The Rhetoric of Art: Cicero, Vitruvius and Pliny

The Rhetoric of Art: Cicero,
Vitruvius and Pliny
• Luxury
• Truth
• Appropriateness
Horace Odes 2.15.1-5
It will not be long until our regal residences will leave only a few acres for the plough;
on all sides our fishponds will be spreading wider than the Lucrine lake, and the
barren place will drive out the elm
Seneca Elder, Contr 2.1.13
Men even imitate mountains and woods in their foul houses – green fields, seas and
rivers amid the smoky darkness. I can hardly believe any of these people have ever
set eyes on forests or plains of green grass. ..Who could take pleasure in such
debased imitations if he as familiar with the reality?...They pile up great buildings on
the seashore and block off bays by filling the deep sea with earth; others divert the
sea into ditches and artificial lakes. These people are incapable of enjoying what is
Domus Aurea
Suetonius, Nero 31
‘The entrance hall was large enough to contain a huge statue of himself,
120 feet high, and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous
pool, like a sea, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and
by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures
and woodlands, where every variety of domestic and wild animals roamed
Tacitus Annals 15.42
‘Nero profited by his country’s ruin to build a new palace. Its wonders were
not so much customary and commonplace luxuries like gold and jewels but
fields and lakes and in the manner of a wilderness with woods here, and
open spaces and views there..’ (arva et stagna et in modum solitudinem
hinc silvae inde aperta spatia et prospectus).
nature Sperlonga
Truth: Vitruvius re wall-painting
But those which were used by the ancients are now tastelessly laid aside:
inasmuch as monsters are painted in the present day rather than objects
whose prototype are to be observed in nature. For columns reeds are
substituted; for pediments the stalks, leaves, and tendrils of plants;
candelabra are made to support the representations of small buildings,
from whose summits many stalks appear to spring with absurd figures
thereon. Not less so are those stalks with figures rising from them, some
with human heads, and others with the heads of beasts; because similar
forms never did, do, nor can exist in nature…How is it possible for a reed
to support a roof, or a candelabrum to bear a house with the ornaments
on its roof, or a small and pliant stalk to carry a sitting figure; or, that half
figures and flowers at the same time should spring out of roots and stalks?
…No pictures should be tolerated but those established on the basis of
truth; and although admirably painted, they should be immediately
discarded, if they transgress the rules of propriety and perspicuity as
respects the subject.
Corridor in the Villa
Farnesina, Rome.
c. 20-10 BC
The Four Styles
Cubiculum e
Corridor in the Villa
Farnesina, Rome.
c. 20-10 BC
Vitruvius on Decorum (de Arch 7.5.5-6)
At Tralles, a town of Lydia, when Apaturius of Alabanda had painted an elegant
scene for the little theatre which they call ἐκκλησιαστήριον, in which, instead of
columns, he introduced statues and centaurs to support the epistylium, the circular
end of the dome, and angles of the pediments, and ornamented the cornice with
lions' heads, all which are appropriate as ornaments of the roofing and eaves of
edifices; he painted above them, in the episcenium, a repetition of the domes,
porticos, half pediments, and other parts of roofs and their ornaments. Upon the
exhibition of this scene, which on account of its richness gave great satisfaction,
every one was ready to applaud, when Licinius, the mathematician, advanced, and
thus addressed them:
"The Alabandines are sufficiently informed in civil matters, but are without
judgment on subjects of less moment; for the statues in their Gymnasium are all in
the attitude of pleading causes, whilst those in the forum are holding the discus, or
in the attitude of running, or playing with balls, so that the impropriety of the
attitudes of the figures in such places disgraces the city. Let us therefore, be careful
by our treatment of the scene of Apaturius, not to deserve the appellation of
Alabandines or Abderites; for who among you would place columns or pediments
on the tiles which cover the roofs of your houses? These things stand on the floors,
not on the tiles. If, then, approbation is conferred on representations in painting
which cannot exist in fact, we of this city shall be like those who for a similar error
are accounted illiterate."
