cave is contextualized by decorated grottoes. The doves of Venus in the Muses grotto are argued to be familiar to Propertius' reader from types such as appear on the dove mosaic from Hadrian's villa. Throughout the discussion, modes of representation from the visual arts vivify Propertius' dream and underscore the role of Propertius' own ars in representing his vision. The key parallel found on the Boscoreale fresco is the alternation of illusion and elements that call attention to the construction of the illusion (the figure standing on the floor of the cave, pp. 161-2, is invisible: a detailed inset or similar would have been appreciated). The statues in the second register of the Archelaos relief are promoted as relevant for the narrator of 3.3, as "pivot points" in viewing the realms of the human and the divine, and as a point of comparison for the narrated "Propertius" within the dream imagined and recounted by Propertius the narrator of that experience.

Chapter five (173-216) treats Rhea Silvia's dream in Ovid, Fasti 3.29-38. Scioli foregrounds both its unique status as symbolic dream within the Fasti and its position in that work within a triad of rape narratives wherein violated bodies lead to civic and political development; only in the account of Rhea Silvia is the reader allowed to access the subjective experience of the victim. Fasti 3.29-38 is compared with Prop. 1.3 to demonstrate its affinity with elegiac norms, and the unarmed, eroticized Mars who appears in the proem to Fasti 3 is read as marking the elegiac sensibility of the narrative that follows.

A number of suggestions strike me as misleading in the narrative analysis of this passage. Tib. 1.5.13-14 offers no evidence of the male lover's impulse to know his sleeping girlfriend's dreams (p. 176). 3.23-4 intra | uiscera Romanae conditor urbis erat is presented as a "key" to 3.10 ut huic urbi semina magna dares: it can clearly be read as a structural echo, but could any reader have misunderstood line 10's meaning and have required line 23-4 to comprehend it (p. 188)? That 3.53 nescit alludes to Ov. Am. 1.5.25 cetera quis nescit? is unconvincing (p. 194). Finally, interpreting the river as a metaphor for narration itself (pp. 194-7) seems to work only partially. Scioli reads Rhea Silvia sleeping by a river as a correlative of her oblivion of the narrative being told about her; her interrupted task of water collection is read as symbolizing an interrupted narrative progression; her refilling the urn is promoted as a symbol of her taking control of narrative by presenting her side of it. To me, the vehicle and tenor of the metaphor don't match as neatly as they do when the narrating river Achelous detains Theseus by telling stories in Metamorphoses 8-9. Scioli concludes by considering visual evidence for the interaction of active, waking voyeurs and passive, sleeping objects of attention in Roman visual culture to argue that Ovid exploited techniques from visual representation in his narrative in Fasti 3. The main evidence comprises: (i) the Fresco from the House of Fabius Secundus; (ii) the columbarium of the Statilii, where the fallen urn is the point of focus, and (iii) a mosaic from Ostia now in the Palazzo Altieri, where the urn is even more prominent, and, while it may represent the river itself, may alternatively be the urn Rhea Silvia is carrying to the river in the myth (or both: p. 209-11).

Overall I thought this study helped sharpen an appreciation of the composition of the scenes under discussion and I would see this as its main strength. The narratological emphasis of the project may curtail a broader contribution to understanding elegy as a genre or the role of dreams in literature, but I would recommend it for its elucidation of a contemporary culture of viewing and composition, and for its exposition of the narrative techniques used in these poems.


1.   Walde, C. Die Traumdarstellungen in der griechisch-römischen Dichtung (Munich 2001).
2.   Hubbard, M. Propertius (London 1974); Boucher, J. P. Études sur Properce: Problèmes d'inspiration et d'art (Paris 1965); Leach, E. W. The Rhetoric of Space: Literary and Artistic Representation of Landscape in Republican and Augustan Rome (Princeton 1988).
3.   Greene, E. The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore 1998); O'Neill, K. "The lover's gaze and Cynthia's glance," in R. Ancona and E. Greene (eds) Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore 2005) 243-68; Raucci, S. Elegiac Eyes: Vision in Roman Love Elegy (New York 2011).
4.   Bartsch, S. Decoding the Ancient Novel (Princeton 1989); Whitmarsh, T. "Written on the body: ekphrasis, perception and deception in Heliodorus' Aethiopica," Ramus 31 (2002) 111-25; Elsner, J. Art and the Roman Viewer (Cambridge 1995); Elsner, J. Roman Eyes (Princeton 2007).
5.   von Blankenhagen, P. H. and Alexander, C. The Paintings from Boscotrecase (Heidelberg 1962).
6.   Keyssner, K. "Die bildende Kunst bei Properz," repr. in W. Eisenhut (ed.) Properz (Darmstadt 1975) 264-86.
7.   Drawn from Valladares, H. "The lover as model viewer: gendered dynamics in Propertius 1.3," in R. Ancona and E. Greene (eds) Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore 2005) 206-42.

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