The Classical Tradition [Harvard University Press]

March 10, 2011

The Classical Tradition was published by Harvard University Press in October 2010. The volume was edited by Princeton's Anthony Grafton, current president of the American Historical Association, and a great advocate for collaborative research and the use of digital techniques and resources.

This volume aims to trace the influences and descriptors of antiquity on latter generations of writers and artisans, including to the modern day. In writing this review, I would also like to acknowledge the wonderful assistance received from art historian Natalia Agapiou, an authority on Greco-Roman Mythology in Renaissance art, historiography and iconography. I contacted Natalia to get an expert opinion on the mode and content of the book. Her responses are included in the section on scholarly accuracy and intent.

To Lexicon, or not to Lexicon?
When this book arrived, I was immediately struck by its immense size. It very much hearkens to the Encyclopedic volumes of years gone by. I began to muse as to how it would be possible to do such a lengthy volume justice in a review. I decided to focus on entries concerned with art historical themes, and artists specifically. For a history focused exploration of this volume, please visit classicist Juliette Harrisson's review at Pop Classics.

The Classical Tradition weighs 5.8pounds, or 2.6 kgs

Those paying attention to humanities on the web, will be aware of the digital revolution occurring across many disciplines. Disciplines are embracing digital technologies to conduct research, preserve and index archives and promote their field to the greater public. The highest profile digital humanities project in recent months was the Google Art Project, which has been widely acclaimed as a positive move by Google and partner museums to promote an increased awareness of museums and the artistic treasures they contain.

In the field of history, it is fascinating to note Anthony Grafton's increasing push to bring the study of history into the digital age. For more on this please read his famous New Yorker piece Digitization and its discontents.

Keeping this in mind, I must admit I was somewhat surprised to see Grafton as the editor of a volume presented in a manner that would not look out of place had it been published a century (or two) ago. Before I quizzed any experts on what they thought, I looked to the preface of the book, and Grafton's own comments for some insight:

That is why we have conceived our work not as Lexicon, or Dictionary or Encyclopedia, but rather as a Guide. It has strategically chosen a large but limited number of paradigmatic topics, and cannot claim for itself any kind of totality. Instead, it hopes to point to the variety of ways the post-classical tradition has drawn sustenance and inspiration from (revering, but also misunderstanding and opposing) classical antiquity.

In this description, Grafton et al acknowledge the limitations of such an immense undertaking. What is not addressed is the chosen format. For a guide that is not aiming to be a dictionary nor encyclopedia, we have an array of alphabetised articles, no division according to themes, no contextual illustrations under an article, just a middle section of colour and black and white plates. It is in this respect that I found the volume to present challenges which many readers would simply prefer to avoid.

In the age of digital publications, online archives and multimedia presentation, a large heavy book with slabs of endless text is not going to fare well in being an appealing resource to scholars and laypersons alike. Grafton states the work is intended to have a general audience, yet seems to have put aside his eagerness for the digital revolution we are amidst and instead presents us a work that simply would have made more sense as a digital edition or online archive.

The Devil was in the details, mostly
Having explained the shortcomings of the format chosen, I would like to turn focus to the content presented. Articles are presented alphabetically. This made topics easy to find, but did suggest this book was more suited to being read as a reference volume. The stark jumps between eras and content from one article to another would make this harder to read in a cover-to-cover sense. Hence, in this respect, the guide promised more closely resembles a dictionary or encyclopedia.

Apart from the names listed on the cover, many of the articles were supplied by a large number of contributors, each of whom are acknowledged at the bottom of the article, followed by a relevant bibliography. Of all the articles I sampled, I enjoyed their concise nature, citing relevant facts and details and moving onto the next point. Some writers in the humanities can become a tad verbose and it was refreshing to see very little of this in the pieces sampled.

 Raphael's beautiful images are never done justice by a slab of text without illustration

As someone with a special interest in art history and the Renaissance, I found these articles particularly fascinating and informative. The artist with the largest entry appears to be Raphael - which is quite fitting given Raphael's obsession with antiquity. The article follows Raphael's development in mostly chronological fashion, leading to the fateful visit to Nero's Domus Aurea.

