SEDUCTION & POWER: Antiquity in the Visual and Performing Arts

by Silke Knippschild and Marta Garcia Morcillo

Bloomsbury (2015) p/b 370pp £21.99 (ISBN 9781474223799)

Every two years the Imagines Project (http://www.imagines-project.org/) holds a conference to discuss classical reception (what used to be called the classical tradition) in the visual and performing arts. The last was held in Faro in 2014; this volume collects together the papers from the 2010 conference held in Bristol. A distinguished list of (mainly European) contributors has created a volume of short, focussed essays which examine the reception of a wide variety of relations and themes, linked by the title’s key words: seduction and power. The chapters are arranged in a largely chronological way, where relevant by ancient date rather than by modern reception. This makes for an interesting read if you start at the beginning and work your way through to the final chapter by K., which collects some of the thematic threads from the previous twenty-one case studies. You could, of course, select according to interest: film, sculpture, painting, drama and opera are all represented; or according to historical period: Babylon, Minoan Crete, Homeric and Classical Greece, Republican and Imperial Rome, and Late Antiquity. Potentially, therefore, something for everyone with an interest in the ancient world and subsequent responses to it. One of the stated aims of the Imagines Project is ‘the understanding of different forms of interpretation, appropriation or neglect of classical inheritance across epochs and nations’. The volume does an admirable job in fulfilling this aim with two important elements which define human relationships, both personal and political. All ancient texts are translated.

To take film and painting. There were chapters on Oliver Stone’s Alexander (the lure of the East, Said’s Orientalism, examined with a particular emphasis on location and women), on Franco Rossi’s Odissea and Eneide (with the focus on the three queens, Helen, Penelope and Dido – a detailed, often frame-by-frame analysis by Martin Winkler) and various Cleopatras (‘The Great Seducer’). For art, there was a chapter on Antinous in Renaissance Art (in particular in Raphael’s Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo), nineteenth-century Spanish History Painting (interesting to see the RA controversy between Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds on realism or idealism in historical recreations being fought out also in or around Madrid), and the use of hermaphroditic imagery in Aesthetic Art (Simeon Solomon once again emerging from the shadows of disgrace). But this ignores subjects such as Verdi’s Nabucco, Shanower’s Age of Bronze (a graphic novel in several parts retelling the story of the Trojan War), Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, and much more.

I have very few criticisms of this excellent collection: the editors or proof-readers might have done a better job (carrier for career on p 207; repeated sentences on page 225 and 228, and in succession on p 317; symposium or symposion); some of the chapters on the visual arts were crying out for more illustrations. But I should not end on a negative note: the contributors have made, with lucidity and perception, an original contribution to the growing scholarship on the reception of the ancient world. Everyone will find something new here.

Stephen Chambers – Balliol

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