Unseen Paintings

"During what is known as the "crisis of the third century," against the backdrop of a fifty-year military anarchy in Rome that would mark the end of classical antiquity in western history, the Greek writer Philostratus the Elder spent his life writing (as his grandson Philostratus the Younger would after him) description after description of imaginary paintings."

Narcissus wall painting from the House of Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii, Italy, ad 14–62.

Narcissus wall painting from the House of Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii, Italy, ad 14–62.

Through my doctoral research on the history of rhetoric I’ve become deeply fascinated with the Second Sophistic, a period of transition between classical and late antiquity marked by economic, political, and social crisis-- and the emergence of the first Greek fictional prose novels. I believe, after Ruth Webb, that these new prose novels are deeply indebted to the evolving form of descriptive ekphrases by sophists like Philostratus. Philostratus' ekphrases, centered around descriptions of paintings that likely never existed, continue to draw my curiosity after years of research. Why did he write so many? Was he "opting out" of his time through escapism or writing critique? And most of all, what did he see as the purpose of these descriptions?

My in-progress semi-fictional novel Unseen Paintings is centered around the Imagines— the collection of Philostratus' ekphrases-- and tries to envision his life and ambitions against the backdrop of cultural and civic upheaval, alongside the characters Apollonius of Tyana (a magician and sophist whom Philostratus biographized) and the old god Proteus (the original archetype of the rhetor and prophet).  

In November of 2014 I sketched out some ideas and scenes for Unseen Paintings on Medium for NaNoWriMo month.