Cicero, Letters to Atticus (D. R. Shackleton-Bailey, Cicero' s Letters to Atticus, I)
2.2 'If you succeed in finding any ‘ornamenta’ suitable for a lecture hall (gymnasiode) please
don't let them pass’
4.2 'I paid L, Cincius ..for the Megarian statues in accordance with your earlier letter. I am
already quite enchanted with your Pentelic herms with the bronze heads, about which you
write to me, so please send them and the statues and any other things you think would do
credit to the place in question and to my enthusiam (nostri studi) and to your good taste
(tuae elegantiae) as many and as soon as possible, especially any you think suitable to a
lecture hall and a colonnade (gymnasi xystique).’
5.2 'I am eagerly awaiting the Megarian statues and the herms you wrote to me about.
Anything you may have of the same sort which you think is suitable for the Academy
(Academia), don't hesitate to send it to me and trust my purse...Things that are especially
suitable to a lecture hall (gymnasiode) are what I want. Lentulus promises his ships.’
9.3 'I am very grateful for what you say about the Hermathena. It's an appropriate
ornament for my Academy, since Hermes is the common emblem of all such places and
Minerva special to that one..Hold on to your books and don't despair of my being able to
make them mine'.
Letter to Gallus, 46 BC (Shackleton-Bailey trans, Cicero's Letters to His
'But everything would be straightforward, my dear Gallus, if you had bought
what I needed and within the price I had wished to pay. Frankly, I don't need
any of these purchases of yours. Not being acquainted with my regular
practice you have taken these four or five pieces at a price I should consider
excessive for all the statuary in creation. You compare these Bacchantes with
Metellus' Muses? Where's the
likeness? To begin with, I should never have reckoned the Muses themselves
worth such a sum...Still, that would have made a suitable acquisition for my
library, and one appropriate to my interests. But where am I going to put
these Bacchantes? Pretty little things you make say...My habit is to buy pieces
which I can use to decorate a place in my palaestra, in the imitation of
lecture-halls (gymnasiorum). But a statue of Mars! What can I, as an advocate
of peace, do with that?'
The Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum
Display of art: Public and Private
Cicero, Against Verres 1.5:
Then again, ancient monuments given by wealthy monarchs to adorn the cities of
Sicily, or presented or restored to them by victorious Roman generals, were
ravaged and stripped bare, one and all, by this same governor. Nor was it only
statues and public monuments that he treated in this manner. Among the most
sacred and revered Sicilian sanctuaries, there was not a single one which he failed
to plunder, not one single god, if only Verres detected a good work of art or a
valuable antique, did he leave in the possession of the Sicilians.
Perversions of art
Cicero, Against Verres 2.4.83:
'Shall Verres adorn with the monuments of Africanus his house which is full of lust,
crime and shame? Shall Verres place the monument of a self-controlled and holy man,
the likeness of the virgin Diana, in a house in which the beastliness of harlots and
pimps is always going on?
Apoxyomenos: Pliny, Natural History 34.62:
Lysippus was a most prolific sculptor, and surpassed all other artists in the sheer
quantity of his output, which included a statue of a man using a strigil, the
Apoxyomenos, dedicated by Marcus Agrippa infront of his Baths; Tiberius also much
admired this statue. Although he expressed some control over his feelings at the
beginning of his principate, Tiberius could not restrain himself in this case and
removed the Apoxyomenos to his bedroon (cubiculum) substituting a copy. But the
people of Rome were so indignant about this that they staged a protest in the theatre,
shouting, 'Bring back the Apoxyomenos!' And so despite his passion for it, Tiberius was
obliged to replace the original statue.
C. Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 1993) ch 4
S. Carey, Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture (Oxford, 2003) chs4 and 5.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus (D. R. Shackleton-Bailey, Cicero' s Letters to Atticus,
Vol I)
Discussed by M. Marvin, ‘Copying in Roman Sculpture: The Replica Series’ in E.
D’Ambra ed., Roman Art in Context. An Anthology (1993)