The ancient sculpture known as the Farnese Hercules, now in Naples.

While the title of this book accurately portrays its contents, the word kinaesthesia is one that few people have in their vocabulary. As this may dissuade some readers who would quite likely enjoy and benefit from Helen Slaney’s book, let me state at the outset this is a most intriguing book – one that devotes the first full study to the reception of the Classical world through an awareness of self movement. Kinaesthesia here is the essential sense of the embodied self, as inspired by Greek and Roman antiquity.

I take my title for this review from page 119, where she quotes the designer Thomas Hope, whose intention in his work “was that the formal properties of ancient art and design should ennoble even the most prosaic of objects.” Hope himself wrote in 1807 “The union of the different modifications of visible and intellectual beauty which were desirable, with the different attributes of utility and comfort which were essential” were the hallmarks of his design ethic. This ranged across the spectrum from furniture to tableware to apparel. Not everyone was impressed. The notoriously opinionated and acerbic periodical Edinburgh Review dismissed his published work as “exquisitely bombastic, pedantic and trashy,” and the actual items as nothing but “paltry and fantastical luxuries.”

While Slaney, a researcher at Roehampton University, offered contrary views about Hope, she is not always so forthcoming. Her first chapter focuses on one of the most notorious women of all time, Lady Hamilton (1765-1815), whose affair with Lord Nelson (of Battle of Trafalgar fame) still titillates after more than two centuries. Emma Lyon, as she was known at birth, had a lifespan that nearly covers the entire period under study by the author. After many years posing as a model for famous artists, Emma decided to “experiment with re-creating ancient artworks in a new medium” that became known as Attitudes. She began these private staged productions (accompanied by others including children), in 1786 and performed them throughout the 1790s. I say private because they were not given on a theatrical stage, but rather in intimate gatherings that often included famous people. One such was Goethe, who visited Naples in 1787. Dressed in a Greek costume, writes Goethe, “she lets down her hair, and, with a few shawls, gives so much variety to her poses, gesture, expressions, etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would liked to express realized before him in movements and surprising transformations.” It is the “movement” part that embodies the concept of kinaesthesia.

While Goethe and others Slaney mentions were enthralled, the feeling (another aspect of her book: the emotions brought to the fore by an encounter with antiquity) was not universal. Even though her very next chapter is about Johann Gottfried Herder, Slaney does not tell us that although he at first found Lady Hamilton’s Attitudes entrancing, he became repulsed by it all, cruelly dismissing her as “Hamilton’s whore”, cavorting about and mimicking antique tropes like an “ape.” Slaney could also have bolstered her case for the emotive impact of the Attitudes by telling us the artist Angelica Kauffman “sobbed loud enough to move stones.” Indeed, this is Slaney’s subtitle, but Kauffman is not even given an index entry! That aside, one must also emphasize that both men and women found watching Emma to be a truly charged experience. The painter and antiquarian Johann Reiffenstein (who is also absent from the book) “cried so tenderly, one could count the slow-falling antique tears.” Having read the book, I can say this would have been one of the most important quotes of all to use. Too bad it’s not here.

Sir William Hamilton was one of the most assiduous collectors of ancient Greek vases, some of which Emma actually used in her Attitudes. She “garbed herself in clothing specially made for purpose, intended as a direct replication of the images on Sir William’s Greek vases.” Slaney explains that Emma had “a highly developed sense of kinaesthetic awareness,” and she succinctly describes the Attitudes as having “an element of infinitely recursive fantasy: dreams fabricated in the image of images.” This leads quite nicely into the exploration of another fantasy, this one by Herder, who wrote about the sensuality of classical sculpture in 1778. In a discussion of the famous sculpture the Farnese Hercules, Herder states the visitor “is enraptured by the body that it touches, travels with it through heaven and hell and to the ends of the earth.” Of course, he did not mean literally touch. As Slaney brilliantly describes, even if a sculpture “is not touched, it could be, and into this chasm between actual and potential surges the suspended energy of a curling wave.” In the case of Hercules, she writes, “the physique of Hercules draws the visitor through the Labours and up to the very threshold of Olympus.” One gets giddy just thinking about it! Imagine what it meant to those of the late eighteenth century who were so wrapped up in sensibilities. “Beholding sculpture in such as way as to cultivate haptic responses takes effort and practice,” she tells us.

In another chapter, Slaney touches on this from a different angle when she writes “Knowledge acquires its architecture through the encounter of the moving body with landscapes, ruins, monuments, artefacts, affective stimuli and other bodies.” Evoking Lady Hamilton once more, she states that Emma’s dances have kinaesthesia as their fulcrum. “Vases, by their scale, design and function, readily afford handling but sculpture does not. While it appeals to the sense that Herder defines as that of touch, touch itself is not involved in the transactions he envisages.” No one gazing at a famed sculpture in a museum such as the Farnese Hercules, actually walks up to it with a caressing hand! Rather, the “sensitized beholder of three-dimensional art” – the one who has put in the effort of practice – “becomes conversant” with the sculpture. “Like Emma’s vibrant tableaux, it occurs in stillness.” As Herder writes of this extraordinary level of interaction with a sculptural figure, “He seems to be frozen in place, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

In 1785 Charles Dupaty went one step further, imaging what it would be like to actually witness the Greek sculptor Polidore create the Belvedere Apollo from a block of marble. “Every stroke detaches part of the veil that hides Apollo from him. The noblest and most harmonious body, between virility and adolescence, stands confessed before him.” As he sculpts the divine head “Behold! A look starts from Apollo. He lightly touches the lips at last, and indignation breathes against the serpent.” If one discerns a streak of homosexual desire in all this, one would not be mistaken. Slaney actually describes the tool Polidore is said to use in this fantasy by Dupaty as a “phallic chisel.”

All this was on the (often fevered) mind of many Europeans who made the trek to Italy and Greece to see for themselves. And for those who could never go there in person, there were novels to speed their journey. One such was Corinne, written by Germaine de Stael in 1807. In the novel, the character Corinne refers to her tour of Rome as consisting of “researchers both scholarly and poetical, which appeal to the imagination as well as to the mind.” Slaney explains that “exercising the imagination on ruins is a form of performance” built on a form of self-hypnosis. To make this manifest, Corinne visits the workshop of a sculptor by torchlight, “which demonstrates first-hand how marble figures seem to move, how their contours recede and re-emerge from the flickering shadows.”

Weaving back to the practice and skill required to appreciate all this, Slaney’s study of Corinne shows the early nineteenth-century reader that “exercising the imagination takes effort and practice. Imagination is what enables the visitor to delve into the past, not merely skim the surfaces. Shaping, grasping, and holding this slippery phantasm in place long enough to subject it to contemplative reflection” is the reward for that practice.

I suspect that such effort, so prevalent more than 200 years ago, is one that modern audiences can scarcely imagine having the time or the intellectual effort to master. Indeed, standards have fallen, but in this important book Slaney gives us a glimpse of what few of us even know we have lost. For that alone, this book is an essential purchase for anyone who cares about the Classical past.


Kinaesthesia and Classical Antiquity 1750-1820: Moved by Stone is UK61.20 pounds by Bloomsbury

The ancient sculpture known as the Farnese Hercules, now in Naples.