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Six people who helped make ancient Naples great

The city that we now call Naples began life in the seventh century BC, when Euboean colonists from the town of Cumae founded a small settlement on the rocky headland of Pizzofalcone. This settlement was christened ‘Parthenope’ after the mythical siren whose corpse had supposedly been discovered there, but it soon became known as Palaepolis (‘Old City’), after a Neapolis (‘New City’) was founded close by. These twin cities – both of which are now absorbed into the fabric of modern Naples – were home to some of the most beguiling mythological and historical characters in classical antiquity. Here are just six of them.

Parthenope

Originally this half-bird creature roamed the Campanian coast with her siren sisters, chanting melodies that were sweet – but deadly. Homer tells us that any sailor who came too near to the sirens would “never again be welcomed home by his wife and children”, and describes the piles of bones covered in rotting flesh that decorated the sirens’ lair. Odysseus managed to escape this fate by stuffing his crew members’ ears with wax. He left his own ears unplugged but tied himself to the ship’s mast, which enabled him to hear the song but resist the seduction. Parthenope was distraught and threw herself in the sea. When her drowned body washed up on the shore, some Greek sailors built her a tomb which became the focus for commemorative games and a mysterious torch race.

Detail of the Fountain of the Spinacorona by Little john via Wikimedia Commons [public domain].
Image credit: Spinacorona by Little john. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After antiquity, Parthenope was hailed as a protectress and symbol of Naples. One sixteenth-century fountain shows her standing in the crater of Vesuvius, holding her breasts in her hands as two streams of water spurt out of her nipples to quench the volcano’s superheated flow. A more gruesome image is found in Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 novel La Pelle (‘The Skin’), by which time it had become customary to represent the sirens as mermaids. In the film adaptation of the novel, we see the small, childlike body of what appears to be a siren served up at a banquet for some contemptuous foreign dignitaries – a clear allegory for the city’s decline during and after the Second World War (and enough to put you off fish forever).

 

Virgil

The Roman poet Virgil was buried in Naples, making the city an eternal place of pilgrimage for other poets and artists. Petrarch, Dante, and Mozart are some of the more famous tourists to have visited the site of Virgil’s tomb on the hill of Posilippo, although it’s unlikely that this modest columbarium tomb really contains the great poet’s body (this was simply wishful thinking on the part of Petrarch). Another set of medieval stories turned Virgil into a sorcerer, whose masterpiece was an egg with the power to keep Naples safe for as long as its shell stayed intact. This egg was hidden inside the Castle that still bears its name – the ‘Castel dell’Ovo’, on the tiny island of Megaride across from Via Parthenope on the mainland.

 

Lucius Cocceius Auctus

Lucius Cocceius Auctus was an Augustan architect renowned for building two enormous tunnels through the Neapolitan subsoil, known today as the Crypta Neapolitana and the Grotta di Seiano. The geographer, Strabo, thought that Cocceius must have taken inspiration from ancient stories of the Cimmerri, a mythical race of people said to live underground in a network of tunnels around the nearby Lake Avernus. Whatever his source, Cocceius’ subterranean creations soon became central to Naples’ urban identity and would themselves go on to inspire some highly atmospheric literary descriptions – as well as a set of colourful medieval legends.

Crypta Neapolitana by Mentnafunangann [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Crypta Neapolitana by Mentnafunangann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Tiberius Julius Tarsos

The Roman freedman Tiberius Julius Tarsos built a temple to the Dioscuri in the centre of Naples; today, you can still see two of its Corinthian columns built into the facade of the church of S. Paolo Maggiore. Originally these columns supported a magnificent pediment filled with sculptures of mythical and historical figures including Artemis, Apollo, and perhaps also a personification of the local Sebethos river. Legend has it that St Peter himself made these sculptures fall from the pediment when he passed through Naples on his way to Rome, and what Peter didn’t manage to destroy, a seventeenth-century earthquake unfortunately finished off for him. Luckily, we still have drawings made by Renaissance artists and antiquarians which preserve details of this great monument, including the large marble inscription from the front of the facade naming Tarsos and the gods to whom the temple was dedicated.

