Ovidio at the Scuderie del Quirinale [Review]

After a long hiatus, and with a backlog of posts—necessarily suspended since the dissertation reigns supreme—I’m starting to get back to this, beginning with what is most fresh in my mind. Yesterday I got out of the house and made my way up to the fantastic exhibition space that is the Scuderie del Quirinale (being the former papal stables, it has retained some of those features —especially the lovely, if dangerous, travertine sloping staircase up to the first floor). The arrival of a friend from New York, who will be spending several years here as a postdoc, and the impending closing date of the exhibition (January 20!) all gave me a good reason to go. And, well, it’s Ovid! Having seen a fantastic Frida Kahlo exhibition here a few years ago, I also had some expectations, in terms of curatorship and the quality of the show overall. Since most of these expectations were not met, I’ve decided to attempt something of a review (compare this one)…

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You enter the show, up those sloping, slippery steps and encounter a small round room within a larger square room. The small round room contains illuminated manuscripts and the surrounding square has quotations from Ovid (the Metamorphoses) on the walls in neon lights by the artist Joseph Kosuth (entitled Maxima Proposito (Ovidio)). The manuscripts were interesting, but the explanations were minimal—why start with these (beyond the stated aim: we need to thank the monks for copying down Ovid)? And what relation do they have to the neon quotes? To be sure, Kosuth wants us to think about the text in a very different way than the manuscript tradition would; and to the curator’s credit, that’s an interesting proposition. For Kosuth has created one line aphorisms out of lines of the text that largely were not aphorisms in the first place; he has made something new out of the text. Many of the quotes are from the middle of a longer passage or sentence, yet the decision to excise them ignores that entirely—stripping them of their contextual meaning—and the translations ignore linguistic clues to their original context, such as conjunctions, and as translations go (if they are meant to be that?), many are plainly wrong. Take for instance this half-line quotation from Met. 15.255: Sed variat faciemque novat reads as “All have changed appearance”. This quotation comes from a much longer section on natural philosophy, but the way it’s rendered gives us an entirely different impression—something about the unreliable nature of the people we know? Our lovers? Read into it what you will. (The majority of the quotes seem to relate to the notion of change/metamorphosis, but also love). The translation gives an “all” (implying people) when originally the third person singular refers back to a negated quicquam in the previous line—“nothing”; the “but” of sed is also omitted and somehow we’ve moved from the present to the pure perfect. Now, to be fair, we might approach these neon quotes and their inaccurate translations as an adaptation of Ovid, but the thing is—many of the other quotes, maybe half, have perfectly fine translations.

From above one thinks of the “O” in Ovid… maybe that was intentional.

From above one thinks of the “O” in Ovid… maybe that was intentional.

This inconsistency creates a jarring effect, so much so that we were left wondering if this was deliberate: Is he playing with multiple audiences, and playing with those who know the Latin and the text? You’d expect Classicists to be drawn to an exhibition on Ovid, and knowing them, they’d nit-pick the translations, too. As an interview with another exhibitor of Kosuth’s Ovid piece explained, “For Kosuth, the viewer completes the work: this way, the viewer connects with the creative conceptualizing process of the artist, rather than experience an artwork as a fragment of history or a retinal form of entertainment … The viewer is invited to approach Ovid’s writings in this setting, through a different lens, ultimately working through the ‘new’ meaning created by both artist and audience.” Perhaps this is what is at work; the “new” translations and the creation of “new” aphorisms that did not exist in the original text. Maybe this was supposed to rub me the wrong way. Or maybe I’m giving Kosuth too much credit. Ultimately, it felt gimmicky—a great way to get traction on Instagram for an exhibition that needs to sell 15 euro tickets—and more importantly, empty of what Ovid was trying to communicate and empty of any real meaning that might resonate today. Does “dulce / sweet” —a one word red neon light, say much to you? Maybe it does.

But on a broader level, it wasn’t clear what the manuscript room had to do with the neon room—at least not explicitly (and then, only loosely in an implicit way if I’m being kind)—beyond serving as a clever visual/spatial pun on the first letter of his name. This first disconnection, or lack of direction (from the curator) is symptomatic of a larger problem I (and my friend—who works on 18th c. art) had with the whole show: the unexplained juxtaposition of ancient representations of the Ovidian text (or less directly, the myths he represented) with the reception of Ovid in later periods. Rarely does the show attempt to ask what reception is, or how it works specifically in the case of Ovid; why certain works are placed next to each other, or why some works were included at all. Frequently many of the pieces included—and many are stunning!—only had a tangential connection to Ovid: they depicted (roughly) the same mythological episode he had dealt with, or they represented some of the key players in his biography (e.g. portraits of Marcus Agrippa, the Juliae, Augustus… you get the picture). For example, the famous altar from the vicus sandaliarius is part of the exhibition, but beyond the fact that it depicts Augustus and other debated members of the family, there is no real reason why it should be here (and if you’re going to show it—let us see the back side and put some light on! It’s backed up against a wall and in the dark). Again, the stunning garden fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii is worth a visit to the exhibition simply to see it up close—but in the exhibition it only seems to form a lovely background for the statues of Aphrodite Callipyge and Eros that sit, clumped in front of it. There is also a stunning, smaller statue of Aphrodite from Pompeii with a lot of surviving polychromy . Many frescoes from the Naples Archaeological Museum also offer a rare visual feast, especially since so many of them are not usually on show in the museum itself.

