Disability, Art and Antiquity

Bronze Statuette - depicting an emaciated hunchback, now in the Staatliche Museum, Antikensammlung, Berlin. My photo.
Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 4:34pm

A stroll through any museum is proof enough that the ancient Greeks and Romans were dedicated to perfection of the human form, but according to one U of T Mississauga researcher, the ancient world also offers up evidence of a different population—one with diverse body types and abilities—if only you know where to look.

Art historian and Department of Visual Studies lecturer Lisa Trentin studies how physical abnormalties are depicted in ancient art. Her 2015 book The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art was recently featured in a Forbes Magazine story about the historical marginalization of disabled people, and is considered the first comprehensive study of the visualization of this condition in antiquity.

Lisa Trentin“The Greeks were focused on the ‘classical body’—it’s the icon of antiquity,” Trentin says. “But it’s the other end of the spectrum, the display of abnormal body types, that interests me.”

Trentin’s research focuses on visual representations of “hunchbacks”—people with the spinal curvature known as kyphosis—depicted in mosaics, statuettes, ceramics, murals and sculptures, as well as classical texts. According to Trentin, there are about 50 surviving artefacts from this period, but very little is known about the role they play in ancient art. “I look at visual representations and think about the ways that viewers would interact with the statuettes or mosaics, and how these images demand that a viewer question their own body type,” she says.

“They are found in public and private spaces,” she says, and decorate thresholds which transitional spaces thought to be in need of protection. “We see these bodies used for the purpose of warding off evil or as a good luck charm—everything about the statuettes encourages the viewer to touch. For one large-scale sculpture that has survived, the hump is worn down from rubbing.”

“When we think about bodies, we need to think that the lives of the ancients were more diverse than scholarship might indicate,” she says. “It’s more than likely that every Roman suffered from some kind of ailment because of malnutrition, poverty or famine. Disability was probably much more prevalent than we think, but we don’t have a record of any writer who self-identifies as deformed or disabled.”

Bronze Mirror - depicting a hunchback with stumped feet in National Museum, Tarquinia.“There are [secondary] sources everywhere—in medical texts, imperial biographies—playwrights and historians write about it. In these records, we see individuals with impairments described as entertainment within the imperial court, or as confidants and spies,” she says. “We have literary sources that talk about the emperor who dreamt a golden hump appeared, as a sign of good luck.”

“I looked primarily at how the ancients saw, and used that as a tool to determine how modern discourse about disability is based upon an incomplete picture of the past,” she says. “There is a frisson about whether you point and laugh, applaud or accept these bodies.”

“I like difference,” she adds. “Our culture is very much about normative values, but it’s in our difference that interest start to arise. These depictions are so different from the ‘perfect’ bodies, and that’s why they are so compelling. They are exaggerated, but are more reflective of the demographic of people in the ancient world.”