[MUSIC PLAYING] ANDREW C. WEISLOGEL: Good evening, everyone. I'm Andy Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin Jr. class of '47, Curator of Earlier European and American Art here at the Johnson Museum, and on behalf of our Director Jessica Levin Martinez, I'm so pleased to welcome you all, both in person and via livestream to tonight's lecture by my colleague and friend, Professor Verity Platt. This program is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Wonder and Wakefulness, The Nature of Pliny The Elder, which assesses the multifaceted legacy of Pliny's natural history and its reverberations through two millennia of art, culture, and natural science.
This exhibition co-curated by Professor Platt and myself, as you probably know, is on view through June 11 in Bartels Gallery here on level 1L of the museum. It's been an absolute joy to partner with Professor Platt on this exhibition, which has been brought to fruition by a wonderful collaborative team composed of Johnson Museum and Cornell Library staff, Cornell faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students, and a host of generous outside lenders, both institutional and private Lenders. Tonight, as a matter of fact, we welcome special guests, Dr. Seth Pevnick, Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a major lender to the exhibition, and he's braved the March weather to drive out and be with us for this evening.
I want to especially express our deepest gratitude for a special gift from Deborah Goodman Davis, class of '85, and Gerald R. Davis, class of '84, as well as funds from an endowment in memory of Elizabeth Miller Francis class of '47, without whose support, the richness and variety of artworks upstairs would simply not be possible. Our terrific colleagues on Cornell's Keynotes Team have made this presentation available online, and they've asked me to inform you that this event is being recorded and will be viewable at the same URL afterward if you're online with us. At any point, online viewers may submit questions through the chat, which you may open by clicking the dialog box at the top right of your video player.
Throughout the discussion, they'll be sharing URLs and resources in the chat. If you're watching the archived recording, those links are available in the Overview section just below. Now, while I have the floor, I also want to highlight some other exhibition related programming upcoming at the Johnson and encourage you to attend. This Saturday, the museum is hosting an open drawing program from 12:00 to 2:00 PM using works from Cornell's Plaster Cast Collection to practice drawing skills the way they were originally intended.
Additionally, Professor Hilary Becker of Binghamton University, an expert in ancient Roman pigments and who, I believe, is with us here tonight, will host a Fresco painting workshop on March 18 for the community and for Cornell students. And finally, on Thursday, April 27, our own Cornell classics Professor Courtney Robey will offer a talk entitled Awakening to Nature, Science and The Senses in Pliny The Elder. So please, visit museum.cornell.edu for more details on those programs.
Finally, we ask that you please join us in the immediately adjacent Hirsh Lecture Lobby for an informal reception following the talk, and we can chat with you. And now, it's my great pleasure to introduce Professor Verity Platt. Verity Platt is a Professor of Classics, and History of Art, and Visual Studies at Cornell, where she's also affiliated with the Cornell Institute of Archeology and Material Studies, Environment and Sustainability, Media Studies, and Religious Studies.
She's the author of numerous publications, including "Facing The Gods, Epiphany and Representation in Greco-Roman Art, Literature, and Religion" and co-editor of several volumes on the "History and Historiography of Classical Art." She's currently completing a monograph entitled "Epistemic Objects, Making and Mediating Classical Art and Text for The Oxford University Press," and her next book project entitled "Pliny The Elders Aesthetics of the Overlooked" is particularly relevant to tonight's topic. Professor Platt is also co-curator with Professor Annetta Alexandridas of the Cornell Plaster Cast Collection, and some of you may recall 2015's dual, divergent, and fascinating pair of exhibitions, firing the cannon, the Cornell casts, and their discontents, and here at the Johnson Museum, cast and present, replicating antiquity in the museum and the academy.
This past May, Professor Platt also curated and installed an innovative exhibition of cast related contemporary art called The Sculpture Shop in one of the retail spaces at Ithaca Mall. The title of Professor Platt's talk tonight is Pliny The Elder, Art and Nature in Ancient Rome. Please, join me in welcoming Professor Verity Platt.
VERITY J. PLATT: Thank you very much, Andy, and welcome to all of you here in the Johnson Museum and to our visitors and listeners online as well. First, I'd like to say what a huge privilege it has been to join Andy Weislogel and curating this exhibition. For someone who's worked on Pliny The Elder for years, it's seriously a dream come true, and I'm deeply grateful to Andy for spearheading this venture with such commitment and creativity and to Jessica Martinez, Director of the Johnson Museum, for her enthusiastic support.
This exhibition has been a truly collaborative effort with the talented curatorial installation and educational teams at the Johnson Museum with a brilliant input of our graduate co-curators, with an incredible team of student interns, some of whom are here tonight, and with the gifted contemporary artists who have worked with us to contribute works that engage so deeply and creatively with the themes of the exhibition. It's fitting that a show focus on Pliny The Elder should be the product of such rewarding and generative collaborations. In his discussion of the cosmos and the question of whether or not there are gods, Pliny claims, "For mortal to aid mortal, this is God."
The natural history is full of examples of human and animal ingenuity and hard work. This is what Pliny refers to in his preface dedicated to the emperor's son, Titus, soon to become emperor himself when he describes his long nights working on the natural history. While his days are devoted to the imperial administration, sleep is deferred for Pliny claims, "Life is being awake." In Latin, "Vita vigilare est."
This quality of wakefulness of being attentive to the entirety of the world and all its wondrousness is what we sought to capture in our title for the exhibition, "Wonder and Wakefulness," and we, too, have experienced some pretty demanding working hours in bringing it into being. The problem with curating an exhibition on a gigantic text whose subject is, as Pliny claims, nature, in other words, life, is that there is no limit to what it might include. This is a show of over 115 objects as you'll have seen, if you've had a chance to visit the gallery, though, it merely scratches the surface of a 37 volume work, which Pliny claims includes 20,000 noteworthy facts obtained from 100 authors and 2,000 volumes.
