- Image and Myth: A History of Pictorial Narration in Greek Art by Luca Giuliani
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 335 pp.
This book is a translation from German of a study published in 2003. The topic—the relationship of Greek narrative art to texts, whether written or recited—is an old one, but it is here subjected to very close scrutiny as to the degree to which Greek artists from the eighth to the second century BC were directly inspired by narrative texts. In this respect there is little new here, but the author is better informed than many about his subject matter. Writing was only known in post-Bronze Age Greece from the end of the eighth century BC, but epic poetry was certainly a well-established medium in the mouths of rhapsodes. The writing comes with Hesiod in the late eighth century, and a “Homer” in the seventh century. Anything “preliterary” therefore is judged to have no real authority since the “ephemeral recitation of a rhapsode” could be no real inspiration for an artist. This conclusion might be questioned. Giuliani cites the epigram scratched on “Nestor’s cup” in the eighth century, which not only offers good hexameters but also succeeds in parodying the epic. Recitations by rhapsodes were not just ephemeral but repeated, and repetition is as good a means as any (if not the best) to ensure recollection. I can recite much of a mini-epic about Mary, Queen of Scots merely from having heard it recited by an aged aunt back in the late 1930s. Athenian prisoners at Syracuse could win their freedom by reciting Euripides to their captors. “Reading literacy” was probably not that common in the classical period, and the patent illiteracy of some artists (notably, several vase painters) did not prevent them from offering original views of epic themes, sometimes reinterpreting them in novel ways, with or without literary authority. Artists can be as effective storytellers as poets, writers, or reciters and can offer their own interpretations and variations on epic themes. The splendid complex of scenes on [End Page 345] the François Vase surely depended more on an iconographic tradition of narrative than on literature.
Sir John Boardman is Lincoln Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology emeritus at Oxford University. He received the inaugural Onassis International Prize for Humanities in 2009 and, in 1995, the Kenyon Medal of the British Academy, of which he is a member. Editor of the Oxford History of Classical Art, his other books include The Triumph of Dionysos; The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity; The Greeks Overseas; The History of Greek Vases; and The Relief Plaques of Eastern Eurasia and China: The “Ordos Bronzes,” Peter the Great’s Treasure, and Their Kin.