Visual Trope and the Portland Vase Frieze: A New Reading and Exegesis

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Among the extant masterworks of Roman art, there is probably none that has generated more scholarly debate than the Portland Vase over the interpretation of its elegant frieze. No fewer than forty-four different theories attempting to interpret the scenes on the vase have appeared in the last 400 years. In the main, the theories fall into two categories, those relating the frieze to Greek myth, and those linking the figures to Roman personages. Moreover, there is no consensus whether the frieze is two separate scenes or one continuous story. The obstacle to interpreting the frieze is that all but one of the figures lack identifying attributes. This paper will demonstrate (1) that in lieu of standard iconography, a synthesis of visual and literary tropes in the form of hidden letters, that is, cryptograms, tells the viewer how to read the frieze; (2) that scene A of the frieze illustrates specifically lines 26-30 of Catullus 64 by visually rendering the epithets and tropes used in those lines; (3) that visual reproductions of other tropes in Catullus 64 further substantiate the relationship between frieze and poem; (4) that scene B of the frieze is an intentional aberration from the poem; (5) that there is a complex and unfinished interaction between scenes A and B which the viewer must complete; and (6) that in the final analysis, the frieze duplicates both the theme and central structure of Catullus 64.10

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Randall L. Skalsky
Florida State University


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