So in what follows, I hope to take you on a virtual tour of some of the major themes that the exhibition explores. First, I'll introduce you to Pliny, the natural history, and its legacy. Then we'll examine some key issues, the fraught relationship between environment and empire, the role of natural materials in the creation of art, and the creative powers of nature herself for, if there is any God in the natural history, it's Pliny's personified force of Natura, who is both the stuff of nature and the intelligent causal force that shapes and infuses the entire world or mundus in Latin.
So almost all the images that I'm going to show you are objects that feature in the exhibition, which you can go to look at in more detail in person. Many are from Cornell's own collections across the university, not just the Johnson Museum, but also, the Rare and Manuscript Cast and Coin Collections, and even the Cornell Insect Collection, and many, as you've heard, are exciting loans generously lent to us for the purposes of this show. So who was Pliny?
His full name was Gaius Plinius Secondus, and he lived during the 1st Century CE when the Roman Empire was arguably reaching the peak of its powers, and no portraits of him survived from antiquity. But we find plenty of imaginary ones in front his pieces to his work as you see here. The reason for this exhibition's timing is because 2023 happens to be Pliny's bimillennium. He was born in 23 or 24 CE in Novum, Comum, modern day Como, in Northern Italy to an equestrian family.
So he wasn't a member of the senatorial elite, but of the Roman professional class who often occupied important roles in the imperial administration. But Pliny is most famous for his death in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which covered the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. One of the key pieces in our show is a remarkable sample of carbonized fur wood from Cornell's Dendrochronology Lab kindly lent to us by Sturt Manning. Felled in the Alps sometime in the mid 21st century CE, it was used as a roof timber for a large building in Herculaneum that collapsed in the eruption.
Pliny was in the Bay of Naples at the time, because he was serving as prefect of the Roman fleet, which was stationed at [? Missanum ?] on the northern tip of the Bay. His death is memorably recounted in a letter written by his nephew and adopted son, Pliny The Younger, to the historian Tacitus. This is one of the most remarkable historical documents of the period, important for the history of natural disasters, as well as the specific fate of Pliny himself.
Pliny The Younger tells us that, due to his fascination with natural phenomena, his uncle decided to take a boat to investigate the eruption and then responded to a call for help from a female friend, Rectina, who lived across the Bay in Stabiae. And his nephew survived, because he opted to stay behind to do his homework. Trapped by furious winds and falling ash, Pliny eventually succumbed to the smoke and volcanic fumes. He may have suffered from asthma and was found dead on the shoreline two days later.
Whether understood as a fatal urge to observe the forces of nature or a noble attempt to assist his friends, Pliny's death all too ironically echoes the precepts of his greatest work. But what of Pliny to life? Well, the natural history is the only work of his to have survived and was published in 77 CE addressed to Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian. You see here a coin, showing Titus, which features in the exhibition.
We know quite a few details of Pliny's career thanks to another letter from Pliny The Younger focusing on his uncle's literary activities. Having trained in the law as many young men of the equestrian class, Pliny then served as a military tribune in Germany. During this time, he wrote his first published work intriguingly on how to throw the javelin from horseback. Later, he served as a provisional governor in Spain and possibly Gaul in North Africa, so he clearly traveled extensively around the empire as we can tell from various comments he makes in the natural history about things he's seen with his own eyes.
Pliny seems to have retreated from public service during the reign of Nero between 54 and 68 CE. This was a politically dangerous period in which many of those in the imperial circle lost their lives. During this time, he seems to have focused on writing. He published works on grammar, and rhetoric, and an account of the German wars. And he was already close to Vespasian, who became emperor in 69 CE. He probably served him in the army in Germania.
Vespasian also came from an equestrian and military background. So when Vespasian came to power after the upheavals of the year of the four emperors in 69, Pliny returned to public office, serving, again, as a provincial governor, and finally, as prefect or admiral of the Roman fleet. During the 70s, he also worked on a history of our own times possibly focused on Vespasian and his family who we know as the flavian dynasty, and he wrote the natural history published in 77 shortly before his death in 79.
So we're especially delighted to be able to feature this marble portrait of Vespasian in the exhibition, which was kindly lent to us by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Fittingly, the Cleveland Vespasian is a fascinating example of what we call damnatio memoriae or condemnation of the memory in Latin, which was recut from a portrait of Nero as part of a wave of iconoclasm following his ignominious death. And if you look closely at the back and the sides of the portrait, you can see the remains of Nero's elaborately coiffed hairstyle, which has parallels with a recent US leader. It was, perhaps, deliberately retained as a sign of the passing of Nero's violent regime and the dawn of another.
So there could be no better testimony to the challenging times that Pliny navigated during the 50s and 60s, which he frequently refers to in the natural history. Here, Nero is the ultimate example of tyranny and a thirst for luxury, which is treated as explicitly counter to nature and part of a broader pattern of excess that Pliny associates with elite patterns of consumption. Now, what about the natural history itself? So this is a work of 37 volumes plus a preface, which would have corresponded to individual rolls of Papyrus, and here, you can see a table of contents, which shows you the organization of the book.
So book two focuses on astronomy, books three to six on geography. Book seven is on man, the human animal, and it's basically an anthropology and ethnography, we might call them today. Books eight to 11 focus on animals, zoology, botany from 12 to 27, and then pharmacology. So that is plants and animals that are used in the creation of medicines in books 28 to 32, and then books 33 to 37 focus on minerals.
