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date: 15 October 2019

Ecphrasis: Visual and Verbal Interactions in Ancient Greek and Latin Literature

Abstract and Keywords

This essay explores the intersections between ancient and modern notions of ecphrasis (defined by Imperial Greek rhetoricians as “a descriptive speech” that “brings the subject shown before the eyes with visual vividness”). After surveying recent comparative literary approaches to ecphrastic “intermediality,” the essay first analyzes theories of ecphrasis in theProgymnasmata. Second, by relating these Imperial Greek rhetorical discussions back to literary and literary critical traditions, the essay posits a closer relationship between ancient and modern ideas of ecphrasis than is often assumed. Third, it surveys “self-standing” ecphrasis in epigrammatic poetry, paying particular attention to epigram’s paragonal pitching of vision against voice (and vice versa). Finally, the Elder Philostratus’Imaginesis introduced as antiquity’s most sophisticated meditation on words and images—at once resonating with earlier literary traditions and anticipating some of the most pressing questions about ecphrasis in contemporary literary critical theory.

Keywords: ecphrasis/ekphrasis, visual-verbal relations, intermediality, sight, rhetoric, Progymnasmata, enargeia, Homeric shield of Achilles, Hellenistic epigram, the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines

The Greek term ecphrasis (ἔκφρασις) is attested from around the first century AD onward. Etymologically, the word refers to an act of “speaking out” (ek-phrazein), above all within the context of ancient rhetoric (Graf, 1995: 143): “ecphrasis is a descriptive speech that brings the subject shown before the eyes with visual vividness,” according to a recurrent definition in Imperial Greek rhetorical handbooks. Since the late 1980s, however, the term ecphrasis has been appropriated to encompass a much wider range of meanings, most notably within the fields of comparative literature, art history, and visual culture studies (see Denham, 2010, and Brassat and Squire, forthcoming, for some broad overviews of bibliography; among the most decisive contributions were Heffernan, 1993; Hollander, 1995; and Boehm and Pfotenhauer, 1995). As a “verbal representation of a visual representation” (Heffernan, 1993: 3; cf. Heffernan, 1991), or else as a “sought-for equivalent in words of any visual image” (Krieger, 1992: 9), ecphrasis has proved integral to recent scholarship on visual-verbal relations. On the one hand, the trope has underpinned literary and rhetorical studies of “description” in relation to “narration”—and hence the semiotics of reading in relation to seeing (for the key Classicist contribution, see Fowler, 1991). On the other hand, ecphrasis has proved hugely stimulating within the field of art history. During the last twenty years or so in particular, scholars have argued that all art history—by its very act of “speaking for pictures”—is in one sense “ecphrastic” (Baxandall, 1985; Heffernan, 1999; Elsner, 2010): “the moment we try and ‘describe’ a work of art or make a statement of ‘fact’ about its meaning…,” as James Heffernan writes, “we are interpreting the picture, construing its signs and articulating what they signify” (Heffernan, 1993: 30; cf. Elkins, 1998; Barkan 2013).

This explosion of interest in ecphrasis has gone hand in hand with what W. J. T. Mitchell labeled the “pictorial turn” of the late twentieth century, and not least the associated rise of “visual culture” as a disciplinary field (Mitchell, 1994: 11–34; cf. Boehm, 1994: 13–17). While nineteenth-century scholars had already catalogued some of the most important “written sources” for Greek art (e.g., Overbeck, 1868—now revised as Kansteiner et al., 2014), and although early twentieth-century critics had certainly probed the cultural and literary history of the trope in Classical antiquity (most important was Friedländer, 1912, within the context of late-antique “Kunstbeschreibungen”; cf. Schissel von Fleschenberg, 1913), ecphrasis was until recently a relatively unknown term beyond a small circle of Classicists. One of the most important scholars to appropriate this ancient term within a broader theoretical context was Leo Spitzer in the mid-twentieth century: Spitzer used the Greek word to define a “poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art” (Spitzer, 1955: 207; cf. Webb, 1999; Webb, 2009: 28–37). Developing Spitzer’s arguments, subsequent scholars have turned to ecphrasis to probe the at once collaborative and competing interface between words and images—the ways in which language can “cite,” but never “sight,” its visual subjects (Mitchell, 1994: 152; earlier key contributions include Krieger, 1967; Schapiro, 1973; Goodman, 1968/1976; Bergmann-Loizeaux, 1979; Bryson, 1981; Steiner, 1982; Alpers, 1983; Baxandall, 1985; Bann, 1989; Bal, 1991). One important intellectual stimulus for such work has been French (post-)structuralist criticism, above all the writings of Michel Foucault (e.g., Foucault, 1983, originally published in French in 1968; cf. Bryson, 1988). More generally, interest in the visual-verbal “intermediality” of ecphrasis (Wagner, 1996) has been fuelled by the various “mediations” of postmodernity (the classic discussion remains Baudrillard, 1981): “in a theoretical climate that privileges representation over the alleged ‘real thing,’” as Mario Klarer explains, “it is not surprising that a rhetorical figure such as ekphrasis should have received considerable attention” (Klarer, 1999: 2; cf. Heffernan, 1991: 300–301).

This short essay sets out to survey just some of the ways in which such scholarship has informed (and been informed by) the study of Greek and Latin texts. The sheer amount of scholarly work here precludes anything like a full overview (for some related surveys, cf. e.g. Elsner, 2002; Squire, 2009: esp. 139–46; Zeitlin, 2013; earlier, but still fundamental, overviews include Friedländer, 1912: esp. 1–103; Downey, 1959: 923–932; Palm, 1965–6; Hohlweg, 1971: 36–42; Fantuzzi, Reitz, and Egelhaaf-Gaiser, 2004). In what follows, my aim is instead to offer a general orientation, structured around four intersecting parts. I begin with Greek Imperial rhetorical definitions of ecphrasis in the so-called Progymnasmata (essentially schoolboy “handbooks” of rhetoric), with particular attention to the technical language in which the Progymnasmata conceptualize and explain ecphrasis. This leads, second, to the various evocations of crafted objects in Greek and Latin literary texts: as we shall see, the tradition finds its origins in the Homeric description of the “shield of Achilles” (Il. 18.478–608), which provided a model for all manner of descriptions across widely divergent Greek and Latin literary genres. Where the second section of the essay examines ecphrastic descriptions “embedded” within larger narrative texts, the third part surveys the rise of so-called “ecphrastic epigrams,” above all in Hellenistic poetry: epigrams like those dedicated to Myron’s bronze statue of a heifer (AP 9.713–42, 793–98; Posid. 66 A-B), themselves discussed and imitated by Latin authors (e.g. Plin. HN 34.57–58; Auson. Ep. 63–71; Ep. Bob. 10–13), served as free-standing verbal responses to purported visual stimuli; in doing so, they gave voice to many of the same underlying questions about how verbal language relates to visual imagery (and vice versa). Fourth and finally, I turn to antiquity’s arguably most complex and self-referential experiments with ecphrastic description, namely in the Imagines of the Elder Philostratus (probably written in the early third century AD): while Philostratus’ evocation of a purported picture-gallery resonates with longer traditions of Classical ecphrasis, I argue, it also foreshadows many of the theoretical preoccupations of modern-day comparative literary studies.

