Monthly Archives: November 2012

Abbeville Book Buzz – November 2012


While the Abbeville Blog has been exploring Abbeville’s new releases in depth throughout the fall, other media outlets have been buzzing about our books as well. Here’s a roundup of some of the more notable November coverage.

The New York Times chose Renaissance Intarsia and Greek and Roman Mosaics for its Holiday Gift Guide, praising them both as books that pack “intellectual heft and emotional wallop.” The editors particularly enjoyed the arcane trivia and fantastic lore offered in each:

[Greek and Roman Mosaics'] glossary is entertaining: ancient installers called themselves tessellators, and a favorite squiggly motif was known as “opus vermiculatum. ” Many of the mosaics have been removed from their original mortar beds; a petaled frame from a Tivoli villa’s scene of doves around a birdbath has been cut apart and dispersed among collections in Germany, England and France.”

Scholars liked intarsia images of musical instruments and books, and popes and monks ordered portraits of saints. The wood grain lines, dotted with mother-of-pearl, were positioned to represent tiny gleaming swords, bird feathers and draped robes. The raw material, the [Intarsia] authors explain quite evocatively, came from trees felled in winter, “and only during the waning phase of the moon.”

Equally evocative was the review of Pieter Bruegel in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, which revels in the sensuous thrills of the volume:

This lavish book looks and feels indulgent; revealing with thrilling intimacy details of large panel paintings, including dress, gesture, facial expressions and under-drawing, it offers the closest thing to a museum experience … Taken together with [Larry] Silver’s Hieronymous Bosch (2006), Pieter Bruegel presents a masterful survey of Northern Renaissance visual trends over a span of more than a century. The book provides a fabulous resource of images, supported by a lively text that re-engages with a much loved master, and is sure to inspire many more people to look again at Bruegel.”

The reviewer also salutes author Larry Silver for deftly negotiating the vast body of scholarship on Bruegel—a painter who has become “a brand in every sense”—while at the same time keeping the emphasis where it ought to be: “Silver’s tome…rightly declares its central purpose to be the contemplation of pictures.”

Speaking of contemplation, the JapanCulture NYC blog found a whole garden’s worth of blissful serenity in Jonathan Singer’s photographic opus, Fine Bonsai: Art & Nature: “Dr. Singer creates bold, colorful images that spring off the page and demonstrate how nature can at once be both delicate and powerful…each of [the book's] 596 pages offers moments of contemplation and meditation.” In the Journal of the American Bonsai Society, editor Bob King agreed that “this is more than your average coffee table book”:

Jonathan Singer with his grounding as an art-based photographer has revealed what he sees as the true nature of the trees through the use of selective lighting. The same black background makes the trees “pop” from the pages … As I viewed the book, I also considered the educational component for the bonsai community. The book is not just a collection of photographs of bonsai. It appears that the planned design was to have trees shown without detailed information close at hand, thereby forcing the viewer to appreciate the individual tree without the prejudgment of who was involved in the development. The sections of the history, aesthetics, and container selection all add value to this book as a comprehensive book on the art of bonsai.

And there, like a master gardener trimming a bonsai plant, we will cut off the roundup before it sprawls untidily. We hope you’ll continue to follow the Abbeville Blog throughout December for more Abbeville news, author interviews, and reflections on art and art history, as well as holiday gift ideas. See you Monday!

Mind-Boggling Machines: A Q&A With Wristwatch Annual’s Marton Radkai

Marton Radkai

New York City-born, France-raised Marton Radkai has been the editor of Wristwatch Annual 2013, Abbeville’s definitive annual guide to the world of fine timepieces, since 2010. He has worked as an independent print and radio journalist, copywriter, editor and translator for over 25 years, mainly in Germany. He covers a wide range of topics, from culture and human interest to travel and technologies. A few years ago he became fascinated with the world of watches, both its products and personalities. As a resident of Geneva, Switzerland, he is right at the heart of the movement, as it were.

As the year turns over and the watch industry anticipates its major annual exhibition, the SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), Radkai was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog.

What do you see as the dominant fashion trends in the watch industry right now?

