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The painting almost makes you want to look away, and you can see some visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art doing just that; others stare, giggle, or frown.  A cascade of naked children pours down a mountain stream.  At first you think they might be playing, but then you notice that none of them seems to be making eye contact, and that their staring eyes, most of which are blue, seem to be looking into some other world.  That is Léon Frédéric’s “The Source of Life.”  I’m not the only one to have found it a little disturbing.

Léon Frédéric, "The Source of Life"

Léon Frédéric, “The Source of Life”

Frédéric (1856–1940) was a Belgian Symbolist painter who studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and in Italy, where he learned to admire Renaissance painting.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that somewhere behind this odd painting lies a classical model—but what on earth could it be?  Where could that carpet of creepy children come from?


Titian, “Offering to Venus”

One possibility is that at some point Frédéric encountered Titian’s “Offering to Venus.”  In that painting, executed about 1518, Titian (ca. 1490–1576) showed Cupids or Erotes (the word just means “Loves”) reveling in front of their divine mother or patroness, the goddess Venus.  There is the same receding procession of children, although these, being divine, have wings.  The cupids play, but there is the same lack of eye contact.  The naked children recede into the background, just as in Frédéric’s painting.  In the foreground of Titian’s painting, one cupid turns away, left arm raised, as another, to his right, moves away.  In the foreground of Frédéric’s painting, two children echo that movement.

There are, to be sure, some missing bits.  Fréderéic’s painting lacks the dominating figure of Venus and her two worshipers, who enter Titian’s painting from stage left.  But the resemblance is still there all the same.  Frédéric may have imitated the Renaissance painter.  But can we trace the image back even farther?  is there a classical precedent?

Frederic source detailTitian certainly drew on the Imagines attributed to Lucius Flavius Philostratus (ca. 170–250).  (The work may be by his son-in-law, also called Philostratus, but that possibility needn’t trouble us here.)  The Imagines is an exercise in what ancient rhetoricians called ecphrasis, vivid description of a work of art.  Imagines 1.6 describes a painting of Cupids or Erotes playing and gathering apples.  A translation is here.1024px-Ofrenda_a_Venus detail









Most art historians would accept, I think, the link between Titian and Philostratus, but the link between Frédéric and Titian is harder to argue, at least for me.  Probably because of my history-centered training in classical philology, I’d feel better if I could point to some evidence that Frédéric could have seen or known Titian’s painting, which is now at the Prado in Madrid.  Many students of classical reception, though, do not feel the need of that kind of external evidence.  For them, asking for proof of reception is the narrowest kind of historical positivism and turns the study of classical reception into an old-fashioned search for influences.  When “may have known” is as close as we can get, it’s close enough, especially when the resemblances between a later work and its classical forebear are strong enough to be persuasive.  Are they in this case?


Students at Yale want John C. Calhoun’s name removed from one of their residential colleges, and at Princeton protesters demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be taken off many of the university’s memorials.  Even Bryn Mawr has not been immune to this latest wave of intolerance for our forebears, although students here must have had to search a bit before they discovered that M. Carey Thomas was no better than anyone else in her time and demanded that her name be removed from the college’s Thomas Great Hall.  (In any case, this being Bryn Mawr, the students promptly apologized and submitted a revised and more reasonable set of demands.) In a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Livingston makes a good case against the kind of moralistic presentism that underlies these demands to repress the past.

Comments on the Chronicle post, however, rightly point out that Livingston elides an important distinction.  There’s a difference between studying the past and memorializing the past—between trying to understand John C. Calhoun’s support for slavery and states’ rights and putting up a statue of John C. Calhoun.  In the absence of any other context, a statue or other memorial constitutes an implied endorsement of the person commemorated.

The Romans understood this distinction very well.  Their history is full of examples of damnatio memoriae, the practice of erasing portraits, cutting names out of inscriptions, melting down statues, and retooling coins.  The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a good example: a marble block with an inscription to Domitian on one side and a carved relief on the other.  After Domitian’s death the Roman senate decreed damnatio memoriae, the inscription was chiseled off, and the block was reused as part of a monument to the emperor Trajan.  The emperor Caracalla reigned as co-emperor with his younger brother Geta from A.D. 209 until 211, when he murdered Geta and ordered his portraits erased and his name obliterated from inscriptions.