Defining Ecphrasis in the Progymnasmata

We begin, then, with rhetorical definitions of ecphrasis in the Imperial Greek Progymnasmata (Webb, 2009 provides the most detailed analysis, supplementing her earlier studies, including Webb, 1997a; Webb, 1997b; Webb, 1999; Webb, 2000). The four most important analyses here come in the Progymnasmata of Theon, ‘Hermogenes’, Aphthonius, and Nikolaus, who each approach ecphrasis within the broader framework of epideictic declamation (for the extracted passages in Greek and English translation, see Webb, 2009: 197–211; the texts themselves can be found in Patillon and Bolognesi, 1997: 66–69; Rabe, 1913: 22–23; Rabe, 1926: 36–41; Felten, 1913: 67–71). The precise relationships between these extant Progymnasmata, including even their dates, have been much debated (Theon and ‘Hermogenes’, for example, have been variously dated to either the first/second centuries AD or else to the fifth: cf. Heath, 2002–2003). Much has also been written in recent years about the social, intellectual, and pedagogical contexts of these educational handbooks (e.g., Anderson, 1993: 47–53; Boeder, 1996: 29–41; Webb, 2001: esp. 294–95; Webb, 2009: 39–59; Goldhill, 2007: 3–8): as is to be expected, perhaps, “the approach these handbooks take proves to be relatively dry and matter-of-fact” (Bartsch, 1989: 7–14, quotation from 9).

Despite their differences in emphasis and explanatory gloss, the Progymasmata provide strikingly similar definitions. Theon’s explanation of ecphrasis as a “descriptive speech which brings the subject shown before the eyes with visual vividness” [ἔκφρασίς ἐστι λόγος περιηγηματικὸς ἐναργῶς ὑπ’ ὄψιν ἄγων τὸ δηλούμενον: Prog. 118.7 = Patillon and Bolognesi, 1997: 66] seems to have been echoed almost verbatim among other Progymnasmata-authors; indeed, ‘Hermogenes’ even acknowledges the formulaic explanation by adding “as they say” before his own explanatory gloss (ὡς φασίν: Prog. 10.47 = Rabe, 1913: 22). According to such definitions, ecphrasis is a special sort of “descriptive speech” [λόγος περιηγηματικός], and one that transforms the subject described from something figuratively “shown” [τὸ δηλούμενον] into a sort of literal apparition “before the eyes” [ὑπ’ ὄψιν]. Like other rhetoricians, Theon is somewhat elusive about how this transformation takes place. But for Theon, ‘Hermogenes’, Aphthonius, and Nikolaus alike, a single adverb is used to describe the process: enargôs (translated as “with visual vividness”). This concept of enargeia was evidently key to rhetorical ideas about ecphrasis, and the word (whether as noun or adverb), can in fact be found amid all the extant Progymnasmata discussions. According to ‘Hermogenes’, enargeia is one of two “virtues” of ekphrasis, working alongside saphêneia (“clarity”). “Ekphrasis is an interpretation that almost brings about seeing through hearing,” ‘Hermogenes’ adds (τὴν ἑρμηνείαν διὰ τῆς ἀκοῆς σχεδὸν τὴν ὄψιν μηχανᾶσθαι: Prog. 10.48 = Rabe, 1913: 23); the elements of ecphrasis, writes Nikolaus, “bring the subjects of the speech before our eyes and almost make speakers into spectators” [ὑπ’ ὄψιν ἡμῖν ἄγοντα ταῦτα, περὶ ὧν εἰσιν οἱ λόγοι, καὶ μόνον οὐ θεατὰς εἶναι παρασκευάζοντα = Felten, 1913: 70].

For our purposes here, three interconnecting aspects of these Progymnasmata discussions deserve special emphasis. First, ancient definitions of ecphrasis were much broader in scope than the description of artworks alone (Webb, 2009: 61–86; cf. Webb, 1999; James and Webb, 1991: 6). In contrast to most modern definitions, which define ecphrasis almost exclusively as a verbal mediation of a visual work of art alone, ancient rhetorical discussions are less interested in the subjects of ecphrasis than in its effects on the listening audience. This explains the diversity of (as indeed the discrepancies between) different ancient “ecphrastic” themes: Theon, ‘Hermogenes’, Aphthonius, and Nikolaus all distinguish between what they call ecphraseis of “deeds” (pragmata), “persons” (prosôpa), and “places” (topoi), while also talking about the interrelated categories of “times” (chronoi: Theon, ‘Hermogenes’, Nikolaus) and “opportunities” (kairoi: ‘Hermogenes’, Aphthonius); some authors also added idiosyncratic examples of their own—Theon includes descriptions of how something came about (tropoi), Aphthonius introduces “speechless animals and plants” (aloga zôa kaiphyta), and Nikolaus cites the example of “festivals” (panêgyreis); crucially, Nikolaus (writing toward the end of the fifth century) is the only author to mention descriptions of “statues, paintings and the like” (Felten, 1913: 69). If ancient authors therefore conceive of ecphrasis in broader terms than their modern comparative literary counterparts, they also draw upon passages, texts, and authors that would hardly seem “ecphrastic” to modern readers: it has often been noted, for example, that Theon alone cites the Homeric description of the “shield of Achilles” in connection with ecphrasis, introducing this “making of arms” (hoplopoiia) as an example of “ecphraseis of the ways in which things are done” [tropôn ekphraseis]; what is more, Theon cites the passage alongside (for example) Thucydides’ description of the blockade of Plataea and the construction of siege-engines in the fourth book of his Histories (cf. Webb, 1999: 7–9 on Theon, Prog. 119–120 = Patillon and Bolognesi, 1997: 68–69). Theon “could hardly be further from treating it [Homer’s ecphrasis] as a description of an ‘objet d’art,’ or even as a work of poetry,” as Ruth Webb concludes, but “simply lists the passage alongside other accounts of how military equipment and machines were made” (Webb, 2009: 70).

Second, but no less important, are the latent philosophical debts. The Progymnasmata do not discuss the intellectual archaeology of ecphrasis (or indeed its more “literary” aspects): their emphasis is very much on the persuasive force of ecphrasis, harnessed to the larger project of effective epideictic rhetoric. Yet the very terminology in which the Progymnasmata frame their analysis expresses a philosophical debt (above all to Stoic thinking—a sort of syncretic philosophical koinê in the Greek-speaking Roman empire). Particularly important here is the language of enargeia (“vividness”), a word that stretches back to Plato and Aristotle, but which came to be associated with Stoic discussions of phantasia or “inner vision” in particular (cf. e.g., Zanker, 1981; Meijering, 1987: esp. 29–52; Elsner, 1995: 26–27; Dubel, 1997; Manieri, 1998: esp. 179–92; Benediktson, 2000: 163–88; Männlein-Robert, 2003; Bartsch, 2007; Platt, 2009; Nünlist, 2009: esp. 153–55, 194–98; Webb, 2009: 87–130): through the enargeia and saphêneia of a description, or so the thinking ran, a listener could seem to arrive at the same mental phantasia that a scene had originally brought to the “mind’s eye” of a speaker, writer, or indeed artist. Approached from this perspective, it is possible to forge some broader connections between the Progymnasmata and other rhetorical and literary critical texts. Although Quintilian does not talk about ecphrasis specifically, he clearly drew on related ideas when discussing so-called uisiones (“visions”: Inst. or. 6.2.29–30): what the Greeks call phantasiae, writes Quintilian, are the “means through which images of things that are absent are represented to the mind [per quas imagines rerum absentium ita repraesentantur animo], so that we seem to view them with our eyes and to have them present before us” (cf. Goldhill, 2007: 3–5; Webb, 2009: esp. 93–96; compare more generally Henderson, 1991; Vasaly, 1993; Scholz, 1998). Whatever else we make of the Progymnasmata, their analyses of ecphrasis were clearly informed by a much deeper tradition of approaching sight and sense perception.

