Fooling the Eye, Eyeing the Fool

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The writings of the great Roman savant Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia present to us an interesting episode from the history of art. In this anecdote Pliny recounts a contest between the two great Greek artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Keen to settle which of them was the greatest artist of the time the two agreed on producing an image that was most realistic. For his part Zeuxis painted an image of fruits that is reported to have been so life like that it deceived the birds that came to peck at it. Parrhasius then invited Zeuxis to view the former’s painting that was hidden behind a curtain. Zeuxis attempted to pull back the curtain only to realize that it was in fact the curtains that constituted Parrhasius’ image. While Zeuxis may have possibly felt like a fool, Pliny recounts that Zeuxis is supposed to have been gracious in defeat acknowledging Parrhasius as the winner with the acclamation: “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”