Most of these pieces are mustered, however, in the service of a simplistic roll call of the most famous stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Very little is said about his other works (e.g. Tristia, Ibis) and by the time you get to the second floor you begin to feel as though the show has become a free-for-all exposition of ancient myth and some of its later renditions. We encounter the Niobids, Actaeon, Narcissus, Icarus and Dedalus, Hermaphroditus, Daphne and Apollo, Marsyas, Zeus and Ganymede… and so forth. Each story gets at least one ancient representation, a short retelling of the myth, and often more than one medieval, renaissance, or later representation. Ostensibly the idea behind putting ancient and later pieces side by side was to create a dialogue between them. But without any real direction from the didactic panels (but for a few exceptions, e.g. how Narcissus was received in the medieval French poem, Le Roman de la rose—but even there we aren’t told why Narcissus was popular!), the viewer is left to figure that out for themselves. That task is hard—since very little information is given about the works themselves and many of the non-ancient works are from artists whose background is less known, such as a spectacular cycle of paintings in oils on copper plate from the artist Carlo Saraceni (1580-1620). Who was this guy? Why did he create such interesting compositions? Nada—you’ll have to look him up after the exhibition. But if you show five or six paintings by a single artist throughout a show, you’d expect to learn something about him and why he was engaging with Ovid. Beyond this type of explanatory content though, the main bone I have to pick with this approach of showing without telling is what it doesn’t achieve: We can see the “how” of Ovid’s reception (often very obvious), but the more important “why” is left unanswered in almost every case.

One particularly striking piece got me thinking about another, darker aspect of Ovid and Ovidio. The show features a statue in pentelic marble of Leda and the swan from the Venice archaeological museum. It’s an Hadrianic copy of a late 1st c. BCE statue (apparently—I need to look into this). The composition is particularly powerful and really communicates (the potential for its reception as) a moment of struggle, violation, desire, and fear—the outstretched arm of Leda on his neck, the talons of the swan on her skin. I was struck by how this composition might be received by viewers right now, especially women. Putting aside the technical aspects of the work, one might ask, what is the other arm/hand of Leda doing? Is she resisting? Is she experiencing trauma, pain, or pleasure? Are her eyes wide stricken with fear and shock, or pleasure? If this exhibition were shown in the US, it would need an entire overhaul.

Considering how fraught teaching Ovid has become in the trigger-warning / #metoo classroom (for a great treatment of rape in Ovid with links to more scholarship, see A. Everett Beek’s article and more specifically on Leda and the swan, see this Harvard student’s piece), this piece and many others open up issues that don’t seem to be considered at all in this show (or, perhaps, Italy). To begin with, the didactic panels (I can’t speak for the audio guide) don’t seem to deal with the issue of rape and consent in the ancient world and they merely describe Ovid’s women as “desired, raped, betrayed, abandoned, and finally, transformed into goddesses”. Nor is the reception of Ovid’s rape scenes in the art of later periods interrogated or analyzed (though none of the art ventures beyond the 18th century—a conscious choice?). Because museums and exhibitions perform a didactic role in society, much like the classical classroom, if you’re going to show Ovid’s many rape scenes and stories, then for the 21st century you really should begin to address that elephant in a thoughtful and engaged way. Instead, in this exhibition we are left with silence, a panoply of images of rape (and their continuous re-depiction and redeployment by [mostly] male artists for male patrons), and the possibility that these rapes could/should be just seen as “loves”. As my companion for the exhibition remarked on encountering a renaissance bedhead depicting all of the many rape scenes (and a few other stories) from Ovid, with Ganymede’s abduction in the central panel: “What on earth is this doing here without any explanation?”. A piece that may have functioned as a sinister source of ekphrasis for its owner (who knows?) or merely pillow-talk? Nonetheless, a critically aware version of ekphrasis is what this show so often lacked.

In short, if you have the chance, “go for the art, not the message”. I probably expected too much from this show—and too much from an Italian celebration of Ovid. Because that’s what it is in many ways. Ovidio is not Ovid for the 21st century we want to see (or should), but rather sadly, frustratingly and predictably, it is just another sign that the Ovid of previous centuries still survives today—unexplained, and, unquestioned.

