Monday, 28 January 2013

Pliny the Elder `Shoemaker, stick to your last!

Pliny the Elder (23 AD – August 25, 79 AD) was a Roman scholar and scientist, who is sadly enough more famous for the description of his death, than for his own massive writing. At the request of Tacitus, his nephew Pliny the Younger made an exhaustive description of how his uncle was excited by the outburst of the Vesuvius and instead of staying away, he wanted to see it from nearby. This letter is printed in almost every Latin-course book. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia extensively about nature. This work is the longest text of a single Roman author which has come down to us and it is indispensable for our knowledge of what the Romans knew about the world. But it was not just the natural world he described: when he came to write about colours, he also talked about painters and by far the best in his opinion was Apelles (4th century BC). It is mainly through Pliny that we have anecdotes about him. The following story explains the origin of the word ultracrepidarian `noting or pertaining to a person who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside the area of his or her expertise’. It is a word coined by William Hazlitt in a letter of 1819, with this story by Pliny the Elder in mind. It is the ideal word for describing people who we all sometimes meet and at worst can’t escape from…
Plinius Maior, Naturalis Historia Book 35 c. 84
Apelli fuit alioqui perpetua consuetudo numquam tam occupatum diem agendi, ut non lineam ducendo exerceret artem, quod ab eo in proverbium venit. idem perfecta opera proponebat in pergula transeuntibus atque, ipse post tabulam latens, vitia quae notarentur auscultabat, vulgum diligentiorem iudicem quam se praeferens; 85 feruntque reprehensum a sutore, quod in crepidis una pauciores intus fecisset ansas, eodem postero die superbo emendatione pristinae admonitionis cavillante circa crus, indignatum prospexisse denuntiantem, ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret, quod et ipsum in proverbium abiit. 

Apelli fuit: to Apelles was = Apelles had
alioqui: for the rest, always
consuetudo –inis (f): habit
agendi: gerundium: the habit of spending a day so busy
ducendo: gerundium depending on  artem and lineam depending on ducendo: so the clause is: that he did not exercise his artistry by drawing a picture.
propono- -posui –positum: to expose to view
pergula: a projection or shed in front of a house, used as a booth, stall, shop or in this case Apelles’ art studio
tabula: picture
ausculto: to hear with attention (note the imperfect: it describes a repeated action)
vulgus –i (mostly n, but here m): common people, folk (vulgus and folk, though they sound somewhat similar, are not etymologically connected)
iudicem in apposition to vulgum
ferunt: people say, it is told
reprehendo –hendi – hensum: to blame, censure
sutor sutoris (m): shoemaker
crepida: shoe, sandal (from Greek κρηπίς)
intus: i.e. on the painting
ansa: the loop on the edge of a sandal, through which the shoetie was drawn
pauciores ansas: than he painted the other shoe with
eodem postero die superbo emendatione pristinae admonitionis cavillante circa crus abl. abs. the core is eodem (sutore) cavillante
pristinus: former, earlier
cavillor –atus sum: to criticize
crus cruris (n): leg
denuntio: to declare, denounce
supra crepidam = ultra crepidam


This mural from Pompeii is believed to be based on Apelles', Venus Anadyomene, brought to Rome by Augustus.

The following translation is by John Bostock and H.T. Riley, published in 1855. It is rather free now and then…

It was a custom with Apelles, to which he most tenaciously adhered, never to let any day pass, however busy he might be, without exercising himself by tracing some outline or other; a practice which has now passed into a proverb. It was also a practice with him, when he had completed a work, to exhibit it to the view of the passers-by in some exposed place;47 while he himself, concealed behind the picture, would listen to the criticisms that were passed upon it; it being his opinion that the judgment of the public was preferable to his own, as being the more discerning of the two. It was under these circumstances, they say, that he was censured by a shoemaker for having represented the shoes with one shoe-string too little. The next day, the shoemaker, quite proud at seeing the former error corrected, thanks to his advice, began to criticize the leg; upon which Apelles, full of indignation, popped his head out, and reminded him that a shoemaker should give no opinion beyond the shoes, a piece of advice which has equally passed into a proverbial saying.

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