Pliny the Elder: the original art historian?

July 10, 2010

Jean Baptiste Regnault's Origin of Painting (1783) depicts an ancient technique described by Pliny in Naturalis Historia, which included a section on art and sculpture.

It was not too long ago we encountered Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Elder (23-79CE) in the podcast about Giorgio Vasari, where three of the world's most accomplished Renaissance art experts suffered a mental blank when queried about the date which Pliny walked the earth.

To redress this, In Our Time Presenter Melvyn Bragg is back this week with a wonderful program dedicated entirely to Pliny The Elder. The stellar panel of experts assembled suffered no such problems. Luckily, they weren't quizzed on Renaissance Art!

Joining Mr. Bragg this week are Dr. Serafina Cuomo, Reader in Roman History at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr. Aude Doody, Lecturer in Classics at University College, Dublin and Liba Taub, Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University.

A stunning 12th century manuscript of Pliny's famous work from Abbaye Saint Vincent in France. A high resolution image is available here

In addition to being a compendium of scientific knowledge, Naturalis Historia also contained a section on art and sculpture. This is the chief surviving source of information we have about the artists of antiquity.

Nicolas Vleughels Appeles Painting Campaspe (1716), is a depiction of a tale recounted by Pliny, where Appeles of Kos became so enamoured of Alexander The Great's mistress Campaspe, that Alexander allowed her to stay with the painter. 

It was also thrilling to hear mention of Nicolao Leoniceno, the Renaissance scholar who caused a huge stir with his 1492 booklet De Plinii et Aliorum in Medicina Erroribus (On the errors of Pliny and other authors in medicine).  A somewhat unsung hero to historians, but not to scientists. Leoniceno was a pioneering scholar, who along with contemporaries such as Ermolao Barbaro, did exhaustive work to highlight and begin to correct errors in ancient writings, and their translations.

The truly under-praised Nicolao Leoniceno

You can listen to the podcast directly from the player below, or download the .mp3.

BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time - Pliny The Elder 

In a case of wonderful serendipity, when searching for images for this post, I encountered the amazing History of Science blog, compiled by Jeremy Norman. It is an absolutely invaluable and fascinating resource for those interested in the History of Science and dating of extant manuscripts.

For those interested in reading Pliny's work, You can view or download Naturalis Historia in its entirety from The Internet Archive.

A 1669 Print of Pliny's famous volume


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