Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 7.
John Henderson, Pliny's Statue: The Letters, Self- Portraiture and Classical Art. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. 226. ISBN 0-85989-720-6. UK£40.00.
Department of Religious Studies, Classics and Philosophy, University of Zimbabwe
This book is introduced (p. ix) as the third in an Exeter trilogy by Henderson, after Figuring Out Roman Nobility: Juvenal's Eighth Satire and A Roman Life: Rutilius Gallicus On Paper and In Stone.[] Pliny's Statue centres on letter 3.6 which refers to a statue on the pedestal of which Pliny intends to have his name and career highlights incised; Henderson sees this as 'a powerfully condensed icon for the whole edifice of the Letters as a monument to self- mythologization' (p. ix). He hypothesizes that 3.6 is in fact the focal centre of the Letters, and that in spite of Pliny's claim that the letters were published as they came to hand, they were in fact carefully arranged, specifically the letters on each side of 3.6.
The book is divided into 5 chapters sub-divided into a number of sections, each referring to one or more specific letters [referred to in square brackets].
Chapter 1, 'Art through Pliny's Letters' (pp. 7-40), is divided into eleven sections. Here Henderson maintains that 'The Younger Pliny's Letters soon insinuate a running analogy between visual arts' capacity to image the world and the letters' own incessant work of crafting words into a design for life' (p. 7). The chapter begins by looking at Pliny as a non-philosopher giving a word-picture of the philosopher Euphrates, (although he claims that a non-sage cannot check out a sage, as a non-artist cannot judge an artist). It suggests that both living and letter-writing can be seen as an art, and as producing art. It looks at Pliny's works as 'imaging' and 'imagining' his productive life and his literary works. It then goes on to specific examples of 'caring' and 'sharing': his estate; his correspondents and the whole social fabric; his writing, planning and publishing of his letters (for it is suggested that Pliny's reader is meant to care about what Pliny writes as much as he cares about his reader's reactions.) Writing is linked to visual art when looking at the many images created in memory of Regulus' son; at the honorific dedications to Claudius' freedman Pallas; at inscriptions, serious and funny, at a country spring and temple; at the temple Pliny built at his own expense, statues of the Caesars kept there, and the temple of Ceres he had restored. The point is made that 'We simply cannot avoid writing in contemplating any monument or discourse about monumental art' (p. 34). Pliny's writing is an art; he does not describe monumental art except to 'hallow and colour' his pages. The exception is the statuette described in 3.6 which, Henderson considers, 'will present us with a 'Pliny', large as life, as statue -- or rather statuette' (p. 39).
Henderson considers that many of the motifs he used in chapter 1 'chime with details profiled in the written representation of that image of Pliny, himself' (p. 40). Chapter 2, 'The Portrait Book: Epistles 3 as Self-Portraiture' (p. 43-153), is divided into twelve sections. It begins by referring to Mayor and his dedication of his book on Pliny 3 to Karl Ernst Georges in 1880 before moving on to Martial's epigram dedicated to Pliny, followed by a discussion of Pliny's obituary on Martial and how the two writers used each other for their own immortality. There was to have been a portrait of Martial set up by Stertinius, in his library; Pliny arranged with Herennius Severus for portraits of Cornelius Nepos and Titus Catius to be painted and hung. Art and written text may be said to link. Henderson then discusses Pliny's description of Spurinna's daily routine, which he enjoyed when visiting there, and decided to follow when he retired -- a self-portrait of Pliny as he would like to be? The next letters show Pliny as one who asks for favours, for a friend from another of his friends, and as a patriarch by proxy. 'So far as our theme of portraiture is concerned, Pliny comes right out and takes the pledge, by proxy (pro Genitore me sponsorem accipe), to the Roman ideal of reproducing the exact copy, the human clone' (p. 67). 'When shall we see his like(ness)?' (since he had no sons) . . . 'He will find himself a fitting niche in 3.6 Solitaire' (p. 68).