Now, this focus in 33 to 37 on metals, Earth's, stones, and precious gems is why Pliny is so important for the history of art and why I came to work on him myself as a classical art historian. Because Pliny discusses bronze, he includes a history of bronze sculpture, because marble, he recounts the history of sculpture in stone. Because Earth's, he addresses terracotta, sculpture, and pottery. And because many pigments are derived from Earth, he also provides a history of painting.
Now, usually, these are extracted from the texts as a whole and mined for the evidence they provide about lost works of art, especially by famous Greek sculptors and painters whose works we only know from literary sources or Roman copies, such as Praxiteles or [? Apaeles. ?] One of the contributions of our exhibition is to try to put these discussions back into the context of Pliny's account of natural materials and to think about how they relate to the themes of the natural history as a whole. So when you visit the Johnson, you'll see that the center of the gallery is dominated by a touch table featuring many different kinds of materials that Pliny discusses from colored marbles, lapis lazuli, plaster, and the ingredients of bronze, which are copper and tin, to organic materials, such as wood, beeswax, and papyrus.
Surrounding the table are portraits in the key media that Pliny covers, marble, which is characteristic of Greco-Roman monumentality, terracotta, the most ancient and humble of materials, which for Pliny means it has a special moral value, painted bronze. Pliny is one of our most important sources for the fact that ancient sculpture was rarely white marble, but actually, painted or patinated in the case of metals, and plaster and beeswax. And the plasticity of those materials means that they're key to the creation of death masks, as well as naturalistic bronze portraits.
We are especially excited to show for the first time a new acquisition by the Johnson Museum and the Classics Department. This is a 19th century cast in beeswax around a plaster core of a marble portrait in the Louver that depicts a Hellenistic King Antiochus III, whose kingdom extended across Western Asia. The Roman marble in the Louver is itself a copy of an original that was probably cast in bronze, so this copy of a copy of a copy preserves a stage in the lost wax bronze casting process that is usually fugitive.
For some reason, the wax cast wasn't used, and the wax wasn't melted down. So this is a very unusual survival. The French bought this marble portrait from Napoleon, thinking it was actually of Julius Caesar. Napoleon had written commentaries on Caesars Gallic War, so you can see how this might have been of interest in 19th century France.
And as it happens, Pliny is our most important source for the use of wax in bronze casting in antiquity. He writes, "The first person who modeled a likeness in plaster of a human being from the living face itself and established the method of pouring wax into this plaster mold and then making final corrections on the wax cast was Lysistratus of Sicyon, brother of the fourth-century-BC sculptor Lysippos."
So, here, Pliny suggests that wax casts made directly from human bodies could then be altered to create different visual effects. Surviving bronzes suggest that this technique of replication and emendation was used by Greco-Roman sculptors to create multiple variations on a theme. Beeswax was a medium fundamental to this process, its malleability allowing for both precise reproduction and subtle refinement.
Now. I'll come back to materials later, but first, what about the production of Pliny's actual text? Papyrus and wax writing tablets, after all, both feature on our touch table, and here you can see them alongside a painting in Pompeii featuring wax tablets, papyri, and coins. Papyrus and beeswax are both the focus of long accounts in the natural history about their production, sourcing, and processing as the prime vehicles for writing in antiquity.
As plants and animals, papyrus and bees are both natural resources in which Pliny is very invested. Now, I keep referring to Pliny as the sole author of the Natural History, but we have to be very careful to unpack just what this means in the context of Roman literary production. In another letter, Pliny the Younger gives a vivid account of his uncle's working methods.
"Pliny was always working, even when bathing and dining," he writes. "A book would be read aloud from which he would take notes and extracts, for he never read without taking extracts. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again.
And my uncle said to him, 'Did you not catch the meaning?' When his friend said, yes, he remarked, why, then, did you make him turn back? We've lost more than 10 lines through your interruption. So jealous was he of every moment lost." So some readers suggest that Pliny the Younger is making a snide dig at his uncle here for privileging pure facts over literary style and execution.
His nephew continues. "At his side, he kept a shorthand writer with a book roll and tablets, who wore mittens on his hands in winter so that not even the sharpness of the weather should rob him of a moment. And for the same reason, when in Rome, he used to be carried in a litter. I remember that once he rebuked me for walking, saying, if you were a student, you could not waste your hours like that."
So Pliny might have actually approved of these days of smartphones, where we can walk down the street reading Wikipedia as we go.
We're told that at his death, Pliny left 160 highly valuable commonplace books, full of notes, in addition to all his published works. Now, this account has had a huge influence on the way in which the Natural History is read, which I'll come back to in a moment. But first, I'd like to draw your attention to a crucial feature of Pliny's work. Notice how books, which we should understand as papyrus scrolls, are read aloud to him, how Pliny dictates to scribes how he is carried, bathed, and served.
The production of the Natural History, like everything else in Pliny's world, is made possible by a slave society. Enslaved individuals not only performed the labor that underlies much of the sourcing, extraction, transport, and working of natural materials that the text discusses, they are also fundamental to the processes of reading, researching, note-taking, writing, and publishing that make possible the production and dissemination of the text itself. Most of the time, this labor is unmarked, unseen, expressed in the passive voice.
A book would be read aloud. But its pernicious logic informs the whole, as it does every aspect of life in classical antiquity. Recent work on the roles played by highly educated enslaved individuals in ancient literary production by my colleagues Nicole Giannella and Cat Lambert here at Cornell as well as other scholars such as Joseph Howley at Columbia is helping us to unpack their complex ethical and intellectual implications for how we read ancient literature.
The more commonly observed feature of the younger Pliny's account is his uncle's dependence on literary sources-- the taking of notes from earlier publications which then inform his own literary output. For centuries now, the idea that Pliny was a mere compiler of sources has influenced the ways in which the Natural History has been read. After all, he himself refers to the 2,000 volumes by 100 authors that informed his work.
