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Portraits Of Authors
by [?]

With the ancients, it was undoubtedly a custom to place the portraits of authors before their works. Martial’s 186th epigram of his fourteenth book is a mere play on words, concerning a little volume containing the works of Virgil, and which had his portrait prefixed to it. The volume and the characters must have been very diminutive.

Quam brevis immensum cepit membrana Maronem!
Ipsius Vultus prima tabella gerit.

Martial is not the only writer who takes notice of the ancients prefixing portraits to the works of authors. Seneca, in his ninth chapter on the Tranquillity of the Soul, complains of many of the luxurious great, who, like so many of our own collectors, possessed libraries as they did their estates and equipages. “It is melancholy to observe how the portraits of men of genius, and the works of their divine intelligence, are used only as the luxury and the ornaments of walls.”

Pliny has nearly the same observation, lib. xxxv. cap. 2. He remarks, that the custom was rather modern in his time; and attributes to Asinius Pollio the honour of having introduced it into Rome. “In consecrating a library with the portraits of our illustrious authors, he has formed, if I may so express myself, a republic of the intellectual powers of men.” To the richness of book-treasures, Asinius Pollio had associated a new source of pleasure, by placing the statues of their authors amidst them, inspiring the minds of the spectators, even by their eyes.

A taste for collecting portraits, or busts, was warmly pursued in the happier periods of Rome; for the celebrated Atticus, in a work he published of illustrious Romans, made it more delightful, by ornamenting it with the portraits of those great men; and the learned Varro, in his biography of Seven Hundred celebrated Men, by giving the world their true features and their physiognomy in some manner, aliquo modo imaginibus is Pliny’s expression, showed that even their persons should not entirely be annihilated; they indeed, adds Pliny, form a spectacle which the gods themselves might contemplate; for if the gods sent those heroes to the earth, it is Varro who secured their immortality, and has so multiplied and distributed them in all places, that we may carry them about us, place them wherever we choose, and fix our eyes on them with perpetual admiration. A spectacle that every day becomes more varied and interesting, as new heroes appear, and as works of this kind are spread abroad.

But as printing was unknown, to the ancients (though stamping an impression was daily practised, and, in fact, they possessed the art of printing without being aware of it[1]), how were these portraits of Varro so easily propagated? If copied with a pen, their correctness was in some danger, and their diffusion must have been very confined and slow; perhaps they were outlines. This passage of Pliny excites curiosity difficult to satisfy; I have in vain inquired of several scholars, particularly of the late Grecian, Dr. Burney.

A collection of the portraits of illustrious characters affords not only a source of entertainment and curiosity, but displays the different modes or habits of the time; and in settling our floating ideas upon the true features of famous persons, they also fix the chronological particulars of their birth, age, death, sometimes with short characters of them, besides the names of painter and engraver. It is thus a single print, by the hand of a skilful artist, may become a varied banquet. To this Granger adds, that in a collection of engraved portraits, the contents of many galleries are reduced into the narrow compass of a few volumes; and the portraits of eminent persons, who distinguished themselves through a long succession of ages, may be turned over in a few hours.

“Another advantage,” Granger continues, “attending such an assemblage is, that the methodical arrangement has a surprising effect upon the memory. We see the celebrated contemporaries of every age almost at one view; and the mind is insensibly led to the history of that period. I may add to these, an important circumstance, which is, the power that such a collection will have in awakening genius. A skilful preceptor will presently perceive the true bent of the temper of his pupil, by his being struck with a Blake or a Boyle, a Hyde or a Milton.”