By Elisa Pellegrini. Pp. 602, figs. 13, b&w pls. 59. Giorgio Bretschneider, Rome 2009. €270. ISBN 978-88-7689-222-2 (paper).
Pellegrini’s book is a much-needed, comprehensive study on Eros, the divine being and personification, in archaic and classical Greek culture. It aims to expand on the excellent but very brief monograph by Greifenhagen (Griechische Eroten [Berlin 1957]) and subsequent studies that have updated only aspects of Greifenhagen’s work. Based on the author’s doctoral thesis (University of Perugia ), this volume thoroughly researches all types of pertinent evidence. Chapter 1 surveys the literary evidence, chapters 2–4 the iconographic evidence of the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B.C.E., respectively, and chapter 5 the cult of Eros. The book also assembles and classifies all available iconographic material in analytical catalogues, amounting to exactly half the extent of the text proper. It focuses on the analysis of figurative material, therefore being principally an iconographic analysis, supplemented by research of the literary record, including inscriptions, as well as a brief account of the cult of Eros, the god, secondarily fulfilling the iconological aspect promised by the book’s title.
The introduction outlines the scope and approach of Pellegrini’s study, in view of previous scholarship, which aspires to go beyond a mere iconographic analysis, associating the imagery of Eros with contemporary mentalities, politics, education, cult, and collective psychology. Unfortunately, the author fails to make a connection with views about the interaction of social sexes and the construction of gender roles, where Eros, as a notion and a god, plays a key role. Furthermore, the iconographic language of the scenes examined is not conceived under the light of recent treatises on the nature of narration and viewing processes, such as Stansbury-O’Donnel’s fundamental work Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art (Cambridge 1999).
As noted above, Pellegrini’s book is derived from her recently submitted thesis and thus reflects the analytical, methodical, but also to some extent limited approach of research at the doctoral level. The text is well presented and balanced, although it does not always acknowledge current methodologies, nor does it open up, in most cases, new perspectives.
The first chapter is a systematic and well-documented exploration of the literary evidence on Eros in poetry (e.g., Homer, Hesiod, lyric and dramatic poets) and philosophy (e.g., Presocratics, Orphics, Plato) but again fails to advance any novel approach or outlook.
Chapter 2 addresses the issue of the obscure winged demon featuring in archaic Laconian, Corinthian, and Attic vase painting. The author rightly professes uncertainty, in the face of inconclusive evidence, as to the identity of the demon, which apparently comprises various qualities (according to the author, initiatory, heroic, triumphant, as well as erotic) and could be called Nike, Agon, Keres, Anemoi, or Eros. In fact, this archaic demon, which presides over human destiny, resurfaces in the fourth century B.C.E., especially in a funerary context (ch. 4).
Overall, the bibliography cited is quite up-to-date and detailed, yet most of the works consulted in the iconographic sections (chs. 2–4) date up to the 1990s, resulting in a rather traditional approach that lacks, for example, the fertile inspiration of more recent books exploring issues of heterosexuality and homosexuality and the imagery of courtship—such as the well-researched book by Lear and Cantarella on pederasty (Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty [London 2008])—in which a personified Eros is often included as an agent of persuasion on fifth- and fourth-century B.C.E. vases. Pellegrini stresses the pedagogical role of Eros for both men and women and the notion of triumphant passage to adulthood, inspired by an aristocracy striving to maintain some power in democratic Athens (ch. 3). Consequently, her consideration of the relation of brides to Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, and, of course, Eros ends up being rather awkward: she takes up the view of Helen as a divine protector of marriage, of Spartan origin, forwarded again by aristocracy (124), although she admits that the context is difficult to specify (527). Pellegrini explains Eros’ emphatic presence in nuptial imagery (also evident in other mythical and generic encounters), acknowledging the power of female seduction, from a wish to inspire passion in the groom and ensure childbirth, but she does not associate it with the notion, peculiar to Euripides, of Eros’ double nature, to which she alludes in chapter 1. In this case, Helen may have been promoted as a cautionary example of the bad Eros’ effect, lecturing Athenian brides and wives against excessive or pointless use of their seductive power.
The last chapter of Pellegrini’s book (ch. 5) surveys the cult of Eros in its main Greek sanctuaries, largely echoing the structure of the opening chapter of Fasce’s monograph on Eros (Eros, la figura e il culto [Genoa 1977]) but also perspicaciously assessing new excavation data and reevaluating literary evidence in light of some conclusions of her own iconographic analysis.
The catalogues are perhaps the most important contribution of Pellegrini’s book. These comprise a brief list of inscriptions (from votive stelae and decrees) and an almost exhaustive list of figurative representations (mainly in vase painting but also in sculpture, major painting, gems, and jewelery) classified on the following criteria, in order of importance: provenance, chronology/order/style, subject, and material (the author adds a small appendix-like group to her catalogues, listing ivory, clay, and mainly metal objects, including vases). This type of classification does not facilitate research of specific subjects about Eros. The brief all-in-one index (of mythological figures, artists/authors, subjects, notions) may prove only to a limited extent helpful. The author seems to follow a thematic classification, however, in the plates (with some instances of misplacement). No captions are included, only catalogue numbers, so the reader must move constantly back and forth from the list of plates (hidden between the bibliography and the indexes) to the catalogues (sometimes in various parts of them), which is hardly practical or time saving. As a result, the book’s layout is not always well organized (one has to search for the conclusions, too, which are placed after the huge section of catalogues), and the reference system is not consistent, following a mixed method of listing either the author’s name or a title keyword for works cited.
The illustrations include most categories of evidence and subject yet are still not always sufficient: some 120 images in the plates, of modest quality, and a dozen more drawings in the text, as compared with the 2,451 entries of the figurative catalogue. However, the book is admittedly quite hefty and expensive as it is. To some extent, the detailed data found in the catalogues, including a subject description and a source of images, supplements the lack of illustration.
Pellegrini’s book often assumes previous knowledge of Greek archaeology and delves into difficult or debated issues, and thus it addresses a rather specialist audience. Still, any aforementioned weaknesses cannot undermine the overall value of this book; the broad scope of Pellegrini’s inquiry into Eros makes it an indispensable addition to the library of scholars specializing in classical Greek iconography and even a suitable reading and source of reference for students researching the subject.
Greek Cultural Studies
School of Humanities
Hellenic Open University
263 35 Patra