Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Images as Sources

Researching the WIP takes more than reading; it takes a lot of *looking* as well.

Queen Amalsuntha of the Ostrogoths

One of the things this image did for me in stepping beyond Clovis and Gaul, into the lives of his sister, niece, and grand-niece, was to free me from the irksome presumption that the stars of contemporary histfic all have to be beauties by contemporary standards.  What it did *not* do for me was to indicate that the great eyes here were a symptom of, perhaps, Graves Disease, or provide an exact replica of (for one) Amalasuntha’s actual appearance.

Empress Theodora
Image:  Wikimedia

If you take a look at the bust of (most likely) Empress Theodora, she has a similarly wide-eyed look.  It’s not much of a cup of tea for all modern viewers, but the repetition of a feature like this in art is likely less an indication that everyone in a given period of history suffered from thyroid issues than that this was a standard style in depictions of the period.

There may be a degree to which you can let such a portrait inform your description of a character, but there may also be a good deal of freedom from such a source as this, the latitude in which you (or I) can create a character who is of constrained beauty, but perhaps not outright ill a la Marty Feldman.  Or perhaps she is.


The coin image is perhaps the most curious one, to my eye, because its exaggerated proportions – typical enough, for the tiny and inexact medium – call to mind a very old woman indeed.  The wizened-appearing flesh between bulbuous features, though, is deceiving:  Amalasuntha died at the age of only forty.  Though this was certainly old enough, in Late Antiquity, to put her well beyond the youthful blush of a beautiful princess, it seems unlikely that as queen she necessarily took on the appearance of extreme age.

It’s possible this again was an artistic convention – portraying the queen as aged in order to invoke veneration; downplaying her physical appeal (or delicacy) in order to emphasize her power, position, or charisma as opposed to her charms.

It’s possible, too, that the convention was propagandistic in another way – Amalasuntha was highly unpopular with her own Ostrogothic nobles, and the image could have been minted in caricature, an unspoken insult, by those who must serve her, but had control of the mints.

It’s also possible the limited medium of a coin disallowed realism, beauty, or any of the above theories with highly subjective messages (though we all know, do we not, that the craftsmanship and arts of the time were exquisitely beautiful, and we don’t buy into the whole “people of the past were a lumpen lot of mouth-breathing dullards without skills”, right?).  It’s possible we just had an unskilled craftsman on the job the day they minted coins in the name of the regnant queen, daughter of Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths.  Possible.  But, given Amalasuntha’s own Roman education, the cosmopolitan nature of the world she lived in, the wealth at her disposal and the importance, at this time, of any public statement – particularly one literally showing the face of the monarch, a woman already fighting against prejudices from all sides –

… I’m going to venture to guess there’s something subjective here – whatever that may be.

Image:  Wikimedia

One of the other things images of a historical character (or images of other people from a period) can do is to illuminate the style of a period not only in terms of its clothes and headdress and personal decoration, but what was most important societally in the setting.  When I was much younger, I could look at medieval art and see very little detail, and be fine with that.

Now we have not only costume blogs and papers, and those who study and write about not only surviving artifacts, grave goods, and descriptions, but the two- and three-dimensional art of a period, and who write about the minutest of details, who bring to life the way we dressed, the way we carved beads, the way we dressed our hair.  These things are invaluable to understanding the physical manner of life as it was once lived.

Theodora's 'do
Image:  Wikimedia

Susann Cokal, an authoress of my acquaintance, has talked about wearing a corset and eating period food in her research for Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and many authors and actors make this sort of physical preparation a part of creating a character.

I cannot say I care to do this with, say, garum.  Dedication is one thing, but I see little need to make the research for my novel into a late-period episode of survivor, eating stuff that grosses me out, for the dubious pleasure of being able to minutely describe exactly what rotted-fish-sauce actually tastes like.  I leave the satisfaction of such knowledge (which, let's face it, may be about as “authentic” as the paleo diet) to those who post recipes for garum or what-have-you.

And yet, the level of insight and detail we can find in truly analyzing artifacts and images which appear to the casual observer to have little detail is in fact astonishing.  To those who make a profession of studying ancient hair dressing methods, or indeed cooking – to the costume bloggers who can take a centuries-old portrait practically down to its skivvies by detecting construction methods from imperfect drawings or even unfinished works, I and all authors working in the world of information access owe an indelible debt of gratitude.

It is possible to flesh out the textile or cosmetology of the world we must build, as authors, to a remarkable degree.  Indeed, for all I joke about archaeologists and poop, the mere matter of breakfast does not elude our grasp.  In a scientific age which can pinpoint Otzi’s social status and particular stomping grounds from the last meal in his stomach, scatalogical studies are positive boon.  I can tell you that King Clovis likely ate a great deal of seafood and possibly enjoyed beef (a very high status source of protein, the latter), but probably did not indulge much in pork, which tended to be an inland livestock, more to be found in forests than in the Salic grounds of Belgica Secunda, where the king grew up.

I know, too, that Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, was in a part of Italy rich in marshes – and it’s possible, from there, to get a feel for the air (I grew up in swamp land), to evoke some idea of the way the marsh grasses might have sounded – to extrapolate from the geography, some of the diet and trade and people of this city.

I can look – truly look – at the relief sculpture above, and study others’ scholarship of course (that debt of gratitude) and consider how important pearls were in the makeup of both costume and toilette – and perhaps even the symbolism of each garment, each jewel.  I can also tell the difference between a chiton and dalmatic, and describe characters’ dress appropriately, from the Roman world to the Ostrogoths – and even create tension in the “other-ness” we can demonstrate in display.

Amalasuntha seems to have used her son’s upbringing to send messages about status and her royal expectations (and prerogatives) – and I can even deduce she may have worn red shoes.  I can make a point of her shoes, in much the same way I once made a point about a character by the way she brushed her hair – or another, in the way he loses touch with the day-to-day and loses touch with the way he sleeps, dresses, and ablutes, over the course of a story.

I can build a world one stitch at a time.  I can cover my characters in a thousand stitches … and draw from them each of their stories.

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