 

Saint Janarius

No list of great Neapolitans could leave out the early Christian martyr Saint Janarius (San Gennaro in Italian), or the two vials of his dried blood which still liquefy miraculously three times a year. San Gennaro is said to have been put to death in Pozzuoli in 305AD, in the final year of the Diocletianic Persecutions. He and some fellow Christians were beheaded inside the Solfatara crater, which was already a place redolent with ancient mythological associations (Strabo described it as the ‘Forum of Hephaestus’). Like Parthenope and Virgil before him, Gennaro was swiftly adopted as the city’s patron and protector, and – again like Parthenope – he was also seen to combat the fires of Vesuvius with one of his bodily fluids. This time though, it wasn’t the quenching nature of breast-milk, but the ‘sympathetic magic’ of erupting red blood which stopped the flow of volcanic materials.

 

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman Emperor, and he made Naples great(er) by ending his life there. He’d been exiled to the city at some point during the later fifth century, and imprisoned on Megaride in the very castle that would later become home to Virgil’s legendary egg. In hindsight, the body of Romulus Augustulus had its own talismanic quality – for just as the fate of Naples was linked to the fragile egg, the death of Romulus signalled the end of the whole Roman imperial lineage. Even more mysterious is the fact that his body vanished without a trace, and that no monument (other than the castle itself) survives to commemorate him. But then, perhaps that’s the perfect way to end an Empire?

Headline image: Napoli da Corso Vittorio Emanuele by IlSistemone. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Redefining beauty in the suburbs of Victorian London

The British Museum’s current blockbuster show, Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art, amasses a remarkable collection of classical sculpture focusing on the human body. The most intriguing part of the show for me was the second room, “Body colour,” which displays plaster casts of several Greek sculptures brightly painted in green, blue, yellow, red and pink.

The press has not known what to make of “Body colour.” It has been met with surprise, sneersor been entirely ignored in otherwise glowing reviews. Yet the public exhibition of painted classical sculpture is not quite as novel as responses to Defining Beauty suggest. Just over 160 years ago, slabs from the north section of the Parthenon Frieze were cast in plaster, painted, and proudly put on display in the Greek Court of the Crystal Palace, the great glass structure relocated from Hyde Park to the South London suburb of Sydenham after the close of the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Its creator, Owen Jones, emphasised the archaeological evidence behind his “polychrome” (many coloured) frieze. But polychromy emerged repeatedly in comments on the Crystal Palace at Sydenham as a symbol of the challenges of presenting classical sculptureoften regarded as the exclusive province of the eliteto a new mass audience. Its significance extended beyond archaeological credibility, and keyed into mid-Victorian debates about race, sex, class, and religion.

The original frieze, brought to London by Lord Elgin and purchased by the British Museum in 1816, was one of the most treasured of nineteenth-century British possessions. It was a controversial choice for a polychrome experiment. Samuel Leigh Sotheby, a Crystal Palace shareholder, memorably deemed the paint a “deformity,” and likened it to superimposing a dog’s head on a human’s bodya significant, if surreal, affront to conventional expectations. The painted frieze swiftly became the subject of debate in lectures to art students, outraged pamphlets, popular magazines and newspapers, high-brow journals, and archaeological publications.

Aphaia Trojan Archer, Archer from the Temple of Aphaia, Aigina (c. 490-480 BCE), by Marsyas. Currently on show at the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition. Public domain, via Wikimedia commons.
Archer from the Temple of Aphaia, Aigina (c. 490-480 BCE), by Marsyas. Currently on show at the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition. Public domain, via Wikimedia commons.

Open to the public from 1854 until it burnt down in 1936, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham was the first venue to exhibit a comprehensive selection of classical sculpture to an audience drawn from all social classes. Politicians, mechanics, artisans, cooperative societies, East End school children, and figures of the Victorian cultural establishment like John Ruskin and Charles Dickens all rubbed shoulders under its glass roof. By the late 1850s, two million visitors poured into the Palace each year, more than twice as many as recorded at the British Museum at the time.