The watch year 2013 will begin here in Geneva in January, and we will be seeing what some of the big brands have in the oven. Having said that, the world of watches – and I mean mechanical wristwatches – is a microcosm of our society in many ways and intimately linked to the economy. When times are uncertain, many batten down the hatches and take a fairly conservative tack. The big brands are keeping to classic watches, reviving old designs and processing standard materials. In the run-up to the SIHH [Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie], I have been seeing JeanRichard pieces that seem touched by the 60s, for instance, or Girard-Perregauxs, Vacheron Constantins that are definitely beautiful pieces, but not really pushing the envelope. For that you have to explore the whole sector of independent makers or brands, like Sarpanewa, Speake-Marin, Urwerk, Azimuth, Artya, Ludovic Ballouard, Badollet, Jenni, or the great Thomas Prescher, to name but a few. Grieb & Benzinger’s recent productions are like rococo masterpieces, and everyone always waits with bated breath for MB&F’s next recession-defying, mind-boggling, industry-shaking machine.

Blue Danube, by Grieb & Benzinger

Performance Art HM3 MoonMachine, by MB&F

Another issue is that the industry itself has its constraints. The recession put paid to the years of manic buying by new and ephemerally wealthy customers. The restriction on ETA sales is also compelling some brands to rethink their design. So something else has to be found to justify the mantra of “innovation.” In the watch biz, that can be something very small, insignificant to the non-collector. What I did see in 2012, besides more dragons and Chinese references, was a bolder use of colors. The Meccaniche Veloci dials come to mind, or the Perrelet dials that flash through turbine blades. Hublot’s Zebra Bang is not exactly a new wine, but the bottle is…wow! And by the way, straps are not excluded from the more exotic dying vats. I would like to speculate that there is a generation moving into professional class that may also seek a particular esthetic, not necessarily the traditional look. It could be that the HYT brand with its fluid display moved by a hyper-tech pumping system is really for them.

Meccaniche Veloci

How has the industry changed in the last 10 or 20 years?

The industry is under internal and external pressures. Internally a kind of restructuring is taking place, because the ETA movements will not be liberally sold as they have been. This has spurred some companies into developing their own movements, like Cartier. Other movement makers, like Concepto, are also expanding now to take up the slack.

Esthetics and business trends are closely related in this industry. Twenty years ago, mechanical watches were still emerging from the hecatomb of the Quartz Revolution. Then came the frenetic money-making that began in the 1990s and grew the industry considerably, particularly between 2002 and 2008. The downturn did not last long: by 2010, figures were climbing steeply again, thanks in particular to China, where a burgeoning middle class is looking to exhibit its new-found wealth. Any market, however, has to be carefully cultivated. Lesser-known brands have to work quite hard to get recognition, while the big names are finding an avid customership.

There are other markets, of course, like the BRIC. The Russian market is growing again, and heads are also beginning to turn towards Brazil, where raw materials are pushing growth. At any rate, the growth has been quite staggering, and some voices are cautiously suggesting that it may be a bit illusory. The amount of watches sold in China may be less than the number of watches delivered to distributors. This could be a problem up ahead, or represent a boon for the grey market.

What watch do you wear?

I am not a great collector; it’s an economic issue, and as a journalist I get to manipulate many beautiful watches. So to use a stretched-out metaphor: I go to the recital, but do not have to own the pianist and the piano and the rights to the work played.

But I do have some special pieces: I inherited a beautiful gold Movado chronograph from my father, but it needs heavy repair. I also have a Vostok Komandirskie that I picked up in East Germany back in the mean days of the East Bloc. I also got some pocket watches from then, very fine pieces that are remarkably accurate still. But my great pride is my brushed steel Maximalism by the Israeli independent Itay Noy. It fits my personality as I perceive myself to a tee, half rococo and half modern, perhaps even a little austere. I feel a watch should harmonize with the owner in one way or another, and yet transform him or her in some way.


Click here to learn more about Wristwatch Annual 2013, published by Abbeville Press.

