Pliny’s (sm)art history—a post from Dr. Jeffrey Becker

Pliny the Elder, Caius Suetonius Tranquillus, and others, Vita Plinii, epistola 11; Historia naturalis (books 1-18), imperfect England, S.; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century (Arundel 98, British Library, f. 85v)

Pliny the Elder, Caius Suetonius Tranquillus, and others, Vita Plinii, epistola 11; Historia naturalis (books 1-18), England, S.; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century (Arundel 98, British Library, f. 85v)

Encyclopedic means “to be comprehensive in terms of information”—in other words, all the world’s knowledge in one place. Printed encyclopedias—take the landmark 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica—were long staples of households and libraries. These printed volumes are now largely supplanted by the World Wide Web where a great deal of information (along with a great many distractions) can be accessed and browsed instantaneously. But does the internet have the same goals as the encyclopedist? Where does encyclopedism originate? Likely among the ancient Romans where we find the earliest encyclopedists—Marcus Terentius Varro, whose encyclopedic text does not survive, and the first century C.E. Latin author Caius Plinius Secundus—Pliny the Elder in our parlance.

The polymath Roman statesman-scholar Pliny the Elder was a voracious chronicler of the world about him. He and his overworked scribes collected and copied and recorded a vast range of information – ranging from the mundane to the extraordinarily bizarre—that was then published as the treatise Historia Naturalis (“The Natural History”). Pliny, in addition to being encyclopedic in his interests, took a keen interest in the discipline we call art history—and his descriptive text provides us a wealth of information about artists and works of art and architecture that have long since vanished, but nonetheless occupy an important place in the continuum of Western art and its development.

Take, for example, painting—an extremely fugitive medium. During the time of the Roman Republic, historical commemoration emerged as a uniquely Roman art form. In addition to textual descriptions of Roman accomplishments, mixed media presentations often sought to visually transport the viewer from the riotous, triumphal streets of Rome to some distant city or battlefield. These historical commemorations became important elements of an incessant Roman interest in constructing and reinforcing common identities (perhaps even in establishing the idea of Romanitas or “Roman-ness”).

The beginnings of Roman wall painting seem to lie in the fourth century B.C.E. with one Caius Fabius Pictor who decorated the temple of Salus on the Quirinal Hill in Rome. The subject of Pictor’s work seems most likely to have been the victories won by the Roman general Bubulcus during the Samnite Wars. Viewers in Rome would not have seen the battles themselves—but in seeing Pictor’s painting, they were transported to the frontlines. The tradition of Roman historical commemoration developed across the later centuries of the Republic and continued into the Imperial period, producing famous monuments that still chronicle Roman historical deeds for us today. The Arch of Titus, the Column of Trajan, the Arch of Constantine—all capture, pictorially, the particulars of Roman events. In short, it is history in art form.

Pliny’s art still colors our understanding of the ancient world. The portions of his text devoted to art history are of incredible value—in a way, he exemplifies that objectivity that we still try to instill in students when we teach them to engage and analyze images and objects. In short, Pliny set a trend in art history.

One of the reasons that I am enthusiastic about contributing to Smarthistory’s efforts to provide high quality online engagement with art history is somewhat akin to Pliny’s approach to the world—I not only want to know as much as I can about it, but I also want to encourage others to do the same. Ours is an increasingly visual culture—digital media perhaps make this one of the most visually-oriented periods in the history of humanity—and I feel strongly that students (of whatever age) need to understand the underpinnings of our own visual culture by studying the history of art and architecture. The World Wide Web provides an incredible forum for such learning, since it grants the ability to share text, images, animations, videos with people who are just about anywhere on the planet. The beauty of Smarthistory is not just the pretty pictures, but the fact that it provides high quality content from trusted, professional sources—the kind of material students need either to meet an object either for the first time or to hone their interest as they probe further. As someone who writes about and teaches ancient art and architecture, Smarthistory looks like what I imagine the instructional future to be, where traditional classroom instructors will increasingly deploy a suite of resources —some digital, others traditional—as the discussion of art history and visual culture becomes more dialogic, increasingly aimed at exploring and contextualizing visual culture in an effort to make students informed observers of the maelstrom of images that present themselves in so many facets of life. This is not to say that the canon has no place—indeed the canon remains critical for all of those who strive to be visually oriented and to appreciate influence and the ways in which visual and iconographic trends move across cultures and across time, one of the clearest testaments to our shared commonalities as human beings.

So what would old Pliny think about all of this? I, for one, think he would be delighted and wonderstruck. Pliny would be agog that a free resources like Wikipedia (for instance) has, as of this writing, nearly 5 million English-language entries—and he would get busy adding more! Rather than classify the World Wide Web among the monsters and strange novelties that he remarks on in his Historia Naturalis, I think he would classify it as a source of wonderment.

Jeffrey A. Becker Ph.D. RPA is a professional Mediterranean archaeologist currently based in Oxford, Mississippi, U.S.A. Becker received his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught at a variety of institutions in the U.S. and Canada and, in 2015, will lecture in Classics, on a part-time basis, at the University of Mississippi. When he is not writing Smarthistory essays, he is pursuing his research agenda related to Mediterranean urbanism and architecture.

Smarthistory contributions (select):

Temple of Portunus
Forum Romanum (Roman Forum)
Tomb of the Reliefs
Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius
Head of a Roman Patrician

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One Comment

  1. I’d love to be studying now and have so much information available (and searchable) at my fingertips – although I might miss the communality of the good old slide library.


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