Performativizing Papyrocentricity #66

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Pygmies and Secret PolicemenFootball Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper (1994)

Writhing Along in My AutomobileCrash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

A Boy and His BanditBeloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Sept-Ember

“The Palace of Pan”

by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


September, all glorious with gold, as a king
In the radiance of triumph attired,
Outlightening the summer, outsweetening the spring,
Broods wide on the woodlands with limitless wing,
A presence of all men desired.

Far eastward and westward the sun-coloured lands
Smile warm as the light on them smiles;
And statelier than temples upbuilded with hands,
Tall column by column, the sanctuary stands
Of the pine-forest’s infinite aisles.

Mute worship, too fervent for praise or for prayer,
Possesses the spirit with peace,
Fulfilled with the breath of the luminous air,
The fragrance, the silence, the shadows as fair
As the rays that recede or increase.

Ridged pillars that redden aloft and aloof,
With never a branch for a nest,
Sustain the sublime indivisible roof,
To the storm and the sun in his majesty proof,
And awful as waters at rest.

Man’s hand hath not measured the height of them; thought
May measure not, awe may not know;
In its shadow the woofs of the woodland are wrought;
As a bird is the sun in the toils of them caught,
And the flakes of it scattered as snow.

As the shreds of a plumage of gold on the ground
The sun-flakes by multitudes lie,
Shed loose as the petals of roses discrowned
On the floors of the forest engilt and embrowned
And reddened afar and anigh.

Dim centuries with darkling inscrutable hands
Have reared and secluded the shrine
For gods that we know not, and kindled as brands
On the altar the years that are dust, and their sands
Time’s glass has forgotten for sign.

A temple whose transepts are measured by miles,
Whose chancel has morning for priest,
Whose floor-work the foot of no spoiler defiles,
Whose musical silence no music beguiles,
No festivals limit its feast.

The noon’s ministration, the night’s and the dawn’s,
Conceals not, reveals not for man,
On the slopes of the herbless and blossomless lawns,
Some track of a nymph’s or some trail of a faun’s
To the place of the slumber of Pan.

Thought, kindled and quickened by worship and wonder
To rapture too sacred for fear
On the ways that unite or divide them in sunder,
Alone may discern if about them or under
Be token or trace of him here.

With passionate awe that is deeper than panic
The spirit subdued and unshaken
Takes heed of the godhead terrene and Titanic
Whose footfall is felt on the breach of volcanic
Sharp steeps that their fire has forsaken.

By a spell more serene than the dim necromantic
Dead charms of the past and the night,
Or the terror that lurked in the noon to make frantic
Where Etna takes shape from the limbs of gigantic
Dead gods disanointed of might,

The spirit made one with the spirit whose breath
Makes noon in the woodland sublime
Abides as entranced in a presence that saith
Things loftier than life and serener than death,
Triumphant and silent as time.

(Inscribed to my Mother) Pine Ridge: September 1893

Roses Are Golden

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is based on an apocryphal episode in the sybaritic life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (204-222 A.D.), who is said to have suffocated guests with flowers at one of his feasts. The painting is in a private collection, but I saw it for real in an Alma-Tadema exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool sometime during the late 1990s. I wasn’t disappointed: it was a memorable meeting with a painting I’d been interested in for years. Roses is impressively large and impressively skilful. Close-up, the brush-strokes are obvious, obtrusive and hard to interpret as people and objects. It isn’t till you step back, far beyond the distance at which Alma-Tadema was painting, that the almost photographic realism becomes apparent. But you get more of the many details at close range, like the Latin inscription on a bowl below and slightly to the right of that scowling water-mask. Alas, I forgot to take a note of what the inscription was, though perhaps the memory is still locked away somewhere in my subconscious.

