Monthly Archives: August 2016

For Judy

In the second century AD, the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, that on encountering one grieving for the loss of a child or similar, that ‘As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.’ Grief was a slightly paradoxical concept in the ancient world. For the Romans, certainly, visible grieving was considered antithetical to Roman values, particularly for men. This was especially true for grieving over a child, whom had not been on the earth for very long, and thus was not the subject of long attachment. There were even laws suggesting tombs were unnecessary for the very young. And yet… tombs exist for children who lived months or a few years, and an entire genre of literature, the consolatio, existed solely for the purpose of consoling one on their grief (or in some cases, attempting to jolt one out of an extended grieving period). Cicero wrote a (mostly) lost consolatio when his daughter Tullia died after childbirth. Seneca penned three surviving consolatio, one to Marcia grieving for her sons, one to Claudius’s freedman Polybius (although this may have had ulterior motives), and one to his own mother offering her solace for his own exile. In essence, regardless of what philosophers or laws indicated, Romans grieved when someone they loved died.

Last night I received news from home of a death in the family. Well, a family friend to be precise, but the woman who became your mother’s best friend when she moved to a new town at the age of five is, for all intents and purposes, family. She was not a huge presence in my life growing up. I have only vague memories of meeting her prior to adulthood. And yet somehow she loomed large in my consciousness. She was a career woman, an editor for Current Biography. She lived in Manhattan. She was friends with actors, artists, and musicians. I watched one of her friends in a popular sitcom on television. Once a year or so, she would take herself off to London for a month just to go to the theatre, concerts, and museums. She was, though distant, an example of a life being lived, a life that wasn’t family and children, but career and culture and friends. To a very young me, that was inspiring. She was possibility.

In later years she left her job, New York, and the theatre, returning to her hometown to care for her mother, and battle some demons of her own. She still read the New York Times daily. She did the crosswords (something we very much had in common). My parents also moved back, and she became a bigger part of my life. Trips home involved long visits, she kept up to date on my life via my mom, and always wanted to know about what I was doing, who was in my life, how my career was progressing. I would bring gifts of tea and biscuits from England, and we would share memories of London and theatre and talk about music and politics and culture as much as we talked of our own lives. Then she got cancer. It has been a struggle of treatments and remission and return that has lasted several years. In many ways, the illness caused her much more mental than physical anguish, and it was an incredibly difficult (and admittedly at times frustrating) thing to witness. My parents, being the amazing people that they are, have cared for her, supported her, and done all they could to help her fight what was ultimately a losing battle.

I am grieving. For all that she suffered, for all that she meant to me both as a child and an adult, and for knowing we will never share another pot of tea and packet of Hobnobs (her particular favourite). At the same time, reflecting on her place in my life, there is some echo of her in who I have become. Whether she ever knew it or not, I was incredibly fortunate to have her in my life, both as a friend and as an example. So, stoic philosophers be damned. Like Cicero, I am writing a consolatio. Not to send off to anyone else to assuage their grief, but for myself, and for her.

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Scribblers and Scholars

Last weekend I finally got around to doing one of those Oxford things that one living here should do: despite my slight tendency to vertigo I climbed the very narrow, steep and winding stairs to the top of the tower of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Although it is believed that there has been a church in this location since Anglo-Saxon times, the current building is an assemblage of components built between the thirteenth and eighteenth century. The oldest part of the structure is the Tower, dated to 1280. Tourists (okay, and residents) climb the tower for the stunning views over the skyline of Oxford. Narrow walkways are on all four sides of the Tower, linked by small arched passageways. Within two of these corner passages, I discovered a wealth of inscribed names, initials, and dates. DSCF7643

The earliest date I found inscribed is in the above photo, 1612, carved deeply beneath a less visible 1791. An individual with the initials AR, in the upper right corner, carved his (I’m assuming) initials in 1676. The overlap of names and the wearing over time has rendered most of the scratchings fairly illegible. Whilst I have seen other churches (Gloucester Cathedral comes to mind) with graffiti inscribed by builders and craftsmen, the dates and use of the building suggest to me that the majority of these names belong to students or visitors to the university. The Tower, a few floors below this vantage point, contains the Old Library. Built in 1320, it was the first central university office and library (i.e. not college affiliated), and was used for meetings and research prior to the construction of the Bodlian Library and Divinity School, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the latest dated inscriptions I found were from 1811, when Messrs. Stone and Godfrey carved their names, well past the time when the Tower rooms would have still been used as originally intended.

