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‘How to read a Roman portrait”? Optatian, Constantine and the uultus imperii.' - Dr Michael Squire (KCL)

This seminar explores the theme of ‘reading Roman portraiture’ (in Sheldon Nodelman’s classic phrase). It does so, however, with a view to to one of antiquity's greatest – and most conspicuously overlooked – ‘picture-poets’: Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius (active in the first decades of the fourth century A.D., and writing Latin poems addressed to the emperor Constantine). After a brief introduction to Optatian and his oeuvre, the seminar will concentrate on just one particular case study: a gridded picture-poem (carmen cancellatum) that promises to craft within its verses the materialized face of Constantine (fingere… uultus Augusti), and in such a way as to outstrip antiquity’s most celebrated painter (uincere Apelleas audebit pagina ceras). In this gridded poem, the individual letters of Optatian’s words purport to visualize the countenance of the emperor: we come face-to-face with a portrait that lends itself to (literally!) literal ‘reading’. But how should we make sense of the schematic form of Optatian’s image? What does the poem reveal about contemporary notions of portraiture? And how should we make sense of Optatian’s abiding fascination with the respective limits of ‘seeing’ and ‘reading’?

Event details


Amory 308