Nero's Domus Aurea, provided much inspiration to Raphael

Famous German art historian and archeologist J.J. Winckelmann appears quite prominently in a few articles, including one dedicated to him. His role in shaping Neo-Classicism is often a staple in survey art history courses, and the articles in this work would be a nice way for tutors to introduce this to students.

Scholarly accuracy and intent?
Of the articles I perused, I found no glaring faults as far as factual details or dates listed. These were of course primarily to do with Renaissance artists and art historical themes, but I was interested to find out a bit more about some of the more detailed articles on specific themes.

It was at this point I encountered Natalia Agapiou, who agreed to provide some insight into the article on Endymion. For more information on this figure from Greek antiquity, I recommend the wonderful summary at, which is an astounding online resource for all things to do with Ancient Greek history and mythology.

 Endymion depicted on a 3rd Century Roman Sarcophagus. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Endymion became a popular subject in artists' representations, a topic which Natalia has published a monograph on. Indeed, the article in The Classical Tradition lists Natalia's publication as its sole reference. Hence, one can imagine my surprise in hearing back from Natalia when asked for her insights on this piece, and the book in general.

I would like to thank Natalia for her precious time providing these insights, a fabulous achievement given she is currently very busy and her preferred languages are French and Greek!

The Endymion entry in The Classical Tradition is quite bad. I guess she gave my book in the bibliography simply because it's the only monograph on the myth. She hasn't read it at all. All inferences are hers.

Endymion is "muscular and nude in Roman tombs" (she means sarcophagi ; It should be precise, as tomb is a very vague notion!). The most interesting thing regarding the myth is its importance in Elizabethan politics - although she refers to the texts briefly she does not seem to have an idea why this was so, although it was  analyzed in my book.

nb. the entire Endymion piece in The Classical Tradition can be viewed in the Google books preview at pages 312-313. 

Querying Natalia's opinion on the overall work, I was interested to read her conclusions. Whilst she did not share my preference for a digital format, it seems some of the same reservations apply regardless of the manner of presentation:

Regarding the whole concept, some things are cute and fresh (I loved the Laocoon and the butcher on the back page; the entry on Asterix), but I think the problem is that the editors are trying to combine a Cultural history approach with a Classics approach and the result is weird - neither the one nor the other.
We have now, a rather conservative entry on Mythology (written by the eminent specialist Marcel Detienne), not at all the Cultural History kind which would have included a reference at least to Roland Barthes and would have been consistent with an entry on Asterix.

Despite what they say, I don't see which audience they are targeting. One feels they are trying to attract people who are curious about the classics. But would you attract them with such a massive book?

They see it as "a first place to turn" for the general reader ; myself, I prefer in the same spirit, smaller "guides" such as Oliver Taplin's Literature in the Greek World (Oxford UP, 2000) or Simon Goldhill's, Who needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (Cambridge UP, 2002), or even Salvatore Settis' own Futuro del 'classico' (Torino, Einaudi, 2004) than this bulky book.

Whether we like it or not this is the type of book only a scholar would like to use. They worry about the "notorious difficulty of communication [...] between scholars and the general public" and they come up with this? 

The Final Word
The Classical Tradition is a landmark work, a multi-disciplinary collaboration with the best of intentions. From a content perspective, it delivers on many accounts, and selected articles would provide a useful resource to lecturers and students of art history and the classics.

The greatest challenge contained within the book is the format - it is physically large and wieldy, and an absence of contextual illustrations detract from the book's appeal, and the ability of articles about art in particular to make a visual impact. With Anthony Grafton's ambitions towards digital initiatives, one can only imagine why there was no concurrent digital or online version of this book. If such an edition were to be released in the future, it would be a recommended purchase - as long as you steer clear of the piece on Endymion, perhaps. Until then, it is a volume most likely to be found in an academic library, putting it out of reach of some of its intended audience.