Both these examples illustrate two important characteristics of damnatio memoriae.  First, Only the powerful can perpretate it.  The senate could condemn Domitian’s memory because they had the power to do so (and because the new dynasty didn’t object); Caracalla could blot out visual reminders of his brother because . . . well, because he was the emperor.  Second, it is seldom successful.  Damnatio memoriae doesn’t correct the record of history.  It exacts posthumous vengeance or covers up guilt.   We can read about Domitian and Geta because Romans like Tacitus or Cassius Dio commemorated them in their histories.  More recent examples, from Stalin’s elimination of the purged Lavrentiy Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to Penn State’s removal of convicted pederast Jerry Sandusky from a campus mural, suggest the same two-fold dynamic: powerful interests insist on the removal of a disgraced person’s name and image in an attempt to blot him from memory.  Removal makes the person memorable.

What, then, of those students at Yale and Princeton?  Can what they are doing be called classical damnatio memoriae as well as moralistic presentism?  The students themselves are not powerful, but by the very fact of being at places like Princeton or Yale they belong to a privileged class, and their demands express an influential strand of ideology in universities.  And they are unlikely to succeed in removing all evidence of the forebears they hope to condemn.  If they gain their demands, though, they will certainly make themselves and their allies feel better, until the long swing of history arcs back, and they appear as much part of their time and place as Caracalla, Calhoun, or M. Carey Thomas.

Last night’s attacks in Paris left the West once again searching for explanations and context.  European and American leaders appealed to universal values. French president François Hollande described the attack as “against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: A free country that means something to the whole planet.”  President Obama followed suit: “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

As the leaders of the West spoke, it became clear that by universal values they meant political values.  Hollande spoke of “a free country.”  Obama praised “the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” Lliberté, égalité and fraternité, he added, “are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.” Once again Western, liberal democracy was cast as a universal value. German president Joachim Gauck made it clear: “Europe’s values and Europe’s freedom have been attacked by powerful enemies throughout history. Nevertheless, our Europe is a fortress of democracy and human rights. Even the brutal attacks of Islamist terrorists won’t change this.”

But are these political, democratic values human universals?  Islamic leaders who also condemned the attacks appealed not to political values but to moral ideas grounded in religion. The foreign minister of Qatar called the Paris attacks “against all human and moral values.” The Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s chief religious body, reminded the world that “Terrorists are not sanctioned by Islam and these acts are contrary to values of mercy it brought to the world.”

The universal political values cited by Western presidents are in fact Greek, as Kurt Raaflaub points out in an essay soon to appear in Classical World.* Voting, the secret ballot, the rule of law, the principle of representation, even the very basic idea of citizenship, Raaflaub demonstrates, can all be traced to cultural and political developments in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries BC.

This local origin at the beginnings of Western culture does not make liberal democracy and its associated values less worth defending, but we need to be clear about ther origins in our long conversation with Greece and Rome. Understanding where our values come from will make it easier to find common ground with men of good will who do not share the political values bequeathed to Europe and America by ancient Greece but instead base their condemnation on moral concepts like mercy and love.

*In volume 109.1, to appear at the end of November. Full disclosure: I edit Classical World.



A year ago I posted about some events at the 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival that continued Philadelphia’s long conversation with ancient Greece and Rome.  Fringe artists used Greek drama (Antigone and Oedipus Rex), the Iliad, the myth of Arethusa, Aesop, and Livy’s story of the rape of Lucretia as channeled by Shakespeare to think about gender, violence, feminism, and psychology; the Greeks, as always, were good to think with.

Fringe 2015 seems to have fewer events built on classical foundations.  I found three:

  • Hannah Van Sciver’s Fifty Days at Iliam explores the Trojan War as told in the drawings of Cy Twombley.
  • Like a Bat out of Hades looks like fun:  an adaptation of Euripides’ Alcestis from Ombelico Mask Ensemble “told in the physical, raucous style that only OME can do.”
  • The Fall uses Hesiod’s myth of Pandora and others to tell “a new and old story of how one moment of temptation can change the world.”

