‘RECYCLING SENECA’ – Tullia Giersberg

RESPONSE #5 Tullia Giersberg

After January’s crisis, I’ve finally given in and dug a little deeper into the documented history of my object. It now turns out that there is in fact a lot more to know about The Death of Seneca than I initially thought: another visit to the UCL Art Museum has revealed that it exists within and forms part of an extensive network of artworks and ideas which have migrated across different material media and artistic techniques, including marble statuary, drawing, oil painting, engraving, and drawing again. In his discussion of ‘recycling’ practices in early modern science during our most recent meeting – and the circulation of material kinds of knowledge associated with this – Simon Werrett talked about the ‘afterlives of used things’ in seventeenth-century instrumental culture: how did things break? How and why were they repaired and repurposed? Did this impact the circulation of knowledge in a period when scientific knowledge became embodied in material artefacts or what Simon calls ‘active relics’? The Death of Seneca, it appears, encodes a particular material and artistic afterlife of its own, which speaks to the question of the circulation of materials and objects.

Tullia Giersberg Old_Fisherman_Louvre_Ma1354_n2

The Grote Collection of artworks housed at the UCL Art Museum includes two versions of The Death of Seneca: my drawing, and Cornelis Gallee’s engraving of the same scene (item no. 1130 in the UCL Catalogue). According to the collection catalogue, my red chalk drawing represents a copy of this engraving, which, in turn, had been commissioned by Peter Paul Rubens after an oil painting he had created in or about 1614. It now turns out that Rubens himself based his depiction of the death of Seneca on a series of drawings created during his sojourn in Rome, which ended in 1608. These drawings are of a black marble statue, now known as The Black Fisherman, which had been discovered in 1594 on Mount Esquiline, and which had erroneously been identified as a statue of the dying Seneca. This beautifully crafted figure – itself a second-century Roman copy of a Hellenistic original – Rubens appears to have seen in the gardens of the Villa Borghese, where it was on display.* My seventeenth-century red chalk drawing, which I now believe to be a drawing exercise (the practice of copying the masters to this effect was endemic in the period), thus closes a circle of artistic recycling practices not unlike the ones Simon Werrett has identified for seventeenth-century science. I haven’t found out what prompted the identification of the marble statute as a depiction of Seneca. But what seems clear from the motif’s extraordinary journey across the centuries, and across different material media, is that repurposing played a huge role in its several afterlives – the process continues to this day as the drawing features on the museum’s teaching bundle on human anatomy. Art has become an instrument of pedagogy once more.

Wonderful though it feels to discover something new about my object, it strikes me as slightly disconcerting that I’ve discovered this by the kind of research I’ve wanted to resist and which I feel has led me away from the actual object and towards a series of others instead. I now feel myself responding to the existing knowledge about the many deaths of Seneca, not to my particular version of it. How does this reflect upon the viability of object-led research as a means of generating knew knowledge about things? Is it enough to engage with the object on its own terms, or will we always and necessarily return to traditional research practices? To attend to the object as an autonomous entity is to remind ourselves that knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it is embodied in artworks, in books, on hard drives, servers, and brains; to situate it within a critical, scholarly narrative is to generate context, and to contribute to its circulation. One prompts us to ask ‘what’ and possibly ‘how’; the other prompts us to ask ‘why’. Perhaps the response to my object shouldn’t involve a decision circumscribed by ‘either/or’ at all.


* James Ker, The Deaths of Seneca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 299.


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