Medieval Bestiary 4: The Ostrich and the Poet

Jacquemart Gielée, Renart le nouvel, northern France, fourth quarter of the thirteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 1.581, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 in. (30 x 20.8 cm)
Folio 14 (detail): The Scornful Ostrich, detail from The Siege of Maupertuiz

We mentioned in our first post on The Grand Medieval Bestiary (Heck and Cordonnier, ed.) that bestiaries have had an impressive literary influence, including on the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972). Moore was very much a kindred spirit with the old bestiary authors and illustrators: a stern moralist whose tendency to sermonize was offset by a deadpan sense of humor and a gimlet eye for quirky detail. Her Complete Poems is something of a bestiary in its own right, as many of her most famous poems are about exotic creatures: the giraffe, the jerboa, the basilisk, the unicorn, the frigate pelican, the musk ox…and the ostrich, a.k.a. Struthio camelus or camel-sparrow, star of “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron.’”

Moore’s title is taken not from a medieval bestiary proper but from John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), a Renaissance-era didactic romance that contains the line: “The estrich digesteth harde yron to preserve his health.” Nevertheless, it’s in bestiaries that Lyly’s legend originated. From Heck and Cordonnier, we learn:

However, the most curious characteristic of the ostrich is the horseshoe or nail that the bird grasps in its beak. The first bestiary that mentions this habit is the Bestiaire divin by Guillaume le Clerc of Normandy: “Know that its stomach is in its throat, it is there that it retains its food: and it is of a nature so extraordinarily warm that it swallows iron and digests it in its stomach.” This detail is not present in earlier versions; the earliest representation of an ostrich holding a horseshoe in its beak is found in a bestiary produced in England around 1170, and not until the thirteenth century did the iconography become widespread. This dissemination is doubtless attributable to the growing medieval interest in the physical aspects of things, driven by the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy. However, neither Aristotle nor Aelian mentions this feature. Pliny alludes only to the bird’s formidable digestive capacity; Aelian refers to stones, but does not mention iron at all. The claim about iron must certainly be an elaboration of Aelian and Pliny: iron was considered the most impossible substance to digest, and as such the best with which to illustrate the extraordinary digestive capacities attributed to the ostrich. It appears that these words were taken at face value; in the excavations beneath the Lion Tower in London, ostrich skeletons were discovered surrounded by nails scattered near their necks!

Miroir de l’humaine salvation, anonymous French translation of Speculum humanae salvationis, France, fifteenth century
Musée Condé, Chantilly, MS 139, 15 1/2 x 11 7/8 in. (39.5 x 30 cm)
Folio 3: An Ostrich Saving Its Young with the Blood of an Asp

Moore takes this characteristic and turns it into a metaphor for hardiness and stoicism; the ostrich itself, into a “symbol of justice.” She describes the creature in her magnificent detail, from its “foot hard / as a hoof” to its “comic duckling head,” and recalls that the ostrich plume was an ancient symbol of truth and justice. (The endnotes to her Complete Poems inform us that “it was the emblem of the goddess Ma-at, the patron saint of judges.”) The poem argues for the heroic qualities of the ostrich—swiftness, nervous vigilance, ability to stomach the inedible—and implies that there is a certain justice in this strange, noble bird’s having survived where all the other “great birds” have gone extinct:

Six hundred ostrich-brains served
at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.

The power of the visible
is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire

or great auk in its grandeur;
unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.

You can put on your ostrich plume and judge for yourself, but from where we’re sitting, Moore is pretty persuasive. There is a kind of bizarre nobility to the “sparrow-camel,” as well as all the other animals that look like they should have vanished into a prehistoric era (platypi, hippos). These great survivors arouse our sympathy, our admiration, and—if we’re listening to the better angels of our human nature—our protective instinct.

Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

Medieval Bestiary 3: Squirrels, Monkeys, and Wolves

Welcome back! We hope you and yours had a happy Thanksgiving. Today is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, meaning that you’re no doubt on your way out the door in search of Deals and Steals. But before you fall prey to the temptation of every bargain in sight, take heed, gentle shopper, of the warnings delivered in the bestiaries of yore. Be not like the grasping squirrel, the covetous monkey, or the avaricious wolf.

