Pliny's Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture & Representation)
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One of the earliest surviving examples of "art history," Pliny the Elder's "chapters on art" form part of his encyclopedic Natural History, completed shortly before its author died during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. This important new work reassesses Pliny's discussion of art, revealing how art is used to expound the Roman imperial agenda which dominates the work as a whole.
plants. But the passage also implies that Pliny alone knows the true order of Nature. Others may wish to pass on to a discussion of gardens, but Pliny knows that the subject which really comes next is ‘plants which grow of their own accord, or which are cultivated’. Already in the preface, Pliny highlighted the diYculties in revealing the classiWcations inherent in Nature. In a statement which, like the description of the world with which he opened book 2, deliberately plays on itself, he notes
ancestral portraits and the speciWcations for imagines in the rhetorical handbooks, it is interesting that Pliny highlights the architectural setting of the imagines maiorum. The other main source on ancestral portraits, Polybius, writing some 200 years earlier than Pliny, concentrates on the funeral procession as a context for the display of ancestral portraits, adding that after the procession the masks were kept in a cupboard in the atrium.30 In Pliny’s discussion of ancestral masks this
because their portraits were not to be seen. (Annals 3.75) For Tacitus, the absence of the ancestral portraits of Cassius and Brutus is a potent reminder of the honourable actions which led to an unfair punishment. But on the Gate of the Argentarii, the memorial power of the visible void is harnessed to form part of the punishment itself. The blank spaces where Plautianus, Plautilla, and Geta were once portrayed, announce to the viewer that they have forfeited the right to be honoured on a
skins from China. But there is also perhaps the intimation that since gold, once the ultimate in luxury, is no longer greatly valued, Rome can return to the ideal state which Pliny’s work has continuously advocated, to the time when Romans wore iron, not gold, rings, as a sign of their ‘war-like valour’ (virtus) (33.8–9). It is highly appropriate that Pliny’s work should Wnish with a list. The triumphant assertion of Italian supremacy which precedes it, might seem a suitable rhetorical Xourish
presentation—perhaps most clearly witnessed in his transposition of two Greek masters, Apelles and Protogenes, into his idealized Roman garden. But explicitly Roman art-forms and monuments are equally implicated in the concerns of the Natural History as a whole, despite their status as indigenous creations. Objects such as ancestral portraits or Augustus’ trophy at La Turbie may ultimately provide the visible justiWcation for Pliny’s concluding statement of Italy’s ‘pre-eminence in the arts’, but