AIA-2A: Contextualizing Pliny the Elder's Material World: An All-Encompassing Vision of the Wonders of Nature (Colloquium)

  In-Person   AIA Session   Colloquium

Sponsored by:

Ancient Painting and Decorative Media Interest Group


Hilary Becker, Binghamton University, SUNY; and Anna Anguissola, University of Pisa

Overview Statement

At the bimillennium of the birth of Pliny the Elder, archaeologists, art historians, and philologists alike are looking anew at his working methods, many inspired by the so-called material turn. In book 37 of the Natural History, Pliny states that a single gemstone can engender a “supreme and all-encompassing vision of the wonders of nature” (HN 37.1). This impression of the kaleidoscope of knowledge to be derived from a single material inspires the contributions offered here. Each aims to demonstrate that not only did Pliny artfully enrich the “barren matter” (sterilis materia) of his diverse topics with complex layers of information, but also that his corpus is an important index of the technical and scientific knowledge, history, folklore, and economy of the Roman world of his day. These papers demonstrate that close readings of Pliny’s material landscape can reveal the fractal logic that informs the structure and meaning of the Natural History as a whole.

A first group of papers treats the material realia of Pliny’s world. One examines how his list of pigment prices can shed light on both the aesthetic and economic interests of patrons and painters, while another examines what Pliny’s survey of monolithic marble columns reveals about the strengths of Roman trade and commerce. A third decodes the material semantics of Roman gems and their intended use based on status and gender, while a further pair focus on technê: the first explores how Pliny’s anecdotes about artistic competitions express a Roman need to make sense of decontextualized Greek paintings and sculptures, while the second compares Pliny’s account of glass manufacture (including the invention of flexible glass) with modern research.

Pliny’s own interdisciplinary methods can help to reconcile scholarly dichotomies whereby individual aspects of materials are often treated in isolation by instead focusing on a material in all its wondrous layers. In this vein, a final paper engages with the narrative strategies and concepts that guide Pliny the Elder’s account of the natural world as a whole, seen through the prism of glass, obsidian, and fire.