Natural History (Pliny)  

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Naturalis Historia (Latin for "Natural History") is an encyclopedia written circa AD 77 by Pliny the Elder. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman empire to the modern day, and was one of the first reference works developed in the Classical period to examine natural and man-made objects, both organic and mineral, as well as many natural phenomena. It became a model for all later encyclopedias in terms of the breadth of subject matter examined, the need to reference original authors, and a comprehensive index list of the contents. The work was dedicated to Titus. It is the only work by Pliny to have survived.

Central to this wiki are its chapters on art; represented here by The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art.

Table of contents

The Natural History consists of 37 books. Pliny devised his own table of contents. The table below is a summary based on modern names for topics.

I Preface and tables of contents, lists of authorities
II Mathematical and physical description of the world
III-VI Geography and ethnography
VII Anthropology and human physiology
VIII-XI Zoology
XII-XXVII Botany, including agriculture, horticulture and pharmacology
XXVIII-XXXII Pharmacology
XXXIII-XXXVII Mining and mineralogy, especially in its application to life and art, including:
gold
casting in silver
statuary in bronze
painting
modelling
sculpture in marble
precious stones and gems

Art History

Pliny's chapters on ancient art are especially valuable because his work is virtually the only classical source of information on the subject.

In the History of Art the original Greek authorities are Duris of Samos, Xenocrates of Sicyon, and Antigonus of Carystus. The anecdotic element has been ascribed to Duris (xxxiv. 61, Lysippum Sicyonium Duris begat nullius fuisse discipulum etc.); the notices of the successive developments of art, and the list of workers in bronze and painters, to Xenocrates; and a large amount of miscellaneous information to Antigonus. The last two authorities are named in connection with Parrhasius (xxxv. 68, hanc ei gloriam concessere Antigonus et Xenocrates, qui de pictura scripsere), while Antigonus is named in the indices of xxxiii - xxxiv. as a writer on the "toreutic art", or the art of embossing metal, or working it in ornamental relief or intaglio.

Greek epigrams contribute their share in Pliny's descriptions of pictures and statues. One of the minor authorities for books xxxiv - xxxv is Heliodorus of Athens, the author of a work on the monuments of Athens. In the indices to xxxiii - xxxvi an important place is assigned to Pasiteles of Naples, the author of a work in five volumes on famous works of art (xxxvi. 40), probably incorporating the substance of the earlier Greek treatises; but Pliny's indebtedness to Pasiteles is denied by Kalkmann, who holds that Pliny used the chronological work of Apollodorus, as well as a current catalogue of artists. Pliny's knowledge of the Greek authorities was probably mainly due to Varro, whom he often quotes (e.g. xxxiv. 56, xxxv. 173, 156, xxxvi. 17, 39, 41). Varro probably dealt with the history of art in connexion with architecture, which was included in his Disciplinae.

For a number of items relating to works of art near the coast of Asia Minor, and in the adjacent islands, Pliny was indebted to the general, statesman, orator and historian, Gaius Licinius Mucianus, who died before 77. Pliny mentions the works of art collected by Vespasian in the Temple of Peace and in his other galleries (xxxiv. 84), but much of his information about the position of such works in Rome is from books, and not personal observation. The main merit of his account of ancient art, the only classical work of its kind, is that it is a compilation ultimately founded on the lost text books of Xenocrates and on the biographies of Duris and Antigonus.

He shows no special aptitude for art criticism; in several passages, however, he gives proof of independent observation (xxxiv. 38, 46, 63, xxxv. 17, 20, 116 seq.). He prefers the marble Laocoön and his Sons in the palace of Titus (now in the Vatican) to all the pictures and bronzes in the world (xxxvi. 37). The statue is attributed by Pliny to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus. It shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being strangled by sea serpents. The priest had tried to expose the Trojan horse by attacking it with a spear, but the Gods were displeased and sent a snake to prevent him achieving his task.

In the temple near the Flaminian Circus he admires the Ares and the Aphrodite of Scopas, "which would suffice to give renown to any other spot". He adds:

At Rome indeed the works of art are legion; besides, one effaces another from the memory and, however beautiful they may be, we are distracted by the overpowering claims of duty and business; for to admire art we need leisure and profound stillness (ibid. 26–72).

He also covers the passion among the Roman elite for collecting engraved gems and extravagant hardstone carvings.

See also




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