29 September 2008

Will the Great Cleopatra Please Stand Up? (Updated)

The controversy rages on: is this Cleopatra VII in the nude, or not?

As always, there are two schools of thought on such serious matters. One school says 'Yes' and the other says 'No'. Luckily Zenobia is at hand to settle the isssue.

But, first, the story so far.

This beauty (left) is known as the Esquiline Venus, a marble statue dating to the middle of the first century AD, found in Rome in 1874 in the grounds of the imperial Lamian gardens on the Esquiline hill (hence her name). In trying to account for several peculiarities of the statue -- like her un-Roman curly hair and the Egyptian-looking rearing snake winding around the vase beside her (below right) -- the Italian historian Licinio Glori proposed to identify this Venus as Cleopatra.*

Important evidence were remarks by Appian (Civil Wars 2, 102) and Cassius Dio (51) about a "beautiful statue" of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus put on display by Julius Caesar about 46 BC, the year of the inauguration of the Temple of Venus on the Forum Iulium (remember, the Julian family believed that their house descended from Venus). Appian, writing around 150 AD adds that the statue still was visible on the spot -- "next to Venus", he says -- in his day.

The statue may originally have shown a woman binding her hair with a strip of fabric in preparation for a bath, because the remains of the little finger of her left hand are visible on the back of her head, suggesting her left arm was raised to hold her hair in place, while the right hand wound the fabric. She is, in any case, at least two removes from the original source of inspiration, a lost classical Greek bronze. As Kenneth Clark put it in his famous book on The Nude,

“...there was produced a bronze figure of a nude girl, perhaps a priestess of Isis, binding her hair, which must have been a masterpiece. It is known to us in two marble replicas, of which the more complete is the statue in Rome known as the Esquiline Venus ....

No doubt the original has been changed and elaborated by translation into marble, yet the copies have not lost the unity of the first idea. Somewhere not very far behind them is the work of [a 5th C BC] individual artist who, on the surviving evidence, must be reckoned the creator of the female nude. Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty [
emphasis mine]. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant such as might be found still in any Mediterranean village....

But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate, and in fact, her proportions have been calculated on a simple mathematical scale. The unit of measurement is her head. She is seven heads tall, there is a length of one head between her breasts, one from breast to navel, and one from the navel to the division of her legs. More important than these calculations... the sculptor has discovered what we may call the plastic essentials of the female body. Breasts will become fuller, waists narrower, and hips will describe a more generous arc; but fundamentally this is the architecture of the body that will control the observations of classically minded artists till the end of the nineteenth century.

Yes, but is she Cleopatra?

Yes! she is! Now another eminent art historian, Bernard Andreae, has taken up the cudgels on Cleopatra's behalf: ** Andreae argues that 1. the statue of the Esquiline Venus is not an ordinary Venus but must be interpreted as representing an individual, and that 2. Cleopatra must be this individual.

No! she's not! "Die Venus vom Esquilin ist nicht Kleopatra", says Guy Weill Goudchaux in the very same book.**

One of the strongest arguments against the identification is that no Queen of Egypt would ever have let herself be pictured naked in public, not even if Julius Caesar had gone down on his knees and begged her. Nudity is against all norms of Egyptian decorum.

Or so we thought, until this statue of Queen Arsinoe II (3rd C BC), represented as Isis-Aphrodite, came out of the water in the harbour of Alexandria in 2000. Sculpted in black granite, the life-size headless statue appears as if wearing a diaphanous cloth held together by knots at her breast. It is a magnificent example of Graeco-Egyptian art , mingling Greek-style draped clothing and traditional pharaonic posture. Her robes fall off her shoulders so easily, the characteristic Isis knot is tied so elegantly over her half-covered breast, the cloth drapes over the navel, hips and knees so subtly that the stony dress seems almost transparent. The gown folds over her sensuous body like a wet translucent slip, casting a sheen on the hard black granite that makes it appear as voluptuous as folds of silk.

So that argument goes 'plop' in the water. While Andreae's theory gets a specific- gravity boost since he can now maintain that Cleopatra may actually be clothed in an invisible sheer garment on the model of Ptolemaic queens.

What's a perfect female nude?

