Pliny -- the elder and the younger
It has been a good and bad week for the family Pliny. The "elder" was that unsufferable polymath who wrote the multi-volume Natural History and was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 (a combination of curiosity about the eruption and a rescue mission for some stranded friends). The "younger" was his nephew, the eye-witness of the eruption. It is his letters to Tacitus about the event that give us our best account of it -- even though, they were written almost 30 years later (Angelica Kauffman's reinvention of the scene preceding the eruption, with young Pliny and his mother, is at the top of this post).
As for Pliny himself, he would no doubt be disappointed to find himself best remembered for witnessing a natural disaster. The highspots of his career must have been his consulship in AD 100, plus his special imperial commission in Bithynia. He seems to have allowed the letters he exchanged with the emperor during that commission into the public domain -- and a crawling collection they are, with Trajan scarcely able to contain his irritation at Pliny constantly bothering him with trivia (one of the bits of trivia being the inconvenient Christians in his province).
Anyway both "elder" and "younger" got an outing on Radio 4 this week.
David Cannadine, in his Point of View, talked about the eruption of Vesuvius, in the context of the eruption of the unpronouncable (and unspellable) Icelandic volcano. And the "younger" was given his 30 seconds of fame.
But on Thursday In Our Time has discussed Vasari's Lives of the Artists and the question of how far the example of the "elder" lay behind them (for the Natural History spent some time discussing ancient artists -- albeit in the context of the different natural materials -- bronze, marble etc -- on which those artists worked).
Now, far be it from me to point any finger at those whose slip up on live radio (bloody easily done, and there but for the grace of god etc etc ). But it was a bit disappointing that the learned art historical panellists were rather at a loss on the question of who, or rather when, the "elder" was.
In fact, confronted with the question of elder Pliny's dates, they treated it as all a bit of an aporetic joke until David Ekserdjian rescued them by remembering the eruption of Vesuvius. "We're Renaissance specialists" said one -- as if that meant it was OK not to know when Pliny the Elder was walking the planet.
Quite the reverse I muttered to myself. After all what was the Renaissance a "rebirth" of, if not of Classical Antiquity. If Renaissance specialists don't think that they have to know their Classics, how on earth do they think they can understand what the Renaissance was all about?