Vol. XXXVIII (XCIV). Joanna Kulas, The Discarded Topos. The Tablet of Cebes in Polish Culture of the 16th Century, Warszawa 2014

     The book concentrates on the issues of reception and adaptation of the Tablet of Cebes motif in Polish culture of the late Renaissance. The Tablet of Cebes (Pinax, Tabula Cebetis) was a late antique dialogue – first thought to have been composed by Cebes, a student of Socrates and protagonist of Plato’s dialogue – that have counted among the most frequently read texts in the early modern period. It gained popularity and canonicity and remained in schools even until the 19th-century also due to its simple ancient Greek verse. In the Renaissance the Tablet was distributed in numerous editions and translations in vernacular languages as well as through a grand number of pictorial adaptations. Although there is no proof such artwork as the described Tablet ever existed, draftsmen and painters of the 16th and 17th centuries were aiming to reconstruct it, because the text has qualified as ekphrasis–a literary text about a work of art. The text was, thus, even more important, due to the value of preserving ancient art in literary representation. Its longevity within the canon is usually ascribed to its syncretic nature, which allowed for changing – and unchangingly ennobling–interpretations, based on shifting intellectual currents and cultural tendencies.
      The Tablet of Cebes is certainly not a topos of modern humanities, although its status in the early modern period suggests it should be. Certain qualities, especially simple syntax and lexical choices, enabled its quick rise, alongside the speeches of Isocrates, to the position of school handbook to ancient Greek and good manners. Its broad range of influence–on intellectual, religious, court, educational, and even political circles–definitely legitimizes the idea of it being a commonplace of the early modern culture.
      I prove that the Tablet had a prominent position in the early modern Polish culture. Moreover, although Cebes has been rarely listed by Polish scholarship, its presence in literature and art of the Renaissance is not an exception but rather – exceptional. My studies reveal that in the Renaissance the motif of Tabula Cebetis has not only been popular and widely known, but also important and valued; suffice to say that it decorates one of the diplomatic chambers of the Royal Residence on the Wawel Hill in Kraków. The artists of the early modern period believed the most important side of Pínax was its didactic-persuasive formula and, thus, its educational usefulness. Its influence is visible even in texts thematically unrelated but representing, e.g., a similar scheme of literary-philosophical expression, where illustration plays the key role. In such way Giambattista Vico refers to it in his Scienza Nuova (New Science) and takes the mnemonic qualities of the late antique text for his ideal: “as Cebes from Thebes” he wants to steer the reader with the help of rhetorics, to manipulate his attention and memory. In this way, Tabula Cebetis has been regarded a golden measure of efficiency in writing, a stable and timeless source of literary-rhetorical competence. For the early modern period, Pínax was the foundation of humanistic education and literary art. The cultural-historical importance of this forgotten allegory of human life is furthermore witnessed by many translations, leaflets, drawings, woodcuts and copperplates, bought by representatives of diverse fields, classes, and confessions, so as to treasure them in their atlases and bibliophilic collections or simply pass on as tokens of friendship, adorned with proper dedications.
      The Discarded Image by Clive Staples Lewis – a classical attempt to restitute and appreciate the medieval system of ideas – ends with a reminder that even the contemporary model of understanding the universe is historical and finite. The British author states that deliberating about their truthfulness – e.g., the false imago mundi from a thousand years ago vs. the apt way of modern thought – is futile. We can only contemplate them. I devised the title of my book after Lewis – The Discarded Topos. Although I do not mean to reconstruct and appreciate a past worldview, I certainly relate to his method of closely observing a marginalized and depreciated cultural artifact. The Table of Cebes is exactly such an artifact–a topos banalized and neglected by modern literary studies. While the image of the Choice of Hercules remains a generally accepted founding motif, Pinax is not. Even though this discarded topos returns to the fore and rejects oblivion when, for instance, one opens Novum Testamentum by Erasmus of Rotterdam or visits the halls of the Royal Residence of Polish monarchs on the Wawel Hill.