Critics believed that painted sculpture was a crudely populist and ill-advised attempt to please the “ignorant.” It was dismissed as a “tawdry toy,” associated with mechanics’ tea gardens and sailors’ figure-heads. A similar discomfort is evident in today’s critical responses to polychromy in Defining Beauty, which demotes the painted sculptures to the status of “painted models,” and deems the colour schemes “garish and not especially pleasing.” Painted sculpture still seems to carry an air of vulgarity and childishness.

Some opposed the Palace’s painted frieze on moral grounds. Nudity in sculpture was acceptable if the body represented was ‘ideal,’ but the addition of colour would instantly render it dangerously ‘real.’ The nude horsemen on the frieze at Sydenham were painted pink, and thus were guilty of such a transgression. This was particularly troubling at the Palace, with its audience of people considered most morally vulnerable in mid-Victorian thought: the working classes, women, and children. All of the painted sculptures in the 2015 British Museum show are fully clothed, but eroticism is not far from the surface in reviews of these “teasingly bizarre” objects, situated in a room that “flirts with anti-climax.”

Anxieties over painted classical sculpture in mid-Victorian Britain were also related to racist ideas about the inferiority of “coloured” skin. At the Palace, painted plaster body casts of unclothed non-European peoples were exhibited in its “Natural History Department.” Their bodies were regularly viewed unfavourably compared to the sculptures on display in the Greek court, which many considered to represent the ideal human body. But the fact that both the “Natural History Department” plaster casts and the cast of the Parthenon frieze were painted also prompted connections between the two. Many critics found these associations troubling.

Painted sculpture was definitively associated within nineteenth-century terms—”primitive,” non-Western, and underdeveloped or declining art. The only other context in which Victorians encountered polychromy was in Catholic devotional statuary, which was particularly horrifying for the Protestant establishment. The Palace’s painted frieze moved sculptor Richard Westmacott Jr. and archaeologist Hodder Michael Westropp to denounce all painted sculpture as “barbarous” and “practised [sic] in the worst periods of art” in “Assyria, India, and Mexico.” According to these critics, the racially superior Greeks could never have painted their sculpture. The sculpture that represented them at Sydenham ought to be similarly unpainted and untainted with any possible connections to the non-Western.

Owen Jones, on the other hand, had intentionally situated painted Greek sculpture alongside examples from Egypt and Assyria. Unlike many reviewers of Defining Beauty, he did not regard Greek sculpture to be the “summit of human artistic achievement,” but saw it as one culture among many. He would doubtless have been delighted with Defining Beauty’s display of painted Greek sculpture alongside a painted cast of a Mayan fragment from the Lower Temple of Jaguar at Chich’en Itza in what is today Mexico (c. 1000 CE).

The idea that Greek sculpture was once painted continues to shock. Owen Jones’s 1850s protestations have not had much impact on centuries of celebrating white marble, and painted sculpture remains a genuine surprise for many viewers. But the Palace story demonstrates the wider cultural context and longer history of the display of painted Greek sculpture. In the nineteenth-century, these attempts were derided due to racist ideas about the superiority of white skin, its association with “primitive”, working-class, and Catholic cultures, and anxieties that it might encourage a sensual mode of art viewing, rather than one based on intellectual appreciation. Do these fears lurk unacknowledged behind anxieties about paint on sculpture today?

Featured image credit: “The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, c.1854″, by Paul Furst. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Who was Amelia Edwards?

Surprisingly few people have heard of Amelia Edwards. Archaeologists know her as the founder of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, set up in 1882, and the Department of Egyptology at University College London, created in 1892 through a bequest on her death. The first Edwards Professor, Flinders Petrie, was appointed on Amelia’s recommendation and her name is still attached to the Chair of Egyptian Archaeology.

