Undoing the Ancient

Pompeian artwork

Undoing the Ancient brings together scholars researching the classical tradition who are united by a concern with recovering modes of thought and practice that are excluded from standard accounts of the classicism. This group is interested in the intersection between the classical and the ugly, the pornographic, the comic, the forgotten, the crassly popular, and the marginalised. It proposes an alternate version of the classical tradition; one that it is not idealising and hagiographic, but nevertheless attests to the power of the classical to stimulate ideas and act as an instrument for cultural and intellectual change.


For more information, contact (Italian Studies)

Past Events

Ancient Historicity

Friday 10 October 2014
Woolley Common Room
The Woolley Building
The University of Sydney

A free workshop organized by the Power Institute, Putting Periodisation to Use and Undoing the Ancient.

Since Winckelmann (at least) scholars have tussled with historicizing the ancient. But how are we to account for, and make sense of, ancient cultures’ understanding of their own historicity – their own periodizations? Indeed, what is Historicity, and what are the stakes of historicizing cultures? The Ancient Historicity workshop will seek to address the questions, supported by a keynote talk exploring prehistoric Nubian and ancient Egyptian notions of Historicity by Whitney Davis, Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art, University of California at Berkeley, and Visiting Professor, University of York (UK).
Professor Davis’ talk will be followed by a roundtable with responses and reflections by Professor Ian McLean, Michael Turner and Professor Mark Ledbury. The workshop will conclude with a discussion session with participants. For the discussion session, participants will read and discuss a theoretical text that informs Davis’ work, and respond from their own expertise areas – including ancient art of classical civilizations and Aboriginal art in Australia.

Keynote talk: Professor Whitney Davis

Ancient Historicity: History in Petroglyphs at the Second Cataract of the Nile, 8000-2000 BCE

Whitney Davis is Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art, University of California at Berkeley, and Visiting Professor, University of York (UK). He is the author of seven books and nearly a hundred articles on aspects of prehistoric, ancient, and modern arts, the history and theory of art history and visual culture and the history and theory of sexuality. His most recent book, A General Theory of Visual Culture, won the monograph prize of the American Society for Aesthetics in 2012.

Roundtable: responses and reflections

Chair, Dr. John Gagné, University of Sydney

Professor Ian McLean (Professor of Art History, University of Wollongong)
Michael Turner (Senior Curator, Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney)
Professor Mark Ledbury (Power Professor of Art History and Visual Culture
Director of the Power Institute for Art & Visual Culture)

Discussion and questions

Reception: drinks and canapés for all attendees

Hirsch, Eric and Stewart, Charles. Ethnographies of Historicity, 16 (2005), 261-74.

Looking closely: interpreting Rembrandt's 'The abduction of Ganymede'

The Abduction of Ganymede, 1635

Special lecture by Dr Barbara Gaehtgens

Monday 24 February 2014
2pm Lecture
3pm Refreshments

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road
The Domain

The abduction of Ganymede 1635 - an early work by Rembrandt van Rijn - has puzzled many generations of Rembrandt scholars.

The painting illustrates the classical Greek myth of the abduction of Ganymede, most beautiful of male mortals, by an eagle-guised Zeus, who desires the beautiful youth as his cup bearer. The theme was not new in art and had been represented by many other artists, including Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. Rembrandt’s representation is unusual, however, in that Ganymede is not a beautiful, ephebic nude but a screaming, urinating toddler, dressed in a linen smock, who is squirming to free himself from the scarf in which the eagle is carrying him.

An independent art historian based in Los Angeles, Dr Barbara Gaehtgens made her mark in art history with her book titled Deutscher Kunstverlag (1987) about Adriaen van der Werff, a painter who is little known today but in his time was among the most famous Dutch artists in Europe. She has also written numerous book essays and articles on Dutch, German and French art, in addition to editing a book on genre painting and co-authoring a book on the 19th-century German painter Max Liebermann. Her special interest is the relation between art and politics, and her talk on Rembrandt’s Ganymede will demonstrate that this strange painting may have a political significance.

The Crone, The Witch, and The Library in Renaissance Italy

The Crone, The Witch, and The Library

Click to download (PDF 2.9 MB)

29 November 2013

Seminar presented by Dr Patricia Simons, Professor of the History of Art and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr Simons examines the ways in which renewed attention to antiquityduring the Renaissance reinvigorated misogynist stereotypes of old women, as well as bringing new evidence to the emerging discourse about witches, hence shaping for the hag a vivid pictorial presence. Proof for the threatening female figure was drawn from the humanist's library of classical authors, many cited in Giovanfrancesco Pico della Mrandola's Stryx (1523), which stated that witches were "ancient in essence and new is accidents." Dr Francesco Borghesis from the Department of Italian Studies at the Universityof Sydney will provide a response. This seminar has been organised by the Undoing the Ancient research group.

