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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Being Human: a festival of the humanities - Face-to-Face Encounters with Ancient Authors: Portraits in Libraries

20th November 2014, 14:00 to 16:00, Cosin's Library, Palace Green, Durham

Discover the portraits in Bishop Cosin's Library and enjoy a temporary exhibition of new photography by Julian Germain, 'On Seeing the Author'.

The exhibition in Cosin’s Library is inspired by a research project funded by the European Research Council and directed by Prof. Barbara Graziosi at Durham University. The project investigates how the poets of ancient Greece and Rome have been represented, through the centuries, in both literature and art. From antiquity onwards, people have produced a vast range of portraits of ancient authors, and told stories about their lives. The main contention of the project is that representations of ancient authors tell us something crucial – not about the actual faces and lives of Greek and Roman authors, but about how readers imagined them. Classical literature has been transmitted for over two millennia: the project focuses on the people who recognised its value, ensured its survival, and reconfigured its relevance for their particular contexts. They often had a powerful sense of the authors’ presence: they saw them in dreams, had imaginary conversations with them, made fun of them, wrote biographies and anecdotes, produced portraits, visited the places where they were supposed to have lived and died, and displayed their faces in the libraries where they read their works. An analysis of how readers imagine ancient authors therefore offers a powerful means of investigating the shifting social and cultural value of classical literature from antiquity to the present. To find out more, visit


The Place: Bishop Cosin’s Library John Cosin was Prince-Bishop of Durham for twelve years between 1660 and his death in 1672. After the English Civil War he went into exile in France, where he saw several amazing libraries, full of portraits of ancient and modern authors. When he returned to England, and became Prince-Bishop of Durham, he devoted himself to the project of creating a library in the ‘new’ style here on Palace Green. This new style was, in fact, inspired by antiquity: idea of displaying the faces of authors in libraries was conceived through reading ancient texts, such as those of Pliny the Elder, which described libraries crowded with great books, and decorated with the faces of their authors. It is a revealing fact that, when John Cosin finally managed to build his library, and have the portraits made, he was sorely disappointed with the results: in one of his letters he complained that the great authors of the past looked ‘like Saracens’ – that is to say, like Muslims. Sometimes, encountering authors face-to-face can be quite startling: your vision of an author may not be the same as that of others, or indeed the same as the actual face of the author in question.

The Exhibition: On Seeing the Author The Durham Book Festival, in collaboration with researchers working on the Living Poets Project, commissioned photographer Julian Germain to take pictures of authors presenting their work at the festival. Julian plays with the conventions of traditional portraits in order to invite viewers to reflect on the difficulties of representing the life of the mind. His work is displayed in Cosin’s Library against the background of Renaissance portraits of authors.

Find out more about the research, the place, and the exhibition by taking a guided tour:

Guided Tours- Find out about Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry

Guided tours on Thursday 20 November and Saturday 22 November 2-4 pm. Research experts will introduce visitors to the design of Bishop Cosin’s Library and the commission of its portraits, offer an opportunity to view newly commissioned photographs by Julian Germain, and present the results of a major research project funded by the European Research Council, and directed by Prof. Barbara Graziosi at Durham University: Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry,

Free tickets for the tours are available from the World Heritage Visitor Centre, Owengate, Durham.

Visit Monday 17 November - Sunday 23 November, 2.00 - 4.00pm

Discover its portraits School visits, Monday 17 - Friday 21 November can be booked through

Contact for more information about this event.