Edwards did more than anyone in the late nineteenth century to encourage interest in ancient Egypt. During a trip along the Nile in 1873, at the age of 42, she was so excited by doing a little amateur digging at Abu Simbel that she returned to England determined to devote the rest of her life to promoting Egyptology as a scientific discipline. She read up on the subject and she taught herself hieroglyphics. In 1877 she published a lengthy account of her trip, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, which was readable, as well as scholarly, and beautifully illustrated with her own watercolours. The book marked a turning point in women’s travel writing by concentrating on the traditionally masculine sphere of history and research and mostly ignoring female domestic life, which Amelia said she had very little opportunity to study.

Abu Simbel drawn by Amelia B. Edwards, 1870, via Wikimedia Commons [public domain].
Abu Simbel drawn by Amelia B. Edwards, 1870. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Within a decade Amelia Edwards had become such a specialist on ancient Egypt that she was regularly contributing to academic journals. She was also canvassing professional and popular support for excavation and for the systematic and accurate recording of monuments. She had enormous energy and physical stamina as well as a talent for public speaking which was brilliantly displayed in 1889 when she embarked on an extraordinary lecture tour to the United States. For five months she criss-crossed the continent, sometimes speaking to audiences of over two thousand people. When she broke her arm a few hours before a lecture in Columbus she found a surgeon to set the bone and went ahead with the event. She was awarded three honorary degrees from American universities.

Not surprisingly, Edwards’ life is remembered in the context of archaeology. But she was a polymath. The trip up the Nile was a mid-life journey undertaken when she had already made her name as a travel writer with an account of a trek through the Dolomites. Published in 1873, Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys is still one of the best travel books ever published on the region and an exuberant and witty introduction to the glorious beauty of the mountains and their previously isolated communities. Unlike the Alps, the region was not overcrowded with tourists. There were plenty of opportunities for sketching, botany, and mountain-climbing. You might even hear Verdi arias, perfectly performed in a village inn by local tenor. For Edwards, a talented singer herself, this was a bonus.

Photo of Amelia B. Edwards, 1890, via Wikimedia Commons [public domain].
Amelia B. Edwards, 1890. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By the time she made the trip to the Dolomites, Edwards was also a well-known novelist. She wrote articles, poems, and mystery stories for several journals including Charles Dickens’s Household Words, and she was one of the first contributors to the feminist English Woman’s Journal, launched in 1858. Her best-selling novel, Barbara’s History, touches on edgy but popular Victorian themes of bigamy and infidelity, while its eponymous heroine is feisty, well-travelled, and erudite.

Amelia Edwards later became a vice-president of the Society for Promoting Women’s Suffrage. She was one of a number of multi-talented European women who changed the nature of women’s travel writing. Jane Dieulafoy, Ella Sykes, Isabella Bird, Lady Anne Blunt, and Gertrude Bell all contrived in their different ways to break the conventional boundaries of female travel. Whether single or married, they no longer accepted that their interests and writing should be confined to literary and domestic subjects in order to guarantee publication. Although they sometimes differed in their attitude towards the women’s suffrage campaign, they all asserted their right to be taken seriously in the masculine world of science, geopolitics and diplomacy.

Archaeologist? Travel writer? Novelist? Journalist? Musician? Linguist? Fund-Raiser? Feminist? Amelia Edwards was more than equal to any task. After her death, at the age of 60, her cousin, Matilda Betham-Edwards, said that if she had lived longer Amelia would probably have thrown Egyptology to the winds and embarked on a new project with equal success. “Who knows? She might have thrown herself heart and soul into the Women’s Rights agitation … Not only might we have had in her a powerful statesman and party leader, but a lady Prime Minister.”

