Archaeologist Adrian Staehli, whose work has challenged conventional interpretations of nudity and the human body in ancient Greek and Roman art, has been named James Loeb Professor of Classical Archaeology at Harvard University, effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Staehli is currently lecturer and associate professor in the Archäologisches Institut at Universität Zürich, where he has been a member of the faculty since 2002. He joins Harvard’s Department of the Classics.
Staehli’s research focuses on sculpture and painting from the archaic Greek to the Roman imperial period, with particular attention to depictions of the human body. His close examination of ancient art’s reception in later historical periods has revealed much about the process by which subsequent analysts reach consensus on the value and meaning of antiquities. His scholarly publications range from technical differentiations of authentic and fake sculpture to treatments of antiquity in modern cinema.
Staehli’s first book, titled Die Verweigerung der Lüste: Erotische Gruppen in der antiken Plastik (“The Denial of Pleasure: Erotic Groups in Ancient Sculpture”), was published in 1999 by Dietrich Reimer. In it, he analyzes and interprets Hellenistic and Roman sculptures featuring fanciful creatures such as hermaphrodites, satyrs, and nymphs in erotic situations. He argues that these private fantasy creatures became a public feature of the Hellenistic world because they reflected two prominent ideological developments within this culture: an idealized monogamy emphasizing the woman as a partner in the relationship, and Hellenistic monarchs’ promotion of Dionysian luxury.
Staehli’s second book, titled Die Körper und seine Bilder: Nacktheit, der männliche Körper und das männliche Begehren in Bildern des 6. und 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (“The Body and its Images: Nudity, the Male Body and Male Desire from the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C.”), is forthcoming. In this volume, he dismantles the modern orthodoxy that ancient Greek representations of the male nude constituted an idealized or heroic form, in part by analyzing these works’ post-classical interpretations to show the social and cultural contexts in which the idea of the heroic nude developed. He puts the male nude back into its original context, reading scenes with close attention to genre and to cultural practices such as the symposium and homosexual relationships.
In Die Körper und seine Bilder, Staehli demonstrates that nudity has no single meaning, but is open to different interpretations at different times and places in history. This reinterpretation of the frank public display of nude bodies in the ancient world promises to recast artistic nudity in antiquity as a stripping away of physical distractions to see the inner character and personality of an individual.