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)

The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)

Whatever it is, I feel sure it is significant, because Roses is rich with meaning. That’s a large part of why I’m interested in it. Yes, I like it a lot as art, but the women would have to be more attractive for it to be higher in the list of my favourite paintings. As it is, I think there are only four reasonably good-looking people in it: the man with the beard on the right; the flautist striding past the marble pillar on the left; the red-headed girl with a crown of white flowers; and Heliogabalus himself, crowned in roses and clutching a handful of grapes beside the overweight man who’s wearing a wreath and sardonically saluting one of the rose-pelted guests in the foreground. When I first wrote about Roses in a pub-zine whose name escapes me, I misidentified the overweight man as Heliogabalus himself, even though I noted that he seemed many years old than Heliogabalus, toppled as a teen tyrant, should have been. It was a bad mistake, but one that, with less knowledge and more excuse, many people must make when they look at Roses, because the overweight man and his sardonic salute are a natural focus for the eye. Once your eye has settled on and noted him, you naturally follow the direction of his gaze down to the man in the foreground, who’s gazing right back.

A comparison between Alma-Tadema's portrayal of Heliogabalus and a bust of Heliogabalus from the Musei Capitolini in Rome

Something Like the Sun

And by following that gaze, you’ve performed a little ratio-ritual, just as Alma-Tadema intended you to do. Yes, Roses is full of meaning and much of that meaning is mathematical. I think the angle of the gaze is one of many references in Roses to the golden ratio, or φ (phi), a number that is supposed to have special aesthetic importance and has certainly been used by many artists and musicians to guide their work. A rectangle with sides in the proportions 8:13, for example, approximates the golden ratio pretty closely, but φ itself is impossible to represent physically, because it’s an irrational number with infinitely many decimal digits, like π or √2, the square root of two. π represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and √2 the ratio of a square’s diagonal to its side, but no earthly circle and no earthly square can ever capture these numbers with infinite precision. Similarly, no earthly rectangle can capture φ, but the rectangle of Roses is a good attempt, because it measures 52″ x 84 1/8". That extra eighth of an inch was my first clue to the painting’s mathematical meaningfulness. And sure enough, 52/84·125 = 416/673 = 0·61812…, which is a good approximation to φ’s never-ending 0·6180339887498948482045868343656…*
A circle with radii at 0 and 222 degrees
That deliberate choice of dimensions for the canvas led me to look for more instances of φ in the painting, though one of the most important and obvious might be called a meta-presence. The Roses of Heliogabalus is dated 1888, or 1666 years after the death of Heliogabalus in 222 AD. A radius at 222º divides a circle in the golden ratio, because 222/360 = 0·616… It’s very hard to believe Alma-Tadema didn’t intend this reference and I also think there’s something significant in 1888 itself, which equals 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 59 = 25 x 59. Recall that 416 is the expanded short side of Roses. This equals 25 x 13, while 673, the expanded long side, is the first prime number after 666. As one of the most technically skilled painters who ever lived, Alma-Tadema was certainly an exceptional implicit mathematician. But he clearly had explicit mathematical knowledge too and this painting is a phi-pie cooked by a master matho-chef. In short, when Roses is read, Roses turns out to be golden.


*φ is more usually represented as 1·6180339887498948482045868343656…, but it has the pecularity that 1/φ = φ-1, so the decimal digits don’t change and 0·6180339887498948482045868343656… is also legitimate.

Appendix I

I’ve looked at more of Alma-Tadema’s paintings to see if their dimensions approximate φ, √2, √3 or π, or their reciprocals. These were the results (ε = error, i.e. the difference between the constant and the ratio of the dimensions).