From India to Rome: Pondering comparative histories on the road

Dear readers, this is the first post of what is intended to be a somewhat informal blog about my time in Rome and travels around Europe during the 2018-19 academic year. Perhaps it will continue to have a life after this year, but for now, let it serve as a way of offering glimpses into what I’m thinking and writing about, and what I’ve been up to in the various museums and sites of Italy and beyond.

This first post is more about India than Rome, or rather, Rome via India. I landed in Rome direct from Delhi a few weeks ago, after spending two or so weeks in India, first to attend a close friend’s wedding, and second, to see a bit of the country for the first time. Travelling through India, both north and south, was probably the most eye-opening and educational trip I’ve ever made. It was also a time when I found myself constantly making links between ancient Rome and India (both ancient and contemporary). For one, both societies were (and in the case of India, it still is) predominantly polytheistic (although that definition could be disputed for India). Other religions were also very prominently advertised wherever I went, namely Christianity and Islam. You could immediately discover the faith of your taxi or bus driver simply by looking at their dashboard, or windshield (often plastered with a phrase, like, “Praise the Lord!”). The co-existence of these three major faith systems alongside each other (and the ever-present tensions) also prompted thoughts about living in Rome or Alexandria in late antiquity and whether the two contexts bore any similarities. In particular, I had the privilege to attend a Hindu wedding in a local temple in Chennai and the whole experience left me wondering: Is this what it felt like to visit a Roman temple, the hive of ritual activity buzzing around me, the sensory overload of smells (incense, flowers and more), the ebb and flow of foot traffic according to the auspicious times of the day (for weddings this is key in Hinduisim, I learnt)?

This happened more than a few times (the comparative thoughts, not the wedding!). Similar thoughts ran through my head about the culture of the street or the open air drains in some areas that reminded me of the street life and drains in ancient Pompeii. The gob-smacking polychromatic sculptures of deities which crowd and cling to the surface of temples, especially those at Madurai, had me thinking about the problems in my own field surrounding the once monochromatic understanding of classical sculpture (for an excellent and accessible piece on this, see Sarah Bond’s Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color). And I had also thought comparatively when I was in Mexico two years ago, pondering the enormous manpower, economies, social stratification and power structures that saw the construction of temple complexes like those at Teotihuacan or entertainment and ceremonial buildings, such as the Mayan ball courts at Cobá (see below photos).

But during my time in India I would catch myself and think, “Wait? What am I actually doing when I compare?”. False comparisons, colonial value-judgements about “progress” and the risk of imposing narratives of “civilisation”, all sprang to mind as real stumbling blocks, even non-starters, for such an exercise. Comparing a modern state to an ancient one could be read pejoratively—the revival of the colonial project and its nefarious history, including the colonial construction of Indian “religion” (for an interesting take on this, see Pennington’s Was Hinduism Invented?). From a methodological viewpoint, it also masks the many changes that such states underwent over the centuries, and most obviously, their vastly different cultural contexts.

The risks of comparative or cross-historical histories have been on my mind lately, and not just because I’m always asked about whether Roman youth was similar or different to today’s “youth culture” (a question I try to re-phrase if the askers allow me!). I’ve been working on an edited volume about displacement from the ancient to the contemporary worlds with Elena Isayev and we, along with the authors in the volume, wrestle with this problem (see, for example, Susanne Lachenicht’s paper on this), especially since we ask our academic authors to directly respond to “Catalyst” pieces that tackle aspects of contemporary displacement (from Syria and Palestine to Brazil and South Africa). Unfortunately, there’s been a tendency to equate ancient and contemporary understandings of asylum in some popular media (e.g. op-eds), when, really, so much separates them (more on that in a future post!). But what has also emerged for me out of this work—and from reflecting on my travels in tandem—is that thinking comparatively does not necessarily mean making equations. Instead, it can open up new ways of seeing and thinking about ancient worlds, or reaffirm things we already know, conclusions we had already arrived at. It can actually make us better historians because we are forced to think far more explicitly about a distinct historical context, event, person, or institution because it is placed in conversation with, or in contrast to, another such historical context. (And some scholars have been doing this in interesting ways).

To illustrate this with one small example, I was really struck by the various ways that people in India sought to ward off the evil eye from their homes and businesses. In the north, at Jodhpur, I saw a bundle of small lemons and green or red chillies (nimbu-mirchi) tied to the posts above doorways everywhere and learnt that these were all about combating envy. In the south, I saw beautifully intricate chalk designs traced on the ground in front of most homes of the Hindu faith, and even in front of some banyan trees considered sacred (as in the photo below).

Ragnoli in front of a banyan tree at the Kalakshetra Foundation (a traditional performing arts school in Chennai).

