Wikipedia and The Continence of Scipio
Thinking about the Louvre this month has made me think about how many different kinds of knowing there are. I began this particular line of thought with a painting and a sketch, both from ca. 1720 and both entitled The Continence of Scipio, by Michele Rocca (ca. 1666-1750), the eighth artist whose works in The Louvre: All the Paintings I managed to look at during the first two weeks of October. I recognized the name of the painting, which I was sure I had come across previously in the book, although I didn’t remember where. This very patchy knowing is one of the kinds I’ve been thinking about: I knew enough to recognize the name, but nothing more.
I flipped to the book’s index of paintings and found only one other work with the same name, a painting by Giambattista Pittoni (1687-1767).Thus, since I’m working through the book in order, the Pittoni painting can’t be the source of my patchy knowing. Still, Pittoni’s painting is worth taking a look at, since it confirms the popularity of the subject in the early 18th century. According to the Louvre website, Pittoni painted the scene at least four times, with the first of these, the one in the Louvre’s collection, produced ca. 1733-37, which places it less than 20 years after Rocca’s. In addition, Pittoni’s Continence of Scipio is the subject of one of the Closer Look features on the Louvre website, at least in the French-language version. I talked about the Closer Look features in blog post 7, as part of my effort to locate the Madonna with a Rabbit (ca. 1525) by Titian (ca. 1488-1576), which like Pittoni’s Continence of Scipio is one of the paintings selected by Louvre curators for a Closer Look.
I had three other places I could look: my past blog entries, my private notes on all the paintings I’ve looked at so far, and the Louvre website. I quickly determined that, although the blog until now hasn’t mentioned a painting entitled The Continence of Scipio, the name does show up in my notes. One of the many, many paintings in the Louvre by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662), only a fraction of which show up in my Louvre book, perhaps because most of them are wall paintings rather than stand-alone works, is entitled The Continence of Scipio (1655-58). I wrote about Romanelli in blog entry 16, because I realized that I had been in some of the rooms decorated with his works and that I had even photographed a portion of one of them while taking photos of sculptures. Although I didn’t mention The Continence of Scipio in the blog post, my notes contained lists of Romanelli’s works I had pasted in from both the French- and English-language Louvre websites. The lists contained the painting’s name; I was satisfied that I had found the source of my memory.
I went to the website hoping to get a look at the Romanelli, but the photograph accompanying the painting was no help. It was identified as containing several works on scenes from Roman history, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like it might be The Continence of Scipio. I tried without success to find a better reproduction on the French-language website, but I did find one more Continence of Scipio, this one from ca. 1555 by Niccolo dell’Abate (1509-1571). In January I had looked at two paintings by dell’Abate, the two that appear in my Louvre book, but neither of them was The Continence of Scipio. I was, however, able to see a reproduction of dell’Abate’s painting on the French-language website; it presents an interesting contrast to the large group scenes by Pittoni and Rocca; it is, instead, a tightly framed view of six figures. I should add that Rocca himself doesn’t show up in the English-language version of the Louvre website; I located the reproductions I’m including here from the French-language version.
I made one more stop: Wikipedia. A search for The Continence of Scipio sent me to the entry on Scipio Africanus (236-183 B.C.), where I learned that Scipio, hero of the Second Punic War and conqueror of Carthago Nova (210 B.C.), was known for having returned an enemy’s captured fiancée to him. I wondered if the Scipio of the painting was also the Scipio whose name I remembered from the title of a fifth-century Latin text, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Just as with my search to find out if the Cyrus of Thomyris Immersing the Head of Cyrus in a Vase of Blood, which I encountered while looking at works by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), and which I wrote about in blog entry 19, was the same Cyrus whose name I knew from the Book of Esther, I discovered that the names matched but not the stories. Scipio Africanus is in The Dream of Scipio, but he is not the dreamer. Rather, he appears in a vision to his adopted grandson, also named Scipio, whom he takes on a journey through the heavens. I suspect that part of the charm for me of the painting’s name was from the first its likeness to this other name; thus, another way of knowing is to be reminded of something that had at one time been familiar.
The Wikipedia entry was interesting for two other thought associations. It mentioned that Chaucer referenced Macrobius’s dream theory in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, which was not only a link to my graduate studies but also to some new artwork I have in my kitchen, cartoons based on Chaucer’s fable of Chauntecleer. Even more unlikely a cross-referencing with my life was this Wikipedia tidbit: “Bernard Field, in the preface to his History of Science Fiction, cited Scipio’s vision of the Earth as seen from a great height as a forerunner of modern science fiction writers describing the experience of flying in orbit—particularly noting the similarity between Scipio’s realization that Rome is but a small part of the Earth with similar feeling by characters in Arthur C. Clarke’s works.” I was interested because Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is included in a science fiction course I’m co-teaching this year, but I’ve just spent half an hour failing to track the book down: a Google search suggests, though, that I’m not the only person impressed by the sentence. Just another way of knowing, I guess. See my blog entry 21 on my search for the missing left leg of Michelangelo’s Deposition to understand why I’m abandoning the search for Bernard Field and his History of Science Fiction, regretfully, because I would so love to have been able to tell my students about a link between Macrobius and Clarke.