25 October 2010


Book VI of the Metamorphoses opens with the story of Arachne. (picture from wikicommons by galak76, used by permission under creative commons licence)

Arachne appears in a fresco painted by Francesco del Cossa in the Palazzo Schifanoia in the late 1460s. Although the Palazzo doesn’t seem to have a website, you can see the fresco in situ in the following video, where it appears about 25 seconds in.

At some point between 1475 and 1485 Tintoretto painted the above painting of Athene and Arachne, which is now in Florence’s Galleria degli Uffizi, but does not appear to be on their website.

The above fresco of Arachne by Veronese dates from 1520 and is in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale.

Another fresco of Arachne was painted by Herman Posthumus in 1542 and is from the Landshut Stadtresidentz, but does not appear to be on the Stadresidentz’s website.

Ruben’s version of the story of Arachne, painted 1636-7, is now in Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Perhaps the most famous representation of the story of Arachne and Minerva is this painting from 1657 by Velázquez, now in Madrid’s Prado.

The above picture from the Iconos site is a 1695 painting by Giordano and is now in El Escorial, but is not on its website, or indeed anywhere else that I can find. (unless stated otherwise all images in this post are from wikicommons and in the public domain)

24 October 2010

Perseus in the Renaissance

For those who enjoyed my series of posts on Perseus, H. Niyazi has a recent post on The Three Pipe Problem discussing the portrayal of Perseus in Renaissance Art.

16 October 2010

The Lynx and the Magpies

The next story in the Metamorphoses is that of Lyncus’s treacherous attempt to murder his guest, Triptolemus, for which he was turned into a lynx. Jacques Dumont Le Romain painted a picture of this incident in 1732 which is now in the Louvre, but not on their website.

Book V now comes to a close. The daughters of Pierus, who had challenged the Muses to a singing contest but refused to accept the judges’ verdict against them, are changed into magpies. A painting from the 1520s by Rosso Fiorentino, which is now in the Louvre, shows the contest. This painting was probably the source for the design of a maiolica plate made 20 years later and now in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. (Images of lynx (by ChickenFalls) and magpie (by Lamiot) are taken from wikicommons and used under a creative commons licence.)

13 October 2010


The next story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that of Arethusa, a nymph who was turned into a spring by the goddess Diana to protect her from the river Alphaeus who was chasing her.(photo of Arethusa's spring in Syracuse copyright Giovanni Dall'Orto, used by permission)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an Italian plate dated to 1531 showing Arethusa fleeing from Alphaeus.

The above statue group of Arethusa and Alphaeus was created by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi in the early 1570s and is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (used by permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Pace Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday, the 1820 poem about Arethusa was by Shelley, not Keats.

Legras painted the above picture of Arethusa in 1874, and it is now in Cherbourg’s Musée Thomas-Henry, but does not appear to be on their website. (public domain image from wikicommons)

Arthur Bowen Davies’s 1901 painting of Arethusa is now in Youngstown’s Butler Institute of American Art.

Arethusa’s story was one of those chosen by Benjamin Britten for his Oboe “Six Metamorphoses After Ovid”, composed in 1951, and played here by Nicholas Daniel.

05 October 2010

Falco Review

Lindsey Davis’s series of mysteries starring Marcus Didius Falco, a private informer in Vespasian’s Rome, has now reached its 20th and probably final volume. Ms. Davis has not said that she won’t be writing any further Falco stories, but a Falco Companion has now been issued and certain plot points in “Nemesis” would mean some radical changes to the series if it were to continue. I’m going to assume, therefore, that the series as it now stands is finished. Inevitably in an overview there will be some SPOILERS in what follows, so you have been warned.