The third point to emphasize is the Progymnasmata’s insistence on both the promise and failure of ecphrasis to bring about “seeing” through “hearing.” Given the pedagogical remit of these handbooks, it is perhaps no surprise that they should stress the successful power of ecphrasis—its potential to “bring the subject shown before one’s eyes.” Yet in doing so, these rhetoricians also acknowledge the make-believe involved. The Progymnasmata were well aware of the fictitiousness that underlies ecphrasis—as an art of “almost [σχεδόν] seeing through hearing” (‘Hermogenes’ 10.48 = Rabe, 1913: 23) and indeed of “all but [μόνον οὐ] making the audience into spectators” (Nikolaus = Felten, 1913: 70). In the words of Simon Goldhill, “rhetorical theory knows well that its descriptive power is a technique of illusion, semblance, and of making to appear” (Goldhill, 2007: 3; cf. Becker, 1995: 28). Much later, in his ninth-century commentary on Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata, John of Sardis would develop the point explicitly: “even if the speech were ten thousand times vivid [κἂν γὰρ μυριάκις ἐναργὴς εἴη ὁ λόγος], it would be impossible [ἀδύνατον] to bring “the thing shown” or ecphrasised itself before the eyes” (= Rabe, 1928: 216; cf. Webb, 2009: 52–53).

The Ecphrastic Tradition in Greek and Latin Literature

How, then, to reconcile these Greek Imperial rhetorical discussions of ecphrasis with the evidence of Greek and Latin literature? Some scholars have recently used the Progymnasmata to champion the dissonance between modern and ancient ideas of ecphrasis, with all their culturally contingent “set of ideas about language and its impact on the listener” (Webb, 2009: 1): “the ancient and modern categories of ekphrasis are thus formed on entirely different grounds, and are entirely incommensurate, belonging as they do to radically different systems,” as Ruth Webb has concluded (Webb, 2009: 7–9; cf. Webb, 1999; Zanker, 2004: 82–84, 184–85, n. 26). The corrective has led to much important and scintillating new work, above all in the context of understanding the intellectual and rhetorical contexts of the Progymnasmata. In my opinion, however, there are nonetheless problems with approaching the Progymnasmata in strict isolation from other ancient works (cf. Squire, 2010b; Squire, 2013a). “Despite the correct insistence on the breadth of the term’s ancient meanings,” as Jaś Elsner writes, “there is little doubt that Graeco-Roman writers and readers would have recognized the description of art as a paradigmatic example of ekphrasis with a significance relatively close to modern usage” (Elsner, 2002: 2; cf. Zeitlin, 2013: 18).

Rather than approach the Progymnasmata as wholly independent rhetorical entities, we might therefore do better to consider their frameworks for theorizing ecphrasis in relation to a longer history of conceptualizing visual-verbal relations. The origins of this history—as with so much in Classical literature—lie in Homeric poetry. Although the Iliad and Odyssey contain numerous poetic descriptions of manufactured objects (cf. Becker, 1995), the paradigmatic example comes in the Homeric evocation of the “shield of Achilles” (Iliad 18.478–608: cf. Lynn-George, 1988: 174–200; Becker, 1995; Francis, 2009; d’Acunto and Palmisciano, 2010; Lecoq, 2010; de Jong, 2011; Squire, 2013a, with further bibliography at 183, n.1). The Iliad’s ornate but impressionistic description of its protagonist’s shield enacts a narrative pause from the poem: if the scenes that Hephaestus actively crafts upon the shield are introduced at a representational remove from the Iliad’s own action, the narrative frame of the poem nonetheless colors this evocation of both war and its imagined alternative; all this, moreover, within a described object that will prove quite literally instrumental within the Iliad’s own bloody climax in ensuing books (cf. Taplin, 1980; Byre, 1992; Henderson, 1993).

What particularly interests me about the Homeric description of the Achillean shield, though, is its remarkable sensitivity to the medial complexities of forging words out of images and images out of words (cf. Squire, 2013a). In James Heffernan’s words, Homer’s verbal evocation of purported visual prototype plays knowingly with the “representational friction” between different levels of replication (Heffernan, 1993: 10–22, quotation from 19). On the one hand, of course, the shield is introduced as a sight for seeing, “such that anyone among the multitude of men will marvel, whoever looks upon it” (οἷά τις αὖτε / ἀνθρώπων πολέων θαυμάσσεται, ὅς κεν ἴδηται Il. 18.466–67; cf. Il. 19.14–20, narrating the visual reactions of Achilles and his Myrmidon subjects); in a poignant mise-en-abyme, such talk of “wonder” and “amazement” (thauma) is in turn figuratively emblazoned within the visual vignettes described—from a group of women “wondering” at a marriage procession (v.496) to the replicative “wonder” of a ploughing scene (where the land “looks like earth that had been ploughed, even though it was of gold,” vv.548–49). On the other hand, this descriptive evocation of purported visual object is rendered complete with all manner of sounds to be heard (Männlein-Robert, 2007a: 13–16; Francis, 2009: esp. 8–13; Squire, 2013a: esp. 159–61; more generally on sound in ancient ecphrasis, see Laird, 1993: esp. 20–24). The verbal description gives voice to numerous aural effects, all (said to be) incorporated within the pictorial scenes: in addition to the music of flutes, lyres, and pipes (vv.493–95, 525–26, 569), we find cheering (v.502), loud-voiced heralds (v.505), the tumult of cattle and the lowing of cows (vv.530–31, 575, 580), as well as barking dogs (v.586) and even a babbling river (v.576). As part of this poetic recitation of integrated pictorial scenes, we also hear of images apparently reciting poems: sitting in the midst of a group of dancers, a boy is said to “make delightful music with a clear-toned lyre, singing the Linos song with his delicate voice” (vv.569–71). Perhaps most remarkable of all is the passing evocation of an absence of noise: the audience listening to this picture hear of (seeing) a king who stands “in silence” amidst a scene of harvesting (σιωπῇ, v.556: cf. Becker, 1995: 131–32; Francis, 2009: 10; Squire, 2013a: 161).

In my view, this Homeric passage set the conceptual agenda not only for all subsequent ancient literary evocations of visual objects, but ultimately also for later rhetorical ideas about ecphrasis, in particular its twin critical poles of “seeing” and “hearing” (Squire, 2013a: 162–63): “the relationship between word and image in ancient ekphrasis is, from its beginning, complex and interdependent, presenting sophisticated reflection on the conception and process of both verbal and visual representation” (Francis, 2009: 3). Although, as we have already noted, Theon’s Progymnasmata alone cites the Homeric passage in connection with “ecphraseis of the ways in which things are done” (τρόπων ἐκφράσεις, “ecphraseis of manners”), ancient commentators certainly did refer to the passage as an “ecphrasis” (cf. Scholion T. ad Il. 18.610 = Erbse, 1969–1988: 4.570); one commentator even drew attention to the “picture-gallery quality” (πινακογραφικὸς χαρακτήρ) of the description, associating the style with that of other “descriptive” authors (οἱ περιηγούμενοι: Eustathius ad Il. 18.607 = van der Valk, 1971–1987: 4.272). By the first century BC, some commentators went even further in applying the related language of ecphrastic “visualization” to Homeric poetry, and to this passage in particular (Zeitlin, 2001: 218–23; Squire, 2011: 325–55). What is so special about Homeric poetry, according to Cicero, is its capacity to make us view his subjects, not as poetry, but rather as picture (at eius picturam non poësin uidemus, Tusc. 5.114); in the words of Lucian in the second century AD, playing characteristically with the dual semantic registers of the Greek verb graphein (meaning both “to write” and “to draw”: cf. e.g., Lissarrague, 1992), Homer could be conceived as the best of writers and painters alike (ὁ ἄριστος τῶν γραφέων, Imag. 8).

