Tony Grafton, a scholar at Princeton University, borrows a distinction from the Yale historian Jack Hexter, who divided historians into “lumpers” and “splitters.” The former look for the big idea and see all evidence as lumped underneath it; the latter focus on detail, and generally chisel away at overarching theories, splitting in the name of accuracy rather than lumping in the interest of synthesis.
Beard’s work, he says “is very granular, very precise,” which makes it all the more remarkable that she’s had the kind of public career she’s had. She’s a splitter’s splitter.
“The splitters tend to get the most esteem within the academy,” he says, “while the lumpers get it outside.” Think, say, Jared Diamond, whose “Guns, Germs and Steel” offered a big-idea thesis that also hit the best-seller lists. But Beard, through elegant writing, and unorthodox routes of engaging the public, has managed the even more difficult challenge of being an academic splitter who is (in Britain, at least) a household name.
And, says Wills, Beard has a sense of humor. The first page of her book on the Parthenon includes a quote from Shaquille O’Neal, in response to the question of whether he had visited the Parthenon while in Greece.
“I can’t really remember the names of the clubs we went to,” Shaq said.
It’s a funny line, but it makes larger sense after reading Beard’s book, which takes on some of the larger ideological battles about the meaning and ownership of the most famous building from classical antiquity. The Parthenon, as idea, far transcends the mere Parthenon as building, and Shaq’s quote is a coy acknowledgment that we can never remember all the names of anything.
“In more cases than you can imagine, we haven’t the foggiest clue when some of these images were made,” Beard says of a bust of the Roman emperor Commodus, also in the Getty Museum.
“Some people get very frustrated,” she says. “Is it ancient, or is it 17th century? But that’s part of the excitement. We don’t know.”
The 60th A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, “The Twelve Caesars: Images of Power From Ancient Rome to Salvador Dali,” will be presented by Mary Beard, chair of the faculty board of classics, at the University of Cambridge.
All lectures are free and are at 2 p.m. at the National Gallery’s East Building Auditorium. The schedule:
March 27: “Julius Caesar: Inventing an Image”
April 3: “Heroes and Villains: In Miniatures, Marble, and Movies”
April 10: “Warts and All? Emperors Come Down to Earth”
April 17: “Caesar’s Wife: Above Suspicion?”
May 1: “Dynasty: Collecting, Classifying, and Connoisseurship”
May 8: “Rough Work? Emperors Defaced and Destroyed”