All three animals, you see, were medieval symbols of greed. The squirrel, for example, was viewed as the ultimate winter hoarder, the kind who’d buy up the whole mall on Black Friday. According to The Grand Medieval Bestiary, edited by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier:

The squirrel was not viewed in an exclusively negative light. It could be an affectionate companion, as in the case of the Irish monk Saint Columbanus, recounted in Jonas of Bobbio’s biography. Still, the animal was thought to have decidedly more vices than virtues. It was considered greedy—it never stopped amassing food, to the point where it forgot where its hoards were hidden—as well as lazy, because it spent one third of the year asleep. (In the Middle Ages, people did not understand the necessity of the natural behavior of hibernation.)

Thomas of Cantimpré, De natura rerum, Dutch translation by Jacob Van Maerlant, Flanders, c. 1350
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, MS KA 16, 11 x 11 1/4 in. (27.8 x 20.8 cm)
Folio 68v: Squirrels

If the Middle Ages’ grudge against the squirrel was partly a matter of scientific ignorance, it was also a matter of guilt by association. With evil monkeys. The Bestiary editors explain: “The remarkable agility of the little rodent attracted notice, and it was compared to the monkey, a diabolical creature representing the irrational and bestial aspect of man.” Nor did these rodents’ shady ties end with our simian “friends.” According to the entry on The Monkey, the trail leads all the way back to the Bible: “Monkeys appear frequently in drolleries in the margins of Gothic manuscripts. They often carry fruit in their mouths, an allusion to original sin and evidence of their greediness, an iconography they share with the squirrel and the fool of Psalms 15 and 52 (who is shown as bald, probably to increase his resemblance to the monkey).”

Breviary of Marie of Savoy, Milan, c. 1430
Bibliothèque Municipale, Chambéry, MS 4, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 23 cm)
Folio 319 (detail from the margin): A Capuchin Monkey

The squirrel. The monkey. The fool. It all fits together. But where does the wolf enter the picture? The authors remind us that:

In the opening canto of his Divine Comedy, Dante names the leopard as one of the three animals that symbolize the principal categories of sinners. The leopard, the lion, and the wolf represent respectively the sins of lust, pride, and greed.

Gaston Phébus, Livre de la chasse, Paris, c. 1405–10
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 616, 14 1/4 x 9 7/8 in. (36 x 25 cm)
Folio 107: Wolf-Hunting, the Crouching Method

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us too much, given the wolf’s reputation as a relentless farmyard predator. It’s all take, take, take with those animals:

The wolf is depicted in keeping with popular imagery, which sees it as, above all, a cattle thief. The most common scene shows it escaping with a lamb in its jaws, taking advantage of the shepherd’s inattention, or with the latter in hot pursuit.

We’re pretty sure we’ve seen something like this happen at CostCo. Be careful out there, gentle shopper: the Black Friday aisles are overrun with squirrels, monkeys, and wolves (oh my). Avoid being trampled by them; avoid engaging them in confrontation; but above all, avoid the temptation to join their ranks. Actually, in the case of monkeys, it’s probably best to steer cleer of them altogether:

The human activities most often imitated by monkeys in manuscripts are studying urine at a patient’s bedside and teaching. Monkeys are frequently shown playing, fighting, and mounted on roosters, foxes, goats, and mythical animals. Sometimes they are in obscene poses, placing a finger indiscreetly or getting their rumps inspected by an imaginary version of a wading bird.

Thus endeth sermon.

Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

Medieval Bestiary 2: The Turkey and the Partridge

Henri de Ferrières, Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (Book of King Method and Queen Reason), Paris, 1379
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 12399, 12 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 21.5 cm)
Folio 91v: A Partridge Trap

Happy Thanksgiving Eve! Since tomorrow’s holiday coincides with Medieval Bestiary week at the Abbeville Blog, we were hoping to serve up a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the turkey. Sadly, we realized that there weren’t any, since the turkey is a New World bird. Nor could we track down any good commentaries on the turkey fowl or guinea fowl, which is what Europeans believed the wild turkey was when they arrived on American shores.