The events in the series take place from AD 70 to 77. Marcus Didius Falco has his 30th birthday during the course of the first book, “The Silver Pigs”. He is a private informer, i.e., a private investigator, specialising in background checks on prospective brides and grooms, finding evidence of adultery, and finding heirs or grounds for challenging wills. “The Silver Pigs” is his first foray into working for the Emperor Vespasian, which he does despite his republican views. During the events described in “The Silver Pigs” he meets his future wife, Helena Justina, the daughter of a senator, Decimus Camillus Verus. Over the course of the series Falco undertakes work for the Emperor as well as private commissions, and some investigations based on his own desire to see justice done. Recurring characters are Falco’s estranged parents, his sisters and their husbands and children, Falco’s mother’s family in the country, Helena Justina’s parents and brothers, and Falco’s best friend, Petronius Longus, who is a captain in the vigiles (the night watch which combined duties fire fighting and combatting minor and some not so minor crimes).

Falco’s activities take him over most of the Empire. Apart from the stories set in Rome itself, Falco also travels to various parts of Italy, to Britain, the frontier in Germany, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, the Eastern frontier, and Greece. He is a Roman citizen, but one of Rome’s urban poor. His clients come from all levels of society and over the course of the series he improves his status entering the middle rank (an eques) and by the end of the last book, becoming rich. The variety of clients means we get to see many different aspects of Roman life.

The books are all narrated by Falco himself in the first person, and his narrative voice is one of the strengths of the series. It shows a wry, ironic sense of humour, not taking Falco himself or life too seriously, and certainly not taking seriously any claims to grandeur or self importance from those who consider themselves socially or intellectually superior. This tone is hugely enjoyable, but the reader can’t help but wonder sometimes whether other characters, particularly Falco’s family and friends, would see events in quite the same way. And this becomes particularly problematic with the recurring character Anacrites, Vespasian’s Chief Spy. Although Falco tells us that Anacrites had set him up on his mission to Petra in “Last Act in Palmyra”, meaning him to be killed, and Anacrites later stalks Falco’s sister Maia in “The Body in the Bath House”, I at least found it impossible to take Anacrites seriously as a villain or a dangerous threat to Falco.

Although the humorous tone is, as I said, enjoyable, some may find it anachronistic. The only time I found the humour really jarred was in the last book, “Nemesis”, when Falco wishes that there were some way of proving or disproving paternity through the blood and hopes that the researchers in Alexandria are working on it.

I recently read the whole series through in sequence over a couple of months, which may not have been the best way to read them. Read like this, I have to say that the way Geminus, the auctioneer employed in “Shadows in Bronze” to auction off Pertinax’s effects, turns out to be Falco’s father who had walked out and abandoned the family when Falco was 7 struck me as clumsy. Once he was in the series, though, he became an important character, along with Falco’s other relations. The stories where we meet new members of Falco’s family are always particularly enjoyable. I also found the on again off again on again nature of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina very tedious after the first couple of books until they finally settled down together in “Poseidon’s Gold”.

Another time where I thought Ms. Davis let her readers down was in “Scandal Takes a Holiday”, when Falco, who we have been repeatedly told cannot swim, was thrown overboard by pirates out at sea near Ostia, yet manages to float on his back until he just happens to meet another boat, which just happens to be his father’s skiff waiting to take goods off a ship unobserved so as to avoid import duty. For me that definitely broke the flow of the narrative as I pondered its unlikelihood.

Having said that I would like to stress that Lindsey Davis does a wonderful job over 20 novels in the very demanding genre of historical mysteries, managing to balance enjoyable stories with the exploration of a civilisation superficially similar but actually very different from our own.

19 September 2010


Welcome to follower Nam Hoai, a Vietnamese architect with two blogs: nhomthangmuoimot, about 19th and 20th century art from different parts of the world, and nguyenhoainamkts, which covers a miscellany of subjects, including architecture, photography, and music.

18 September 2010

The Water Organ

I’ve been reading Lindsey Davis’s Falco series, and as the Roman History Reading Group is due to read Last Act in Palmyra in December, I thought I’d blog a few items. (book cover copied from librarything)

One reason for our hero travelling to the Eastern edges of the Empire is to track down a missing hydraulis player. The hydraulis or water organ is said to have been invented by Ctesibius in the 3rd century BC. In Ctesibius’s version, water was used to regulate the flow of air through pipes to produce music from a keyboard, but as time went by the use of bellows became as popular as water. Both versions of the instrument died out in the West after the fall of the Western Empire, but survived in the East. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus presented Pepin the Short, King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, with a bellows-operated version which was further developed over time to become the church organ as we know it today.