This assumption that Pliny was a mere note-taker has also meant that readers have underestimated the literary value of the Natural History, not helped by dismissive attitudes to the intellectual input of those many enslaved assistants. Pliny's Latin is dismissed as garbled, dense, and difficult to translate despite the fact that he wrote studies of grammar and rhetoric. Instead, he has been mostly read as a valuable source for the earlier works that he cites, many of them by now-lost authors such as Varro, who was a giant of Roman intellectual history, and, especially, Greek writers of technical treatises on geography, zoology, botany, medicine, and art history.
The thing is, Pliny goes out of his way to acknowledge these authors, both as a means of honoring their contributions to knowledge and demonstrating his own modesty and as a service to his readers. For the entire first volume of the Natural History, there's a giant table of contents, a summarium in Latin, that lists both the subject matter of each volume and provides a relevant bibliography. This is actually one of the work's most influential features, for it serves as a textual retrieval device that is crucial to the organization of knowledge and the history of the book.
As Pliny claims to Titus in his preface, "You, by these means, will secure for others that they will not need to read right through the several books but only look for the particular point that each of them wants and will know where to find it." So the Natural History is not an encyclopedia in the modern sense of the term, which we'd associate with the broader scope and alphabetical organization of Diderot's Encyclopédie in the 18th century, but the ambition and organization of Pliny's work certainly anticipate certain features.
The cherry-picking approach that Pliny invites combined with the enormity of the work has also meant that the Natural History is rarely read from cover to cover, or scroll to scroll. Instead, its reception history has been one of excerption, whether for geography, pharmacology, or, in the case of the ethnographic sections, sheer fascination with Pliny's accounts of marvelous peoples who live at the edges of the known world. And this section was one of the most commonly reproduced in the medieval period but is now seen as deeply problematic, not least for its Eurocentric processes of othering that would ultimately inform modern race science.
It's illustrated by two works in our show that demonstrate the lasting influence of these sections-- the 1460 Livres des Merveilles du Monde, which you see here on loan from the Morgan Library, and the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle, both of them bridges between the exoticizing imaginings of ancient and medieval geographies and the violent colonialism of early modern Europe. In this depiction of fictional peoples associated with India, you can see giants six or seven cubits in height, humans with dogs heads, and people without mouths, who Pliny tells us survive on the scents of apples and flowers.
So the Natural History's complex reception is one of the major reasons why scholars still read Pliny's work today. From the medieval period right up to the present day, Pliny has been an authority, a model, a source of entertainment, confusion, or frustration. Our exhibition includes many early modern texts that cite Pliny as a source on everything from-- going from left to right here-- from salamanders and werewolves to cannabis plants and works of sculpture.
This 15th-century German garden of health, for example, cites Pliny's claim that cannabis can cause male impotence, but can also expel earworms and ease indigestion. With the development of scientific methods in the Enlightenment, Pliny lost his authority due to the many wonders, or mirabilia in Latin, that are included in the Natural History. Rather than contextualize within his own attitudes to nature and the tastes of his time, which tended towards the fantastical and paradoxical, he was seen as too gullible, random, and lacking in a commitment to scientific empiricism.
Yet Pliny discusses many things he thinks of as too outlandish, including werewolves, which he blames the gullible Greeks for. He's not interested in myth, and he's highly critical of magic. So, for example, although he tells us about elephants that know how to write in Greek and give flowers to the humans they fall in love with, he dismisses the claim that the gem known as lyngurium was actually petrified lynxes urine which the animals deliberately bury in the ground to conceal from humans.
And this is why you will see a Roman bronze lynx's head in the gems case in our exhibition, if you are wondering what on Earth it's doing there. Now, if you're interested in hearing more about Pliny's relationship to the natural sciences, then make sure you come to my colleague Courtney Roby's lecture, Awakening to Nature, Science and the Senses in Pliny the Elder, on April the 27th.
It's only really since the later 20th century that Pliny's work has been read as a coherent whole, but it's actually an invaluable account of the Roman world of the 1st century CE, with all its complexities, internal tensions, and contradictions. Alongside the ecological turn that has gripped the humanities in this time of anthropogenic climate crisis, scholars are now also approaching the text through the lens of environmentalism. So this brings us to the first of the themes I'd like to explore in the second half of this lecture.
Pliny claims that his subject matter is nature. In other words, life. But what does he really mean by nature? Does he demonstrate concerns for the environment that we might understand as ecological? How anthropocentric is his worldview? And given Pliny's investment in the power and sanctity of nature, how does he reconcile this with his role as a senior administrator of the Roman Empire, with its focus on territorial expansion, resource extraction, and economic development?
The Roman navy that Pliny led as prefect was, after all, one of the greatest driving forces in the massive deforestation wrecked by the Roman imperial machine despite the veneration that Pliny demonstrates for the groves of Italy and the mighty forests of Germania. So, while he demonstrates great respect for nature in all its aspects, Pliny is nevertheless complicit with an anthropocentric and deeply Romanocentric system that saw it as a resource.
Arguably, that tension is something we all deal with today, from daily choices about what we eat and how we power our homes to broader questions about consumption, trade, and energy. Likewise, the tension between the moral impulse to live in accordance with nature and then the bonds of the imperial system he serves runs throughout Pliny's work. While we might condemn his blind spots to slavery and Roman imperialism in particular, there is much within the Natural History that speaks to the moral dilemmas in which we find ourselves today.
First and foremost for Pliny, nature is divine. In book two, on the cosmos, he claims that the world or universe "is sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the whole, nay rather itself the whole, finite and resembling the infinite, certain of all things and resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all things that are without and within, at once the work of nature and nature herself." So nature is both the stuff of the world and its creator.