Ragnoli in front of a banyan tree at the Kalakshetra Foundation (a traditional performing arts school in Chennai).

Known as ragnoli, these chalk designs also have a role to play in warding off the evil eye, but also in welcoming guests into the house. Between these two prevalent talismanic objects, I actually didn’t immediately think back to the art (mainly mosaics) that is often interpreted as an anti-envy device in the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps that is a valid point of “direct” comparison—but I don’t want to go down that road (as we’ll see). What it made me think about was the way some 19th century and early 20th century scholars used to interpret Roman depictions of pygmies through the cipher of the amulets and figurines they saw in the southern Italy of their own day. Wace, writing in 1904, makes the direct comparison:

It is well known that the belief in the Evil Eye is widespread today in all the Mediterranean lands. It is perhaps not so well known that it was equally widespread in classical and in prehistoric times. … At the present time in Italy little hunchbacks (gobbi, gobbetti) of coral, mother-of-pearl, silver, or some other precious material are worn on watch-chains or on bunches of charms as one of many various protections against the evil eye. (Wace 1904: 109).

This might seem like a reasonable claim to make, and we all might agree that ithyphallic and macrophallic (you can look up those terms!) figures had some apotropaic function to play. That there definitely was some sort of material object designed to ward off the evil eye is at least known to us from Phrynichus (and a few other authors), a 2nd century CE grammarian, who tells us about them when defining the Greek word baskanion:

Baskanion, which the ignorant [call] probaskanion; and it’s something crafted in the shape of a human that craftsmen hang in front of their workshops against the bewitching of their business, having altered slightly its human appearance. (Praeparatio sophistica p.53, 6-10; text: Borries; trans. my own).

Or, for a visual representation, we could point to this 2nd century CE mosaic from the House of the Evil Eye in Antioch (in modern day Turkey) which shows an ithyphallic pygmy alongside animals and implements (sword, trident) which attack an eye, likely symbolising envy (invidia/pthonos):

Photo: Wikimedia commons. Text: KAI SU (“AND YOU”, i.e. avert your envious gaze or this will happen to you, too).

Photo: Wikimedia commons. Text: KAI SU (“AND YOU”, i.e. avert your envious gaze or this will happen to you, too).

But problems arise when you start applying comparative material from another time and/or place to your interpretation of the function of certain pieces of art, especially narrative scenes depicting pygmies which bear no resemblance to Phrynichus’ description of a stand-alone object (not a wall painting) or other accounts. That’s where Wace’s (and more recently, others’) apotropaic interpretation of pygmy scenes runs aground. What happens when the pygmies aren’t ithyphallic or macrophallic? When they aren’t featured alongside other apotropaic symbols? But “play” the role of gods and goddesses? Are they still apotropaic because they induce laughter? Perhaps so, perhaps not. There’s a lot more that could be said on the topic (a whole article in fact—something I hope to finally finish while I’m here in Rome).

Yet the main point is that we’ve travelled a long way from 19th century Italian gobbetti to call all pygmies apotropaic or label them amulets. Wace’s practice of drawing from what he had seen in his travels to explain what he saw in the pygmies of Pompeii is precisely what worried me when I began making comparisons between Rome and India in my head. Yet, not all comparative exercises are dangerous or futile; sometimes they lead to new (or “staring you in the face”) insights. In the end, what modern day Indian instantiations of anti-envy objects made me realise about ancient Rome was a basic fact that we would all do well to remember: the ephemerality of so much of the material culture from the ancient world. What we don’t have. Like the lemon and chilli bundles, or the chalk ragnoli, I now wonder if Phrynichus’ baskanion was also something similarly perishable. The apotropaion isn’t in these painted narrative pygmy scenes, but perhaps rather in more portable objects, such as terracotta figurines (on what Roman pygmies could actually be communicating to viewers, see this great article by Cailtín Eilís Barrett and stay tuned for more of my own thoughts!). So, in this sense, the exercise of thinking comparatively between two very different cultures and historical contexts not only reaffirmed conclusions I’d already arrived at (and perhaps there’s something erroneously self-fulfilling in that!), but it also gave me new avenues for thinking about a problem I’ve long been pondering.

As a coda to this overly long inaugural post, another connection with pygmies arose a few days into my stay here in Rome, when I attended the short talks given by the incoming fellows at the American Academy in Rome. One of the projects by the artist Michael Ray Charles stood out to me and demonstrated what happens when you go beyond comparison and into ideological appropriation with ancient pygmies: building on his interest in minstrelsy, he is looking at how white media from the 19th and 20th centuries depicted black men or children in scenes with alligators or crocodiles that clearly appropriated Greco-Roman scenes of pygmies doing battle or teasing crocodiles on the Nile and how this contributed to racial stereotypes about black people in the minstrel shows.

I can’t wait to see the fruits of his project.