“The book’s better than the film” is an axiom that embroils us in debates. The matter goes way back to the dawn of humanity: word vs. image. Mary Beard is among those who believe that what we see is as important as what we read, though she put into a book two chapters she had done for the BBC series Civilisations, where she delved into the meanings that every place and period has built around shared images, concentrating less on their creators than on others’ interpretations.
The 2018 show paid homage to Civilisation – the documentary series the historian Kenneth Clark filmed for the British broadcaster fifty years before – but in the spirit of making amends, deviating from a patrician outlook which, as the title’s singular form states, only considered European culture and male geniuses (the one woman with a presence being the Virgin), the sequel took a more ecumenical angle and rescued artefacts from five continents. Beard’s classical training ensured the appearance of Greco-Latin Antiquity, but she diluted it in a crucible of ethnicities.
On TV we watched her perched on an Egyptian colossus, crouched in an Indian cave, or immersed in a Mexican jungle to visualize how our ancestors looked and how we do now. On print the episodes are two parts equally centered on human and divine representations, sewn together by texts and illustrations that maintain the documentary’s audiovisual vivacity. Whether the book is better than the film is for each to judge, but the page, like the screen, manages to mark the infinite paths that open up before our eyes.