Still more revealing is a discussion amid an Imperial Greek treatise on the Life of Homer (attributed to Plutarch, but most likely written between the turn of the second and third centuries AD). Characterizing Homer as a “teacher of painting” (ζῳγραφίας διδάσκαλον), the author explains how Homeric poetry appeals to the audience’s “phantasia of thoughts” (τῇ φαντασίᾳ τῶν νοημάτων). The ultimate example is said to lie in the technê of the Homeric shield description (Vit. Hom. 216: for discussion, see Keaney and Lamberton, 1996: 10–29; Hillgruber, 1994: 2.435–38; Squire, 2011: 338–40). Echoing the precise formulae of the Progymasmata, the Life of Homer discusses the shield in terms of an apparent capacity to bring about “sight”: it crafts “things that we seem to see rather than to hear” (ἴδωμεν δὲ… ὅτι ὁρωμένοις μᾶλλον ἢ ἀκουομένοις ἔοικε τὰ ποιήματα, Vit. Hom. 21). The Younger Philostratus would develop the conceit still further, evoking a purported painting of the Homeric shield in his explicitly “ecphrastic” Imagines (cf. Pasquariello, 2004; Squire, 2011: 331–333; Squire, 2013a: 164–166): “looking at this armor,” as the narrator puts it, “one will find none of Homer’s impressions to be missing: instead, his craftsmanship reveals accurately everything that is there” (θεωρῶν δέ τις τὰ ὅπλα λεῖπον εὑρήσει τῶν Ὁμήρου ἐκτυπωμάτων οὐδέν, ἀλλ’ ἀκριβῶς ἡ τέχνη δείκνυσι τἀκεῖθεν πάντα, Im. 10.5). Playing knowingly with the terms of the Homeric original, the Younger Philostratus sophistically transforms the Homeric verbal description into a literal image within his gallery (and one that the author in turn verbally evokes via a text representing an imagined spoken speech). But Philostratus is also well aware of the mise-en-abyme of poetic-pictorial technê involved. After all, the dynamics of actively “forging” the purported picture here are themselves modeled on the Homeric Hephaestus’ active crafting of the shield: the very process of Philostratean ecphrastic description, we might say, mirrors and extends the shield as evoked by Homer—described in terms of a continuous process of “making” and “fashioning” rather than as a finished product (the classic analysis here is Lessing, 1984: 91–103; as Lessing noted in 1766, Servius had already drawn attention to this aspect in the fourth century AD: cf. Thilo and Hagen, 1923–1927: 2.285, ad Verg. Aen. 8.625, along with Laird, 1996: 77–79).

A related mode of theorizing the Homeric shield of Achilles can be found earlier in the first century AD, not least when the Younger Pliny has recourse to the passage in the context of his famous Tuscan villa letter (Ep. 5.6.42–4). Citing the Homeric shield alongside the Virgilian description of the shield of Aeneas (and comparing Aratus’ grand but short evocation of the whole universe in his Phainomena), Pliny once again introduces the critical language of rhetorical “visualization”: like such celebrated poets (“to compare little things with large,” ut parua magnis), Pliny writes, he too will attempt in his letter “to set the entire villa before your eyes” (cum totam uillam oculis tuis subicere). As Christopher Chinn has argued, “Pliny’s synchronic account posits the Homeric shield of Achilles as the source of all ekphrastic types”—which in turn suggests, at least by the first century AD, “a conception of ekphrasis that is more “modern” than we might have expected” (Chinn, 2007: 278; cf. Squire, 2011: 353–355; Goldhill, 2012: 99–101). Such examples might be multiplied. The point to emphasize here, though, is the close correlation between critical discussions of the Homeric passage and rhetorical frameworks of theorizing ecphrasitic “visualization” in the Progymnasmata.

As the paradigmatic example of Classical ecphrasis, the Homeric shield of Achilles spurred various self-conscious imitations, and across hugely divergent literary genres (for a list of Greek and Latin literary shield descriptions specifically, see Fittschen, 1973: 1 n.1; on playful and highly self-referential Latin and Second Sophistic Greek responses, see e.g. Elsner, 2002: 3–9; Squire, 2011: 325–337). Already in the sixth century BC, the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles knowingly adopted and adapted the Homeric model, albeit in the context of a short and apparently self-standing hexameter poem (cf. Becker, 1995: 23–40 on Sc. 139–320; Elsner, 2002: 5–6; Chiarini, 2012: esp. 15–24). Subsequent epic poets would refashion the Homeric object as a talisman for their own epic heroes—one thinks, for example, of Jason’s cloak in Apollonius’ Argonautica (1.730–67: cf. Goldhill, 1991: 308–311; Clauss, 1993: 120–129; Hunter, 1993: 52–59; Manakidou, 1993: 102–173), and not least of Vergil’s description of Aeneas’ shield at Aen. 8.626–728 (complete with a pointedly “non–narratable texture,” non enarrabile textum, 8.625: for discussions, cf. Hardie, 1986: 336–376; Putnam, 1998: 119–188; Boyle, 1999: 153–161; Squire, 2014b: 386–401, with more detailed bibliography). Where Quintus of Smyrna knowingly re-tells the Homeric description within his third-century AD epic—a poem set, in every sense, within a thoroughly post-Homeric world (Posthomerica 5.6–101: see Baumbach, 2007)—earlier Attic tragedians looked to the Homeric prototype to forge their own descriptions of “shields” on the Attic stage (Hardie, 1985: 11–15; Zeitlin, 2009; cf. Zeitlin, 1994).

But epic was not the only genre to appropriate or allude to the shield of Achilles. By introducing this epic prototype within non-epic contexts, other authors could exploit the Homeric paradigm to probe not only the relations between visual imagery and verbal description, but also their own generic relations within the Greek literary canon. “The Homeric archtetype,” as Jaś Elsner puts it, “was to have a fundamental influence not only on other epic uses of ekphrasis, but also on the place of ekphrasis in other kinds of fictional narratives” (Elsner, 2002: 3). In the hands of a Hellenistic poet like Theocritus, Homer’s instrument of epic warfare is transformed into a delicate wooden drinking-cup—its scenes knowingly crafted after Homer, but now programmatically figuring the simultaneous proximity and distance between Homeric epic and the Theocritean bucolic world (Theocr. 1.26-60: cf. Halperin, 1983: 176–183; Goldhill, 1991: 240–246; Manakidou, 1993: 51–101; Hunter 1996: 43–44; Männlein-Robert, 2007a: 303–307). In prose texts too, such inset descriptions could excavate a generic archaeology while spurring self-conscious reflection, through the represented trope of viewing, about how readers might relate to the text at hand: particularly revealing here is the use of ecphrasis in “Second Sophistic” novels, not least the opening evocations of paintings in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe and Achilles’ Tatius’ Leukippe and Clitophon (cf. Hunter, 1983: 38–52; Bartsch, 1989; Whitmarsh, 2002; Morales, 2004: esp. 36–95; Webb, 2009: 178–185). So famous were the conventions of such ecphrastic evocation, that we even find them comically lampooned—nowhere more strikingly, perhaps, than in Petronius’ account of Eumolpus’ exploits in an imagined art gallery (Sat. 83–90: cf. Slater, 1987; Dufallo, 2007; Dufallo, 2013: 177–205; Elsner, 2007: 177–199; Baier, 2010).

