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Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Philosophers' Mosaic


In 1897 this small (33” by 33 1/2”) mosaic was discovered in a villa at Torre Annunziata near Pompeii, nearly perfectly preserved by the protective blanket of ash laid over it by Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. It is similar to another, slightly smaller mosaic found at Sarsina in Umbria and now in the Villa Albani in Rome. Two similar mosaics? That suggests that they are copies of a lost Hellenistic original, probably a painting.

The mosaic depicts seven men. Four are seated on a semicircular stone bench with lion’s-paw feet. Three are standing: the first, fourth, and seventh (we number them from left to right). To the left there is an open chest, probably a container for the scrolls. In front of the group is another open chest. The sphere that it contains is a focal point for the group. The first figure, the only one wearing a diadem, appears to be looking at it (perhaps explaining it) while the third points to it with a staff and the seventh figure seems to turn away from it with an air of suspicion.

In the background (left to right): two pillars support an architrave on which stand votive vessels, a tree with green foliage, a single column surmounted by a sundial, and, in the upper right corner, a fortified town or citadel.

The tree and the sacred gateway suggest a rural sanctuary, as often in Hellenistic art. The city in the distance shows that the gathering is taking place in the country. But a gathering of whom, exactly? Philosophers, it seems, given the sphere and the scrolls. Which philosophers? At this point, the modern consensus about the mosaic and its meaning ends.

Konrad Gaiser believes that the scene depicts the Academy of Plato. For him, the city in the upper right-hand corner is the key: it is Athens. He discerns the Acropolis, even the Parthenon. Thus, the scene is exo teichous (outside the city walls), where the Platonic Academy was located. Gaiser identifies the figures on the basis of their clothing, attributes, poses, and positions within the circle. The first figure is the lecturer. All the others appear to be looking at him, except figures three and four, whose eyes are on the sphere. For Gaiser, this figure’s diadem and the snake that he is holding identify him as Heraclides of Pontus (in northeast Asia Minor), known for his theory of the motions of celestial objects (he proposed that the movement of the stars was an illusion created by the daily rotation of the Earth). The second figure is Speusippus; the third Plato (pointing to the celestial sphere with his staff); the fourth, standing as he is behind the bench, is Eratosthenes of Cyrene, his position marking him as a philosopher from another era; the fifth Eudoxus of Cnidus; the sixth Xenocrates; and the seventh Aristotle (turning away in disapproval—and calling to mind the empiricist gesture of Aristotle in Raphael’s "The School of Athens").

Of the many other identities proposed for the philosophers, the most compelling is that they are the Seven Sages, a collection of sixth-century philosophers and statesmen renowned for their wisdom. If we accept this, all of Gaiser's fourth-century identifications are out. The third figure holding the staff is now not Plato but, e.g., Thales.

Or could the gathering involve an anachronism? Accepting the Seven Sages hypothesis did not prevent G. W. Elderkin from seeing in the first figure the late fourth-century ruler of Athens Demetrius of Phalerum. Demetrius was an early Peripatetic philosopher known to have collected the sayings of the Seven Sages. Why not show him conversing with those giants of two centuries earlier? Elderkin has been followed by Richard Brilliant, among others.

Truth be told, this is another case of non liquet.

Brendel, Otto.  Symbolism of the Sphere: A Contribution to the History of Earlier Greek Philosophy.  (1977) 1-18.
Brilliant, Richard.  "Intellectual Giants: A Classical Topos and the 'School of Athens'," Notes in the History of Art 3.4 (1984) 1-12.
Elderkin, G. W.  “Two Mosaics Representing the Seven Wise Men.”  American Journal of Archaeology 39.1 (1935) 92–111.
Gaiser, Konrad.  Das Philosophenmosaik in Neapel.  1980.

- Christian McKittrick

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