The next section (2.4) is very long, covering in pages 69-102 letter 3.5, that is the letter immediately before the one containing the description of the statue, which lists the works of the Elder Pliny. Henderson considers that these can be thought of as an obituary or as a list of honours, written by himself, appearing under his name as author, as a list would appear on the base of a statue. Henderson sees this letter as Pliny the Younger measuring himself against his uncle, as he did earlier against Martial and Spurinna; he also makes a comparison with Seneca.
The letter which comes after the one of the statue, 3.7, is also discussed in detail (section 2.5 pp. 102-24)). It refers to the work of Silius Italicus, Martial and Seneca 'and subtends all the afterglow that wry self-worship could possibly want to bask in' (p. 102). The rest of the letters in book 3 are all discussed, among others the word portrait for Spurinna's son (3.10), and references to Pliny's own status. The Panegyricus is also specifically treated.
'Chapter 1 examined Romanized customization of art in the service of individual fame. Chapter 2 has pushed the line that artwork is, like all art, only for once on parade, always a portrait of the artist.' Chapters 3-4 are to 'unveil that precious sculpture' (p. 153).
Chapter 3, 'Size Isn't Everything', (pp. 155-71), divided into four sections, gives the description of the statue (3.6), 'a modest but fun statuette' of a standing, nude, old man who has a receding hairline, drawn face, big forehead, dangling arms, hollowed belly -- and is also old from the back! Henderson points out that this is Pliny's only piece of art, his only buy, and that he bought it with money left him in someone else's will. It was not to be set up in his home, but in a much visited public spot, in Comum (which was 'home'). Henderson compares it to other monuments mentioned in the Epistulae, such as the new temple to house divine statues and the replacement of the cult statue on his estate which were also not solicited. The statue is Greek ('Corinthian'), but is to be fitted with a marble plinth carrying Pliny's name and honours, in Latin (not specified in the letter) presumed to be the same as the inscription above the baths he donated to Comum. Henderson sees the statue as Pliny's alter ego and as his way of 'subjoin'-ing himself to Rome and all his correspondents. He discusses the statuesque description and the inscription (CIL 5.5262 = ILS 2927), Pliny's 'billboard'. He considers that the figure of the 'Old Man' and Pliny are 'glued together' through this 'label', that Jupiter and Comum are added, and that Pliny, following to the letter the lead given by his uncle in the Natural Histories as regards artistic heritage, also gains advanced status over his uncle.
Chapter 4, 'Pliny the Younger's "Chapter on the History of Art"' (pp. 173-86), in six sections, considers again Pliny's description of the statue, and searches for a Hellenistic equivalent. Henderson uses R.R.R. Smith's section on genre figures, pointing out that Pliny's description only specifies 'standing old man', not 'fisherman' for example.[] He concludes that this description is not an incarnation of blandness nor a failure in precision, but 'Rather, this verbal icon enshrines the reading of visual iconography' (p. 178). He discusses Pliny's knowledge of art. He catalogues the grammar used for the description and its significance -- 'arty, artsy, or artsy-fartsy?' (p. 184) and concludes 'our iconographer-physiognomist is not just any novice art-bug'; his description is 'designed to dignify the shame of ugliness and re- cycle it as a ready-made provocation to care about this art' (p. 186). He also looks in detail at Pliny's use of 'kindergartenist' (tirunculum) to describe his buying, and at Severus' task of getting the plinth and setting it up. 'A tough task is set Severus: it's Pliny['s statue] alright, but shall we 'add its honours, Pliny's honours'? If the 'Old Man' is still 'Standing', then do we know enough about knowing about art to see on what basis?' (p. 187).