An extended online preview is available at Google Books. 

Thank you to Harvard University Press and InBooks for the review copy.


Alberti's Window said...

Very nice and thoughtful review! I really appreciated the thought and consideration you took while writing. It's good to know that this book is construed as more of a reference book with separate entries. I have to admit, that's a bit of a disappointment for me (I like to read a book straight through and see an author make connections between points), but that's alright. It still seems like a good resource.

You've brought up an interesting point about how the size of the book makes it seem less approachable. The weight and size reminds me of the standard survey texts in art history (Gardner's Art Through the Ages and Stokstad's book), although over the past decade these large textbooks have been bound in smaller volumes.

Your suggestion about an online/digital format made me wonder if this book could work in a similar fashion to subscription references like Oxford Art Online or Grove Art Online. It seems like these short, encyclopedic-type entries would do well in an online setting, particularly because one could easily conduct a search for specific topics or artists.

Heidenkind said...

As soon as I saw the title of this book I thought, "Oh lord, this thing has got to be HUGE." And I was right. :P

I agree with M that this is reminds me of art history 101 textbooks, but those are organized by time period/theme and have tons of pictures in-text. The question of who will use this book is an important one--students are just going to look this info up on wikipedia (or Grove Art Online if they're really desperate), and art historians will probably search for books or articles on the specific artist/topic. Because it's organized the way it is, it won't be used as a textbook, so really who they picture as reading and using this?

David Byron said...

Yep. If a work about interweavings constructed out of classical culture doesn't cry out for hypertext, what does?

Dr. F said...

H; I know you did a lot of work on this review but I wish you had compared an article or two with the wikipedia version, or even the Britannica. Many scholars distrust wikipedia but I checked the Endymion entry and it seemed quite good, with multiple citations and sources. They even included Natalia's book in the bibliography.


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

The comments of M/Heidenkind and David Byron are quite reflective of what I am hearing from other art history educators!

Many have stated they at least would have liked a teacher's resource/PDF version to be able to print out relevant pages for students - but due to the size and format, are more likely to recommend another resource.

@Frank - in my communications with Natalia, it was indeed one of my observations that the Endymion article on Wiki was more developed than the piece in The Classical Tradition.

However, I wanted to focus the review on the content of the book, not to reduce it to a comparison "vs wiki" or Grove Art Online etc - particularly as Mr. Grafton seemed quite committed to not have this work perceived as an encyclopedia! 'Endymion' was of course one very specific article among many - which were quite thorough and well written. The pieces on Rome, Cicero, Humanism, Raphael and Michelangelo especially were a great read.

I still think it's a very useful body of work, particularly for its references, but like many - would just like something less cumbersome and easier to search and sample from!


Belphoebe said...

Hi HN, as a reader of your blog I would like to thank you for your very interesting review. I would like to make one thing clear: by saying, in the e-mail I sent you - that the author of the entry on Endymion did not read the book did not mean that she *had* to read it, I am in *no way* doing publicity for my book; all I am saying is that major aspects of the Nachleben of the myth were left out. It is also very frustrating for the author of a book to see his book stated underneath a text which does not express his/her thought & research. Natalia

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments Natalia.

I think anyone would be frustrated at having their work cited as a reference and not actually used as a reference!

It is an idicator of a degree of misunderstanding or perhaps laziness on the part of the author of that article, who I have not identified in this review - but can be done so by anyone in posession of the volume.

The quality of your work speaks for itself, and anyone reading it will see this clearly.

My only regret is that it is beyond my very basic capacity in the French langauge, otherwise I would have gladly reviewed it here as well!

Kind Regards

RWMG said...

I just looked at the publisher's page on this book. If the book is meant for the general reader rather than the scholar, what general reader do they imagine is going to fork out USD 50 or GBP 37 for it? If they think public libraries are going to get it, how many people actually use their library these days for browsing reference books when they can go online?

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