Fortunately, we found the next best thing: a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the partridge. Besides being a popular game bird enjoyed on feast days, the partridge was, in the opinion of the Middle Ages, basically Satan:

The partridge, in contrast to the quail depicted next to it in many bestiary manuscripts, carried very negative associations in the Middle Ages. It is generally shown taking eggs from a nest. Bestiaries record how the partridge regularly ferries its eggs and young from one nest to another to deceive predators, but also accuse the partridge of stealing eggs that she has not laid to hatch them in her nest and thus enlarge her brood. The deception is foiled, because as soon as the fledglings hatch and hear the voice of their true mother, they abandon their kidnapper to return to their own mother’s wings. This behavior is also mentioned in the Bible, where we read in the book of Jeremiah (17:11): “Like a partridge who hatches the eggs she has not laid, such is he who unjustly acquires riches; in the midst of his life shall they leave him, and in the end he will be a fool.” This episode was of course interpreted by the exegetes, who saw in it the image of the devil attempting to lure man from the influence of God… -The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts

It gets stranger: “The partridge is also described as lascivious and lustful by classical and medieval authors. It was even asserted that the heat of its sexual appetite made it forget the laws of nature, driving the males to commit the sin that brought destruction down on Sodom and Gomorrah.” That’s right: if someone ever tries to condemn your sexual preferences on religious grounds, you can throw up your hands and say, “THE PARTRIDGES MADE ME THIS WAY.”

Much as it looked down on the partridge, the Middle Ages had to admit that all that greed and lust was pretty tasty. Bestiary notes that the bird was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh.” There are even a few surviving recipes from medieval cookbooks:

[In] the Viandier, the famous fourteenth century cookbook written by Guillaume Tirel…we find instructions on how to prepare “pâtés of partridge”: “Place over your partridge thin strips of lard well chopped, and for spices, use ginger and powder of clove.”

We invite Abbeville readers to adapt this as a nontraditional Thanksgiving option. (Send us pictures if you do.) Even if you somehow absorb the partridge’s greed and lust, they’ll provide a fun alternative to the standard deadly sins of Turkey Day: gluttony and sloth.


Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

Medieval Bestiary: Legend of the Bonnacon

Bestiary of the Second Family, Peterborough Abbey or Canterbury Abbey, c. 1200–1210
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 1511, 10 5/8 x 7 1/4 in. (27.5 x 18.5 cm)
Folio 18: A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

This week Abbeville celebrates the publication of The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier. Bestiaries are among the most lovely and peculiar texts the Middle Ages have bequeathed us; their fanciful imagination, visual splendor, and moral verve have inspired artists from da Vinci to Toulouse-Lautrec and authors from Jorge Luis Borges to Marianne Moore. Moore’s poetry in particular, with its offbeat sermons on ostriches and pangolins and jerboas, often resembles a bestiary rendered in verse.

Bestiaries are illustrated compendia of animals both real and imaginary, portrayed in allegorical terms as moral examples (or warnings) for human beings. Included in their pages are whole taxonomies of creatures: some, like the dog, domestic and familiar; others, like the camelopardus (giraffe; the Latin name means literally “camel-leopard”), well-known but enduringly strange; still others, like the unicorn, fabled and impossibly beautiful. And then there’s the bonnacon. I’ll let our authors explain:

The bonnacon is one of those horned quadrupeds, each stranger than the next, that bestiaries and encyclopedias recycled from ancient sources to populate the wild regions of terrae incognitae. Thus we encounter, in Pliny’s Natural History (VIII, 16.40), a beast from Paeonia called the bonasus. It is said to have the mane of a horse and the body of a bull, as well as horns so twisted as to be useless in combat. Still, the animal possesses two means of defense. The first one, flight, is self-evident. But the second one is bizarre. While fleeing, it can project its dung as far as seventy-five ares, or roughly a hundred modern feet (Pliny’s Latin term is jugerum, a unit of measure that, usually reserved for surface areas, here probably indicates a distance of about 104 Roman feet). And this dung burns like fire on contact.