The idealized nude can be traced to the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles (330 B.C.). In this scheme of things, the Esquiline Venus is not the ideal of feminine beauty but a starting point. At only seven heads tall, she is indeed a stocky little figure. Praxiteles' Aphrodite, on the other hand, was made to accentuate these same proportions, and became the standard mathematical formula for representing the figure whether male or female

The proportions haven't changed much through the centuries:

- An average person is generally 7-and-a-half heads tall.

- An ideal figure, used when aiming for an impression of nobility or grace, is 8 heads tall.

- An heroic figure, used for depicting gods and superheroes, is eight-and-a-half heads tall (which is why giant figures sometimes look like pinheads!).

The ideal figure, then, has a noticeably smaller head -- one eighth instead of one seventh of the total height of the figure: smaller head plus longer legs make the figure appear more elegant. Longer legs are sadly lacking in the Esquiline Venus. Is she perhaps a little quirky because she is partly modelled on a real human being, not quite the divine ideal but a Cleopatra/Isis/Venus?

Even if not a fully-fledged goddess, she does not deserve Kenneth Clark's rebuke that her notion of female beauty is 'not evolved' . We are so used to see the statue reproduced from the front that perhaps we do not fully appreciate her charms.

[All the luscious photographs of the Esquiline Venus are made by Kalervo Koskimies].

Go see her yourself. You can explore her every angle in the huge new Julius Caesar show -- from 24 October to 5 April 5 2009 -- in Rome at the Chiostro del Bramante.

Caesar To Dazzle Rome Once More

Rome is celebrating one of its most famous political and military leaders, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). A sweeping exhibition in the Chiostro del Bramante commemorates the life, times and achievements of Ancient Rome's best known figure.

The first ever exhibit to focus solely on Caesar, it showcases just about everything related to Caesar: 180 items of archaeological, artistic and cultural interest, from ancient times until the 20th century.

The Esquiline Venus is on the spot, just in case it is Cleopatra.

And what does Zenobia say? Is she modelled on Cleopatra or not?

"Maybe, decidedly maybe. There's simply no way of knowing."

But that's no reason not to think she might be.

Photo credits for the statue of Arsinoe: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation - Photos: Christophe Gerigk.

Cleopatra, Venere Esquilina (Rome 1955).

** Bernard Andreae, Karin Rhein, Kleopatra und die Caesaren. Katalog einer Ausstellung des Bucerius Kunst Forums, Hamburg, 28. Oktober 2006 bis 4. Februar 2007 ( Munich 2006). Reviewed by Miguel John Versluys at BMCR 28/09/2008.

Update 2 October 2008: Speaking of Arsinoe II, it looks like she might have a new home when she gets back to Alexandria (she's on a world tour at the moment, now temporarily residing in Madrid; see comment on this post by 100Swallows).

Underwater Museum for Egypt Sunken Treasures?

Evoking sails of Nile feluccas (left, lit in the distance) and the cardinal directions, the glassy, towering "four points will be like the Lighthouse of Alexandria that illuminated the ancient library and the world," said Jacques Rougerie, lead architect for the feasibility study. "I want to do the same thing with this museum."

Fiberglass tunnels would connect above-ground galleries, near the New Library of Alexandria to the underwater facility, where antiquities would be visible in their natural resting places (as in the artist's conception, bottom left) at the site of Cleopatra's now sunken palace.

The proposed museum's underwater facility will be difficult and expensive to build and is the focus of the just launched two-year feasibility study aided by the UN. But planners believe that the benefits of plunging visitors into the historical context of the objects -- on the sunken island that once held Cleopatra's palace -- will be worth the trouble. It would certainly be memorable!

Wonderful photographs and more information at the National Geographic News (with thanks to Robert Blau, via imperialrome2@yahoogroups.co.uk).

Illustration courtesy Jacques Rougerie

19 September 2008

First Uppity Woman (Updated)

This angry-looking Neanderthal woman had pale skin, freckles, and was a fiery red-head too.

This is the first reconstruction of a female Neanderthal to be based in part on ancient DNA evidence. Anthropologists have now gone beyond fossils and are reading the actual genes of an extinct species of human.

Neanderthals appeared in Europe about 300,000 years ago but mysteriously vanished ca. 35,000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

Meet Wilma*

Artists and scientists created Wilma (cutely named for the Flintstones character) using analysis of DNA from 43,000-year-old bones that had been cannibalized. No wonder she looks so peeved. Who wants to go down in history as a half-chewed bone?