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Figure 1 Wall painting from the Casa di Paccius Alexander (Pompeii IX.1.7 = Museo Archelogico Nazionale di Napoli inv.110338), first century AD.

Photo: Author.

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Figure 2 Obverse of Tabula Iliaca 4N (= Rome, Musei Capitolini, Sala delle Colombe, inv.83a), late first century BC / early first century AD.

Photo: Author.

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Figure 3 Göttingen plaster cast of Tabula Iliaca 4N (Archäologisches Institut und Sammlung der Gipsabgüsse, Göttingen inv. A1695), held in the hand of the author.

Photo: Author (with thanks to Daniel Gräpler for his assistance).

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Figure 4 Photograph of Iliadic text inscribed in minuscule letters around the obverse rim of the Göttingen cast of Tabula Iliaca 4N. The first three columns of text can be seen: Il. 18.483–92 (top), vv.493–504 (upper center) and vv.505–19 (lower center); a fourth column, to the right (on the damaged part of the rim at the bottom) was inscribed with vv.533–45.

Photograph: Stefan Eckardt, reproduced by kind permission (and with thanks to Daniel Gräpler for his assistance).

Although some scholars have emphasized the discrepancies between ancient and modern ideas of ecphrasis, highlighting the “wider advantages in removing the illusion of antiquity from what is essentially a modern coinage” (Webb, 1999: 18), I would therefore suggest that the parallels and intersections prove equally, if not more, salient. In this connection, it is also worth remembering the associated conceits of Greco-Roman visual culture. It is striking, for example, how—from at least the sixth-century BC onward—artists experimented with turning Homer’s verbal shield description back into visual object (Fittschen, 1973; Amedick, 1999; Lecoq, 2010: 23–29; Squire, 2013a: 165–179). Greek vase-painters were among the first to transform Homer’s words on the shield’s imagery back into material pictures (often in highly self-conscious ways: Squire, 2013a: 166–169); later Pompeian frescoes likewise visualize this prototypical act of poetic looking with remarkable self-reflection [e.g. Figure 1] (Squire, 2013a: 169–170 with further bibliography). Perhaps the most sophisticated artistic engagements with the Homeric ecphrasis, though, are two so-called Tabulae Iliacae (“Iliac tablets”), dating from the turn of the first century BC and first century AD (Squire, 2011: 303–379). One such tablet in Rome’s Musei Capitoloni (Sala delle Colombe, inv.83a [Figure 2]) not only materializes its self-declared “Achillean shield”—rendering it a hand-held miniature, with a diameter of just 17.8cm [Figure 3]—but also juxtaposes around its rim a full text of the Homeric passage [Figure 4] (its minuscule letters measuring less than one millimeter in height: Squire, 2012). Such artistic games of inverted ecphrasis prove no less sophisticated than those of contemporary poets. Where Homer had verbalized a purported visual stimulus (“almost bringing about seeing through hearing”), this object inverts the conceit, physically materializing a text so that audiences might look on and (almost!) now hear the Homeric words. The tiny inscription around the rim adds an additional spin, rendering visible image back once more into text—albeit a text that, given its miniature size, audiences can just about see, but nonetheless barely read

Vision and Voice in “Ecphrastic” Epigram

Alongside such traditions of “interventive” ecphrasis—of object-descriptions integrated within larger Greek and Latin poetic or prose narratives—Greek and Latin literature also provides numerous examples of “self-standing” ecphrastic responses to artworks (for the distinction, see Elsner, 2002: 3). Already by around 500 BC, an aphorism attributed to Simonides reflects a critical tradition of conceptualizing poetry as at once similar to but different from pictures (itself developing conceits that underlie the Homeric description of Achilles’ shield): “painting is silent poetry, poetry is talking painting” (Plut. Mor. [De Glor. Ath.] 346f = Simon. frg. 190b Bergk: see e.g., Carson, 1992; Sprigath, 2004; on the related Horatian maxim of ut pictura poesis (Ars P. 361), cf. e.g., Hardie, 1993). It is a tradition taken up by the likes of Plato—not least in Socrates’ famous observation that, when asked a question, written words will say the same thing again and again, whereas paintings must necessarily maintain a majestic silence (Phdr. 275d: cf. Männlein-Robert, 2007a: 13–35, esp. 30–31). If self-standing “epideictic” epigrams on artworks tease out such thinking, they do so by exploring the related but different resources of words and pictures. The origins of such poems lie in the Archaic and Classical Greek era—above all, in short epigrammatic inscriptions providing pithy responses to the objects on which they were materially inscribed (cf. Baumbach, Petrovic, and Petrovic, 2010, with further bibliography). By at least the early third century BC, however, such epigrams seem to have been collected (alongside others) within self-standing anthologies; what is more, they spurred ever more poems in response, circulating now in isolation from the monuments to which they referred (the volume edited by Bing and Bruss, 2007, offers the best bibliographic overview; cf. e.g. Goldhill, 1994; Bing, 1995; Bing, 1998: revised in Bing, 2009: 194–216; Gutzwiller, 1998: 47–119; Gutzwiller, 2002; Gutzwiller, 2007: 178–88; Platt, 2002; Bruss, 2005: 168–171; Meyer, 2005: 25–126; Petrovic, 2005; Männlein-Robert, 2007a; Männlein-Robert, 2007b; Tueller, 2008; Squire, 2010a; Squire, 2010c).

The extent to which Hellenistic Greek epigrams on artworks may be described as “ecphrastic” has been much debated (cf. e.g. Lauxtermann, 1998: esp. 326–329; Squire, 2010a: 592–593, n. 15). Graham Zanker has argued against associating such epigrams with ancient rhetorical ideas about ecphrasis (at least before the Byzantine period): “like the current use of the word ‘ekphrasis’ itself, the name of the category is a modern invention,” Zanker writes, adding that “these poems were very rarely intended to give a vivid description… They were poems about statues, paintings and gems” (Zanker, 2003: 61, 62). In my view, such debates have again been conducted in overly narrow terms. Underlying Hellenistic and subsequent epigrammatic ripostes to monumental artworks, after all, is a recurrent concern with the hermeneutics of seeing in relation to those of reading (cf. Squire, 2010c, with more detailed bibliography; the key contribution is Goldhill, 1994). Approached from this perspective, Hellenistic epigram’s playful games with vision and voice foreshadow—and I would add indirectly inform—much later notions of “seeing through hearing”; better, perhaps, they interrogate precisely this question of what “vivid” perception entails.

