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Fantasising Phryne: The psychology and ethics of ekphrasis*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2012

Helen Morales
University of California, Santa Barbara


      ‘It's such a pity that we don't have
      Anything like a photograph
      Of her about whom the ancients rave …’
      Fragments, copies, our museums still hold
      Of statues she modelled, or so we're told

(from Phryne by Robert Conquest, 2000)

Phryne, the celebrity hetaira who is said to have lived and loved some time during the fourth century BCE, was reputed to be ‘by far the most phenomenal of the hetairai’ (ἐπιφανεστάτη πολὺ τῶν ἑταίρων). This article aims to examine the anecdotes told about Phryne and argues that collectively they constitute a discourse on viewing that illuminates a significant aspect of the production and interpretation of art: the ethical and aesthetic problems involved (for the artist, subject, model and other viewers) in making and describing naturalistic art, especially that which represents the gods. A rich repertoire of written material on Phryne, and on the statue of the Aphrodite of Cnidus for which she was said to have been the model, has survived, although mostly by later rather than contemporary writers. Among the descriptions of the statue there is a group of epigrams collected in the Greek Anthology whose authorship and dating are largely uncertain. On Phryne we have accounts and imaginative scenarios in Alciphron, Lucian and Pausanias, all presumed to be writing in the second century CE; Athenaeus, who most probably wrote in the third century CE; and quotations from earlier writers.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s). Published online by Cambridge University Press 2011

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