Headline image: Abu Simbel. Photo by Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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The destruction of an Assyrian palace

In March 2015, ISIS released a video depicting the demolition of one of the most important surviving monuments from the Assyrian empire, the palace of Ashurnasirpal in the ancient city of Nimrud.
As archaeologists, we are all too familiar with destruction. In fact, it is one of the key features of our work. One can only unearth ancient remains, buried long ago under their own debris and those of later times, once. It brings with it an obligation to properly record and make public what is being excavated. The documentation from Ashurnasirpal’s palace is generally disappointing. This is due to the palace mostly having been excavated in the early days of archaeology. Still, the resulting information is invaluable and will continue to allow us to answer new questions about the past.

Ashurnasirpal’s palace was constructed around 865 BCE during a period in which Assyria was slowly becoming the empire that would rule most of the Middle East two centuries later. The palace had probably been emptied by those who conquered the empire in 612 BCE and by those who reoccupied its remains thereafter. (This explains why its rooms were mostly devoid of precious objects.) It is the first known royal palace from the Assyrian Empire (little has survived from the centuries before), and is among the few Assyrian palaces to have been excavated (more or less) in its entirety. Measuring at least two hectares, it must have been one of the largest and most monumental buildings of its time. Though Nimrud itself is 180 times the size of the palace, and still mostly unexplored, the palace’s destruction is yet another blow to the cultural heritage of Iraq. It was without doubt one of the most important sites from that time in the world.

The palace was first excavated from 1847 onwards by Austen Henry Layard, with most finds ending up in the British Museum, which was just being constructed. Contrary to the later royal palaces, it used war scenes sporadically in the decoration of the palace, only using them in the throne-room and in the two reception rooms to its southwest. Hardly any of these reliefs remained in Nimrud, many were taken away during the reign of King Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE), when the palace no longer functioned as a royal residence, to be reused in his new palace. Most reliefs with war scenes were later shipped to the British Museum by Layard.

The British Museum: Room 7 - 'Paneled Wall Reliefs from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud' by Mujtaba Chohan
The British Museum: Room 7 – ‘Paneled Wall Reliefs from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud’ by Mujtaba Chohan. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other monumental rooms of the palace were decorated with apotropaic scenes that depicted different otherworldly creatures. The palace depicted a varied group of such figures, but most walls depicted only a single type. In order to limit the number of reliefs coming their way, the British Museum asked Layard not to send “duplicates”. Layard therefore started giving them away to people visiting his excavations. People continued to visit the site in the decades thereafter to take away reliefs for their own, and as a result, the palace’s reliefs ended up throughout the world. ISIS has now destroyed the last reliefs that remained in Nimrud.

The remaining contents of the palace were also taken away during excavations, with the valuable finds mostly ending up in museums in Iraq and England. Original items still remaining included architectural features, such as floors and drainage, and stone reliefs that had been deemed less valuable by European museums and collectors. The walls blown up by ISIS were mostly reconstructed during the past decades.

A sense of irony pervades the tragedy of the destruction. The Assyrians were renowned destroyers of cultural heritage themselves and masters in letting the world know about their deeds. They were highly skilled in the art of propaganda and used all the media available at the time. Their propaganda was so effective that the Assyrians have had a bad reputation throughout most of history.

ISIS uses propaganda as an art of misdirection. Overall it has been destroying less than it claims, and much more than the ones that have made headlines. To a considerable degree, ISIS was blowing up a reconstructed, excavated, and emptied palace. There should, however, be no doubt about the cultural and scientific value of what had remained. The damage is irreparable and heart breaking. The amount of destroyed heritage is only countered by the daunting potential for more damage. ISIS controls numerous archaeological sites of universal importance. Some of these are known to have been pillaged in order to profit from the illegal sale of antiquities. It is a problem that goes well beyond the area controlled by ISIS and one of which Europe is not always on the good side. Unsurprisingly, ISIS has been less eager to highlight how the art they say to despise is supporting them financially. Since sites can only be dug up once, looting forever robs us of the chance to learn about the past.