From a historical viewpoint, the critical shift here seems to have come in the late Classical period. When epigrams came to circulate separately from the objects to which they purportedly referred—when, indeed, they came to be written as self-standing poetic entities, to be collected in their own literary right—the rivalrous relationship between words and images emerged as a dominant poetic topos (Gutzwiller, 2002: esp. 86). An epigram attributed to the female poet Erinna (probably writing in the mid-fourth century BC), in turn responding to a painting of Agatharcis, nicely demonstrates the point (AP 6.352: cf. Skinner, 2001: 206–209; Gutzwiller, 2002: 88–91; Meyer, 2007: 197–198; Männlein-Robert, 2007a: 38–43; Männlein-Robert, 2007b: 255–256; Squire, 2011: 238–239):

  • ἐξ ἀταλᾶν χειρῶν τάδε γράμματα· λῷστε Προμαθεῦ,
  • ἔντι καὶ ἄνθρωποι τὶν ὁμαλοὶ σοφίαν.
  • ταύταν γοῦν ἐτύμως, τὰν παρθένον ὄστις ἔγραψεν,
  • αἰ καὐδὰν ποτέθηκ’, ἦς κ’ Ἀγαθαρχὶς ὅλα.

This painting is the work of delicate hands. Good Prometheus, humans have a wisdom that matches your own. If the person who so accurately sketched this girl had only added her voice as well, you would be Agatharchis complete.

Looking back to the Simonidean analogy between poetry and painting, Erinna delights in the at once analogous and antagonistic relationship between the two media. On the one hand, the poet emphasizes the painting’s promise to stand in for the subject, rendered so “accurately” [ἐτύμως] within the picture. On the other hand, she draws simultaneous attention to the painting’s failure to portray the “whole” Agatharcis: after all, the painting has no voice [αὐδά]. The witty conceit lies in the fact that, by vocally responding to the poem, Erinna’s text would seem to champion precisely the quality that painting is said to lack. Whatever the alleged “wisdom” [σοφία] of the painter, in other words, we consequently find it replicated in the “clever hands” of our poet who inscribes a vocal riposte. As so often, the resulting analogy and competition between words and images finds expression through a pun on the Greek verb graphein, at once meaning “to draw” and “to write” (likewise, the noun grammata refers simultaneously to the “strokes” of both painted images and written letters: Squire, 2011: 237–240): these written grammata on painted grammata offer a meditation on verbal language’s own mediation of visual imagery, translating a pictorial stimulus into an erudite poetic “articulation of thought” (Gutzwiller, 2002: 87).

The resulting concern with “voice, writing, and image” has been at the forefront of recent scholarship on Hellenistic epigram (cf. Männlein-Robert, 2007a; 2007b; cf. Prioux, 2007; 2008; Tueller, 2008; Squire, 2010a; 2010c: esp. 82–88). The integration of self-standing poems into poetic anthologies, removed from any “epigraphic” referent, set the underlying games into high relief: already by the early third century BC, when an anthology of Posidippus’ epigrams was most likely compiled (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII.309), we find whole groups of poems collated into sections on artistic subjects (above all in Posidippus’ poems on gems and statues, or Lithica and Andriantopoiika: in addition to the edited volumes of Acosta-Hughes, Kosmetatou, and Baumbach, 2004, and Gutzwiller, 2005, there are well-referenced discussions in e.g., Prioux, 2008: 159–252 and Bing, 2009: 177–193). This new literary context—where epigrams were anthologized on the scroll rather than experienced as inscriptions carved into stone—holds up a metaphorical mirror to epigram’s medial reflections on words and images. Circulating independently from the material visions to which they respond, epigrams harness the mimetic make-believe of artworks to explore the related simulations of the genre. The numerous poems on celebrated subjects like Myron’s cow (cf. Squire, 2010a on AP 9.713–42, 793–98), as indeed on Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite (cf. Platt, 2002 on Anth. Plan. 159–170, developed in Platt, 2012: 170–211; Morales, 2011), nicely demonstrate the point: in each case, epigrams take up the Simonidean analogy between painting and poetry, while also insisting upon a medial difference; their pithy formulations probe—in the most self-referential ways—the conceits of “seeing through hearing,” as well as the “as ifs,” “nearlys” and “almosts” upon which such conceits rely.

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Figure 5 Simmias’ “Wings of Eros” (AP 15.24), probably early third century BC.

Photo: Author.

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Figure 6 P. Optatian Porfyry, poem 19 (Polara), as preserved on folio 4r of the sixteenth-century Codex Augustaneus 9 Guelferbytanus (for discussion and English translation, see Squire, 2014a).

Photo: reproduced by kind permission of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel.

It is no coincidence that this same bookish culture that gave rise to such self-standing, anthologized epigrams also witnessed the genesis of calligrammatic picture-poetry, associated above all with a poet named Simmias (hailing from Rhodes) in the late fourth or early third century BC. Six such Greek epigrams are preserved in the Palatine Anthology (AP 15.21–2, 24–7), each one quite literally figuring—through its varied number of metrical feet—the mimetic outline of the object evoked (cf. e.g., Ernst, 1991: 54–94; Strodel, 2002: esp. 273–78; Guichard, 2006; Männlein-Robert, 2007a: 140–154; Luz, 2008 (reprised in Luz, 2010: 327–353); Squire, 2011: esp. 231–36; 2013c; Kwapisz, 2013; Pappas, 2013; more generally on the history of such poems, see Dencker, 2011). Whatever else we make of these poems (sometimes labeled technopaegnia by moderns scholars), their ecphrastic conceit lay in crafting texts that incorporate within their literally literal form not only an epigraphic reality, but also the visual subjects to which they refer. Such grammata work—or at least promise to work—as both texts and images alike. In line with Simonides’ analogy between “silent poems” and “speaking pictures,” these metrical experiments relish the conceit of poetic images that can talk: when Simmias’ poem on the “wings of Eros” [Figure 5] addresses the reader in the first person, instructing him to “look at me” (λεύσσέ με, AP 15.24.1), for example, it at once perpetuates a long-standing epigraphic convention of “speaking objects” (cf. Burzachechi, 1962, along with, e.g., Tueller, 2008: 16–27), while also literalizing the figure of seeing poetry as picture. We know of at least one Latin neoteric poet who adapted such lettered games in the first century BC, crafting a so-called Pterygium Phoenicis (Morel, 1963: 60–61, fr. 22: cf. Ernst, 1991: 95–96; Courtney, 1993: 136–137). In the early fourth century AD, writing under Constantine, and taking his inspiration from such earlier precedents, Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius went on to produce some of antiquity’s most mind-bogglingly complex “picture-poetry” [e.g. Figure 6] (the best edition is Polara, 1973; cf. Levitan, 1985; Ernst, 1991: 95–142; Rühl, 2006; Hernández Lobato, 2012: 307–311, 471–479; Pelttari, 2014, 73–84; Squire, 2014a). Weaving pictorial patterns into his gridded poems and drawing out poems from those pictorial patterns—so that, in three examples, the embroidered Latin texts within the pictures drawn from letters could also simultaneously be read in Greek—Optatian literalizes the notion of ut pictura poesis. But his poetry also takes shape against rhetorical ideas about ecphrasis: like the Greek pictures-poets before him, Optatian is concerned precisely with the stakes of “vision,” figuring objects of literal sight through his highly lettered forms.

