In Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic Natural History, written in the first century AD, he recounts the story of a painter, Protogenes. Attempting to capture the foam around a dog’s mouth, Protogenes became so frustrated that he threw a sponge at the canvas. The resulting impression created just the look he had wanted.
“For Pliny,” says Verity J. Platt, Classics/History of Art, “it becomes this wonderful archetype of how nature is herself an artist. The human artist is the unwitting agent of nature, grappling with raw materials, and also shaped by their properties and affordances. Pliny uses this to convey the material nature of painting and the complex relationship between nature and culture.”
The materiality of classical art is often passed over or underprivileged, according to Platt. Art objects are treated as static images, divorced from matter and understood according to what they represent. Platt, who studies ancient theories of representation and the relationship between image and text, is exploring how ancient writings about art offer a different view.
“We’re trying to understand the original cultural resonances of such objects, with an awareness of the post-antique lenses we bring to them, which are constantly changing,” Platt says. “This process encourages greater self-awareness, in an effort to try to understand the past. Too often, the ancient world is treated as a straightforward precursor to Western culture, one which is only understood according to later models of thought and practice.”
What Is Art in Ancient culture? What Is Its Relationship to the Material World?
Plato’s idea of mimesis presents a hierarchy of representations. Take a couch, for example. In Plato’s view, there’s the idea of the couch, an ideal form. A craftsman’s couch is a copy of that form. A painting of the craftsman’s couch is therefore twice removed from the ideal form—a kind of illusion. The truest form is the idea—abstract and immaterial.
“Ancient forms of representation are often spoken of in terms of Plato’s idea of mimesis, but there were lots of different philosophical schools in the ancient world,” says Platt. “Some of them, like Stoicism, espoused forms of materialism. Some of the earliest writings about art in the Hellenistic and Roman periods were heavily influenced by Stoic models of perception and representation.”
The sections on art history in Pliny’s 37-book Natural History demonstrate this Stoic-inflected approach to matter. The last four books in this incredible project focus on stones, metals, earth, and precious gems. “Within each book, a section gives you a little potted art history. So bronze sculpture comes in the metals book, painting in the earth book, which concentrates on pigments,” she explains. “These chronologies of artmaking are embedded within a work of material science, essentially. So art history begins as a part of natural history—one with rich and complex notions about the relationship between art and the environment.”
Like the dog and sponge story, the excerpts that Platt studies for her book-in-progress, “Beyond Ekphrasis: Making Objects Matter in Classical Antiquity,” don’t describe a finished work of art but rather tell a story of how the art is made. “Instead of this idea of a static description, they tell you about process, or facture,” Platt says. “One example is Pliny’s description of unfinished paintings. He says they are more esteemed because we see the traces of the artist’s thoughts and his hand.”
Platt continues, “It’s a more physically grounded way of thinking about how art objects come into being. For Plato, the world of becoming is lesser than the world of being and of ideal forms. But within the Stoic model, becoming is all there is—becoming, facture, and materiality all come together.”
Platt has found connections between Pliny’s sections of art history and other books in the Natural History, connections that further speak to how art is embedded in the material world. “The sponge, for instance, you find sponges in the part on marine animals and in the part on materia medica, things used for healing,” she explains. “You find important connections between these references and how the sponge is used in the painting section. And that has all kinds of implications for how we might think about what art is and its relationship to the material world.”
In spring of 2018, Platt will further explore the continuity of art and the material world as a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She’ll be working on the idea of eco-art history, exploring how Pliny’s text and other ancient works can contribute to eco-conscious, sustainable ways of thinking, making, and doing in the present.
Framing an Image: What It Means in Classical Art
“It’s really focused on how images are bounded, framed, supported, edged, all of those aspects of the presentation of an image, which we often ignore.”
In another project, Platt, along with Michael Squire (Kings College, London), argues that the framing, both literal and historical, of a work of art is indispensable to understanding it. She and Squire present this approach to classical art in an edited anthology, The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
“It’s really focused on how images are bounded, framed, supported, edged, all of those aspects of the presentation of an image, which we often ignore,” Platt says. “It’s also about ideas of what a frame is that are informed by eighteenth-century aesthetics, the idea of the easel painting and the art gallery and museums. We need to dismantle this in order to look at what art was doing in the ancient world.”
Platt gives the example of ancient floor mosaics, known for their decorative borders and elaborate centerpieces, called emblemata. The emblemata were more detailed, made with smaller, colored tiles, and would often relay a mythological scene.
“There are these wonderful examples of labyrinth mosaics, which have Theseus and the Minotaur in the middle and the decorative frame is the labyrinth that Theseus has to go through,” Platt says. “Although you may think the frame is ornamental or supplementary, it’s actually essential to how you read the central image. The frame actively takes part in the overall work.”
The idea of the frame can go beyond the physical. It can apply to context. “It’s a more dynamic way of thinking about historical contexts,” Platt says. “One of the criticisms of context is that it sounds very inert that you put objects in context as if the context doesn’t change, but if you’re thinking about objects in behavior and rituals as being framed, then framing is an act. It’s something that’s fluid, performed by particular groups and individuals, and which changes through time.”
The Cornell Cast Collection, the Stuff of Life and Study
One of the things Platt appreciates about Cornell is the commitment to materials and preservation. As curator of the Cornell Cast Collection, together with Annetta Alexandridis, History of Art/Classics, Platt can testify to this. The collection, which was compiled in the late nineteenth century, includes casts of ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and medieval sculpture.
“Things like the cast collection and other teaching collections across campus demonstrate a commitment to the stuff of life and stuff of study,” Platt says. “That combination of the intellectually and materially grounded is fundamental to what I’m doing, together with many colleagues across the humanities at Cornell.”
A selection of the casts is on display around campus—just one example of how the past shows up in the present. In the classroom, Platt wants to give students the tools to see that past more accurately.
“With classical art, that combination of familiarity and distance presents an ongoing challenge. How can we leapfrog the gap of time to understand a past culture on its own terms, whilst maintaining a self-aware, critical distance?” Platt asks. “Greco-Roman culture continues to be very relevant to ideas we have about government, aesthetics, ethics, our relationship to the natural world, but it was also importantly different. Trying to understand and look through more recent assumptions is a kind of strengthening intellectual exercise.”
This is the broad project of art history and classics as disciplines, according to Platt. “We’re trying to keep the past alive and relevant in ways that allow for some kind of continuity,” she explains, “whilst contributing to the richness and diversity of our communities and cultures of learning in the present. In the end, trying to imagine the past is not so different from thinking about the future. It requires an empathetic leap of imagination, in which it’s vital that we all share.”