An Exhibit of Confluence- When ecology, art, and the ancients flow together
Updated: May 19
Currently at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art here in Ithaca there is a wonderful exhibit that blends the art of ancient Rome and other periods, along with one of the main exemplars of antiquity, namely Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to 79.) You will notice that this exhibit coincides with the 2000th anniversary of his birth- truly a milestone if there ever was one, and fitting to honor with an exhibit.
The exhibit is curated in part by Professor Verity Platt, who is head of the classics department at Cornell University. Platt collaborated with and co-curated the show with her colleague at the Johnson Museum, Andrew Weislogel, curator of European Art before 1800. The two of them have presented a truly remarkable exhibit.
The exhibit combines a number of very relevant, if not hot-button issues. Take for example, fracking, which Platt mentioned in her opening remarks during her talk given at the Johnson. Fracking figures into this homage to Pliny as it is a current example of extractivism, or pillaging of the earth. This pillaging of metals and other substances was a concern of Pliny back during the time of Christ. For me, the exhibit and Platt's work is an amazing blending of the environmental, the aesthetic and social. Take for example the lead in quote from Pliny to Platt's slide presentation.
"Vita Vigilia Est" Life is being awake"
The exhibit is titled, "Wonder and Wakefulness: The Nature of Pliny the Elder." As Pliny was a naturalist, and as alluded to, a proto-enviornmentaist- the implications are many and indeed pertinent to our own time in many ways. I might add that they are indeed personal too, as I have found common cause with this exhibit and with another artist, Thomas Cole, whose work and life in the 19th century are regarded now as trailblazing in melding the artistic with concerns for the Earth. The take away and importance of Cole's example and the work of Pliny is that our mission as artists may be more inclusive and relevant than just the narrow confines of art for art's sake.
The title immediately suggested to me a polemic, but also a much-needed antidote to those strident and belligerent rants from one of the current front runners vying for the Republican presidential nomination, namely Ron De Santis. His primary rhetorical ranting is to rail against "wokeness" which has become the latest lamentable and divisive battle cry from the likes of right wing politicians. The exhibit is not strident however, in fact there is no overt agenda to proselytize or bludgeon the viewers with an ideology. Instead it offers an inspiring view into the mind of one of antiquity's brightest authors.
Taken in a differnt way, the exhibit title also suggested a meditative or contemplative prayer of aspiration; to be aware and compassionate. For example, the Buddha was the awoken one and the term Bodhicitta refters to the process of having an awoken mind along with a kind heart.
We can also relate to how Pliny's work was revered and influential to the entire ethos of the Renaissance. For the attention and appreciation of the natural world was a central thrust of the new realism of Italy and elsewhere in Europe starting mostly in the 15th century.
But to ward off a hagiography, or a too-elevated status of Pliny, Professor Platt reminds us in other articles she's penned that we should keep in mind that Pliny was an admiral in the Roman navy and therefore, he oversaw the deforestation of vast acreages in Europe. This was in tandem with enslavements of entire populations and depletions of natural resources. How do we reconcile these disparate agendas? Well, maybe we don't, but we are advised to keep in mind that Pliny was sincere in his book, Natural History, with the advice, to live in accordance with nature along with a vibrant materialism and the Roman ideal of simple living.
It just so happens that I had been reading both Pliny the Elder's work and his even more famous nephew, Pliny the Younger in recent months. And as a casual appreciator of the classics and and all things Italian, this exhibit came in with high resonance. Take for example, the statue of Laocoon, of which there was a plaster copy and a large photo of the original in the show. Pliny had mentioned this work as did another ancient Roman author of note, Virgil. Virgil referred to the work as, "preferable to any other produciton of the art of painting or statuary." So when the statue was discovered in 1506 buried in a vineyard garden in Rome it was immediately recognized due the descriptions of the ancient writers. Michelangelo was on the scene soon thereafter and supervising the excavation and subsequent reconstruction. I have even read that there were rumors that Michelangelo had secretively carved this mamouth work and had it buried. The implication was that he did this to prove that he could work as well as the ancients. He purportedly did a similar shenanigan with an earlier sculpture and it was foisted upon an unsuspecting collector as an original.
I have sketched from the original Laocoon in the Pinocoteca Vaticana in Rome and from the copy in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It has a tour-de-force of contortion, emotion, spiraling flow and virtuosic display of human anatomy. Just today, I was sketching from the copy at the Johnson Museum and was marveling at the beautiful articulation of the male form, especially of the ribs. The white of the plaster cast copy allows the nuances of form to be appreiated. The soft overhead lights created an understated pattern of cast shadows. The Laocoon is known to many as the Greek priest who initated the warning to the ancient Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Hence, his subsequent punishment by the other Gods (Athena and Poseidon) who were in favor of the Greeks. He is shown here with his sons wrestling with two pythons. The twisting, contrapposto, and dynamism of all three figures, are indeed serpentine and the two snakes seem to echo this double entendre.