Bestiary of the Transitional Version, First Family, England, late twelfth century
National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, MS lat. Q.v.5.1, 7 7/8 x 5 3/4 in. (20 x 14.5 cm)
Folio 38 (detail): A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

Something about that last sentence, coming after the fastidious explication of a Roman unit of measurement, makes this editor laugh every time. The creators of medieval bestiaries shared a similarly dry sensibility, matter-of-factly including outrageous silliness in volumes that purported to be pious reference works. The medieval compilers seem to have been rather fond of the bonnacon; or at least, far less hard on it than they could have been. Amidst volumes that portray whales and partridges as agents of the devil, these horned beasts with their hellish projectile excrement are compared to, of all things, overly ascetic clergymen:

Moralizing glosses on the bonnacon are few, apart from that of Thomas of Cantimpré (De natura rerum 6.11), for whom the animal is a figure for good prelates who live so austerely that they might as well have horns with which to mortify their own flesh. They impose a like austerity on those under their authority, but without hurting them, for they demonstrate through their own conduct that the hardships they enforce are meant to guarantee their charges’ salvation. This interpretation is at least as twisted as the horns of the bonnacon. Surprisingly, Thomas acknowledges only the animal’s least bothersome characteristics, without attempting to put a negative construction on the less attractive traits of this strange animal.

Moral: if you encounter the mythical bonnacon, there’s really no reason to stay out of its path, as long as you don’t mind a little Christian rectitude coming your way.


Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

The Menander Mosaics and the Ancient Sitcom

Scene from Menander’s Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast), Dioskourides of Samos, 2nd century BC.

We’d like to conclude Mosaics Week here at the Abbeville Blog by taking a close look at the famous Menander mosaics from the Villa of Cicero. As Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics notes, the villa was among the first buildings to be excavated at Pompeii and may or may not actually have belonged to the great philosopher-statesman. But “while the true owner of ‘Cicero’s’ villa remains unknown to us, the author of the two emblemata there does not: both…bear the Greek inscription Dioskourides Samios epoiese (Dioskourides of Samos made me), attesting to the mosaicist’s awareness of his own skill.

What sort of mosaics did this mosaicist mosaicize? The emblemata at the Villa of Cicero depict scenes from the comedies of Menander, a popular ancient Greek dramatist whose work survives today mainly in fragments. These lively, racy works were not unlike ancient sitcoms, thriving on timeless comedic staples: love, sex, money, class conflict, and so on. The specific works featured in the villa mosaics are Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast) and Theophoroumene (The Possessed Girl); the first has been lost and only a partial text of the second has come down to us. To get a flavor of Menander’s style, however, we can peruse his only play to survive in (basically) complete form: Dyskolos (Grouch), available online in a translation by Fairfield University’s Vincent J. Rosivach. The following excerpt features Sostratos, the hero, a young gentleman of leisure in love with a peasant girl; Khaireas, Sostratos’s valet and buddy; and Pyrrhias, a slave in Sostratos’s house, whom Sostratos has earlier sent to approach the father of the girl he loves. The angry father has thrown dirt and stones at Pyrrhias, as angry fathers do.

Py. Let’s get out of here, I’m begging you.
So. Where?
Py. From the door here, as far as possible. A son of distress, either he’s been driven mad by some god or he’s naturally crazy, the man who lives in that house, the one you send me to. Damn! My toes, I’ve shattered nearly all of them banging into things.
So. [aside to Khaireas] He’s come here and gotten drunk.
Kh. Clearly.

Take a moment to savor this vintage stumbling-drunk joke, 2300 years old now but still kind of funny. Compare a more recent incarnation:

And so the human comedy continues. The works depicted in the villa mosaics are hardly less fun, especially once you know the stories behind them. The scene from Synaristosai, for example, features one courtesan complaining to another, and to the second courtesan’s mother (their procuress), about her romantic troubles. What is this if not ancient Rome’s answer to Sex and the City?

That’s not to suggest that these artworks are anything but classy. Bawdy and populist though their subject matter may be, Greek and Roman Mosaics reminds us that these “two emblemata…are still among the most beautiful mosaics recovered from the ancient world.” Far from serving as the Roman equivalent of a SATC dorm poster, they “attest to the refined culture of the villa’s owner.” And to the refinement of ancient Roman culture itself, which in slightly Warholesque fashion could turn even its pop indulgences into priceless art.


Two Images, One Battle?: Altdorfer and the Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic (c. 120 BC) is one of the most iconic images to emerge from ancient Roman culture, as well as one of history’s most notable images of Alexander the Great. Originally a floor mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii, it has since been excavated and transferred to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples–where, according to Archeology magazine, it is “safe from the feet of Pompeii’s two million plus yearly visitors, as well as from the rain and sun that have damaged the whole site.”