This view is strongly influenced by stoicism, a materialist philosophy that held that everything in the universe was infused with a divine pneuma, or fiery breath, that is a form of divine intelligence or intelligent design. Nature is rational, has agency, her own motivations. The ultimate human good is therefore to live in accordance with nature. One of the most fascinating additions of the Natural History in our exhibition is Cornell's copy of its first Italian translation, dated to 1476, which would have been read by Leonardo da Vinci.
It's open to the section I just quoted to you. And you can see in the margin at the top right that it's been annotated with a comment, [ITALIAN]-- "this is false" in Italian-- next to Pliny's statement that the world itself is a deity, eternal, immeasurable. And you can imagine how this claim would have been quite difficult for early modern readers to reconcile with their Christian faith. So what Pliny is saying here sounds like a form of environmentalism consistent with something like modern Gaia theory.
And throughout the Natural History, Pliny expresses concern about the damage that humans do to our "sacred parent," as he calls her. For example, in his opening to book 33, on metals, he claims about mining, "We trace out all the fibers of the Earth and live above the hollows we have made in her, marveling that occasionally she gapes open or begins to tremble, as if it were not possible that this may be an expression of the indignation of our holy parent. We penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed as though the part where we tread upon her were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile."
This would be a great antifracking statement. And this outrage is repeated in his detailed description of mountains shattered by gold mines in Spain, which is probably the area known as Las Médulas, which you see here. He probably saw this at firsthand as provincial governor. And his account of the terrible laboring conditions here in these mines is echoed in our exhibition by one of Sebastiao Salgado's famous photographs of the gold mines at Serra Pelada in Brazil.
"The worst crime against life," Pliny claims, "was committed by the person who first put gold on his fingers." Although he gives an extensive account of the sources, qualities, and uses of gold, including coinage, Pliny comments on how far happier was the period when goods themselves were interchanged by barter, "as it is agreed we must take it from Homer to have been the custom even in the days of Troy." So when you visit the exhibition, don't miss the section on coinage, thoughtfully curated by our classics graduate student Olivia Graves, which includes a nod to our very own local barter system in the form of Ithaca HOURS, kindly lent to us by the Tompkins County History Center.
So Pliny's protoenvironmentalism, or his respect for our holy parent, is intertwined with all kinds of moral anxieties that are primarily concerned with the well-being of human society. While he's concerned about the devastating effects of mining, he never really questions the idea that nature, although divine, is also a resource. The logic of nature is to design all things for the benefit of man as her most rational creation.
So his respect for nature runs in tension with a deep and typically Greco-Roman anthropocentrism. For Pliny, the central question is how nature's resources are to be managed respectfully and sustainably in ways that don't compromise his own cultural values. So the Natural History is, for example, our first extant source for the extinction of a plant due to its overharvesting by humans.
Silphium, a highly prized form of giant fennel that grew on the shores of Libya, was much prized as a seasoning for food as well as an abortifacient, contraceptive, and aphrodisiac. And our exhibition includes this coin from the Libyan city of Cyrene, which proudly featured the plant as its greatest local product. Pliny tells us that only a single stalk has been found there within our memory, which was sent to the Emperor Nero, though a recent discovery in Turkey may have uncovered a miraculous crop of survivors.
The appearance of Nero here as final consumer of this extinct plant is typical. Pliny is especially preoccupied with the corrupting effects of luxury on Roman society, with Nero as its moral and cultural nadir. Yet, as a member of the imperial elite, he never questions the Roman imperial mission or the idea that Rome is the center of the world and Italy the most perfect of lands, fertile, wealthy, beautiful, blessed by nature as her most perfect creation.
All the animals, plants, and minerals he discusses are embedded within the Roman economy, its extensive trade networks and military expeditions to the edges of the known world. These peripheries are seen as other, full of exotic materials, strange peoples, plants, and creatures that can be sourced and brought back to the Roman center as objects of desire and curiosity. But he's nevertheless deeply preoccupied with the moral implications of imperial consumption.
Conquest brings luxuries, which compromise his vision of the mos maiorum, the customs of our elders. He thus repeatedly looks back to a more simple age, to the time of the mid-Republic, when Rome was expanding its power base in the Italian Peninsula and North Africa but had not yet conquered Greece. This is why Pliny venerates sculpture in terracotta, which he associates with the religious art of the Etruscans as opposed to Greek marbles, as well as the traditional creation of Roman imagines-- death marks of ancestors molded from beeswax, which were displayed in the atria of houses and worn in funeral processions.
These artistic traditions testify to a more humble approach to materials, that are provided by the earth itself, like clay and bees, without the need for mining or alloys. With the conquest of Greece, especially that of Corinth in 146 BCE, came a flood of Greek art into Italy in the form of booty and, later, trade-- marbles, bronzes, and vessels of precious metals that Pliny repeatedly associates with lust, greed, and overconsumption.
But at the same time, he's very interested in the natural materials that are employed in the creation of Greek art, and his respect for craftsmanship means that he devotes considerable attention to the human artistry applied to them. So, despite his frequent criticisms of the Greeks as deceptive myth makers far too clever for their own good, he's our best, and often only, source for the development of painting and sculpture in Archaic and Classical Greece, including famous artists whose works have long been lost to us. Throughout his art histories, we can see plenty of wrestling with the question of what, in fact, is an ethical art work.
What does it take for an artist to live in accordance with nature when nature is herself an artist? First, for Pliny, artists must respect their materials. Certain gemstones, for example, are widely engraved and used as seals, such as carnelian, of which we have several examples in the exhibition. But those that are especially beautiful in their own right should not be engraved at all. So emeralds, which he says are the most intensely green of anything in nature, are so special that mankind has decreed that they must be preserved in their natural state and has forbidden them to be engraved.