The Roman Wine Tasters (1861), 50" x 69 2/3": 150/209 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·02)
A Roman Scribe (1865), 21 1/2" x 15 1/2": 43/31 = 1·387… ≈ √2 (ε=0·027)
A Picture Gallery (1866), 16 1/8" x 23": 129/184 = 0·701… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·012)
A Roman Dance (1866), 16 1/8" x 22 1/8": 43/59 = 0·728… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·042)
In the Peristyle (1866), 23" x 16": 23/16 = 1·437… ≈ √2 (ε=0·023)
Proclaiming Emperor Claudius (1867), 18 1/2" x 26 1/3": 111/158 = 0·702… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·009)
Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon Athens (1868), 29 2/3" x 42 1/3": 89/127 = 0·7… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·012)
The Education of Children of Clovis (1868), 50" x 69 2/3": 150/209 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·02)
An Egyptian Juggler (1870), 31" x 19 1/4": 124/77 = 1·61… ≈ φ (ε=0·007)
A Roman Art Lover (1870), 29" x 40": 29/40 = 0·725… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·034)
Good Friends (1873), 4 1/2" x 7 1/4": 18/29 = 0·62… ≈ φ (ε=0·006)
Pleading (1876), 8 1/2" x 12 3/8": 68/99 = 0·686… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·041)
An Oleander (1882), 36 1/2" x 25 1/2": 73/51 = 1·431… ≈ √2 (ε=0·017)
Dolce Far Niente (1882), 9 1/4" x 6 1/2": 37/26 = 1·423… ≈ √2 (ε=0·008)
Anthony and Cleopatra (1884), 25 3/4" x 36 1/3": 309/436 = 0·708… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·003)
Rose of All Roses (1885), 15 1/4" x 9 1/4": 61/37 = 1·648… ≈ φ (ε=0·03)
The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), 52" x 84 1/8": 416/673 = 0·618… ≈ φ (ε<0.001)
The Kiss (1891), 18" x 24 3/4": 8/11 = 0·727… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·039)
Unconscious Rivals (1893), 17 3/4" x 24 3/4": 71/99 = 0·717… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·019)
A Coign of Vantage (1895), 25 1/4" x 17 1/2": 101/70 = 1·442… ≈ √2 (ε=0·028)
A Difference of Opinion (1896), 15" x 9": 5/3 = 1·666… ≈ φ (ε=0·048)
Whispering Noon (1896), 22" x 15 1/2": 44/31 = 1·419… ≈ √2 (ε=0·005)
Her Eyes Are With Her Thoughts And Her Thoughts Are Far Away (1897), 9" x 15": 3/5 = 0·6… ≈ φ (ε=0·048)
The Baths of Caracalla (1899), 60" x 37 1/2": 8/5 = 1·6… ≈ φ (ε=0·018)
The Year’s at the Spring, All’s Right with the World (1902), 13 1/2" x 9 1/2": 27/19 = 1·421… ≈ √2 (ε=0·006)
Ask Me No More (1906), 31 1/2" x 45 1/2": 9/13 = 0·692… ≈ 1/√2 (ε=0·03)

Appendix II

The Roses of Heliogabalus is based on this section from Aelius Lampridius’ pseudonymous and largely apocryphal Vita Heliogabali, or Life of Heliogabalus, in the Historia Augusta (late fourth century):

XXI. 1 Canes iecineribus anserum pavit. Habuit leones et leopardos exarmatos in deliciis, quos edoctos per mansuetarios subito ad secundam et tertiam mensam iubebat accumbere ignorantibus cunctis, quod exarmati essent, ad pavorem ridiculum excitandum. 2 Misit et uvas Apamenas in praesepia equis suis et psittacis atque fasianis leones pavit et alia animalia. 3 Exhibuit et sumina apruna per dies decem tricena cottidie cum suis vulvis, pisum cum aureis, lentem cum cerauniis, fabam cum electris, orizam cum albis exhibens. 4 Albas praeterea in vicem piperis piscibus et tuberibus conspersit. 5 Oppressit in tricliniis versatilibus parasitos suos violis et floribus, sic ut animam aliqui efflaverint, cum erepere ad summum non possent. 6 Condito piscinas et solia temperavit et rosato atque absentato…

Historia Augusta: Vita Heliogabali

XXI. 1 He fed his dogs on goose-livers. He had pet lions and leopards, which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers, and these he would suddenly order during the dessert and the after-dessert to get on the couches, thereby causing laughter and panic, for none knew that they were harmless. 2 He sent grapes from Apamea to his stables for the horses, and he fed parrots and pheasants to his lions and other beasts. 3 For ten days in a row, moreover, he served wild sows’ udders with the matrices, at a rate of thirty a day, serving, besides, peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls; 4 and he also sprinkled pearls on fish and used truffles instead of pepper. 5 In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. 6 He flavoured his swimming-pools and bath-tubs with essence of spices or of roses or wormwood…

Augustan History: Life of Heliogabalus