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U of T researcher studies ancient art's treatment of diverse body types

Photo of bronze mirror

Detail of a bronze mirror depicting a 'hunchback,' now in the National Museum in Tarquinia, Italy

A stroll through any museum is proof enough that the ancient Greeks and Romans were dedicated to perfection of the human form, but according to one University of Toronto researcher, the ancient world also offers up evidence of a different population – one with diverse body types and abilities.
Lisa Trentin, an art historian and lecturer in U of T Mississauga’s department of visual studies, studies how physical differences are depicted in ancient art. Her 2015 book, The Hunchback in Hellenistic and Roman Art, was recently featured in a Forbes magazine story about the historical marginalization of people with physical challenges, and is considered the first comprehensive study of the visualization of this condition in antiquity.
“The Greeks were focused on the ‘classical body’ – it’s the icon of antiquity,” says Trentin (pictured left). “But it’s the other end of the spectrum – the display of abnormal body types – that interests me.”
Trentin’s research focuses on visual representations of “hunchbacks” – people with the spinal curvature known as kyphosis – depicted in mosaics, statuettes, ceramics, murals and sculptures, as well as classical texts. According to Trentin, there are about 50 surviving artefacts from this period, but very little is known about the role they play in ancient art.
“I look at visual representations and think about the ways that viewers would interact with the statuettes or mosaics, and how these images demand that a viewer question their own body type,” she says.
“They are found in public and private spaces,” she says. “We see these bodies used for the purpose of warding off evil or as a good-luck charm – everything about the statuettes encourages the viewer to touch. For one large-scale sculpture that has survived, the hump is worn down from rubbing.”
Trentin says that the bodies of the ancients were more diverse than scholarship indicates. “It’s more than likely that every Roman suffered from some kind of ailment because of malnutrition, poverty or famine." 
Trentin says she "likes difference. These depictions are so different from the ‘perfect’ bodies, and that’s why they are so compelling. They are exaggerated, but are more reflective of the demographic of people in the ancient world."