The Second Sophistic and the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines

In later antiquity—fuelled by the cultural interests of the “Second Sophistic” in particular—such interest in the interrelations between imagery, speech, and writing developed into an ever-more encompassing obsession (cf. e.g. Boeder, 1996: esp. 12–14; Webb, 2009: 167–191). Within Lucian’s witty skits and pastiches, the collaborating/competing resources of words and images emerge as a dominant theme—in Lucian’s second-century Imagines, Pro Imaginibus, and De Domo, to cite just three examples (cf. Maffei, 1994; Boeder, 1996: 117–135; Goldhill, 2000: 44–52; Newby, 2002; Borg, 2004; Elsner, 2004: 161–162; Cistaro, 2009; Squire, 2009: 239–251); Second Sophistic authors likewise explored the capacity of images to bear complex registers of allegorical meaning (in Lucian’s Calumnia and Heracles, for example; one of the richest—yet most overlooked—texts here is the so-called Tabula Cebetis written earlier in the first century AD: cf. Fitzgerald and White, 1983 and Hirsch-Luipold et al., 2005, with analysis in Squire and Grethlein, 2014). It is also in this period that we find Greek novelists using paintings to frame their own narrative adventures: in the famous pun of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, novelists exploited pictures to “paint/write in response to the painting/writing,” ἀντιγράψαι τῇ γραφῇ, Praef. 2: cf. Webb, 2009: 178–185).

This provides the backdrop for antiquity’s most complex foray into the mechanics of ecphrasis, in the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines (composed in Greek at around the beginning of the third century AD: the best edition, with German translation and brief commentary, remains Schönberger and Kalinka, 1968). Philostratus was the author of numerous texts and treatises (cf. the essays in Bowie and Elsner, 2009); the Byzantine Suda distinguishes between three ancient writers of the same name and attributes the Imagines to an author who also composed the Lives of the Sophists, Life of Apollonius and Heroicus, among other works (cf. Anderson, 1986: 291–296; de Lannoy, 1997; Primavesi and Giuliani, 2012: 27–32). Throughout his varied oeuvre, Philostratus was evidently fascinated by questions concerning the epistemology of vision (cf. Squire, 2013b: 103–104, with further bibliography). In the Imagines, though, such questions are acted out within a purported gallery of some 65 tableaux: Philostratus’ hugely challenging text interrogates not only what it means to view, but also what it means to represent viewing in spoken—no less than written—language (cf. Elsner, 1995: 21–48; Boeder, 1996: 137–170; Costantini, Graziani, and Rolet, 2006; Newby, 2009; Cannatà Fera, 2010; Squire, 2013b).

The Imagines does not provide straightforward answers to these questions. In contrast to later systematic attempts at defining the proper “boundaries” of visual and verbal media (most famously in Lessing’s highly influential Laocoon essay first published in 1766: Lessing, 1984), Philostratus’ ludic game lies in acting out the issues rather than preaching any single solution. But there can be no doubting the underlying motivation. Consider, for example, the short proem that prefaces the Imagines (cf. Maffei, 1991; Primavesi and Giuliani 2012). After comparing and contrasting the respective arts of poetry, sculpture, and painting, the proem paints a narrative context for the work at hand. The narrator, we are told, had made a visit to Naples; lodging with his host “outside the city walls,” he talks of a house that is praise-worthy not only for its marbles, but also on account of its panel-paintings (“which in my opinion someone had collected not without understanding,” οὓς ἐμοὶ δοκεῖν οὐκ ἀμαθῶς τις συνελέξατο, Praef. 4). When a young boy (the son of the guide’s host) follows our guide around the house, asking him to “interpret the paintings” [ἑρμηνεύειν τὰς γραφάς, Praef. 5], the narrator promises to fulfill the request. Rather than deal with painters or enquire into their lives, as an earlier part of the preface explains, the work will evoke the actual forms of paintings [εἴδη ζῳγραφίας]: the resulting text takes the form of “addresses to the young” (a dual audience consisting of the host’s son and a group of elder youths), “from which they will interpret them and will appreciate what is esteemed in them” [ἀφ᾽ ὧν ἑρμηνεύσουσί τε καὶ τοῦ δοκίμου ἐπιμελήσονται, Praef. 3].

From the late Renaissance onwards, debate has raged about the “authenticity” of this purported gallery (cf. Giuliani, 2006; Primavesi and Giuliani, 2012; Squire, 2013b: 104–107): was Philostratus describing a real set of paintings (and one that could in turn be reconstructed: cf. Lehmann-Hartleben, 1941, with critical responses by e.g. Bryson, 1994 and Baumann, 2011: 94–105), or is his gallery instead a rhetorical construct, concerned less with “real” painting than with the artistic license of its literary author (cf. e.g., Webb, 2006)? In my view, such arguments start off on the wrong metaphorical foot. If Philostratus plays knowingly with the artefactual existence of his gallery (“a stoa which had been built, I think, on four or even five storeys,” στοά τις ἐξῳκοδόμητο… ἐπὶ τεττάρων, οἶμαι, ἢ καὶ πέντε ὀροφῶν…, Praef. 4), he also teases out the fundamental mismatch between what can be seen and what can be said. Despite a wider modern critical—and, in my opinion, misguided—trend to distinguish between “real” and “notional” types of ecphrastic objects (cf. Hollander, 1988: 209; 1995: 4–5), Philostratus was well aware that all verbal description proves necessarily transformative: by its very nature, ecphrastic “sight” exists between the realms of the real and the fictitious.

Seen from this perspective, the true significance of the Imagines lies less in its evidence for lost paintings than in its conceits of descriptive evocation. There can be no doubt that Philostratus was influenced by artistic traditions; indeed, the Imagines itself frequently engages with the conventions of art criticism and established details of iconography, exploiting both for rhetorical effect (cf. e.g. Elsner, 2000; Ghedini, 2004; Squire, 2009: 357–428). But despite frequent attempts to portray Philostratus as prototypical “professional” art historian (cf. Bertrand, 1881: 53–54, arguing that Philostratus had “a new idea” and one day simply “created art criticism”), his project was differently conceived. Philostratus’ descriptive tableaux, after all, are pitched against the purported pictures that lie beyond the physical view of his reading audience. As readers, our only access to this gallery comes through this written text of a purported collection of speeches (themselves unbelievably rich in literary allusion, so that every act of visualization is at the same time an act of verbal recollection). Every time the speaker invokes his audience to “look!,” “gaze upon!,” and “behold!” (cf. Bryson, 1994; Fimiani, 2006: 211; Pigeaud, 2010: 18–20), he therefore does so with a metaphorical wink in his eye, drawing out the promise and failure of words to do double duty as images: the Imagines calls upon reading audiences to imagine the scenes portrayed, while also highlighting the frictions between verbal and visual modes of perception (and for that matter, between live spoken speech and its written mediations). In this sense, the mimetic make-believe of the gallery’s tableaux—so believable as to move, speak, smell, touch, and even whet our appetites (in the case of food paintings at 1.31, 2.26)—serves to figure the simulations of Philostratus’ own descriptive project: the capacity of fictional images to metamorphose into seeming life (no less than their conspicuous failure to do so), we might say, mirrors and extends the “ecphrastic hope” of these descriptions to take on iconic form (cf. Mitchell, 1994: 151–181).

