Classics students create art installations on Hercules story

Thanks to a grant from Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, students in the Introduction to Ancient Rome class had a chance to mount their own display of public art depicting the choice of Hercules Nov. 12-16 in front of the statue of Hercules near the Statler Hotel at 15 East Ave.

Each day, there were two signs next to the statue, one showing the cover of “On Duties” by Cicero and the other side showing this passage from the book:

“When Hercules was approaching maturity, which is the time selected by nature for choosing the road in life one must travel, he sought out an isolated place. Sitting there for a long time, he could not decide which path was better for him. For he could see two paths, one marked PLEASURE and another marked VIRTUE.”

The students illustrated the famous fable by creating a forked path in front of the statue, each leading to one of the two grassy “islands” in front of the statue, illustrating “pleasure” and “virtue,” using any objects to make Hercules’ choice clear.

Cicero, a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher, details his ideas about the best way to live, behave and observe moral obligations in “On Duties,” which students read and discussed in class.

“ ‘On Duties’ is a practical guide to making moral choices in life,” said Michael Fontaine, professor of classics, associate vice provost of undergraduate education and instructor of the course. “Cicero wrote it 2,000 years ago and it became an instant classic. It was revered as a sort of supplement to the Bible, which is all the more amazing if you reflect that Cicero was murdered 43 years before the birth of Jesus.”

Fontaine chose the assignment to give the students a chance to use active learning, a Cornell priority for teaching.

“My group and I learned through this project the power that visual instillations have on the ability to understand complex concepts,” said Alexis Davis ’20. “Though the ideas that we were representing may seem simple, much of the original meanings that we had to parse through are convoluted in the original text.” 

The class of 40 worked in groups of eight. Each group displayed their exhibit for one day and wrote a reflection paper detailing the choices they made, their process and what they learned about Roman values from the activity.

Brittany Rubin, curatorial assistant at the Johnson Museum of Art, was involved in the project, as well, showing students an illustration by Albrecht Durer, a German Renaissance painter, which also depicts the fable of Hercules’ choice. “I’m intrigued by how the students interpreted the personification of ‘vice’ as inspired by the text, as its vagueness is starkly in contrast with the rather direct interpretation of renaissance artists,” she said.

“The point of this exercise was to get students talking about values, and give them experience in building a consensus and making group decisions,” Fontaine said. “Many of us are shy about talking candidly about values, especially in a secular community like Cornell’s. Like most ancient philosophers, Cicero likes to talk about ‘virtue.’ It’s a nice word but what does it actually mean? And the same goes for ‘pleasure.’ ”

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.

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 art installation of Hercules story showing the path of virtue