The genes associated with pigmentation suggest that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin, and possibly freckles. The traits were likely more common in European Neanderthals, just as they are often seen in modern humans of European descent.

Wilma's genes showed an unknown mutation in a key gene called MC1R, also present in modern humans, said the study's lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona. MC1R regulates a protein that guides the production of melanin, which pigments hair and skin and protects from UV rays.

"European [humans] have quite a lot of variation in this gene — not only red hair variants but also others," he explained, adding that humans have been in Europe for only about 40,000 years. "The Neanderthals, being there at least 400,000 [years], likely accumulated ten times more variation."

Wilma Didn't Mate with Modern Humans

Wilma's particular mutation is not known to occur in modern humans so it gives no evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans.

Other Neanderthal enthusiasts have come to the same conclusion: Wilma didn't mix with the new guys in the neighbourhood. So, we'll have to remove the third figure in the famous cartoon (left) -- whether ascent or descent of Man or Ape.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology have now sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome — genetic information passed down from mothers — of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal thigh bone found in a cave in Croatia. The sequence contains 16,565 DNA bases, or "letters," representing 13 genes, making it the longest stretch of Neanderthal DNA ever examined.

The new study shows that at least for the maternal lineage, there are no traceable genetic markers that suggest admixture of Neanderthals and modern humans.

The study author, Richard Green, points out that Neanderthals exhibited a greater number of letter substitutions than modern humans due to mutations in their mitochondrial DNA, although they seem to have undergone fewer evolutionary changes overall. The fact that so many mutations — some of which may have been harmful — persisted in the Neanderthal genome could indicate the species suffered from a limited gene pool. This might be because the Neanderthal population was smaller than that of Homo sapiens living in Europe at the time.

The researchers estimate the Neanderthal population living in Europe 38,000 years ago never reached more than 10,000 at any one time.

"If there were only a few, small bands of Neanderthals, barely hanging on, then any change to their way of life could have been enough to drive them to extinction," Green said. "One obvious change would have been the introduction of another large hominid—modern humans." And he added, "a small population size can diminish the power of natural selection to remove slightly deleterious evolutionary changes."

In short, inbreeding.

Wilma is more than just a token thigh bone

Created for an October 2008 National Geographic magazine article, Wilma has a skeleton made from replicas of pelvis and skull bones from Neanderthal females. Copies of male Neanderthal bones — resized to female dimensions — filled in the gaps. She is thus the first full-size Neanderthal female reconstructed using the latest information from genetics, fossil evidence, and archaeology.

The shape of her eyes rings especially true: like many modern cold-adapted populations, they seem to have an extra fold of skin which produces a hooded eye appearance: in Asians the fold spreads from the nose side of the eye outward, and in NW Europeans, it spreads from the outside of the eye inward. Wilma is also chubby-cheeked: her facial padding is another cold-adapted feature.

Was her pelvis the death of her?

Meanwhile, at the University of Zurich, Marcia Ponce de León and colleagues pieced together three Neanderthal baby skeletons: one newborn from a cave in Russia and two infants aged 19 and 24 months,from a Syrian cave. In addition, the scientists reconstructed the pelvis of an adult female Neanderthal skeleton found in Israel.

By analysing the skeletons, the team found that Neanderthal babies were born with similar-size skulls to those of modern human babies. However, the shape of the face was different. Even in a newborn baby, the conspicuous protrusion of the forehead that distinguishes Neanderthals was evident.

Putting the baby and the mother together, the birthing process would have been at the limit of what was possible, and the baby's head would have had to turn by a quarter … in order to get through the narrow lower pelvis. According to the scientists, this may explain why modern humans eventually trumped Neanderthals.

Poor Wilma.

Cannibalism wouldn't have helped either!

Update: 24 September 2008

(Left) A National Geographer puts the finishing touches to Wilma's reconstruction. The October 2008 issue of National Geographic is now available on-line and it should not be missed by anyone keen on Neanderthals. From this issue:

Since 2000, some 1,500 bone fragments have been unearthed from this side gallery [of El Sidrón cave], representing the remains of at least nine Neanderthals—five young adults, two adolescents, a child of about eight, and a three-year-old toddler. All showed signs of nutritional stress in their teeth—not unusual in young Neanderthals late in their time on Earth. But a deeper desperation is etched in their bones. Antonio Rosas [of the National Museum of Natural Sciences, Madrid] picked up a recently unearthed fragment of a skull and another of a long bone of an arm, both with jagged edges.