Headline image: Portal guardians mark the entrance to what once was the Northwest palace in the ancient city of Calah, which is now known as Nimrud, Iraq. Photo by Staff Sgt. JoAnn Makinano. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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The ‘Golden Nikes’ for Greek tragedy

With Greek tragedies filling major venues in London in recent months, I have been daydreaming about awarding my personal ancient Greek Oscars, to be called “Golden Nikes” (pedantic footnote: Nike was the Goddess of Victory, not of Trainers). There has been Medea at the National Theatre, Electra (Sophocles’ version) at the Old Vic, and Antigone, which recently opened at the Barbican. There are yet more productions lined up for The Globe, Donmar, and RSC.

Most obviously, there has to be the Golden Nike for ‘Best Tragic Heroine’. And it goes to Kristin Scott Thomas for her tense, nuanced, and moving Electra – although Helen McCrory’s Medea would win if there were an award for ‘Voice’. (I’m afraid that Juliette Binoche showed that she is better in the cinema than the theatre.) ‘Best Supporting Actor’ definitely goes to Diana Quick’s dignified but hopelessly damaged Clytemnestra in Electra.

In the long run, though, it may be more interesting to think about the huge differences between these three productions, and how each found such very different tensions and tones and thought-patterns in three plays that all come from the same society and setting and the same brief period in the Athens of nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea tapped into a dark undergrowth of resentment and deceit; Electra revolved around the pathology of grief and the cramping bonds of family ties; Antigone brought out the menace of power and the allure of death-wish. They were so fascinatingly varied in their incorporation of music, for example, their use or non-use of the chorus, their playing on light and dark, and the degree to which they were in some way “Greek”.

War_Memorial_Winged_Victory,_Skipton
The Goddess Nike (Winged Victory) on top of Skipton War Memorial by Chris Tomlinson. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, as a translator, I have a special interest in their scripts – the degree of adaptation, their diction and poetry, their use of the familiar and the strange. You might say that they could hardly have been more different. Actually, the range of modern versions is so incredibly various that you could put another twenty versions side-by-side and find them no less different from each other than these three.

Ben Power’s Medea, called “a new version”, was the most adapted and furthest away from the Greek original. Critics praised it as “lean and mean”. This is one way of saying that only about a quarter of the Euripides made it into the version. And there is a significant layer of additions, including most of the opening scene. Power’s priorities are open: he is going for clear basic narrative, simple accessible language. His driving priorities might be put as negatives: “avoid making it difficult or strange or high-flown”. Complex ideas, striking twists of expression, musical sound-patterns: these are all avoided like the plague in this simplified version.

Electra used a pre-existent text by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. This is relatively complete and close to the original, and does more to reflect the non-naturalistic dictions and rhythms of Sophocles. The word most used of it by reviewers was “strong”. This is high praise – I would be delighted if my versions were called “strong”. At the same time McGuinness’ language did not surprise or disconcert; it felt well worn rather than fresh.

Anne Carson is the only one of three writers to have worked from the Greek, and so it is all the more remarkable that her Antigone is by far the strangest and most idiosyncratic. Carson is both a classical scholar and an exceptional lyric poet. Her own poetry has an unmistakable “voice” – a poignant terseness, a sardonic wit, and an unpredictable swooping between highly wrought artifice and almost bathetically everyday idioms. She has not changed her voice at all for confronting tragedy, and the result is that this new Antigone has a script that is full of strange surprises and puzzling twists, darting between high peculiarity and deflationary colloquialism. This is not merely willful because the Sophocles original is also variable and unexpected in tonal variation; it is quite mistaken to think that the language of Greek tragedy was level and stately.

At the same time, I have to say that the Carson is so odd and individual that, in my opinion, it works better on the page than it does in performance on stage. So the Golden Nike for ‘Best Acting Script’ goes to Frank McGuinness and the Golden Nike for ‘Best Creative Translation’ to Anne Carson. And what her version does do in the theatre is to call for its audience to listen to every word, and to realise that this drama is not expressed in simple everyday language. I like that. I hope that my versions, in their different way, do the same.

Featured image credit: Winged victory, Nike statue, Rome, Italy, by Mstyslav Chernov. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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