All posts by Stella Bottai

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)


This book offers a straightforward definition of Symbolism as the starting point for investigating a complex and imprecisely understood art movement. Following a clear and easy-to-handle structure, the book opens immediately with an attempt to give a simple and comprehensive description of what Symbolism is: “a Symbolist work of art is characterized by 1) an artist’s desire to represent ideas and 2) a manipulation of color, form, and composition that signals the artist’s relative indifference to worldly appearances”. Facos does not take any term for granted. On the contrary, she defines and explores anew seemingly well-established concepts like evocativeness, dream, genius, spirituality, hedonism, occultism, Idealism and Decadentism, just to mention some of the most important.

Sometimes the reading suffers from Facos’ schematic approach, but that is the only way to master such a wide field of research material. Symbolism is possibly the only ‘modern’ movement that, even with a founder and a manifesto (Jean Moréas in 1886 published the Symbolist manifesto in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro), did not create a well-defined, recognisable group of artists. Symbolism’s borders are so underdefined (do they exist at all?) that they could include an enormous amount of 19th– and 20th-century artists.

The book follows a chronological line of analysis, from a survey of the precursors of Symbolism to Symbolist currents in the 20th century. The history of the movement is revealed through a manifold collection of relevant facts, artists, literary works, music, philosophical reflections, technological innovations, in a constant dialogue with equally diverse cultural and social aspects, i.e. the actual contexts within which Symbolism developed. These aspects act like mirrors, each rendering a part of this multifaceted movement. Facos’ approach to Symbolism includes also modern categories of analysis, such as gender studies (she investigates the role of woman in Symbolist art, as a muse, a sphinx, an angel or a demon), as well as practical aspects, like the chapter devoted to the promotion of the artists through art fairs, journals, exhibitions, unions and brotherhoods. In other words, Facos provides an attempt to describe the history of the movement from the perspective of the artists too. I include below the cover of the book. It is a photograph, not a painting: Hypnos, by F. Holland Day, dated 1896. It reveals the author’s choice to explore Symbolism by means of an unconventional path.

As my scholarly interests are in mural painting and the revival of earlier techniques, I would have liked more space to be given to art mediums, for their symbolic and ideological meanings. Among the commendable qualities of the book, I wish to emphasise the broad geography of Symbolist art, which includes artists from less commonly studied countries such as Poland, the former Czech Republic, Scotland, Russia, and especially the Scandinavian countries. The bibliography is also quite extensive and genuinely international. In addition to the Italian authors quoted by Facos, I would like to remember the studies on Symbolist art by Luigi Carluccio, Maria Mimita Lamberti, Gianna Piantoni and Maria Teresa Benedetti. With her new book, Michelle Facos confirms herself one of the main scholars in 19th-century art, and among those who brought new life into the art history of Northern Europe, on a par with Patricia G. Berman for Norway and Denmark, and with Salma Sarajas-Korte, Marjatta Levanto and Riikka Stewen for Finland.

Facos Symbolist Art Cover


Felice Vinci, Omero nel Baltico. Le origini nordiche dell’Odissea e dell’Iliade (5th edition; Rome: Palombi Editori, 2009)

The book tells, and documents, the author’s journey following his original intuition: can the geography described by Homer in his epics be related not to the Mediterranean coasts and towns, but to the Scandinavian ones? Vinci pursued such an ‘experiment’: he tried to fit Homer’s places into the Scandinavian context. And according to Vinci’s studies, partially supported by further studies by Nilsson and Tilak, the protagonists of the Iliad and the Odyssey could have actually lived and performed their heroic deeds on the coasts of the Baltic Sea. One of the starting and strongest points of Vinci’s research is already suggested in the ancient historical sources: Plutarch stated that Ogygia island, where Calypso kept Ulysses for several years, was in the Northern Atlantic, five days of navigation away from Britannia. Then, the evidences mingle with an unstoppable sequence of facts and hypotheses, reasonings and dreams. For example, why is it said that the island of Faro, in front of Egyptian Alexandria, took one day of navigation from Egypt?

As Vinci bears witness to with his studies, the names of Homeric places still overlap with the names of Northern villages and cities. The same applies to the distance between towns, the description of the warriors’ garments and habits, as further substantiated by well-documented archaeological and historical studies that match Vinci’s peculiar theory. Furthermore, there is an answer to the issue of the climate described in Homer’s poems: the Baltic Sea was warmer at that time, just before the end of the ‘climatic optimum’ that forced Nordic populations to move to warmer places, i.e. to the Mediterranean area.

As the cooling of the climate is concerned, I must confess that I felt myself shivering: what an intellectual vertigo does induce Vinci’s notion, whereby Europe’s classical culture shifts suddenly northward. Torn between my Mediterranean birth and my sympathy for Nordic countries, having visited Greece and the ‘epic’ places of Achilles and Telemachus, I still find it difficult to accept the idea that Ithaca may be one of the Danish islands, Troy to be in the Gulf of Finland, Crete in Pomerania, and Mycenae, perhaps, the ancestral cradle of today’s Copenhagen. Not to mention Ulysses–thus interpreting Tacitus’ definition–being a forerunner of the Vikings, maybe even the Ull recalled in the Edda.

Yet, as the classical scholar Rosa Calzecchi Onesti states in the foreword to Vinci’s book, none of the great previous researches on Homer’s geography is in doubt, because Vinci argues that such Northern populations recreated a second ‘Baltic’ along the Greek coasts and islands. As historical novelist Franco Cuomo writes in the preface, Vinci’s book must be “read like the memory of a population who, moving elsewhere, brings along its own myths” (p. 9) . Vinci’s book evokes Homer’s epics as a primordial portrait of a ‘greekness’ that we have learned to know and imagine through classical texts, visual arts, movies, travels, etc. We know that history is crowded of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and Vinci’s theory shall be seriously considered as a new approach to Homeric and classical studies.

The book suffers from the poor quality of the pictures contained therein. Also, I cannot comment on the conclusiveness of Vinci’s revolutionary thesis. Still, I can appreciate its originality, the personal approach of Vinci when he recalls his journeys throughout Scandinavia, the careful descriptions of the landscapes he visited and their comparison with well-known Homeric places, and the wealth of historical sources cited to support his stance.

Vinci copertina Palombi