Philostratus’ fundamental game is set up in the Imagines’ very first tableau, evoking an image of “Scamander” that is itself drawn from the poetic precedent of Iliad book 21 (cf. Elsner, 2004: 258–259; Webb, 2006: 124–125; Newby, 2009: 326–327; Squire, 2011: 108–109). Almost as soon as the speaker introduces this Scamander picture, he instructs the boy to “look away” again (ἀπόβλεψον)—to consider the Homeric text from which the painting derives, and thereby “to see the things from which the description/painting comes” [ὅσον ἐκεῖνα ἰδεῖν ἀφ᾽ ὧν ἡ γραφή, 1.1.1]. Comparing the verbal details of the Homeric poem with the visual aspects of the picture (which the reading audience can of course only “see” from the text at hand, and in a series of highly allusive references to Homer), the description asks whether true insight lies in sight or citation: just where to draw the boundaries between the imagery of poetic text and the pictorial imaginary of painting? The literary theme, of course, makes for an appropriate opening to a series of tableaux that themselves translate a series of paintings into textual descriptions. At the same time, however, the recourse to literary precedent—and to the most canonical Greek text of all—proves highly important in its own right. In this first and deeply programmatic description, as throughout the Imagines, Philostratus’ gallery is (said to be) derived from a whole library of canonical—as indeed markedly less canonical—texts, which are in turn conjured up into pictures to be verbally evoked in the present text: among other authors who are explicitly evoked, we find Aesop (1.3), Euripides (2.23), Pindar (2.12, 2.24), Sappho (2.1), and Xenophon (2.9). If Philostratus is well aware of the mises-en-abyme underlying such multiple refractions of words into paintings and back again, he also figures such knowing replication within his gallery—and nowhere more poignantly than in the (text of a) picture of Narcissus, staring at his own reflected image (1.23: cf. e.g. Conan, 1987: 167–168; Boeder, 1996: 153–161; Heffernan, 1999: 22–23; Webb, 2006: 128–132; Elsner, 2007: 132–176; Newby, 2009: 336–339; Baumann, 2011: 1–9; Squire, 2013b: 115–117).

Philostratus’ innovations here can only be understood against a much larger ecphrastic backdrop. On the one hand, Philostratus inverts traditions of “embedded” ecphrasis, constructing a whole narrative text around the project of description. On the other, the Imagines amounts to a sort of prose equivalent to the poetic “anthology” (Elsner, 2000: 253–256; Elsner, 2002: 13–14): paying close attention to issues of order and arrangement (cf. Baumann, 2011), Philostratus proceeds from one image to the next, allowing his depicted subjects to figure the poikilia of his cumulative collection (like earlier epigrammatic anthologies before him). In my view, however, the Imagines engages not only with a long literary history of composing ecphrasis, but also with the rhetoric of its criticism, as evidenced above all in the Progymnasmata. As we have said, the Progymnasmata themselves conceptualize ecphrasis as something much broader in scope than the evocation of artworks alone. But Philostratus’ novelty lies in incorporating within his gallery various ecphrastic subjects, projecting them all within the representational realm of painting (cf. Elsner, 2002: 14). If ecphrasis is recurrently discussed in terms of persons (prosôpa), events (pragmata), places (topoi), and times (chronoi), with Theon adding the category of manners (tropoi) and others delineating separate categories of opportunities (kairoi), “speechless animals and plants” (aloga zôa kai phyta), and festivals (panêgyreis), the Imagines engages with each of these categories in turn, incorporating them within its gallery. Some of Philostratus’ images are dedicated primarily to “deeds” (the siege of Thebes evoked at the beginning of Im. 1.4, for example), while others delight in lengthy evocations of both “places” (1.9: a marsh; 1.12: the Bosphorus; 2.13: the Gyraean rocks; 2.14: Thessaly; 2.17: islands, etc.) and “times” (nowhere more so than in the final description of a painting of the Horae, or “Seasons,” at 2.34). “Persons,” or prosopa, are likewise a favorite theme, and sometimes whole tableaux are dedicated to historical figures like Themistocles (1.31), Rhodogoune (2.5), and Pantheia (2.9); still other descriptions can be read in terms of other related categories mentioned in the Progymnasmata—whether “festivals” (e.g. 1.2, 2.1), “manners” (e.g. the evocation of how the stones themselves form a wall at Thebes to the beat of Amphion’s music in 1.11.5), or “speechless animals and plants” (e.g. the “hyacinth” described at 1.24, or the animals evoked in the context of Aesop’s Mythoi at 1.3). In each case, Philostratus engages knowingly with the prescribed subjects of ecphrasis, while painting those subjects into the images (almost) “brought before the eyes.”

Philostratus’ Imagines therefore leads us back full circle to ancient definitions of “ecphrasis.” Although the author himself never uses the term “ecphrasis,” there can be little doubt that he conceptualized his project in closely related terms. Subsequent readers were quick to note the association. In the proem to a subsequent work of Imagines—penned by the Elder Philostratus’ purported grandson and in express imitation of the earlier work—the Younger Philostratus explicitly refers to that text as a “certain ecphrasis of works of painting” (τις γραφικῆς ἔργων ἔκφρασις, Praef. 2; for an art-historical commentary, see Ghedini, Colpo, and Marta, 2004: esp. 7–16); likewise, a much later Byzantine commentary specifically adduced the Elder Philostratus’ text as an example of the rhetorical phenomenon (Rabe, 1928: 215; more generally on the ancient reception of Philostratus’ Imagines, cf. Braginskaya, 1985: esp. 26–27). According to one scholar (Elsner, 2002: 2), the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines may even itself have reoriented subsequent definitions of ecphrasis: where earlier rhetoricians found little room for described paintings among the subjects of ecphrasis, it was perhaps in light of Philostratus’ work that Nikolaus included the description of paintings and statues under the larger ecphrastic heading. Whatever we make of the argument, Callistratus’ related fourth-century collection of statue-descriptions certainly seems to have gone by the name of “ecphraseis” (Altekamp, 1988: 97–100; Bussels, 2012: 83–106; for art-historical commentary, see Bäbler and Nesselrath, 2006); likewise, amid the thirty extant “ecphrastic” exercises attributed to Libanius of Antioch in the fourth century, we find several evocations of both paintings and sculptures (see Gibson, 2009: 427–507, along with Hebert, 1983 for art historical commentary; cf. Webb, 2009: 61–62 on the relationship with other Progymnasmata).

There is much more to be said about the Elder Philostratus’ Imagines, as well as about its rich and varied afterlife (especially in the late Renaissance, not least following Blaise de Vigenère’s 1578 French translation: cf. especially Graziani, 1990; Crescenzo, 1999; Ballestra-Puech, Bonhomme, and Philippe, 2010; for de Vigenère’s text, see Graziani, 1995). In concluding this essay with the Imagines, however, my overriding aim is somewhat different: to situate Philostratus’ visual-verbal games within a longer Graeco-Roman intellectual tradition. When it comes to thinking about ecphrasis, Philostratus helps us to see a much closer alignment between ancient and modern ideas than is often assumed. This is not to glide over cultural disparities: like the other texts introduced in this article, Philostratus’ work has its own distinctive cultural context (cf. e.g., Cassin, 1995; Goldhill, 2001; Whitmarsh, 2005); as with all terms, concepts, and categories, moreover, historical distance brings with it disjunctures and differences as well as similarities—and there certainly are differences between contemporary theoretical approaches to ecphrasis and the views of ancient authors. But in actively playing out the problems of representing pictures in words (and vice versa), I would argue, Philostratus’ project foreshadows some of the most pressing concerns of recent literary critical theory. At the same time, as we have seen, the Imagines also takes its inspiration from a much longer set of ancient ideas—about imagery, language, and the interrelationships between the two.


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