"These fractures were— clop— made by humans," Rosas said, imitating the blow of a stone tool. "It means these fellows went after the brains and into long bones for the marrow."

In addition to the fractures, cut marks left on the bones by stone tools clearly indicate that the individuals were cannibalized. Whoever ate their flesh, and for whatever reason—starvation? ritual?—the subsequent fate of their remains bestowed upon them a distinct and marvelous kind of immortality.

See also Chris Sloan's blog, Stones, Bones 'n Things (Chris was for 12 years Art Director and Paleontology specialist at National Geographic
; he's now "responsible for for keeping track of a bunch of scientists" on Society-funded projects). On his blog today, he talks about some of the pitfalls -- and pleasures -- of reconstructing how ancient people looked from their bare bones. In Wilma's case, of course, we now have added genetic information which gives real life to her skin colour and hair. He has this to say about her body reconstruction:

The model's beat up appearance and "hunting" pose is consistent with the notion that Neandertal life was rough, injuries were high, and we have no reason to believe that females did not participate in hunts, in one way or the other.

A game old girl -- beat-up but immortal: that's Wilma for you.

* First read about on Dienekes' Anthropology Blog (with interesting comments by Kosmo).

06 September 2008

Zenobia, too, is a banker to the poor!

Yes, we really can (and not just words)

Remember the Nobel Prize in 2006 - Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below"? Those efforts were microlending: small loans to entrepreneurs - $1500, perhaps, or even less. It can turn someone's world around.*

But you had to have money to lend. Now, thanks to an organization called Kiva, you can get involved in microlending with as little as twenty-five extra dollars (twice nothing in Euro's or GBP!). For the price of a DVD or a good book or a lunch, you can help someone start on the road out of poverty.

Watch the video

Loans that change lives

Kiva is the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website. By enabling people to connect with and bundle personal loans to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world, Kiva is revolutionizing the fight against global poverty. You can make a direct loan of $25 or more to an entrepreneur to purchase business-related items such as sewing machines or livestock. This can dramatically improve the life of an entrepreneur and her family, empowering them to earn their way out of poverty.

This week 19,288 lenders have made a loan.

It's on the straight and narrow too. From the New York Times:
“You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor”
“For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier. That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through www.kiva.org, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.”**
A little money goes a long way

You can go to Kiva's website and lend to someone in the developing world who needs a loan for their business - like raising goats, selling vegetables at market or making bricks. Each loan has a picture of the entrepreneur, a description of their business and how they plan to use the loan so you know exactly how your money is being spent - and you get updates letting you know how the entrepreneur is going.

The best part is, when the entrepreneur pays back their loan you get your money back - and Kiva's loans are managed by microfinance institutions on the ground who have a lot of experience doing this, so you can trust that your money is being handled responsibly.

Although Kiva's clients have a pretty good repayment rate (currently 98.47%), you should always remember that , there are no guarantees. But that's actually one of the things that makes this so attractive (and probably so successful): if you lend out $25 and don't get it back, it's not a tragedy. And if you do - it's such a success.

Zenobia and her friends will be giving Kiva gift certificates this Christmas. How about you?

Photo of Houndjénouko ADANOU from www.Kiva.org. Born in 1967 in Tokplitomé, Togo, Mrs Adanou lives with her husband in the villge of Tékponou. The mother of five children, she manages a business of rams (buying and selling). She purchases rams and re-sells them at the Saturday market.

* Thank you Ridger of The Greenbelt for alerting me to this brilliant plan.

** Nicholas Kristof, 27 March 2007

01 September 2008

Zeus Rains on Pagan Protest (Updated)

'Just as Zeus sends rain so as to grow the crops'
, (Aristotle, Phys. 2.8 198b), the ancient gods sent a much-needed downpour to Athens yesterday. That's the high priestess of the Olympians, Doretta Peppa (below) raising a fist perhaps in response to this mark of divine favour.

“This was the first [pagan] prayer ceremony on the Acropolis since the Parthenon was converted into a church,” [in the 5th C AD] Peppa said. "Is it a coincidence that rain started falling when the ceremony started and ended at the same time as the ceremony? I think not."

Pagans Pray at Parthenon

Thrusting their arms skywards and chanting Orphic hymns, about 200 Greek pagans made a comeback at the Acropolis yesterday. The Guardian reports

After a break of 16 centuries, Greek pagans are worshipping the ancient gods again - despite furious opposition from the Orthodox church.