The mosaic depicts a clash between the Greek king Alexander and the Persian king Darius, sometime during the fourth century BC. About it, however, little else can be said for certain. The precise historical incident depicted is a matter of controversy, as Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello explain in Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics:

…But exactly which battle is represented here? Some believe that it is Alexander and Darius’s first meeting, at Issus, in southern Turkey, in 333 BC, while others suggest that it is their second, and decisive, clash, at Gaugamela, in northern Iraq, in 331 BC; both times Darius escaped the battlefield in his chariot. A third possibility is that the image synthesizes multiple episodes of Alexander’s campaign against Persia.

The authors then ponder the many other enigmas surrounding the image: who is the artist? Who commissioned it, “or rather the lost painting on which it was presumably based”? Was it executed at Pompeii or imported from a Hellenistic center? How and when did it sustain the damage–the “gaps, repairs, and incongruencies”–that mar its left side in particular?

It’s likely that none of these riddles will ever be definitively solved. The “Which battle?” question, however, remains particularly tantalizing because the answer may bring the mosaic close to another famous image from art history. If the Issus conjecture is correct, the mosaic would portray the same event as The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), a stunning High Renaissance masterwork by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer. Two images from entirely different cultures and eras, both perhaps representing the same battle–both, in their own way, thrilling.

The Battle of Alexander at Issus, Albrecht Altdorfer

The mosaic is notable among ancient artworks for its command of perspectival illusion. One horse, radically foreshortened, charges into the frame as another charges out at us; the troops’ bristling spears seem to converge toward a vanishing point somewhere in the thick of battle. Altdorfer’s Battle makes even more masterful use of illusionistic depth. Its ranks swirl and clash in a valley extending all the way to the horizon; its clouds churn in the mirroring vortex of the sky. Even the scroll of fate is rendered sturdily in three dimensions; set in a massive wooden frame, it dangles above the scene like a weight about to drop.

Yet where the mosaic has a “you are there” intimacy, our perspective in the Altdorfer is that of a detached god only temporarily visiting earth. We are up the slope a ways, slightly above the fray; the horses and soldiers are a collective, a swarm, as impersonal and destructive as a force of nature. No individual face or figure pulls our focus, with the arguable exception of the horseman at bottom right, who is just about to charge into the madness.

In the Alexander mosaic, we do have a figure in central focus, though perhaps surprisingly (given the title by which we know the piece) it isn’t Alexander. Instead the lines of the spears draw us toward the fleeing Darius, riding slightly higher than the rest, turning on his horse to lament the death of his bodyguard. Part of the success of the mosaic depends on its quality of portraiture, the vividness of the despair on Darius’s face and the implacable calm of Alexander’s expression as he watches. In something of a reversal of expectations, the Renaissance image is more epic and the classical image more intimately human: the one gives us the impersonal sweep of war, the other tragedy on a personal scale.


Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.

Mosaics, Wine, and The Spirit of Dionysus

Pella. Pebble mosaic, Dionysus on the Panther. 103 x 106 ¼ in. (262 x 270 cm). 330-310 BC.

This week we at the Abbeville Blog toast Greek and Roman Mosaics, a comprehensive survey of classical mosaic art by Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello. And when we toast mosaics, we toast rowdily, with bowls of wine. That’s because, as you thumb through the (gorgeous, full-color) illustrations in the book, you’ll find that a striking number of ancient dining room floors feature mosaics with Bacchic themes.

What would we do without Bacchus, a.k.a. Dionysus, a.k.a. the god of wine, revelry, and ritual madness, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite god? This jovial scamp has been entertaining the masses and driving women crazy since he first popped out of Father Zeus’s thigh.

Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale (inv. 9991), from Pompeii, House of the Faun (VI.12.2), triclinium (34). Winged Dionysus on a Tiger, 64 1/4 x 64 1/4 in. (163 x 163 cm). Late second century BC.