In Chapter 5, 'Pliny's Statuette in the History of Art' (pp. 189-94), in two sections, Henderson quotes from the Natural History to define Corinthian bronze, and points out that by that time it was just a name (cf. Trimalchio saying he had the only 'Corinthian' ware, as his artisan was called Corinth). He also looks at the question of nudity and the Graeco-Roman status of a work of art, its meaning when made, and when displayed, at a very different time and in a different country, 'a whole series of interfaces'. 'This is the figure he (Pliny) determines and prays to cut. It is all the father- figures he ever idealized and idolized. It stands for the senatorial dignity of the Roman success story he has replicated, and its convertibility into command over the townscape of his origins. This "Pre-faded Old Man of Como" encapsulates the full measure of a pinnacle surmounted, in what he means to develop into an on-going climb to the ultimate heights of a gerontocratic Olympus. This "Old Stager", nude or not, veristic or what, is not not Pliny the Younger. To the Life, in précis, and in his true colours' (p. 194) -- a message to be welded together when the base was fitted to the statue. Henderson thinks of Pliny knowing that it is 'a bit of fun', when people like the readers look for a Roman senex in his toga and see a nude old man. 'What distinguishes Pliny's Statue is its knowing play with the set of terms that frame art historical constructions of the transfer of Classical Art from Greece to Rome' (p. 194).
I read the book for the first time on receiving it some months ago; I did not like it then, but since I was not well at the time, I thought perhaps the problem was my state of mind. On re-reading it I am still not enthusiastic. Like Henderson, who points to his age several times, I am no longer young. Nor am I, however, post-modern. I do not like words crossed out in the text; I do not like bold spots like S×I×L×I×U×S I×T×A×L×I×C×U×S in the middle of the text; I do not like brackets in the middle of words imag(in)ing; I don't need the nephew to be Pliny whereas the uncle is PLINY, or even worse, HIM. I can see why these are used, but for me it is not an improvement, nor fun. I do not have the sense (of fun?) that finds pisstake (p. 52), sexpert (p. 52) or write away (p. 50) punny, playful or allusive -- or even witty. It does not sound Pliny-ish to me either. That is personal; you may love it.
Henderson does show that 'there are many more ways to relate to art than connoisseurship and expertise'. That is important. He admits that 'I shall be making all sorts of associative moves that aren't self- evidently inevitable or otherwise specially convincing' (p. xi). He will therefore hopefully not mind that I do not find them convincing. I can think of other reasons, more mundane admittedly, for buying that particular statue: the price was the amount of the legacy? It was the right size for where he wanted it to stand? That was what the donor would have liked? Pliny does not mention from whom the legacy came, so why should he say whether they also had a shared interest and that this was part of his remembrance or memorial? Admittedly the inscription on the statue base would only show Pliny's name, but again, can we accept the long one at the baths as what would be added to a statue? Henderson presumes this is the only statue Pliny ever bought. It is the only one he mentions in his letters, but in fact we just do not know, do we?
I do not find the arguments which Henderson gives logical, nor convincing, although I admit that he shows how allusions from all sorts of fields may come to mind when looking at a work of art. The summary given in Chapter Outline is clearer than each chapter read as a whole, as far as following the gist of the argument is concerned. Some sections go on so long that the actual point that is related to Pliny's statue is not clear; some, for me, are not related to it at all. The idea that the statue is the centre of the book is an interesting one, but no, the letters on either side of it do not prove it. Obviously all of an author's work may be taken as evidence of him as a person, and therefore as part of a 'portrait'. That Pliny cared about Como, his status, what he would like to do when retired, is doubtless true. That he wanted to excel, even more than his uncle had, I can well believe, though he does not say it. Nor do I believe the statue is what Pliny would want as his alter ego. The play with seems to me to be Henderson's, not Pliny's.
[] John Henderson, Figuring Out Roman Nobility: Juvenal's Eighth Satire (Exeter 1997); A Roman Life: Rutilius Gallicus On Paper and In Stone (Exeter 1998).
[] R. R. R. Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture (London 1991) 173-75.