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   Volume II, Issue 2
November 2005   

Reliving Antiquity with Special Collections and Core Humanities

Falvey Memorial Library’s Special Collections is currently showing an exhibit called “Reliving Antiquity: Depictions of the Classical Past from the Renaissance to the Present, created through the efforts of the Special Collections librarians and Core Humanities faculty. The exhibit coincided with the “Living in Antiquity: Jews, Greeks, and Christians conference sponsored by the Core Humanities Program in October.

In a facsimile edition Book of Hours, The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, Prince of France, one can see a medieval manuscript painting of the Nativity where Mary, Joseph and the shepherds look very much like fourteenth century peasants gazing over a stylized French landscape. Albrecht Dürer, in another example, illustrates a woodcut of the Nativity using fifteenth century German costume and interiors.

One case titled “Our Augustine, Ourselves – The Many Faces of Saint Augustine” illustrates the changing face of Saint Augustine across the centuries and offers a perfect example of how different time periods viewed the past through the lens of their own time.

Alexander the Great is presented as a medieval knight and George Washington on the throne of Zeus. Some people return to antiquity in order to recreate the past in their own image; others recreate themselves in the image of the past.

The exhibit also illustrates the great interest from the Renaissance and onward in Jewish antiquities and customs and in reviving Roman antiquity. In the case “Trading Places with the Past,” in a facsimile reprint of twelfth century illuminated manuscript, one sees Alexander the Great as a medieval knight. Juxtaposing this is an illustration of Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington modeled on a classical Greek statue of Zeus. The increased popularity of the “Grand Tour” throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is illustrated with travel narratives that frequently romanticized the classical sites.

Barthélemy was a French archaeologist and author who in 1788 published his account of an imaginary journey through ancient Greece. From volume 8 of Jean-Jacques Barthélemy, Travels of Anacharsis the younger in Greece during the Middle of the Fourth Century before the Christian Aera. (London: J.Johnson, 1806)

Sample titles of modern novels depicting the classical past are shown in one case. Another case provides examples of the vast number of works produced by twentieth century scholars who relied upon texts, new archaeological evidence and the work of the scholars from previous centuries.

The exhibit was organized by Dr. Marylu Hill and Dr. Peter Busch from the Core Humanities Program together with Michael Foight, Special Collections cataloger and Bente Polites, Special Collections librarian. Lorraine Gallagher-Williams from Creative Design designed the signage.

The exhibit, on the second floor of Falvey, will be open until Thursday, December 15.

Contributed by Bente Polites, Special Collections librarian; photographs by Michael Foight and Linda Saboe

In her introduction to the exhibit, Dr. Marylu Hill, assistant director, Core Humanities Program, writes of the modern world’s interest with the past:

The passion for history is a relatively new phenomenon. Humans have always had an awareness of the past as past, but only since the Renaissance have they been concerned with how the past differs from the present. In the Middle Ages, past events like the Nativity were depicted as taking place in a landscape very much like the present, whereas the Renaissance was the first era to pay close attention to difference, progress, and historical influence. With the awareness of difference came the heightened concern for such things as historical accuracy, anachronism, and a sense of the historical imagination – the vision necessary to recreate from ruins and artifacts the past ‘as it was.’

This exhibit traces how the classical era was imagined and depicted by artists, historians, and other writers since the time of the Renaissance. Each era reveals much about its attitudes about and perceived relationship to the past. Illustrations and depictions of the various groups in late antiquity – Jews, Greco-Romans, and Christians – demonstrate how much attitudes towards the past change from era to era.