And Nero appears here again. Apparently, he watched gladiatorial combats through an emerald, which was possibly to reduce the glare of the arena rather than simply to show off his giant jewel. So in that compressed complexity and wondrous miniaturism, gems, for Pliny, are equivalent to insects, for he claims, "Nature is to be found in her entirety nowhere more than in her smallest creations."
And I think my favorite case in our exhibition takes up this theme, juxtaposing stones from Cornell's Metzger gem collection with a stunning display kindly lent to us by the Cornell entomology collection. Negotiating the fault line between appreciation of geological marvels and lust for luxury objects, Pliny places true value in the gem's ability, like the insects, to showcase nature's creative and technical brilliance. So nature is herself an artist.
Pliny repeatedly informs us about her own creation of images, from satyrs that miraculously appear in quarried blocks of marble to an agate gem that features Apollo and the Muses produced by nature herself, unaided. But for Pliny, nature is also a model. Part of living in accordance with nature is learning how to follow her lead.
This is most famously exemplified in Pliny's history of painting, which emerges from his discussion of pigments, many of which feature in solid or powdered form in our pigments showcase in the exhibition. And if you want to know more about this, I really recommend Hilary Becker's workshop using pigments. She is the world expert on the Roman pigments trade.
Perhaps his most influential anecdote is Pliny's account of a contest between the classical Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius, echoed in our show by a still life by the 17th-century Flemish painter Thomas Mertens. So Pliny writes, "Zeuxis produced a picture of grapes so successfully represented that birds flew up to the stage buildings, whereupon Parrhasius produced such a realistic picture of a curtain that Zeuxis, proud of the verdict of the birds, requested that the curtain should now be drawn and the picture displayed. And when he realized his mistake, with a modesty that did him honor, he yielded up the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist."
This anecdote serves as a Western origin myth, if you like, for the development of the style we associate with classical naturalism, with a style of painting so true to nature that it rivals nature herself. The birds who peck at Zeuxis's grapes are akin to the horses that neigh in response to horses painted by Apelles, who is presented as the most highly skilled of ancient painters. As mere animals, they are more easily taken in by the painted illusion, yet they're also the best test of the painter's illusionistic skill. They're innocent viewers without preconceptions of what art is or should be.
Parrhasius's triumph lies in the fact that his trompe-l'oeil curtain deceives not only a human animal, but an artist already trained in the mimetic strategies at his command. This question of how painterly illusion is achieved and the fact that paintings are ultimately three-dimensional artifacts constructed from natural materials is beautifully demonstrated by two pieces in our show. One, generously lent to us by the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a gem of a fresco fragment dating to Pliny's lifetime that showcases Roman techniques of painted trompe-l'oeil architecture alongside a daintily winged griffin that points to a more impressionistic style of painting associated with fantastical, decorative features, which in Latin are called monstera.
The other, painted especially for the show by English artist Christopher Page, deploys many of the illusionistic techniques we find in ancient painting, inviting us to question the very nature of painting itself. Entitled Bay of Naples II, it employs the ochres, reds, and blues we find in the kinds of Campanian frescoes that would have been seen by Pliny, yet in such a way that we cannot quite distinguish painting from frame or painted shadow from that cast by ambient light. What is natural in this painting, and what is represented?
Like Parrhasius's curtain, it invites us to look again and again, trying to figure out his painted puzzle. And I love looking down into the gallery, watching people looking around this painting, trying to figure it out. It's really fun. The play of Page's painted shadows alludes to another anecdote from Pliny's history of painting, which plays a major thematic role in the exhibition and is exemplified by this wonderful drawing by Vincenzo Camuccini, kindly lent to us by the National Gallery of Canada.
This is Pliny's legendary account of the invention of painting and sculpture. In book 35, he tells us that, "We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, but all agree that it originated in tracing lines around the human shadow. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented at Corinth the art of modeling portraits in the clay, which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery, who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp.
Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline by compressing clay upon the surface and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire, along with other articles of pottery." So whereas Zeuxis and Parrhasius present us with a model of art imitating nature, Butades and his daughter work with an image that has been created by nature herself. The silhouette cast by the leaving lover is a creation of light and shadow, which is preserved by the daughter's painted line, a trace index or impression of his actual body that is then translated into a more solid form by her father, who thereby creates the first sculpted portrait.
In the exhibition, this idea of the portrait as an impression is conveyed by two plaster casts from the Johnson collections-- a death mask of the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite created by the late Cornell sculptor Professor Jason Seley, and a life mask of the Marquis de Lafayette. These both allude to Pliny's account of Roman imagines, cast in wax from the faces of the Republican Roman elite. But the notion of a two-dimensional image created by nature from light itself also casts a longer shadow, one that was profoundly influential upon early theories of analog photography, hence our inclusion of prints from Henry Fox Talbot's Pencil of Nature, first published in the 1840s, including one of Patroclus, a plaster cast of a Roman sculpture in Talbot's own collection.
This section of the exhibition, beautifully curated by Cornell graduate student Rodrigo Guzman Serrano, explores how early inventors of photography conceptualized this new technology as a natural way to produce images, a discovery rather than invention of processes latent within nature itself. These two traditions come together in Karen Knorr's photograph The Pencil of Nature, which alludes to Fox Talbot in its title yet reproduces Pliny's story of the Corinthian maid in his composition. Published as part of a series entitled Academies, Knorr's photograph reflects on the production, transmission, and consumption of fine art in the West.
