Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Rosario Rovira Guardiola, The Ancient Mediterranean Sea in Modern Visual and Performing Arts: Sailing in Troubled Waters. Imagines - Classical receptions in the visual and performing arts. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. xv, 325. ISBN 9781474298599. $122.00.

Reviewed by Eugene Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University (afonasin@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Part of a larger project entitled "Imagines" and dedicated to various aspects of the reception of classical antiquity in the visual and performing arts,1 the present volume contains a series of studies dedicated specifically to the image of the ancient Mediterranean in modern and contemporary arts. The contributions are arranged according to five topics. Bibliographic references are given at the end of the book. The studies are quite independent one of another and do not cover the subject in a systematic way, so they may be treated separately.

The book opens with three studies of the Mediterranean as a geographical space (Part 1). The first of them (chapter 1) deals with depictions of Roman Adriatic ports by early modern travelers and lovers of antiquity. Its author F. Ugolini discusses antiquarian depictions of the ports of Ravenna and Rimini in some detail. The chapter is well illustrated and will definitely capture the attention of anyone interested in the history of navigation. In chapter 2 M. Carbone tells the story of early travelers' appreciation of one of the most symbolic places associated with antiquity and full of nostalgia for vanished Greek glory, the strait between Calabria and Sicily (the Strait of Messina), widely identified with the marine passage between Scylla and Charybdis. In chapter 3 F. S. Ventura offers a detailed analysis of a Spanish film Fedra directed by Mur Oti (1956). The geographical location is the ancient coast of Cadiz, the time is the present. A girl (Estrella=Fedra) is in love with the sea and with a young man (Fernando=Hippolytus), whose father (Juan=Theseus) she marries in order to be closer to her beloved. The ancient plot underwent considerable elaboration in the film, since working, as he was, in difficult circumstances, Mur Oti had to comply with the requirements of Church censorship, and only the name of the "great Cordovan writer" Seneca saved the day.

In Part 2 (Living and Dying in Troubled Waters), the authors focus on the images of travelers and heroes who plied the troubled waters of the Mediterranean in their search for glory. Ulysses, understandably, emerges as the main personage and Arion plays an important role. In chapter 7 E. Notti and M. Treu enumerate and briefly discuss various examples of theatrical production, mostly Italian, recent and older, related to the idea of homecoming on the one hand and on the other the insatiable passion for travel and new discoveries. The artistic works are presented according to major headings, such as the journey, the Cyclopes, waiting, the return and, in greater detail, the missing The authors emphasize the theme of dying in troubled waters in a fruitless attempt to find a better place and a happier lot, citing as examples Rumore di acque, an original creation of M. Martinelli (2010), and Aeschylus' Suppliant Women (staged by M. Ovadia in the Greek theatre in Syracuse, 2015). The painful lot of refugees lies at the heart of this drama.2 Chapters 5 and 6 elaborate on the image of Ulysses in cinema and theatre, respectively. In his contribution O. L. Marchena focuses on Nostos, il ritorno, a meditative and beautiful film by F. Piavoli (1990), while S. Fernaro studies The Odyssey in a metaphorical sea, a collective artistic experiment, completed in 2010 in the six cities of the German industrial Ruhr-District. According to the concept of the piece, the audience travelled from one location in the area to another in their own micro-Odyssey. The motorway restaurants, industrial warehouses, and abandoned mines created a "world of cracks and transitional period" (p. 113), while the plays themselves (written and staged by different authors), emphasized the theme of exile and abandonment (e. g. the play by Özdamar, which tells the story of a Turkish girl's journey from Istanbul to Germany). A well-illustrated contribution by D. Engster (chapter 4) is dedicated to the image of Arion (and in general ancient legends of dolphin-riders) in modern literature and art up to the 18th and 19th centuries. The examples discussed include the works of F. Bol (1616-80), A. Dürer (1471-1528), and A. Altdorfer (1480-1538).

In part 3 (A Personal Sea. The Artist and the Sea), chapter 8, J. Carruesco and M. Reig analyze the complicated symbolism of Wolfgang Rihm's opera Dionysos: Szenen und Dithyramben. Eine Opernphantasie (2010), comparing it both with ancient mythological stories and with the life of Friedrich Nietzsche. Parallels with Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) are especially telling. In chapter 9, R. R. Guardiola explores the development of the motif of Ovid's exile in E. Delacroix's works. The motif of the poet's encounter with the barbarians is paired with another work of the French painter, Les Natchez, which depicts two Native Americans with a child, who escaped the massacre of their tribe by the Europeans. The works of Delacroix are contrasted with a contemporary painting of Turner, Ovid banished from Rome (1838). Cinematic Romans is the subject of C. Ricci (chapter 10), who analyzes the sea as, first, a metaphor for change, then as a space of conflict, an expression of engineering skills, and, finally, a metaphor for luxury and decline. The cinematographic examples (both artistic creations and documentaries) analyzed in the chapter are connected with relevant classical texts and the facts of Roman history.