      The book is a scrupulous gathering of Cebes’ presence in the early modern Polish culture; and, while always fragmentary and open-ended, it reconstructs its “discarded image.” In the following chapters I analyze the reception range of the ancient dialogue, which functioned in the early modern period already as an independent cultural motif. Pínax of the 16th-century is no longer only a literary work but an amazingly popular allegory of human life. I am thus interested both in how the Tablet of Cebes inspired works of literature as well as graphical reconstructions of the described tablet, mostly independent from the actual text. My study is narrowed to the field of Polish culture, which has been surprisingly neglected in the previous studies about Cebes.
      I decided to compose the book in the way that will allow the reader to see the bibliographic diversity surrounding the dialogue as well as its early modern reception, mostly in Poland; on the other hand, I hope to acquaintance the reader at least fragmentary with the broad reception of the motif in literature and art, thus I devoted two complete chapters to the analysis of singular written and painted works of art. In doing so, I was motivated by the lack of any studies regarding the Tablet of Cebes in Polish culture. Hence, the reader receives both an introduction to the important text of culture and follows the development and character of its reception on the example of early modern Polish works of art: a poetic cycle by Mikołaj Kochanowski and the painting in the Royal Residence on the Wawel Hill.
      In the first part I attempt a concise monographical overview of Tabula Cebetis motif in European culture. The aim is to gather elementary factographic data about the dialogue as well as its reception in the early modern culture, with special consideration for the Polish context. Thus, I take into consideration not only the late antique sources of Pínax with its issues of authorship, date of origin, literary genre, and what thoughtful subtleties it contains, but also its early modern adaptations: Renaissance editions and translations into Latin and the vernacular languages, humanistic and Christian interpretations, Christian transformations (Cebes Socraticus versus Cebes Christianus), and iconography.
      In the second part I analyze a poetic cycle by Mikołaj Kochanowski Rotuły do synów swych (Eng. Cycle For My Sons) in context of Pínax’s Christian transformations. Tabula Cebetis is present in Kochanowski’s text indirectly, through a cycle of copperplates by Jan van der Straet (Stradanus), illustrating the verses of the part entitled Pod obrazy konterfetu żywota ludzkiego (On the Images of Human Life). I compare their allegorical figures, the understanding of virtue as wisdom, the inner-textual rhetorical communication, and the methods of persuasion. Above all, I analyze to what extent the nexus of images related with the tradition of the Table of Cebes fits into Kochanowski’s poetic composition. I consider chiefly Renaissance interpretations of the dialogue (pythagorean-platonic and Christian), which surface in the cycle of Stradanus’s copperplates.
      In the third part I present the most important visual realization of the motif in Poland: the wall frieze in the Envoys’ Room of the Royal Residence on the Wawel Hill. In the context of its two dominating Renaissance Christian and neoplatonic interpretations I propose two hypotheses: accordingly, one surrounding neoplatonic teachings; and the other encircling Christian hagiologic iconography, especially the legend of Saint Dorothea of Caesarea. Alongside a recounting of scholarly interpretations of its authorship and artistic sources, I elaborate my own iconographic analysis of the frieze and point towards other realizations of the motif in the 16th-century Polish culture.
      Pínax–a text forgotten–moulded the imagination of its 16th-century recipients and belonged to the primary sources of the early modern culture. In the light of my studies I am persuaded about its exceptional cultural position in Poland. Although novel for contemporary readers and scholars, Tabula Cebetis as allegory of human life was obvious for them five centuries ago. It did not require an elaborate apparatus of footnotes and commentaries, which accompany its modern-day editions. In this way, its influence on European culture is comparable with that of the Choice of Hercules. However, in contrast to the latter, in contemporary scholarly debates it remains a discarded topos.
      Restitution of motifs is also restitution of works of culture. Understanding the cultural importance of Pínax will certainly enable us to bring to light whole series of neglected and misunderstood texts of culture. It may even allow for new readings of canonical works. For all the evidence points towards the Tablet of Cebes as one of the most important instructions on how to study the early modern culture.