Undoing the Ancient Workshop Day

Friday 9 August 2013
University of Sydney

The morning will feature papers by Mario Casari, Chris Celenza, Nicole Hochner, and Miguel Vatter which will be devoted to discussing future directions in the study of humanism. The papers are designed to be short, punchy, risk-taking statements of future directions of research. The idea is to be more op-ed than academic. We want to capture that type of thinking that academic articles and monographs are bad at capturing.

The afternoon will be devoted to reading selections from Machiavelli’s Discourses (texts and translations attached).

Morning session: Does Humanism have a Future? Undoing the Canon
The morning session will consist of the following 4 short papers:

Chris Celenza (JHU/American Academy in Rome),
Renaissance Humanism and Intellectual History in Context

Nicole Hochner (Hebrew University of Jerusalem),
A Manifesto for a New Contextualism

Miguel Vatter (UNSW),
Was Machiavelli a Christian Republican? Byzantine Platonism and Jewish-Islamic Prophetology as Alternative Sources for Machiavelli’s Thinking on Religion

Mario Casari (University of Rome “Sapienza”),
‘Oriental’ Book-Hunting: the Humanistic Search for Arabic Texts

Afternoon session: Machiavelli's Discourses
IV - (Disunion of Plebs & Senate made Rome free & powerful)
XI-XIII (Religion)
XXVIII-XXX - (Gratitude and ingratitude)

V - (Changes extinguish the memory of things; Languages and memory)

XXIX - (Faults of People arise from Princes)
XLIII - (Men born in a province observe for all time the same customs)

From Greek hero to Islamic prophet: the long literary journey of Alexander the Great

From Greek hero to Islamic prophet

Click to download (PDF 262 kb)

Tuesday 15 October 2013
University of Sydney

The figure of Alexander the Great has traversed more than twenty centuries of literary history. Throughout this time, two distinct visions are dominant. On the one hand, he was a valiant hero, the just and wise king, a messiah; on the other hand, there was the ferocious warrior, the insatiable dominator, and challenger of divine power. This duality was explored by a multitude of authors across genres, from classical historiography to rabbinical traditions, from Christian apocalyptic literature to Islamic stories of the prophets and European courtly romances. It invited a constantly revised reflection on sovereignty: the qualities of a prince, the nature of universal rule, and the abuse of power.

But he was not just a ruler, Alexander was also the ‘king explorer’, whose power and political projects were based above all on a detailed cosmographical knowledge. While Alexander consistently represented a model for Roman and Byzantine emperors as well as for Arab caliphs and Persian princes, and later European kings and Turkish governors, Alexander narratives were filled with fragments of geographical, ethnographical, political, and technological knowledge, updated across the centuries and myriad languages, so that every Alexander romance could become the occasion for a cosmographical survey of the world.

This paper will follow these two main strands in reading Alexander’s astonishing success as a literary character, and, with a particular focus on the textual traditions that emerged in the Asian regions, will try to outline the role of Alexander literature as a symbolic conveyer of ancient wisdom and knowledge into the modern world.

Mario Casari studied Persian and Arabic languages in Italy and the
Middle East, and obtained his PhD in Iranian Studies at the ‘Istituto
Universitario Orientale’, Naples. He is Lecturer in Arabic Language and Literature and in Persian Language and Literature at the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies, ‘Sapienza’ University of Rome. His research deals with cultural relations between Europe and the Islamic world from late antiquity to the modern age. In 2011 he was awarded the Al-Farabi-UNESCO prize for his book Alessandro e Utopia nei romanzi persiani medievali (1999).

Machiavelli's Prince 500 Years On: Power, Secularism, and Instability


Professor Christopher Celenza, director of the American Academy in Rome
Tuesday 6 August 2013

Law School Foyer,
New Law School, Eastern Avenue,
The University of Sydney

Five hundred years ago in Florence, in early 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, under suspicion (falsely, most probably) of involvement in an anti-government conspiracy. He was released in the spring of that year and placed under house arrest, which he carried out at a family property south of Florence. During that time, he reflected on his own substantial experience as a traveling Florentine diplomat and, as importantly, on ancient Roman history. From that reflection emerged The Prince, the Italian Renaissance’s most famous book, which this lecture will showcase. Machiavelli wrote in a particular way: episodically, with short chapters that were suitable for conversations and letters, and indeed often had their origins in these less formal formats. In addition to bringing this aspect into relief, this lecture will focus on Machiavelli’s views on place of religion in politics, his considerations on the wielding of political power, both militarily and symbolically, and his haunting sense that instability and conflict were ever-present.

Professor Christopher S. Celenza holds the Charles Homer Haskins Professorship at Johns Hopkins University, with a dual appointment as Professor in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures and in the Department of Classical Studies. Celenza holds two doctoral degrees, a PhD in History (Duke University, 1995) and a DrPhil in Classics and Neo-Latin Literature (University of Hamburg, 2001), and is the author or editor of five books and over thirty scholarly articles in the fields of Italian Renaissance history, post-classical Latin literature and philosophy, and the history of classical scholarship. He was named the 21st Director of the American Academy in Rome in 2010 and will serve in that role until 2014.