Part 4 comprises three studies, associated, in the view of the editor, with the subject of the sea and politics. Chapter 11 is dedicated to the Dutch-British painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Q. Broughall emphasizes the role of Mediterranean seascapes in the numerous historical romantic scenes he created. Of special importance is the painter's attention to architectural details of which he possessed a first-hand knowledge. The image of Phoenicians and Carthaginians is understandably topical for Spanish literature, painting and performing arts. After a brief discussion of historical circumstances, A. Ansuategui turns in chapter 12 first to the place of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in Spanish political discourse from the 18th to the 20th centuries, and then focuses on some historical paintings (by F. de Goya, F. D. Marques, etc.) and literary creations; although, as the author notes, the maritime aspect of these historical events somewhat 'fades into the background' (p. 223) in comparison with the cultural and political dimensions of the questions so important for creation of a national identity (noble Spaniards vs treacherous Carthaginians, etc.). Finally, chapter 13 is devoted to a crucial event in Roman history – the battle of Actium. Examples discussed are Cleopatra (C. DeMille, 1934), Cleopatra (J. Mankiewicz, 1964), and the HBO cable television series Rome (2005-7). M. S. Cyrino studies the place of the battle in these very different artistic adaptations of the story.3

In chapter 14, S. & A. de Cavalho et. al. tell about a social project, initiated a decade ago in Portugal by a student society for Classical studies, entitled "The birth of comedy." The goal was to promote ancient mythology and drama as valuable educational and cathartic tools (with water as a metaphor for life and purification). It appears that the project has been a great success. Finally, in an "annex" to the book we learn about the activities of the photographer J. Bandeira, whose representation of the inhabitants of the outskirts of Lisbon is reminiscent of some characters of the Iliad and the Epic Cycle.

The book is well edited and produced. I have noticed no errors. I do not hesitate to recommend the book warmly to anyone interested in up-to-date knowledge about a broad range of topics related to the representation of ancient cultural tradition in contemporary visual and performing arts.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Rosario Rovira Guardiola
The Mediterranean as a Geographical Space
1. "Roman Adriatic ports and the antiquarian tradition," Federico Ugolini
2. "Chronotopes of Hellenic antiquity: The Strait of Reggio and Messina in documents from the Grand Tour era," Marco Benoît Carbone
3. "The Eternal Words of the Latin Sea: Fedra by Mur Oti," Francisco Salvador Ventura

Living and Dying in Troubled Waters
4. "Quod mare non novit, quae nescit Ariona tellus? (Ov. Fast. II,83)," Dorit Engster
5. "Ulysses in the cinema: the example of Nostos, il ritorno (Franco Piavoli, Italy 1990)," Óscar Lapeña Marchena
6. "A sea of metal plates: images of the Mediterranean from the XVIIIth century until post-modern theatre," Sotera Fornaro
7. "Sailors on Board, Heroes en Route. From the Aegean World to Modern Stage," Erika Notti and Martina Treu

A Personal Sea. The Artist and the Sea
8. "Ancient Seas in Modern Opera: Sea Images and Mediterranean Myths in Rihm's Dionysos," Jesús Carruesco, and Montserrat Reig
9. "A mirror to see your soul. The exile of Ovid in Eugene Delacroix's painting," Rosario Rovira Guardiola
10. "Cinematic Romans and the Mediterranean Sea," Cecilia Ricci

Sea Politics
11. "Changing their sky, not their soul. Lawrence Alma-Tadema's vision of the ancient Mediterranean," Quentin Broughall
12. "The image of Phoenicians and Carthaginians in Modern Spanish History and Culture," Antonio Duplá Ansuategui
13. "Screening the Battle of Actium. Naval Victory, Erotic Tragedy, and the Birth of an Empire," Monica Silveira Cyrino

Contemporary Uses of the Classical Mediterranean
14. "Troubled Waters: Performative imaginary in the Project PI – Pequena Infância," Sofia de Carvalho, Elisabete Cação and Ana Seiça Carvalho
15. "Nem Gregos nem Troianos," José Bandeira


1.   See the website Imagines.
2.   For instance, on his way back from Lesbos and Delphi the present writer was invited by Greek friends to attend a performance given in an open-air theatre, located in an Athenian park with a beautiful view of Piraeus. The production was of Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, directed by Vangelis Varotzakis. The actors were (I was told) mostly students. They spoke Modern Greek, although some phrases where recited in Ancient Greek. The performance attracted many people. A local teacher of literature (himself a writer) in a conversation after the performance told me that their task was to show, by means of this play, how civilization and humanity overcome barbarism.
3.   Antony and Cleopatra (Heston, 1972), a film adaptation of the Shakespeare play might have been included.

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