Yesterday's ceremony represented a major coup for Greek polytheists whose faith, which is described by the powerful Orthodox church as a "miserable resuscitation of a degenerate dead religion", has long been banned in the country that gave birth to the gods of Mount Olympus.

This is the second public prayer meeting of the Greek pagans (who call themselves Ellenais*) in a little more than a year. I've been following the movement since last January (The Gods Revived, Pagan Revival II, More on the Pagan Revival) when they first appeared among the giant Corinthian columns of the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus in Athens to pray for world peace (and for rain as well!). Since then, Greek Orthodox priests have redirected the venom they usually reserve for homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, masons and the barbaric Turks at these "satanic" New Ageists and fulminated against their idols.

Peppa said officials have also harassed believers in the Olympian gods. Despite this, the pagan revivalists recently won a court battle for state recognition of the ancient religion. Now, flexing their muscles, the devotees gathered yesterday at Greece's most sacred site on the Acropolis. Although the Culture Ministry forbids ceremonies of any sort at archaeological sites, the small band entered the Acropolis’s heavily guarded grounds as tourists and then persuaded guards to allow the 20-minute rite. Before the east wing of the Parthenon, they prayed to Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens:

Oh, goddess,” high priestess Peppa said over an offering of water and olive oil, “we are ready to defend your grounds.”

Defend the Acropolis, that is, from the cultural barbarity of the New Acropolis Museum.

Last year, the government moved hundreds of sculptures from a tiny museum on the Acropolis to a Euro 129 million (US$190 m; £94m) new museum below the citadel. The building is where Greece hopes one day to display the Elgin Marbles alongside the other Parthenon sculptures. Greek officials have said the new museum will open next month, displaying some 4,000 artifacts.

"Neither the Romans nor the Ottomans or any other occupational force ever took anything from this holy site," said Yannis Kontopidis, one of the high priests who officiated over the affair.

"It's scandalous that antiquities of such value, carved in honour of Athena, should be wrested from their natural environment and moved to a new locale."

The glass and concrete edifice, designed by the Swiss-American architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greece's Michalis Photiadis, has divided Greeks.

Supporters praise its cavernous space and have claimed the building will offer better protection of the antiquities and a superior viewing space for spectators, who previously had to negotiate the confines of a tiny museum atop the hill.

However, opponents, including architectural purists, have argued that the new museum is in the wrong location and far too big in grandeur and scale.

Ellenais described the new glass and concrete structure as "an incredible architectural monstrosity that insults [Greece's] cultural heritage," and thus he adds the strength of the polytheists to protests against the imminent inauguration of the new Museum.

Perhaps the nationality, too, of the architect sticks in the craw of worshippers of ancient Greek gods.

Although he himself is denounced by the state church, high-priest Kontopidis declares, "Moving these sculptures to a museum that is foreign and hostile to the Greek environment is like breaking up a family.''

And high-priestess Peppa frets, "We believe that the structural elements of a temple should not be moved and we worry about the consequences."

What, I wondered, could those consequences possibly be?

The Delphic Oracle

Being a Classical Archaeologist, I immediately consulted the Delphic Oracle.

I asked: Has the fated time of Athens' destruction come upon it?

And the goodly Pythia responded: They should not be too much troubled in spirit; a wineskin floats on the sea.**

You can't say fairer than that!

* an acronym in Greek for "Sacred Society of Greek Ancient Religionists".

** Q247 from Joseph Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, 1978.

Photograph of Doretta Peppa (top of post) via AP News

Photographs of the New Acropolis Museum from its website: above, Looking at the Acropolis with the cranes removing sculptures and pieces of temples through the glass walls of the Parthenon Gallery; middle, Architect's Conception of the Museum floating on a pilotis over the archaeological excavations; below, Architect's conception of the future Archaic Gallery.

Updated 28 September 2008 : I should have guessed that even a society dedicated to reviving the ancient religion would have a website ... and so it does: DODECATHEON (with information in Greek, English, French, and German). Interesting features on the Society, Hellenic religion, its journal Pantheon (in Greek only) and Greek rites -- including useful tips on how to have an Hellenic Wedding: it seems necessary to veil the bride and have a handy temple on the hill behind, which may make it hard to replicate in the diaspora.

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