Staged in a traditional fine arts institution, featuring plaster casts of classical male nudes, the scene recreates a foundational narrative of artmaking, linking the invention of painting, which is called [? grafiká ?] in Greek, to that of her own medium, photography. Both are forms of drawing with light. Knorr draws attention to the central role played by a female artist in Pliny's anecdote. Yet, in replacing her silhouetted lover with a woman, she also encourages us to question the role of female models in traditional histories of art.
What is the status of women artists in the 21st century academy, and how do traditional art institutions work to uphold oppressive hierarchies of gender, whiteness, sexuality, and other forms of privilege? Knorr's photograph encapsulates some of the tensions that wonder and wakefulness tries to tease out of Pliny the Elder's legacy. Posed in a cold institutional setting, it shows us how his art historical anecdotes have been extracted from the work as a whole, and each have their own complicated reception histories.
We are far here from the humble materials and natural resources that frame Pliny's accounts of the origins of art. Some of these dilemmas are answered in a final piece I will show you today, Clementine Keith-Roach's sculpture Rites, shown in New York last year and kindly lent to us by a private collector. We might read this piece as a response to the second part of Pliny's anecdote, the work of Butades the potter, whose act of care in commemorating his daughter's departing lover attended to the deep bonds that exist between lovers, parents, and children as well as between humans and things.
For Pliny, clay, as earth, is formed from the element that is never angry with mankind, which supports humans at birth and received them at death. Keith-Roach's terracotta vessels present as ancient artifacts that are themselves embodied. As containers, they evoke rituals of pouring, supporting, and carrying, animated by human hands cast from life, the gesture towards the enduring labor of caring and making, touching and holding. Here, clay and flesh, vessel and body are intertwined in ways that emphasize inseparable bonds between art and nature.
Rites reminds us that art originates in relationships between humans themselves and between human animals and the world of which they are part. The duty of figuring out how to live ethically in that world, how best to nurture its resources, and when to leave its systems well alone is perhaps the most important legacy that Pliny has bequeathed us. Thank you.
And I think now we can take some questions.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: Thank you so much. Yes. If you have questions, please put up a hand. And we have a couple of people who are butlering around some microphones. Please hold your question until you have a mic in your hand so our online attendees can hear your question as well. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hello. Thank you. That was a wonderful lecture. I read in The New York Times recently that they think they found Pliny's bones on the shore of Stabiae. I'm just wondering what you think of that.
VERITY PLATT: Yeah. I was wondering whether to mention that or not. I must confess I don't think there's really any secure evidence that what they found was Pliny himself. I mean, those remains were found in an area where there have been lots of bodies recovered from the eruption.
And I think-- was there something specific about the shape of the skull that they thought might correspond to Pliny? But it was a creative interpretation of the remains, let's say.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
VERITY PLATT: Question at the back?
AUDIENCE: Thank you for that elegant, and humorous, and thoughtful presentation. I'm curious, you spent a lot of time making the work relevant to today, with the challenges we face in the Anthropocene related to climate change, and I just wanted to give you an opportunity to comment a little bit more about how all of this is so relevant and continues to be relevant in terms of your work.
VERITY PLATT: Thank you for that question. Yeah. I think there's a tendency to assume that the premodern world doesn't necessarily have much to teach us when it comes to the very particular human-caused climate problems that we're facing today. But there are two different ways of approaching that to me, and Pliny gives us some very interesting ways into these two different ways.
One is that we exist in a genealogical relationship to the ancient past, and especially to the classical world, this idea that many of the problems of modern capitalist society come from certain assumptions about the centrality of man, for example, that we can trace back to certain approaches to these issues in antiquity. But there's also the alternative approach, which is that the premodern world offers us alternative ways of thinking that might help us think through the problems that we currently face. And I think Pliny's existing in a complex relationship to his world, where he both venerates nature and yet is complicit in all of these activities that we see as geologically related to our current problems, and that process of trying to figure out the ethics of humanity's relationship to the natural world, the degree to which we are part of it and yet comment upon it is something that we can all learn from.
And I hope it enriches the kinds of conversations we're having today about our responsibility, especially in the humanities, for figuring out constructive ways of helping us through our current crisis.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: If I could bring into the discussion here one of the questions from one of our online audience members, who asks, "Any insight as to why Pliny would write about the obvious inaccuracies, like people without mouths living on scents?
VERITY PLATT: Yeah, that is a great question. Well, he says that nobody's ever really seen these people because they can't survive away from the air of their own country. So they've never been able to bring living specimens into the known world, as it were. So this is one of the most tricky parts of the Natural History, and it's a combination of certain mythical modes of thinking.
So Pliny talks about how a real satyr was once discovered, and the dead body was brought to the imperial court. There is this idea that there really are these unusual creatures that are to be discovered, if you only look hard enough, which comes-- you can see from Greek mythology. But then he lived in an era that was really captivated by the idea of wonders, of mirabilia.
And on one hand, that is a taste for the exotic that you can see as part of these imperial practices of consumption, which exoticized, romanticized, or distort those beyond the "known world," which is the Roman Empire and those cultures with which it is immediately in contact with. But then there is also the idea that nature does all kinds of amazing things. I mean, for Pliny, a bee is as much of a mirabilium as somebody who survives on the scent of apples, that, in a way, all things are possible in nature and so you shouldn't rule out things that seem outlandish because they might actually be true.
And he says a bee is a tiny ghost of a thing. It's so small. How can it have blood? That, to him, is a wonder too. So there's a whole spectrum of wonders, some of which fit into a scientific worldview and others of which seem completely fantastical and ridiculous to us today.
But you can see how Pliny's interest in all of these strange and exotic curiosities feeds directly into the idea of the wunderkammer in the early modern period to ideas about collecting, that include natural specimens as well as works of art, and ethnographical, anthropological collections, and cabinets of curiosities. So it feeds directly into Western colonizing practices of collecting and many of the conversations that we're having today about the ethics of collecting as well.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: Another question from an audience member-- do we know why Pliny was so interested in botany? He did 10 books on botany compared with three or four on other subjects.
