Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.11


Tonio Hölscher, Monumenti statali e pubblico. Società e cultura greca e romana, vol. 3. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1994. Pp. 275; 40 plates. ISBN 88-7062-794-2.


Reviewed by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Bryn Mawr College.

Tonio Hölscher is well known to archaeologists, art historians, and students of ancient history alike as an influential and prolific writer on topics of iconographic interest with a strong historical component. Just to recall a few of his more familiar contributions in monographic form, and without attempting to cite his very numerous articles in a variety of periodicals, I may mention here (in the chronological order of the content) his Griechische Historienbilder des 5. und 4. Jhs. v. Chr. (1973); Ideal und Wirklichkeit in den Bildnissen Alexanders des Grossen (1971); Victoria Romana (1967); and, more recently, Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (1987). The volume under review has now gathered, in Italian translation from the original German, six seminal articles dealing with the official expression of Roman art for political purposes, and with the audiences for which these iconographic messages were intended. Each one of these essays was previously published in a different context, yet in a short Preface, H. states that they were meant as preliminary studies for a handbook on Roman State reliefs. Whether such a handbook is still projected, we are not told. In the meantime, this Italian edition has made these significant articles accessible between two covers, thus facilitating consultation, especially for a wider Italian readership either unfamiliar with the language of the original versions or unable to consult them in the available libraries.

It should be stated immediately that the translators have done, on the whole, an outstanding job -- perhaps made easier by the fact that Italian, as a language, allows almost as complex a phraseology as German. Yet H. admits (p. 4) that, had he considered a future translation, he would never have written certain sentences; and this native Italian cringes at such expressions as "tipi sfiziosamente decorativi" (p. 153), "concezioni di salvazione" (p. 145), or "eventi disattesi" (p. 128). Typographical errors, however, are minimal; only a few references to plates and previous pages are scrambled; and a single coin has been printed upside down (pl. 14.2). The compact paperback format, on good but not excessively heavy paper, with reasonable margins, is a great improvement over previous, much more lavish productions by the same publishing house, that had carried prohibitive price tags.

Although the original articles had appeared over a span of time ranging from 1978 to 1984, they all stem from a group research project on Roman Iconology sponsored by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, as acknowledged in the endnotes. As such, they often consider the same monuments, albeit from slightly different points of view, and a certain amount of repetition is noticeable when they are read consecutively, without interruption, as I did for this review. The rapid pace of scholarly research and discoveries, either when new fragments are added to well-known monuments, or when familiar pieces are re-examined in better light, away from their old setting, for loan exhibition (as has frequently happened in recent years), would have made it impossible for the author to update his statements without rethinking the entire approach to the issues. He has therefore provided only a set of brief Addenda to each article (pp. 199-204), to alert the reader of omissions, changes, and new publications. These comments seem a bit too concise and limited, but at least they acknowledge a possible line of enquiry for parallels in Etruscan art -- a noticeable omission in the main text. In addition, H. has written an entirely new essay, by way of Introduction, in which he outlines the course of scholarly approaches to Roman historical monuments from the end of the last century, and suggests a path for the future, shifting from the purely formal or historical analysis to a global anthropological research that takes into account the history of religions, human behavior, sociology, and psychology. Principles of semiotics seem to underlie H.'s own methodology throughout, whether explicitly or implicitly formulated.

One minor criticism should be formulated up front: German and Italian authors are clearly privileged over those of other nationalities, both in the initial survey and in the individual articles. Although the importance of those contributions deserves credit, more open-minded acknowledgments would have been welcome. Note, for instance, that in the Addendum to p. 161 (on p. 204), Maxwell Anderson's significant observation that the two blocks of the so-called Ara of the Vicomagistri do not join, as previously thought, is properly mentioned, but without a bibliographical reference, and is thus untraceable, whereas a new proposal by Paolo Liverani gets the full citation. To be sure, a book in Italian is meant primarily for an Italian public, but at least the original essays were written (in German) for scholarly publications and could have been more catholic in their compass.

It would be useless to review critically texts that were prepared some fifteen years ago, or to attempt to update them when the very author has refrained from doing so. It seems therefore more expedient to indicate which articles are included, and the points they make, with a few comments and addenda of my own. In this Italian version, in which each paper forms a chapter, the sequence is based on content, rather than on original date of publication; the reader is thus taken through a real progression, from the early Roman Republic to the advanced Imperial period, although the main focus is on periods of transition and changes. It can therefore be said that a coherent whole has been achieved in this volume, albeit formed by discrete parts.