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One other aspect I found quite interesting is the obvious time and care that was taken in carving these names. Many have the letters blackened, a practice similar to using red paint as was common in Roman monumental inscriptions. In addition, a close look at the lettering indicates that on many occasions there were attempts made at style – adding serifs to the letters, creating the appearance of distinct fonts and handwritings. Compare, for example, the photo below, where both the ‘R’ and initial ‘W’ of the surname have distinct serifs, difference in thickness of the lines of the lettering, and show a replication of a monumental style of inscription. This is at odds with the penciled text beneath, clearly by a more modern hand, which lacks the same level of artistry all together.

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I have written before about that overwhelming desire people have to record their name, or leave a mark. It would appear that on some level, the students of Oxford in centuries past were no different. What is remarkable, at least to me, is that such effort went into carving the letters and attempting to make them visible and lasting. This suggests a desire for permanence that isn’t all that surprising – it is exactly the thing that has led people to write on walls – whether in Pompeii two thousand years ago, in a church tower in Oxford four hundred years ago, or on an underpass over the motorway today.

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Ex Libris…

I’ve spent most of this past week packing up my office as my post-doc is soon coming to an end. Whilst moving is never an easy or stress free task, it seems to be considerably more complicated for the academic, whose office shelves are covered with hundreds and hundreds of books, box files filled with articles and offprints, and the various bits of detritus that accumulate seemingly out of nowhere (in my case, an odd assortment of notepads and post-its from four different universities). Books are, for those in the humanities, still the fundamental source of research despite the growing availability of digital copy. So as I sit here, surrounded by boxes and boxes of books, I can’t help but think of how important many of them have been to me, for teaching, for writing, and most importantly, for the pure enjoyment of reading. This brings to mind a graffiti I found near a branch library in Coventry (unfortunately under threat of closure):

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Good advice: we should all read more books. I am, however, having second thoughts about buying so many of them.

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Queer Graffiti

In recent weeks I’ve had cause to travel a bit within the UK, and during this time, I’ve come across a couple of (modern) graffiti that I found interesting, for related but somewhat different reasons. The first is really a text that no longer exists. That is, it is clear that an attempt was made to remove the sprayed inscription, but it failed in the respect that the original words, though faded, are still visible. On the side of a building at the University of Manchester, one can see this:

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‘FIGHT AIDS ACT UP’

ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – was founded in New York City in 1987. Growing up in New York at the time, and with gay and lesbian friends as part of my community, church, and extended family network, this slogan, along with the image of the pink triangle and SILENCE = DEATH, were a familiar part of my childhood. I was, up to the moment I stumbled upon this, completely unaware of the slogan being used in the UK, or in fact, any time in the last twenty years or so. I am not by any means dismissing the continued need to campaign for gay rights, healthcare, and AIDS research (let’s face it, for everyone really), I just wasn’t aware of the ongoing use of this slogan. This of course set my epigraphic mind racing: when was this written? was it put up by an American? is it a relic of a very different time and place or reflective of a current movement? None of these questions seem to have answers (as far as I can tell), but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Then earlier this week I was in Belfast, and came across this:

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Having never been to Northern Ireland before, I may have held the somewhat stereotypical view of it being fairly conservative socially. As I walked around the city on Sunday and Monday, I was rather taken aback by the number of rainbow flags on display, and thought how wonderfully progressive  it was to see such a bold statement of acceptance on display. I couldn’t figure out why this would be the case in August, as Pride Month is in June, when most cities see annual events and parades organised by LGBTQ communities. It was only after I looked online that I discovered I missed Belfast Pride by a day – there had in fact been a parade on Saturday.

These messages are reflective of an important movement for rights and inclusion, and are reflective of a modern society, not to be found a few hundred years ago much less a few thousand. Attitudes and perceptions of homosexuality in antiquity are as conflicted and contested as they are in some parts of the world today. Nevertheless, what both of these graffiti brought to mind was the enduring importance of being able to have relationships in an individual’s life, whatever the sex or gender of the person you love. To quote a more recent slogan used in the gay rights movement worldwide, love is love is love. Here, four texts (two for men by men, two for women by women) provide some ancient evidence from the walls of Pompeii that echo this sentiment.

CIL IV 4485
Hectice pupe, va(le) Mercator tibi dicit.
Hecticus, my pet, Mercator says hello to you.’

CIL IV 1256
Sabine calos, Hermeros te amat.
‘Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you.’

