Iaia (fl. c. 100 BCE)

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Iaia (fl. c. 100 bce)

Ancient Greek painter, mostly of women's portraits. Pronunciation: ee-EYE-ah. Name variations: Laia; Lala; Laya; Maia; Marcia; Martia. Born at an unknown date in Cyzicus (near present-day Erdek in Turkey, on the Sea of Marmara); never married.

Painted panels and ivories; executed a large portrait of an old woman on a wooden panel in Naples, and a self-portrait.

Pliny the Elder">

No one had a quicker hand than she in painting.

Pliny the Elder

Of the five women whom Pliny the Elder includes in his discussion of painters in the Natural History 35.147, he tells us most about the medium, subjects, quality and technique of Iaia's work. Useful as this information is, it is still ultimately tantalizing. We are told, for example, that Iaia was originally from Cyzicus (a very old Greek colony on the south shore of the Sea of Marmara in present-day Turkey) but that she was active in Rome "during the youth of Marcus Varro," placing her floruit at perhaps 100 bce. That a talented Greek of this period could find patronage in Rome, by this point virtual master of the Mediterranean and eager to inherit the sophisticated high culture of its Hellenistic subjects, is not surprising. That a woman was able to do so raises many questions about the circumstances of Iaia's education and relocation which are impossible to answer. Unlike several of the other women painters on his list (viz. Aristarete, Irene , and perhaps Timarete ), Pliny does not mention Iaia's father's name or profession, so we cannot speculate that she trained in art with him and then followed him to Rome, or know if she established a reputation in Asia Minor before coming to Italy.

Additional interesting facts in Pliny's sketch seem to distinguish Iaia from other male and female artists, yet they too lack the connecting detail of a satisfactory biography. For example, he tells us that Iaia painted mostly portraits of women, and also that she was a lifelong virgin (perpetua virgo). We do not know the circumstances that caused her to choose her favorite subject matter, or indeed if this choice had any connection with her marital status in a society in which most free women were expected to marry. Some have speculated that she may have belonged to a priesthood or cult for which chastity was required, but we have no record of any such that fostered artistic members. Nevertheless, glimmers of a personality seem to show around Pliny's description of her skill and success: "No one else had a quicker hand in painting," he says, and he goes on to report on the financial rewards of her talent: "her artistic skill was such that in the prices she obtained she far outdid the most celebrated portrait painters of the same period, Sopolis and Dionysius, whose pictures fill the galleries." While he says nothing explicit of her character, it is tempting to read into this account of her competition with male artists the presence of a healthy ego; Pliny also tells us that she painted (with the assistance of a mirror) a self-portrait, a genre not mentioned often in Classical sources.

Iaia was skilled in the use of the brush, the common implement for painting on panels of wood, linen, and marble. She also used the cestrum, a kind of graver, on ivory, in the imperfectly understood technique of encaustic, which involved applying hot wax varnish to previously applied paint. Unfortunately, like all but one of the known women artists of antiquity (see entry on Helena for the exception), nothing of her work or its influence remains. The attention Pliny gave her, however, has not gone unnoticed by subsequent historians of art. It is the allure of her achievements as much as the corrupt text in which they are recorded that is responsible for the numerous speculations from the time of Boccaccio on the true form of her name, which is still uncertain. (For further background information, see entry on Aristarete.)

sources and suggested reading:

Enciclopedia dell'Arte Antica Classica e Orientiale. S.v. "Timarete." Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1958–66.

Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. Edited by Georg Wissowa et al. S.v. "Iaia" by G. Lippold. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhandlung, 1894—.

related media:

Saylor, Steven. Arms of Nemesis: A Novel of Ancient Rome. NY: Ivy Books, 1992 (Iaia and Olympias appear as completely fabricated but entertaining characters in this historical mystery novel).

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University