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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Anecdotes of Artists
By Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.)
From the ‘Natural History’: Translation of John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley


A CIRCUMSTANCE that happened to him in connection with Protogenes is worthy of notice. The latter was living at Rhodes, when Apelles disembarked there, desirous of seeing the works of a man whom he had hitherto only known by reputation. Accordingly, he repaired at once to the studio; Protogenes was not at home, but there happened to be a large panel upon the easel ready for painting, with an old woman who was left in charge. To his inquiries she made answer that Protogenes was not at home; and then asked whom she should name as the visitor. “Here he is,” was the reply of Apelles; and seizing a brush, he traced with color upon the panel an outline of a singularly minute fineness. Upon his return the old woman mentioned to Protogenes what had happened. The artist, it is said, upon remarking the delicacy of the touch, instantly exclaimed that Apelles must have been the visitor, for that no other person was capable of executing anything so exquisitely perfect. So saying, he traced within the same outline a still finer outline, but with another color; and then took his departure, with instructions to the woman to show it to the stranger if he returned, and to let him know that this was the person whom he had come to see. It happened as he anticipated,—Apelles returned; and vexed at finding himself thus surpassed, he took up another color and split both of the outlines, leaving no possibility of anything finer being executed. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted that he was defeated, and at once flew to the harbor to look for his guest. He thought proper, too, to transmit the panel to posterity, just as it was; and it always continued to be held in the highest admiration by all,—artists in particular. I am told that it was burnt in the first fire which took place at Cæsar’s palace on the Palatine Hill; but in former times I have often stopped to admire it. Upon its vast surface it contained nothing whatever except the three outlines, so remarkably fine as to escape the sight: among the most elaborate works of numerous other artists it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of every one, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.  1
  It was a custom with Apelles, to which he most tenaciously adhered, never to let any day pass, however busy he might be, without exercising himself by tracing some outline or other; a practice which has now passed into a proverb. It was also a practice with him, when he had completed a work, to exhibit it to the view of the passers-by in some exposed place; while he himself, concealed behind the picture, would listen to the criticisms that were passed upon it: it being his opinion that the judgment of the public was preferable to his own, as being the more discerning of the two. It was under these circumstances, they say, that he was censured by a shoemaker for having represented the shoes with one shoe-string too little. The next day, the shoemaker, quite proud at seeing the former error corrected, thanks to his advice, began to criticize the leg; upon which Apelles, full of indignation, popped his head out, and reminded him that a shoemaker should give no opinion beyond the shoes,—a piece of advice which has equally passed into a proverbial saying. In fact, Apelles was a person of great amenity of manners,—a circumstance which rendered him particularly agreeable to Alexander the Great, who would often come to his studio. He had forbidden himself by public edict, as already stated, to be represented by any other artist. On one occasion, however, when the prince was in his studio, talking a great deal about painting without knowing anything about it, Apelles quietly begged that he would quit the subject, telling him that he would get laughed at by the boys who were there grinding the colors: so great was the influence which he rightfully possessed over a monarch who was otherwise of an irascible temperament. And yet, irascible as he was, Alexander conferred upon him a very signal mark of the high estimation in which he held him: for having, in his admiration of her extraordinary beauty, engaged Apelles to paint Pancaste undraped,—the most beloved of all his concubines,—the artist while so engaged fell in love with her; upon which, Alexander, perceiving this to be the case, made him a present of her: thus showing himself, though a great king in courage, a still greater one in self-command,—this action redounding no less to his honor than any of his victories.  2

SUPERIOR to all the statues not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Cnidian Venus; for the inspection of which, many persons before now have purposely undertaken a voyage to Cnidos. The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but on the grounds of propriety and modesty they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Cnidians purchased the rejected statue, and immensely superior has it always been held in general estimation. At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Cnidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Cnidos. The little temple in which it is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view,—an arrangement which was favored by the goddess herself, it is generally believed.

AMONG all nations which the fame of the Olympian Jupiter has reached, Phidias is looked upon, beyond all doubt, as the most famous of artists; but to let those who have never seen his works know how deservedly he is esteemed, we will take this opportunity of adducing a few slight proofs of the genius which he displayed. In doing this we shall not appeal to the beauty of his Olympian Jupiter, nor yet to the vast proportions of his Athenian Minerva, six-and-twenty cubits in height, and composed of ivory and gold: but it is to the shield of this last statue that we shall draw attention; upon the convex face of which he has chased a combat of the Amazons, while upon the concave side of it he has represented the battle between the gods and the giants. Upon the sandals, again, we see the wars of the Lapithæ and Centaurs; so careful has he been to fill every smallest portion of his work with some proof or other of his artistic skill. To the story chased upon the pedestal of the statue, the name of the ‘Birth of Pandora’ has been given; and the figures of new-born gods to be seen upon it are no less than twenty in number. The figure of Victory, in particular, is most admirable; and connoisseurs are greatly struck with the serpent and the sphinx in bronze lying beneath the point of the spear. Let thus much be said incidentally in reference to an artist who can never be sufficiently praised.

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