VERITY PLATT: Yeah. Good question. Why do plants come up more? I think it's because, when you actually look at the breakdown of those books-- and Courtney Roby is a much better guide to this part of the Natural History than I am-- you're looking at Pliny's discussion of things like trees, and flowers, and trees that produce fruit, or evergreens. It has all of these different categories.
But then he's also interested in practices of farming and cultivation and then in the kinds of resources that you can get from plants, which feature heavily in the pharmacological sections. But for instance, he has this very long discussion of papyrus, because that's really important for the production of-- or the equivalent of paper in the Roman world. And there are several different gradations of fineness of papyrus. And so he goes into a lot of detail about production as well.
So this is not just, you could say, a natural scientific approach to the parts of plants or something that you might find, say, in Aristotle, but it also includes the cultivation, and processing, and trading of all of these different products that plants can provide for.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, Verity. I have a question about the transmission of Pliny. He gives us all these sources, most of which no longer survive, and we wish that they did. Do we know whether Pliny's book survived because it was valued from antiquity all the way till now, or is that just a lucky coincidence?
VERITY PLATT: Thank you. Yeah. The Natural History is-- I mean, there are certain parts of the text that are unstable, whether at variant readings. But compared to a lot of works that survived from the ancient world, it survived very intact, and that really is because it was continuously read and consulted as an authority, often in different sections. So we have many versions of the pharmacological books, for example.
We have a lot of reproductions of book seven, on the human animal, because people find that quite fascinating. The geographies were of interest to certain people. So its transmission comes through multiple stemmata of manuscripts. But yeah, because it was so widely consulted.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: Maybe I'll bring in one more question from our online audience. "Did any of Pliny's writings include references to Christianity, which was emerging at that time?"
VERITY PLATT: I don't think so. There is an interesting potential reference to Buddhism, because he talks about the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in his discussion of the geography of India, but not as far as I'm aware to Christianity. However, Pliny the Younger, his nephew, wrote one of our most famous and important testimonies to the existence of Christians in the late first, early second century CE, because he was sent by the emperor Trajan to be governor of a Roman province in the Black Sea region.
And he writes back to Trajan with the "problem" of the Christians, who were refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor. So, although Pliny the Elder doesn't provide us with witness testimony, as it were, his nephew definitely directly came into contact with early Christians.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for this wonderful talk and all you've done to curate the show. At the end of this process-- well, it feels like the beginning because we're doing so much teaching and so many visitors are coming. But maybe this is something that Andy and Verity, you could both reflect upon.
You've called upon collections across campus. How can we do more of this? What did it reveal, that process of loaning from the entomology collection to the cast collection, of course? And what kind of new future do you see?
VERITY PLATT: That's a great question. Maybe, Andy, you want to respond first. Well, I must confess, Annetta Alexandridis and I, who were both curators of the cast collection, have always had this dream of a university museum context that could bring all the different kinds of teaching collections that we have on campus together. And this exhibition offered a really interesting way to do that because its subject is nature.
In other words, life. I mean, it's a book about everything. It's a book about the world, including art history. So the Johnson Museum is the perfect venue in which to present this through the lens of art and artmaking. So in what sense is this a model for further exhibitions? You can do more on Pliny, if you like.
No. But I'm joking. But thinking about the organization of knowledge and the role that institutions play in collecting and organizing knowledge-- and a protoencyclopedia is an example of something that is part of that tradition, does take us directly to the 19th-century university. And so many of the things we've shown were bought by AD White as the first president of Cornell, where he's trying to build this giant study collection, which is, in a way, a mirror of the kind of things that Pliny's trying to cover.
So it's that particular confluence of interests that I think works for this show. But it would be wonderful to see what exhibitions that really connected, especially with the natural scientific and botanical collections with the agriculture school, the engineering models. There is so much potential.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: I guess I would just add to that, in just taking a step, a broader look at that question, that I think putting together an exhibition like this and a lot of the exhibitions that I've been pleased to work on that are interdisciplinary in this nature is not only the richness of collections that are available here at Cornell, but also the process of listening, and consulting, and communication with so many different aspects of this university, taking the time. And I think we discovered as we went along the way that more viewpoints and opportunities started to come to the fore and come out of the woodwork when more people heard that we were working on an exhibition like this.
The facet of the entomology collection came into the exhibition and things like that. So I think taking the proper time for preparation, contemplation, and communication drives an exhibition like this. So maybe that's a good place to leave it. Thank you all for being with us this evening. Thank you so much, Verity, for a wonderful talk. And please come have a snack with us in the atrium outside.
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Join the Johnson Museum of Art and Dr. Verity J. Platt, Professor of Classics and the History of Art at Cornell, for a talk on Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, natural philosopher, and statesman at the center of the Johnson’s exhibition “Wonder and Wakefulness: The Nature of Pliny the Elder,” curated by Dr. Platt and Dr. Andrew C. Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator of Earlier European and American Art at the Johnson Museum.
Pliny’s multivolume “Natural History” has been profoundly influential on Western ideas about humanity’s relationship to the natural world, from geography, zoology, and botany to the history of art. But how are we to read it today, two thousand years after his birth in 23/24 CE and at a time when we are radically rethinking our own relationship to nature and to the legacies of the Roman Empire? This talk explores how the “Wonder and Wakefulness” exhibition addresses Pliny’s many different concepts of nature, including how his role as a member of the Roman elite and an imperial administrator existed in tension with his ethical approach to materials and the environment, as well as its implications for his understanding of art—both the ingenious “discoveries” of artists and the creative power of Nature herself.