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Humour in elite art

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Sharon Marshall

on 20 March 2016

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Transcript of Humour in elite art

Humour in elite Roman art
Aeneas and Romulus
Questions and approach
What was funny for the elite viewer?
Why would elite Romans mock their own mythology?
Is visual humour ever used for political commentary in the same way as literature?
What do visual representations say about the social climate in which they were produced?
Paintings from Pompeian houses allow us to take the methodological approach advocated by Clarke of studying visual humour
in situ

Lapiths and Centaurs
Augustus, Aeneas and Romulus
Augustus relies on variety of ploys to legitimise his rule
made Trojan prince Aeneas into Augustus' ancestor
Added to the tradition of Rome's founding by Romulus
Two traditions reconciled by string of kings connecting Aeneas to Romulus (via Ilia, mother of Romulus, daughter of King Numitor, a descendant of Aeneas -
Augustus evokes both founding figures in temple to Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus
A Pompeian jibe at Roman rule
Pompeii - once independent town - sided with anti-Sullan forces in civil war of 89-82 BC ( Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman statesman and general, attempted to take control of the Roman Republic)
Sulla punished town by reducing it to colony, leading to resentment of Roman rule in some quarters
Are paintings spoof on Augustus' use of Roman Aeneas and Romulus to bolster his rule? Do they reflect this resentment?
Pompeians feel weight of Roman ideology in building programmes in first century AD: Temple of Apollo, the inscriptions in Eumachia's building (Zanker 1998)
Was person who commissioned images tired of such ideology?
Wickedly unpatriotic sense of humour seems to invite guests to laugh at satirical take on Rome's revered founding figures
McDermott (1938) argued that artist has depicted Cynocephalus - dog-headed ape - with legs and movement of human
Pointed to semi-divine status of Cynocephali in Egypt through association with god Thoth, who controlled the heavens
But Virgil's shield of Aeneas pits Egyptian Anubis
the Roman gods on the side of Octavian (Augustus) at the Battle of Actium:
'Barking Anubis, and monstrous gods of every kind
brandish weapons against Neptune, Venus,
and Minerva.' (Virgil,

The wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia
Pirithous (the king of the Lapiths, a Thessalian clan) marries Hippodamia (daughter of King Oenomaus)
Invites centaurs to their wedding feast
Drunken centaurs abuse hospitality with assault on the bride
Great fight ensues between Lapiths and Centaurs (Centauromachy); Theseus helps the Lapiths out and they are victorious
Most detailed version in Ovid's
(12.210-535) but goes back as far as Archaic Greece, where it is popular theme in art
Story becomes core myth for Greeks and Romans, standing for triumph of civilization over barbarism
We met the myth already in Cicero's
in Pisonem
The feminised centauromachy
Unending scene of centaurs chasing and seizing Lapith women
No Lapith men to save the day
Centaurs are as handsome as they can be; Lapith women are beautiful (blurs line between civilisation and barbarism)
Humour not in deformity/transformation, but action istelf
In absence of male protectors, women forced to defend themselves
Since they lack swords and spears, they throw rocks (just like centaurs); blurring of lines again
How are we meant to read this?
Barbarity in high art
Temple of Zeus at Olympia: west pediment depicts struggling Lapith women
and their men fighting valiantly
; Apollo (god of reason and civility) rules over event from apex of pediment, assuring Lapiths will be victorious
15 of the metopes from the Parthenon marbles
Discovered 1760s in Pompeii in grottoes of Masseria di Cuomo
Consigned to Cabinet of Obscene Objects in Naples Museum
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius:
'Come then, dear father, clasp my neck: I will carry you on my shoulders: that task won’t weigh on me. Whatever may happen, it will be for us both, the same shared risk, and the same salvation. Let little Iulus come with me, and let my wife follow our footsteps at a distance.' (Virgil,
Tail, long phallus and dog's head
Frieze from reception room (
) commanding view of west portico in House of Menander in Pompeii
Style points to c. 45-55 AD
Centaurs and Lapith women fleeing or fighting
House probably owned by well-to-do merchant
Clarke, J. (2007)
Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 25
. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McDermott, W. (1938)
The Ape in Antiquity
. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Zanker, P. (1998)
Pompeii: Public and Private Life
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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