By George Pliotis (@gpliotis)
How do we picture ancient Romans? In the case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-65AD), eminent littérateur and statesman of his day, we have no contemporary depiction; but something about this bust (which most likely dates to the Hellenistic period) has made it a persistently popular visualisation since the end of the 16th century.
The story seems to have begun with the Italian antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, who included an image of the bust in his 1598 Imagines Illustrium and, despite its lack of authentic inscription, christened it “Seneca”. His justification was that the figure resembled an image in a Roman contorniate (a kind of medallion) that allegedly bore an inscription of Seneca’s name. However, no record of that contorniate remains. We may therefore suspect that Orsini’s (mis)identification was a consequence of the way the bust manifests an appealing image of Seneca: beyond resembling the “senile body” mentioned by Tacitus, this elderly, ascetic figure, haggard but still possessing an intense gaze, capures much of what we want to see when we read Seneca — the sexagenerian castigator of vice, exhorter to the life of Stoic simplicity, and sage counsel to the wayward emperor Nero.
Such idealisations are hard to shrug. Today, Seneca has proved a popular figure amid interest in mindfulness and self-help, often presented as a voice of ancient wisdom in a way that takes us back to the wizened look of this “Pseudo-Seneca”: not for nothing will you still find that very image attached to his name. “False” or not, it is an image that’ll be with us for some time.
Campbell R. (ed., tr.), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin: 2004).
Strandman, B., “The Pseudo-Seneca Problem”, Konsthistorisk tindskrift/ Journal of Art History 19.1-4 (1950), pp.53-93.
Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, Cambridge: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/seneca-so-called.
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.
By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)
This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.
By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)
Fancy some Regency-era cheese on toast? By the late eighteenth century, cheese toasters were all the rage among the British upper classes. The six removable trays in this particular toaster from the period could each hold a small slice of toast or bread, topped with cheese. To make the toast, hot water would first be poured into an opening in the stem of the handle until it filled the container underneath the six trays. As the heat quickly permeated the silver plate and copper interior (both excellent heat conductors), it would simultaneously melt the cheese and keep the toast warm.
By Yayha Nurgat (@yahyanurgat)
Every year, Muslims from across the world travel to the city of Mecca in order to undertake the Hajj, the fifth and final pillar of Islam. In many rural areas of modern-day Egypt, pilgrims return from Mecca to find the exterior of their home adorned with illustrations of the holy sites of the Hajj, along with various other images and calligraphy (see figs. 1, 2 and 3).
By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)
Guided tours are part and parcel of today’s tourism industry. In fact, there are over 1,800 registered professional tour guides in the UK alone. Tour guides (also known as rangers, couriers or interpreters) can be traced through history, leading one scholar to describe guiding as likely to be ‘among the world’s oldest professions.’ The World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations defines a ‘Tourist Guide’ as a qualified person who ‘guides visitors in the language of their choice and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.’ However, guides have existed long before they became part of a recognised profession.
Philippa Carter (@extispicium)
In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more
By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.
By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)
As part of my research fieldwork this year, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city of Bolzano in Northern Italy. This South-Tyrolean city provides a perfect example of how small, provincial cities often have rich and diverse histories which make them prime points of study for enquiries into historical change throughout Europe.
By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on. Read more
By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam
It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical. Read more
By Megan Suster
The unofficial mantra of Riverside, California by the beginning of the twentieth century was ‘Citrus is king!’ Starting with Valencia oranges in the California missions in the southern half of the state, and further catalyzed by the Bahia Navel orange that came to town in 1873, the citrus industry became central to how Riverside, and surrounding cities like nearby Redlands and faraway Pasadena, identified themselves. As a result, there is an unwavering nostalgia in Southern California for its citrus heritage, and California Citrus State Historic Park aims to preserve some of this in the form of nearly 300 acres of groves, as well as a small museum. Read more
by Tom Smith – @TomEtesonSmith
What connects the obscure lives of neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend and opera singer Madelena Delani? Are these people even real? Is there really an elaborate miniature engraving of the Crucifixion on that seemingly ordinary fruit stone? Are we supposed to take these heroic portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space programme seriously? Are bees really seen to be so integral to the life cycle within certain cultures that they must be told if a member of the family has married or died, and are invited (in writing) to funerals? And what on earth does that have to do with Alexander Fleming? Read more
by Tom Smith
What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more
By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys
Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions? Read more
By Spike Gibbs
Spike is a first year PhD student in working on office-holding in late medieval and early modern England.
London can appear to be an overwhelmingly modern city with its towering 20th century office blocks and grand Victorian architecture. Whilst there are some very famous medieval landmarks such as the Tower of London, and early modern ones such as St Paul’s Cathedral, these can appear to be oases in the capital. However, if you know where to look London has many surprises for the pre-1750 historian and here are ten of my favourites: Read more