His influence on Greek and Roman mosaics is far-ranging but sometimes intriguingly oblique. For every Winged Dionysus on a Tiger from the House of the Faun in Pompeii–in which the god carries a giant wine jug and rides that tiger like the party will never end–there is a more subdued or even sinister memento of ancient drinking culture, such as the wine pitcher-toting skeleton from another Pompeiian mosaic. (Both pieces are held at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.) These were civilizations that knew, and honored, both the ecstatic and the sobering side of drink.

For a god, Dionysus is not always portrayed as especially powerful. A famous pebble mosaic at the palaces of Pella, about 28 miles southwest of Thessalonica, “depicts Dionysus, limp and ephebic, on the back of a sinuous, rampant panther, a theme also seen in vase painting,” according to Pappalardo and Ciardiello. This image was part of the traditional symbolism associated with the cult of Dionysus. Does it perhaps symbolize the animal desires that master us during drunkenness, taking our weakened human willpower along for the ride?

Rome, Musei Capitolini (inv. 1256) from Tivoli, Villa Adriana. Drinking Doves. 33 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (35 x 98.5 cm). Probably second century AD.

Nor are animals themselves, in these mosaics, immune to the charms of wine. One recurrent mosaic motif, the most distinguished rendering of which was discovered in Tivoli at the Academy of the Villa Adriana in 1737, depicts “Drinking Doves”: doves clustered around a winebowl. Pappalardo and Ciardiello suggest that they are “an epiphany of Aphrodite, or an apparition of the goddess of nature in the form of her sacred animal.” Later they “appeared in late-antique and Byzantine art, in which they took on a symbolic Christian meaning.” Though not a Dionysian image per se, these birds shed their own kind of light on the drinking culture from which they emerged. If there is something terrifying and self-abasing about drunkenness in Greco-Roman art, there is also something communal, even democratic. The power of drink and drinking rituals holds sway over all creation: gods and men, birds and beasts alike.


Click here to learn more about Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello’s Greek and Roman Mosaics, published by Abbeville Press.

Joy on the Grand Scale: Jonathan Singer at the New Jersey State Museum

When a fellow scholar interested in botanical illustration pointed Dr. Karen Reeds to a article on Jonathan Singer, she was struck right away by what she saw. “Within five minutes,” she recalls, “I thought: this is something that would make a good exhibition.”

Actually bringing Singer’s photography to the New Jersey State Museum, where Dr. Reeds is a freelance curator, took some time and negotiation. For one thing, the project would be an ambitious one for the museum, which “didn’t have any frames large enough on hand” for Singer’s giant-sized photographs. Still, says Dr. Reeds, the publication of Singer’s Botanica Magnifica, with its gorgeous full-color images of rare and exotic plants, was a “tremendous advertisement” that wowed her fellow curators.

Asked why the images appealed so much to her own eye, Reeds praised “the contrast of the absolutely luminous color against the black background…that makes them all the more vivid.” She noted the influence on Singer of still life paintings by Dutch Old Masters, which, she said, were “ingrained in me from a very early age as a beautiful thing to see” (a reproduction of one of them hung in her grandmother’s house as a child). She pointed, too, to the way their size works in the photographs’ favor; they’re “so large that you see things that you could not actually see on the living plant”–or under a microscope, which doesn’t permit a view of the entire specimen. Finally, she said, there is the artist’s personal imprint, independent of technical considerations: his “sheer joy in the forms and colors of the plant.”

Once the exhibition was set to go forward, Reeds worked with Singer and her fellow curators to, as she puts it, “create a story.” Their choice of materials dictated by what was already framed, they grouped images to create a logical flow for each section of exhibition, juxtaposing them with the museum’s John James Audubon prints to emphasize their continuity with the “historical tradition of natural history illustration on the grand scale.”

How was the show received? “Very well,” says Reeds: it attracted praise from ARTNews, ART TIMES, and Princeton Magazine, among other outlets, as well as considerable community interest in Trenton and beyond. It satisfied the most demanding critics, too: Reeds noticed that children were quite fond of the work, responding in particular to “Jonathan’s more abstract images”–those that “hom[ed] in on an abstract piece of color and form.” From little kids to the Smithsonian, from Botanica Magnifica to Fine Bonsai, it seems that the wow factor in Singer’s work remains a constant.