CIL IV 5296 = CLE 950
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere || braciola et teneris / oscula ferre labelis. || I, nunc ventis tua gaudia, pupula, crede. || Crede mihi, levis est natura virorum. || Saepe ego cu(m) media / vigilare perdita nocte || haec mecum meditas: multos / Fortuna quos aupstulit alte || hos modo proiectos subito / praecipitesque premit. || Sic Venus ut subito coiunxit / corpora amantum || dividit lux et se / parees qui{d} amant.
‘Oh, if only I could grasp my gentle arms around you and and give kisses to your delicate little lips. Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds. Believe me, the nature of men is flighty. Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight, I think on these things: many whom Fortuna raised high, then suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses. Thus, just as Venus joins the bodies of lovers in a moment, daylight divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 8321a
Chloe Eutychiae s(alutem): / Non me curas, Euty / chia. Spe firma / tua Ruf(um)? amas.
‘Chole greets Eutychia: Eutychia you don’t care about me. With a firm hope you love…’

Love can be unrequited, relationships can be forbidden by law or moral code, or be the basis of a decades long campaign for equality. Regardless, in antiquity, or today, love is love is love. And that is definitely worth fighting for.

 

 

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The Legacy of Venus

A number of months ago I had the chance to go to the V & A for the exhibit ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ Whilst the exhibit as a whole was about more of the artist’s works than just Venus, both she and the similarly inspired by antiquity painting of Primavera were certainly a focal point of at least half of the collection on display. The artwork ran the gamut from Botticelli’s own paintings to modern works, fashion, dance, and performance art.

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What struck me about this collection of artwork is the enduring legacy of the image of Venus. It occurred to me that whilst I have previously written about Venus in her guise as a goddess of love in the graffiti of Pompeii, and her special role as the patron deity of Pompeii known as Venus Pompeiana, I have paid much attention to the image of Venus that was so prevalent both in antiquity and in the modern world.

The number of images (whether painting, mosaic, or statue) are far too numerous for me to catalogue here. What I am intrigued by, however, is the most recognisable form of Venus, in which she is depicted with emerging from the sea, usually from a shell, at the moment of birth. This is the image that Botticelli used in his painting, and is one that can be traced back to the walls of Pompeii.

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In the peristyle of the eponymously named House of Venus in the Shell (II.iii.3), this is the precursor to the famous  painting of the Italian renaissance. But it isn’t the only such image that survives antiquity. A second century AD mosaic from Zeugma in Turkey depicts Venus (here as the Greek Aphrodite) in her shell, surrounded by ikhthyokentauroi (consider them the fish version of centaurs) identified as Aphros (Sea Foam) and Bythos (Sea Depths), obvious references to her birth story.

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A late third century AD wall painting from Rome, found in the lower levels of the Case Romane del Celio, also depicts Venus in her shell, surrounded by erotes in small boats.

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Of course Venus was not just depicted in painting, or by Romans, as is evidenced by this third century BC terracotta statue from Greece.

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This image of Venus has endured for thousands of years, and Botticelli was not the only painter of the modern era that choose Venus as his subject. He will probably remain, however, the most famous. I have a number of theories as to why this version of Venus is so popular – her fantastical birth, the ability to depict her nudity as she wouldn’t be fully clothed in the sea – but one of the modern interpretations I saw at the V & A may hold the key to understanding this legacy of Venus.

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David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

Here, the shell has moved to the forefront, and is used to shield the viewer from the genitalia of Venus. Concha, the Latin for shellfish or mollusc, has been used as a slang or derogatory term for a woman’s vagina in numerous languages and cultures. I cannot help but wonder, if in this context, the shell depicted in the many images of Venus’s birth across the millennia hasn’t been a nod to her sexuality, her guise as the goddess of (physical) love, and in fact has little to so with her birth story per se. Perhaps this is why this version of Venus has so long been the obsession of artists.

 

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I Shall Dance

A few blocks from my house there is a bit of graffiti (in the modern sense) on a brick wall. I first noticed it more than a year ago, and the fact that there has been no apparent attempt to clean it or cover it up suggests to me that whoever owns that wall can’t help but smile when they see it, just like I do.

“One day I will die but today I shall dance.”
When I walked past recently, with a million thoughts in my head and not really thinking about where I was, the sentiment of it suddenly struck me anew. Death – okay, and taxes –  are inevitable, but more to the point, there is a lot of bad stuff in life, in living. Anyone who has gone anywhere near a news source in the last few months is well aware of this fact. And in our own lives, there are rough times and sadness and frustration and things that make it all seem like there is not much point. As my dad (ever the optimist) would say, ‘We’re all doomed anyway.’ And yet… there are things, people, and yes, even the odd bit of spray paint on a wall, that suddenly make you realise that none of that matters. It’s about dancing, finding your joy, and reveling in the little moments that make every struggle worth it. It’s all too easy to lose sight of that from time to time. I’m glad this wall is around to remind me. So I shall dance: literally, figuratively, it doesn’t matter. You should do the same.

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