chapter  50
231 Pages

Fifty Key Texts in Art History

Some readers may be surprised to find the Elder Pliny’s Natural History in this book. Even if Graeco-Roman antiquity were to have had a concept of ‘art’ or ‘art history’, Pliny conceived of this work rather differently: his comments on sculpture and painting form part of a ‘natural historical’ project. And yet, more than any other extant ancient writer, Pliny provided a template for post-Renaissance discourses of art and the artist. Not only is Pliny the most important source for our knowledge about Classical painters and sculptors, he also established a model for telling stories about art and its development. The longue durée of this influence – over almost 2000 years – secures his place within art history’s fifty key texts. Indeed, the Natural History arguably deserves the number one top spot – as the key text of all western art history. We know about Pliny not only from his surviving work, but also

from the accounts of his nephew (known as ‘Pliny the Younger’).2

Despite hailing from Novum Comum in Cisalpine Gaul, the Elder Pliny quickly established himself at the centre of Roman power. After serving alongside the future Emperor Titus during Roman military campaigns in Germany, and generally benefitting from the support of the Flavian Emperors, he became commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum – one of the most prestigious and powerful positions in the Roman Empire. Pliny was a remarkably prodigious writer, authoring numerous other works on a variety of topics – among them, a twenty-volume history of the Roman wars against Germany, a series of oratorical exercises and a treatise on literary composition (all now lost). His nephew characterises Pliny as an obsessive workaholic, driven by a genuine (if

not slightly neurotic) thirst for knowledge. Pliny’s death in 79 CE constitutes the classic example: after deliberately sailing to the area around Mount Vesuvius, he died during the same volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum. Inquisitive to the last, and always faithful to his civic duty (he was reputedly masterminding a relief effort), Pliny was killed by the natural wonders that he had spent his life researching. The Natural History reflects these various character traits: it is not only

a work of fastidious scholarship, but also a bastion of Roman Imperial values. Casting a broad intellectual net, Pliny sets ‘Nature’ as his subject, together with the various ways in which humans have exploited and manipulated her: natura, hoc est vita, narratur (‘Nature, that is to say Life, is the subject of my narrative’, Pref. 13). The work is conceived in proto-encyclopaedic terms – as a global synthesis of all human knowledge. Everything is contained within: agriculture, anthropology, botany, geography, manufacture, medicine, mineralogy, zoology. What is more, Pliny is at pains to emphasise his comprehensiveness: the preface boasts that the work contains 20,000 noteworthy facts, summarising 2000 earlier volumes (Pref. 17). Although the Natural History is structured in thirtyseven separate books, the first book comprises a meticulous ‘table of contents’, indexing all the disparate ideas contained. The result amounts to a miniature empire of words, with each subject duly classified, catalogued and subsumed (Rouveret 1987; Carey 2003: 17-40; Murphy 2004: 1-25; Squire 2011: 7). This helps to explain Pliny’s treatment of ‘artistic’ subjects in the Natural

History’s last five books (33-37). Traditionally, scholars have applied a ‘pick and mix’ approach here, tending to raid rather than read the text, and effacing the author’s own role in organising his subject (Carey 2003: 7-10). It is therefore especially important to emphasise that Pliny’s comments on sculpture and painting form ‘part of what is for us an entirely different topic, the taxonomy and technology of metal and stone’ (Gordon 1979: 7). A brief summary might help here. Book 33 announces its topic to be

‘metals’, and proceeds from the precious to the base, taking in the full history of their extraction and use along the way. Book 34 treats metal alloys, especially copper and bronze, exploring first the geographical history of bronze casting, and then its uses, above all in statuary; this in turn gives way to a description of the alloy process, its by-products, and other alloyed metals (iron, lead, tin, etc.). The move from Book 34 to Book 35 is somewhat less comfortable: the ostensible subject is painting (35.2-28), but this is interrupted by a description of different pigments and their extraction (chapters 29-50), a prosopographic history of different painters (chapters 53-148), and finally of other representational forms and their sources (encaustic painting, plaster modelling, pottery, etc.). In Book 36, Pliny

turns to ‘the nature of stones’, discussing raw materials, their different uses, and the (primarily Greek) stonemasons famous for their sculptural work. Book 37, the last book, is concerned with gemstones of all sorts (touching upon gemstone engravings). Appropriately, Pliny ends with a hymn to ‘Nature, the mother of all things’ (parens rerum omnium Natura, 37.205). As is immediately obvious, Pliny’s essential interest is with the classi-

fication of different natural resources. The author organises his material around a variety of structural frames. Some have associated this with the different earlier sources employed: we can be sure that Pliny derived much of his information from Hellenistic Greek manuals of the third and second centuries BCE, above all from the work of Xenocrates, Duris and Antigonos (Tanner 2006: 213-14, 239-42). This helps to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of Pliny’s account: its chronological range (focusing especially on the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), its geographical spread (concentrating on Greek rather than Roman developments), and its down-playing of more recent Hellenistic contributions (not least the curious declaration that art ‘stopped’ between 156 and 153 BCE: Natural History 34.52). What is most striking about Pliny’s ‘art history’ is its conceptual

remove from any more modern understanding of an autonomous academic discipline. For Pliny, what we call ‘art history’ is a history of separate but related technological innovations, each of them mediumbound. At the same time, a largely unspoken ideology stretches across the different books and materials described. Art’s development over time is charted in terms of its progressive verisimilitude – how different media all separately came to imitate the appearances of nature. It is a rhetoric that has very much endured: for example, it dominates Vasari’s Lives, as well as later attempts at charting the ‘history of art’ – from Winckelmann’s 1764 Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, to Gombrich’s blockbusting 1950 book, The Story of Art (and indeed beyond). At the same time, the philosophical rationale behind Pliny’s framework is markedly removed from later Judaeo-Christian appropriations: according to Pliny’s Stoic rationalist cosmology, the ‘pinnacle of artistic achievement is correspondingly marked by the perfect adaptation of the work of art to the world-immanent reason of Nature’ (Tanner 2006: 245; cf. André 1978; Wallace-Hadrill 1990; Beagon 1992). Pliny might be said to have shaped art history in at least two other

ways. First, he preserved for posterity information about lost GraecoRoman artworks: this was something particularly important during the Italian Renaissance, when, along with Vitruvius, Pliny provided details about antiquities which contemporary artists were seeking to revive, recreate and even surpass. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is just one example,

derived in part from Pliny’s description of Zeuxis’ Aphrodite Anadyomene painting (35.91-92: also Squire 2010: 148-52). Second, and arguably still more important, is Pliny’s concern with the

individual artist. Pliny structures sections of his narrative around a series of individual artistic innovations. This mode of defining art in terms of artists became increasingly important during the Renaissance (Settis 1995; Barkan 1999: 65-117). In his Lives of the Artists (first published in 1550), for example, Vasari structured his own account after portions of Pliny’s text. Indeed, Vasari took many of Pliny’s anecdotes about ancient artists and applied them to those working in sixteenth-century Italy. If the Renaissance meant a rebirth of ancient art, did not Renaissance writing about art have to (or have to be seen to) resurrect ancient literary precedent?