For centuries Pliny the Elder’s chapters on the history of art (34-36 and sections of Books 33 and 37) in the Naturalis Historia have been merely considered a list of excerpta: 3000 pieces of information derived from more than 70 Greek and Roman authors have been completely taken out of context in order to reconstruct lost sources, treatises, artists’ lives and works.

This project aims at overcoming the limitations of this approach, by providing an updated historical, philological and archaeological commentary of these books and making results available through the web. Thanks to a multidisciplinary methodological approach, Pliny’s books will be re-contextualized in a wider historical, literary, cultural frame and perspective, by emphasizing their role as a turning point in the reception and transmission of technical terminology and artistic canons between the Late Classical period and the modern era.
We wish to:

  1. explore the birth and the diffusion of anecdotes from which artistic personalities emerge;
  2. understand how artists became art canons and ethical models;
  3. investigate why Pliny chose some artistic canons and excluded some others;
  4. compare his choices with his predecessors’ and his contemporaries’ attitude;
  5. highlight Pliny’s influence on the construction of the artist’s image in the following centuries, especially in the Renaissance treatises.

Furthermore, the project aims at a critical analysis of technical words within their literary and historical context of quotation. Importantly, our investigation will not be confined to Pliny only, but his use of terminology will be compared with that in other sources: in treatises on rhetorical strategies, for instance, rhetorical styles and canons were defined through the comparison with art and artistic terminology.

For these reasons, the project will expand from Pliny in order to include, by comparison and difference, a wide range of sources, even those sometimes ignored and overlooked, such as papyri, Byzantine lexica, scholia. The aim is to understand the different reception of pieces of information by the authors who transmitted them and to pick out the filters through which they were reported.

We wish to underline that the novelty of the present project will stem from its combining, for the first time, different perspectives on Pliny’s chapters on the history of art: the analysis of Pliny’s books as a product of the Roman Imperial Age; the critical discussion of previous literary sources according to the latest developments in different disciplines; the drawing up of an updated catalogue of artists, which will consider, for the first time, the anecdotes on them also in the perspective of later reception, and a new, more complete glossary of technical lemmata, both in Greek and Latin. The diffusion of the results through a dedicated website with multiple-language translations and scientific discussions, will encourage the formation of a multidisciplinary network on Pliny and treatises on art.


DOI of the Website: