Why history needs art’ Dr Caroline Vout (Christ’s College, Cambridge) Thursday, March 20

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Why history needs art’

Dr Caroline Vout

(Christ’s College, Cambridge)

Thursday, March 20

Dr Vout began by reminding us that our thinking about classical history tends to be based on written evidence and she encouraged us to think instead with ‘art’. But first one has to define ‘art’ in the context of the Classical world. How would the Greeks have categorised it? Did the Greeks have any concept of ‘art’? Are we correct in thinking of visible forms, whether in stone, bronze or paint, as artistic products or are they rather religious reifications? Indeed, divine forms present a particular problem in that they are anthropomorphic. Athena on the Athenian Akropolis appears in various human shapes, sizes and materials, all of which were Athena to the worshippers. But Dr Vout took care to point out that the massive statue of Athena Parthenos, all gold and ivory, had actually no body beneath the glittering surround; the statue was, in the speaker’s words, a giant credit card. In contrast to Athena, the cult statue of Aphrodite at Knidos, open to view and touch, put the viewer in a position of power when faced with her. Our view of her today is of course through Roman copies – it was the Romans who remade the images into works of art, to be understood and admired outside their original contexts.

Dr Vout then moved on to consider the deified emperors. Very few people in the wide empire had a notion of what the emperor looked like; coins were the closest contact they had with them. We were then shown a range of images of various emperors and could see how the written comments about them undoubtedly colour our interpretation of their portrait images. In speaking of Hadrian, Dr Vout showed how scanty is the written information we have of Hadrian’s boy-friend, Antinous, (born in Bithynia, drowned in the Nile), and contrasted that meagre resource with the fact that there still exist over 100 images that have been connected with him. Texts fail to explain the true nature of the friendship; the images must be taken into account.

The lecture was lively, thought-provoking and compellingly delivered.


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