Sunday 30 October 2016

A Classical Cure for Burn-Out in Spain

Unimpressed Persephone on Vase in Madrid
Feeling end-tetherish from anxiety attacks after a challenging 2016 so far, I nearly didn’t go to Madrid. I was invited to talk at the Complutense University on how mythology trained the emotional responses of ancient women. The violent sundering of Persephone from Demeter, before a partial reunion, prepared girls for marriage; Atalanta’s challenge to aspiring husbands showed teenage girls what to look for in a man (i.e. he is your equal, gives you golden apples, and is prepared to die for you).

Saving the Madrid Greek Vases in 1930s
Sites Where Greek Pottery has been Found
But I’m so glad I went. The National Archaeologic-al and Prado Museums revealed the Spanish angle on Greece and Rome. The collection of Greek vases, rescued from destruction during the Civil War, is exceptional. Few people outside Spain realise how commercially energetic the ancient Greeks were there: the cultural organisation Iberia Graeca holds nearly 7,000 records of Greek pottery found in the Iberian Peninsula in hundreds of sites including Empuries (the Greek for trading post was emporion) in Catalonia.

Crossing to Hades doesn't look so bad in Patinir's luscious landscape
The staggering Prado Museum holds some of the most famous classically-themed paintings in the world, including Velásquez’s The Forge of Vulcan, with its affected Apollo visiting sturdy, heroic smiths, and Joachim Patinir’s glorious Charon Crossing the Styx.

Spain’s unique classical perspective is best illustrated by its Two Dead Iberian Heroes. The execution by enforced suicide of Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, born in Córdoba, was given a horizontal feel like the classical frieze it helpfully includes at the back by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez in 1871. Viriatus, the Iberian equivalent of Caractacus and Boadicea, who led the indigenous Lusitanian resistance to the Romans in the second century BCE, was in 1808 revivified by J. de Madrazo y Agudo as exemplar of Spanish independence during the Peninsular War against Napoleon. His style,  paradoxically, was French classicism in imitation of Napoleon’s favourite painter Jacques-Louis David.
Detail of Death of Viriatus

But my favourite classical theme in the Prado is Titian’s The Feast of Venus (1518-20), in which Venus and her votaries are displaced by hundreds of baby Cupids. The flying ones, thus unswaddled, would represent a hazard like inner-city pigeons to anyone beneath them. Titian may have taken the theme from a solemn description of a painting penned by Philostratus, but it looks an advert for Pampers Nappies to me. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes couldn't agree more. Spain and Portugal are treasure troves of Classical history. As an amateur historian, I've been interested in Ancient and Medieval Spain for years (Roman Spain, particularly). I have made friends, too, with some great Spanish, scholars! Great blog and pictures!