These events matter because they are part of Philadelphia’s use of Greece and Rome through performance.  They are our way of engaging, in this moment of our history, with an important strand of our culture.  Fifty Days at Iliam draws on Cy Twombley’s drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I look at them several times a year.  They are always new.  The Fall uses actors from local schools.  Ombelico Mask Ensemble is based in Philadelphia.  Classical reception can transcend national boundaries, and Anne Carson’s Antigone in New York or the Bacchae  in London are national events that will draw audiences and reviews from all over.  The Philly Fringe performances are ours, and they will speak, I hope, to what it means to use the Iliad or Alcestis or Pandora as part of your life in Philadelphia in 2015 .


In my last post, I promised to say something about “vernacular classicism.”  By that I meant receptions of ancient Greece and Rome by people other than the elite in a society.  If Classicizing Philadelphia doesn’t include those non-elite receptions, it will be just another exercise in prosing on about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.  People will nod politely and go about their business, and they will continue to assume that Greece and Rome are somehow the cultural property of the elite.

But who is elite?  And who isn’t?  Defining “elite” and “non-elite” turns out to be a difficult business.  Using a criterion like income, it’s not hard to distinguish extremes—but where do we draw the boundary?  (Usually, somewhere just above where we think we are.)  How do we take account of power or influence that isn’t correlated with high income?

The best I can do at this point is offer a typology with examples.  It’s crude and empirical, but at least it’s a start toward understanding what I mean by “vernacular classicism.”

1.  Elite receptions for non-elite users.  In Philadelphia, think of Horace Trumbauer’s pair of neo-classical public buildings on Logan Circle: the Free Library and former Family Court Building.  Trumbauer built his practice on the patronage of the Philadelphia’s elite and designed mansions for them, including the Widener and Elkins families.  Peter A. B. Widener, then vice-chair of the Free Library’s directors, was instrumental in commissioning Trumbauer to design the library’s building.  From its opening, the building was seen as an icon of culture.  A local newspaper saw its function:  “The building at Logan Circle is far more than a book storage, to which the public can go to read and borrow. It has unique facilities for the spread of culture. Properly supported, it will perform service of incalculable value.”

2.  Non-elite receptions for elite users.  This is the first category from the other side—the Free Library as seen by a draftsman in Trumbauer’s office.  It’s easiest to recognize in the work of painters, who often (but not always) belong to a non-elite stratum of society but who control the content and execution of the work they do for elite patrons.  John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) came from a family of artisan painters; his father was a dealer in art supplies.  If Aaron Burr had not noticed him, he might have remained in obscurity in upstate New York; instead, his neo-classical and academic paintings, like Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos at PAFA, earned him fame and the patronage of nineteenth-century elites in government and art.

3.  Non-elite receptions for non-elite users.  These are in some ways the most interesting and the hardest to document, especially in the 2000mummers36historical record.  Any street of row houses in North or West or South Philadelphia will have porches or entryways whose paired, Doric or Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment.  These are the work of journeyman architects or builders working from pattern books, and their names are hard to find—but they reflect someone’s taste.  Hardly a Mummers’ Parade goes by without at least one string band riffing on Rome or ancient Greece.  In nineteenth-century Philadelphia, middle- and upper-class patrons streamed to the elite Arch Street, Chestnut Street, and Walnut Street Theaters to enjoy divas like Adeleide Ristori in the title role of Ernst Legouvé’s Medea, but in 1870 Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels could draw a crowd to their theater at 47-49 North Seventh Street for a skit called “Medea, or Ristori Restored.”  This non-elite reception has left no trace except for a tiny ad in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph.

That’s why the work being done at Monument Lab during these past three weeks has been important.  It democratizes the process of monument making; in my typology, it moves it from category one or two to category three.  Can the result be a monument that includes and continues Philadelphia’s non-elite receptions of Greece and Rome?

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