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Egyptian(izing) Images of “Modest Venus” from Roman Syria: Orientalist Discourses and Sins of Omission

May 9, 2019 - 5:00pm to 7:00pm
Archaeology Center

Scholars have conventionally identified images of “modest Venus” based on three diagnostic criteria: [1] Graeco-Roman style (i.e., idealized naturalism), [2] either partial or full nudity, and [3] a one-handed vulva-covering gesture. Over the past 150 years, scholars have categorized hundreds of images that share these diagnostic criteria, and iteratively published the resulting corpus in catalogs.

This paper presents a group of images of "modest Venus" that have Egyptian(izing) iconography and were excavated in 19th-century Ottoman Syria. Since their first publication, archaeologists have consistently excluded them from the corpus of images of “modest Venus,” ostensibly because they are fully clothed. However, the analysis of verbal and visual scholarly discourses reveals that their exclusion is, in fact, an artifact of modern attitudes to the images’ “oriental” iconographies and proveniences. In actuality, visual analyses of the images demonstrate that they were engaged in a kind of visual cosmopolitanism, which would have been familiar to viewers in the ancient Roman world and of which the “modest Venus” was an essential part. Finally, this paper concludes by reflecting on how integrating case studies that scholars have considered marginal might improve large and complex interpretive models.

Dillon Gisch is a Ph.D. Candidate in Classical Archaeology at Stanford University. There, he is writing a dissertation on replication and difference in images of "modest Venus" from the Roman world. His primary research interests include visuality in the ancient Roman world and its discursive formations in the early modern and modern worlds. In the past, he has also studied how museums materialize memories in South Africa; excavated at the central Italic sites of Cosa and Poggio Civitate; and worked as a gallerist of early modern and modern American, European, and Japanese printed graphic art.

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