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OBESITY, CORPULENCE AND EMACIATION IN ROMAN ART1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2011

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Abstract

This article explores the significance of sculptural and painted representations of ‘overweight’ and ‘underweight’ body types in the visual culture of Roman Italy from the fourth century bc through to the late Empire, and considers the relationship of this imagery to Greek and Hellenistic precedents. In spite of the topical character of fat in 21st-century sociology, anthropology and medical science, obesity and emaciation in the ancient world remain almost completely unexplored. This article sets out to examine the relationship of fat and thin bodies to power, wealth, character and behaviour, and seeks to identify patterns and continuities in the iconography of fleshiness and slenderness across a stretch of several hundred years. Such bodies could be evaluated in a number of different ways, and this article exposes the diverse — and sometimes contradictory — responses to body fat in the art and culture of the Roman world. It first examines the significance of obesity and emaciation in language, literature and medicine, and then discusses visual representations under three headings: ‘Fertility’; ‘The marginal and the ridiculous’, examining the relationship between body fat, humour and figures at the edge of civilized society; and ‘Portraits’, exploring fat and thin in the portraiture of real-life individuals in the realms of philosophy, Hellenistic rulership, Etruscan funerary art and Roman public sculpture.

L'articolo esplora il significato delle rappresentazioni scultoree e pittoriche dei tipi di corpi ‘sovrappeso’ e ‘sottopeso’ nella cultura figurative dell'Italia romana dal IV secolo a.C. fino al Tardo Impero e considera la relazione di questo immaginario con i precedenti greci ed ellenistici. A differenza del carattere topico del grasso nella sociologia, antropologia e scienza medica del XXI secolo, l'obesità e la magrezza nel mondo antico rimangono argomenti quasi del tutto inesplorati. L'articolo si propone di esaminare il rapporto del corpo grasso e magro con il potere, la ricchezza, il carattere e il comportamento, e cerca di identificare i modelli e le continuità nell'iconografia della grassezza e della magrezza attraverso un arco cronologico di vari centinaia di anni. Simili corpi potrebbero essere valutati attraverso varie strade e questo articolo espone le diverse — e a volte contradditorie — risposte al corpo grasso nell'arte e nella cultura del mondo romano. Prima si esamina il significato dell'obesità e magrezza nel linguaggio, letteratura e medicina, e poi si discuta le rappresentazioni visuali sotto tre aspetti: ‘la fertilità’; ‘il marginale e il ridicolo’, esaminando la relazione tra il corpo grasso, l'umore e le figure al margine della società civilizzata; e ‘i ritratti’, esplorando grasso e magro nella ritrattistica degli individui della vita reale nel mondo della filosofia, del dominio ellenistico, dell'arte funeraria etrusca e nella scultura pubblica romana.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British School at Rome 2011

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Footnotes

1

This article represents one small part of a long-term project on foul bodies in the history, literature and art of ancient Rome. I owe a large debt of thanks to many individuals for suggesting approaches to this topic, identifying appropriate material and shaping my arguments: Michael Beer, Carl Buckland, John Clarke, Robert Coates-Stephens, Penelope Davies, Jill Dye, Robert Garland, David Haslam, Katharina Lorenz, Tracey Reeves, Alan Sommerstein, Nigel Spivey, Michael Squire, Peter Stewart, Lisa Trentin and Caroline Vout; the Editor and two anonymous readers of Papers of the British School at Rome; audiences at Cambridge and Nottingham; as well as all the perceptive comments on my photo album from my Facebook friends. I am also grateful to the British Academy and the British School at Rome for providing the funds and resources with which to pursue this research. All translations are my own, and all abbreviations follow those listed in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (third edition).

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OBESITY, CORPULENCE AND EMACIATION IN ROMAN ART1
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