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Figures of Speech

Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece

Over the past two hundred years, thousands of ancient Greek vases have been unearthed. Yet these artifacts remain a challenge: what did the images depicted on these vases actually mean to ancient Greek viewers? In this long-awaited book, Gloria Ferrari uses Athenian vases, literary evidence, and other works of art from the Archaic and Classical periods (520-400 B.C.) to investigate what these items can tell us about the ancient Greeks—specifically, their notions of gender.

Ferrari begins by developing a theoretical perspective on visual representation, arguing that artistic images give us access to how their subjects were imagined rather than to the way they really were. For instance, Ferrari’s examinations of the many representations of women working wool reveal that these images constitute powerful metaphors—metaphors, she argues, which both reflect and construct Greek conceptions of the ideal woman and her ideal behavior.

From this perspective, Ferrari studies a number of icons representing blameless femininity and ideal masculinity to reevaluate the rites of passage by which girls are made ready for marriage and boys become men. Representations of the nude male body in Archaic statues known as kouroi, for example, symbolize manhood itself and shed new light on the much-discussed institution of paiderastia. And, in Ferrari’s hands, imagery equating maidens with arable land and buried treasure provides a fresh view of Greek ideas of matrimony.

Innovative, thought-provoking, and insightful throughout, Figures of Speech is a powerful demonstration of how the study of visual images as well as texts can reshape our understanding of ancient Greek culture.

360 pages | 149 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2002

Ancient Studies

Art: Ancient and Classical Art

History: Ancient and Classical History

Women's Studies


“[Ferrari] directs readers’ attention to the imagery of women’s prenuptial, marital, and domestic activities, to the representation of manliness and physical beauty as positive concepts, the meaning of the discrepancy between clothed females and nude males, and to the definition of gender roles . . . Her ambitious, subtle argument relies on her close analysis of artistic figuration, complemented by contemporary texts.”


“Ferrari [presents] a detailed and serious study of the science of communication as applied to the visual representation of the masculine and feminine.  In doing so, she makes a valuable contribution not only to gender studies, but also to art history as well. . . . Ferrari’s book is perhaps the most explicit and comprehensive utilization of language theory to art analysis.  She offers a refreshing re-ordering of the scholarly agenda way from connoisseurship towards a sociological understanding of art. . . . Emblematic of the failure to recognize the richness of domestic imagery is the scholarly treatment of the ‘spinning woman’ motif on Greek vases. . . . Ferrari demonstrates the unrecognized richness of the imagery and its component elements (footed chest, wool basket, spindle, mantle, etc.).  Anchoring each element within its respective nest of associations, allusions, and connotations, she shows the way in which the images play with the central constituent elements of the feminine.”

Alastair J. L. Blanshard | Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Ferrari has given us an ambitious, compelling book that will challenge its readers to rethink some of the prevailing contemporary views of gender and sexuality in ancient Greece.”

Laura K. McClure | Journal of the History of Sexuality

Table of Contents

1. The Thread of Ariadne
2. The Spinners
3. Figures of Speech
4. The Manly Aphrodite
5. Perikalles Agalma
6. The Body Politic
7. Fugitive Nudes
8. Between Men
Appendix 1
Appendix 2
Index of Monuments
Index of Ancient Sources
General Index
Index of Authors


Archaeological Institute of America: James R. Wiseman Book Award

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