One of my favorite pieces in the show was a beautiful small red chalk drawing by Cristoforo Roncalli done close to the turn of the 16th century. It is an exquisite rendering of a bearded man with head twisitng and turned upwards. The work was inspired by the Laocoon statue. We might note also that the Belvedere torso, another ancient figurative sculpture, is very similar to the Laocoon and in turn is reputed to be the inspiration for many of the figurative works by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel fresocoes.
But the exhibit brings out Pliny as an advocate for the environment, way ahead of his time. Then again, being concerned with abuses to the Earth in a spirtual sense is appropriate regardless of era- and before crisis times, as with our current era of climate change and ecosystem collapse. This is where the amazing relevancies occur. For example, Pliny seems to have empathy for the Earth in his concern for "extractivism" in mining and the quarrying of marble. The Earth figures into Pliny's concern as he favored terracotta (cooked earth) over more exravagant and imperialistic plunders of bronze and marble. Both of these latter materials required mining and exploitive slave labor in the extreme. There is an accompanying photo in the exhibit by Sebastiao Salgado of hordes of men clamoring up ladders and working like beasts of burden in a brutal mine in Brazil just a few years ago. Hence the relevance of Pliny to our world today. This photo is easy to compare to one of Dante's inventions in the Inferno, a malebolge, or an inverted conical pit of hell.
Here is a quote from Pliny from one of the descriptive wall labels at the Johnson that underscores the concern for the environment.
"For Pliny, Earth (terra) is our "mighty parent" who nurtures us during life and receives us in-death, earth is an element, which, unlike fire, water and air, "is never angry with mankind": and earths (terrae) are the many types of soil and clay that serve as raw materials for painting, sculpture, architecture, pottery and medicines."
In regards to Pliny's interest in the Earth as a living being- this passage from the museum booklet that accompanied the show-
Pliny characterizes the Earth as a human being whose body has been consistently violated by extractive mining activity. Although he lists several ways that metallic substances can be used to treat various ailments, he notes that such medicines can also be found above ground.
Finding the balance in the materials used for art and how they are obtained is part of the mission of this exhibit. According to Professor Platt, “Pliny is concerned about finding a balance between using natural resources and respecting the integrity of matter and of nature,” “A lot of ‘The Natural History’ is a critique of luxury. He’s especially critical of gold mining, which is presented as a violation of the Earth.” The violation of the earth is the relevant phrase here, and again brings fracking and other extractivism practices to our attention. And this balance issue also brings to mind the film "Koyaanisqatsi" which is an American Indian, Hopi word meaning, out of balance.
One of the related narratives, and for me, one of the most fascinating stories in this exhibit is of the anicent Greek Potter, Butades of Corinth who pressed clay into the form of the shadow outline drawn by his daughter, Kora of Sicyon, of her departing lover. This scene of the woman sketching a profile siholoutte cast by the light of lamp from the shape of her beloved's form has been the subject of many paintings. It might just be on my list of potential subjects for later in the year. This theme is also referred to by Pliny as being a record of the first artist. So the subject predates the tales of Zeuxis and Apelles as great artists of antiquity. The legends of these two early Greek aritsts inlfuenced the work of Rembrandt, Tiepolo and many others who either painted themselves in the guise of the ancients or depicted Apelles painting Alexander the Great's Bride. There is an exquisite drawing in thie Johnson show by Vincenzo Camucini from 1816 of this scene (shown below) titled "The Invention of Paitnting." underscores Pliny's belief that this act marked the beginning of painting- and therefore its appeal to artists over the centuries.
Pliny's extravagance and fantasy came up in the discussion after the lecture by Professor Platt. His writings are full of bizarre accounts. For example he mentions finding a real Satyr. What are we to make of these phantasms? And Professor Platt admitted that this one of the trickiest aspects of his work. I asked about the recent finding of skeletal remains on a a beach near Herculaneum as reported by the New York Times. Pliny the Elder there on near Pompeii on a beach, asphyxiated by the toxic ash, fumes and smoke from erupting Mount Vesuvias in AD 79. Prefessor Platt thought this speculation of the skeletons being those of Pliny and comrades to be a creative interpretation.
In the end, the exhibit and talk at the Johnson Museum proved to be highly engaging and inspiring. We come away appreciating how the curators brought together so many related yet disparate objects from jewelry, manuscripts, coins, paintings, pottery, photographs and sculpture along with such a breadth of scholarly acumen. How we manage our resources respectfully today to the relevance of ancient myth and wisdom in our lives and our art today bring home the timeless appeal of Pliny the Elder.
To view a short video of the author sketching in the Johnson Museum, visit this link,