The article on hydraula from the LacusCurtius edition of the 1875 Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities provides links to the textual evidence about the hydraulis. We do not have to rely purely on textual evidence, however. The hydraulis is shown in mosaics.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, which does not give any information about the source, but it appears to be based on a mosaic found in Nennig in 1852.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, who have taken it from the page on the Villa Dar Bur Ammera mosaic at livius.org.

The remains of a hydraulis were found in excavations of Aquincum (modern Budapest) in 1931. The pamphlet guide to the Aquincumi Múzeum in Budapest shows a display of excavated pieces and a modern reconstruction.

Parts of another hydraulis were found at Dion, near Mount Olympus, in 1992. archaeologychannel.org has a rather old page with a radio interview about the hydraulis and a video interview and demonstration. The page does have other links to information, but unfortunately they are all broken. The video dates back to the early days of streaming (the radio interview thoughtfully explains what streaming is) and is rather small and jerky. You can see a rather better video of the hydraulis in action below:

Musica Romana, a modern group specialising in the recreation and performance of Roman music, include an extract from a piece called Aulos et Hydraulis on their myspace page. (except where noted, illustrations in this post come from wikicommons).

22 July 2010

Another Welcome

Welcome to H. Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem, the three pipes being art, history, and mysteries.

21 July 2010

The Death of Socrates in Art

In my last post I talked about hemlock, but I’d forgotten that Gary Corby of A Dead Man Fell From the Sky also covered hemlock quite recently. We’ll continue by looking at some artistic depictions of Socrates’s death.

Charles Alphonse Dufresnoy’s Death of Socrates was painted in 1650. It is now in Florence, some sites say in the Galleria degli Uffizi, others say in the Galleria Palatina. Neither shows the picture on its website. (Picture from Larousse used by permission)

Jean Francois Pierre Peyron painted two pictures of the Death of Socrates in the 1780s. The above version is in Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst, while Peyron’s other picture on this theme is in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum. (public domain picture from wikicommons)

Working at the same time as Peyron, David painted this picture of the Death of Socrates which is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. (image from Metropolitan Museum, used by permission)

18 July 2010


The episode of House shown the other night was Knight Fall. The patient, Sir William, was a re-enactor who became ill during a mock-mediaeval joust. One of the possibilities put forward as the cause of his illness was hemlock poisoning. I was surprised by this as his sufferings were completely different to the image of hemlock poisoning I was familiar with from Plato’s description of the death of Socrates. (The pictures are by H. Zell and Fabelfroh and come from wikipedia, used under a GNU Free Documentation Licence)

And when Socrates saw him, he said: “Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?” “Nothing,” he replied, “except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.”

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing color or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said: “What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?” “Socrates,” said he, “we prepare only as much as we think is enough.” “I understand,” said Socrates; “but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.


He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.
(Plato  Phaedo, translated by Harold North Fowler )

(Although Plato doesn’t actually mention hemlock, just calling it φάρμακον (drug, poison, medicine), we do know from elsewhere that hemlock was used to administer the death penalty in Athens.)

House’s patient, on the other hand, suffered from a seizure, bleeding eyes, vomiting, a rash, heart and kidney problems. It was long drawn out and painful (but not, thanks to modern medicine, fatal), not like Plato's description of Socrates’s gentle death at all.

The difference between Plato’s account and more modern accounts of hemlock poisoning have led to charges that Plato falsified his description to give Socrates a more fitting, philosophical death. It turns out, however, that there are two different, related, plants called hemlock: poison hemlock (conium maculatum) and water hemlock (cicuta virosa), plus a non-poisonous tree called hemlock because the crushed leaves smell similar to poison hemlock. The description of Socrates’s death fits poison hemlock, as discussed in Enid Bloch’s article: Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?

Most modern descriptions of hemlock poisoning, on the other hand, are based on water hemlock, a small amount of which House’s patient had eaten, which in the final solution exacerbated problems he’d laid up for himself by abusing steroids. Polite Dissent discusses the medical aspects of this episode of House.