The first essay appeared as "Die Anfänge römischer Repraesentationskunst" in RM 85 (1978) 315-57. It stresses that the history of Roman official art did not begin with the Late Republic, as traditionally thought, but rather during the Middle Republic, from the end of the fourth century B.C. onward, when major changes in politics and the beginning of Roman expansion motivated a series of new genres, each of them meant as a public statement. These "monuments" (in the greater meaning of the word) included the civic (as contrasted with religious) display of booty, coinage, geographic and historical paintings, and especially honorary portrait statues (impetus for, rather than consequence of, funerary imagines), which coincide with the beginning of the Roman nobilitas. Although H. is perhaps overly skeptical of the early dates of some statuary mentioned by the ancient sources (again, because Etruscan influence may have been underestimated), his approach is entirely sound and informative; this is an excellent essay with which to open the series.

The second article, "Römische Siegesdenkmäler der späten Republik," was contributed to a volume in honor of Roland Hampe (Tainia, Mainz 1980, 351-71). It is thus more focused on a single class of monuments -- those symbolizing victory -- and on two in particular. One, the group of gold statues erected by the Mauretanian Bocchus in honor of Sulla, showing the delivery to him of the enemy king Jugurtha, is known only through literary sources and possible echoes on coins. The second, a series of blocks in dark stone found in 1937 at S. Omobono, may be the very podium for the golden images, as suggested by the elaborate iconography of its reliefs. The reservations about the possible African origin of the black stone expressed in n. 126 (p. 232) have been eliminated by a new scientific analysis, according to Th. Schäfer (RM EH 29 [1989] 78 n. 47), although H., who cites him, does not mention it in his Addendum (p. 201). This should be welcome confirmation of H.'s hypothesis. The article/chapter is not limited to issues of identification and iconography, but sketches the entire political background of the monuments and the meaning the S. Omobono reliefs carry as forerunners of Imperial propaganda.

Chapter III was a paper presented at the 9th International Numismatic Congress in Bern in late 1979 (published 1982 in the Actes). It therefore emphasizes coinage as an important vehicle for the political messages of the Late Republic, when individual moneyers could put their own personal symbols as identification marks on the dies. Particularly significant is the way in which certain attributes -- for instance, the caduceus -- which had originally served to characterize specific personages, like Hermes the messenger, could then be combined with several personifications, like pax and felicitas, and eventually be used in isolation to illustrate those same abstract concepts, in a complete reversal of their attributive role. In turn, such personifications, amounting to a veritable manifesto of political programs, were indistinguishable among themselves by either traits or attributes, and thus could be identified only by legends, in turn leading to a greater use of labels on coins -- some of them highly abbreviated and therefore of difficult resolution. A tendency toward increasing abstraction eventually produced the dissolution of spatial and temporal coherence, dated monuments and historical personages appearing together on a die despite their incompatible chronologies. The complex picture provided by the Late Republican coinage well illustrates the great changes occurring in the politics and government of the time; here, however, a deeper exploration of monetary circulation would have been helpful, to highlight the intended recipient of the numismatic messages. A brief comment in n. 27 (pp. 234-35) suggests that a considerable amount of coins were meant for the Roman nobility, but that further study was needed and was planned for other publications.

This investigation is in fact pushed farther in the following two essays. The first (Ch. IV) appeared as "Die Geschichtsauffassung in der römischen Repräsentationskunst" in JdI 95 (1980) 265-321. It deals not only with Republican, but also with Imperial coins, and adds the analysis of such disparate monuments as the two Boscoreale cups (which, despite n. 58 on p. 239, have both survived World War II, albeit damaged), the Column of Trajan, and Antonine sarcophagi. Concepts previously expressed are summarized, clarified, and occasionally amplified from the point of view of the Roman concept of history as manifested in the visual arts. Important observations are made on the apparent polarity between a historical event and a symbolic concept, which are however often combined in Roman official representations, to the detriment of specificity but with important consequences for stylistic issues. I found illuminating, for instance, the notion that the individual (especially the emperor) becomes a symbol for an ideological system, and therefore is shown almost abstracted from the action surrounding him -- hence an increased frontality of the principal actors, progressively centered within a composition that works as a prefabricated setting with semantic value. The analysis of scenes on the Column of Trajan is especially revealing from this point of view, and is not undermined by the recent suggestion (A. Claridge, JRA 6 [1993] 5-22) that an originally blank shaft erected by Trajan was decorated with reliefs only by his successor Hadrian.

Chapter V ("Staatsdenkmal und Publikum. Vom Untergang der Republik bis zur Festigung des Kaisertums in Rom," 1-87, as vol. 9 in Xenia, a publication of Konstanz University) continues this line of enquiry in both coins and other monuments, with specific reference to the intended recipients of the visual messages. H. believes that much of Late Republican art was meant for the cultured Roman aristocracy -- hence the significant shift from complex symbols to stereotypical images on coins that Antony minted to pay his troops who could not have been expected to understand learned allusions to Greek and Roman myths and religion. This same sophisticated approach, with increased reference to Hellenistic precedents, was sponsored by Augustus, but was eventually changed, both under him and by successive emperors, with an aim at reaching a wider public. The contrast between the Fora of Caesar and Augustus, focused on an axially placed temple at the rear, and the Forum of Trajan, in which the temple is blocked from view by the large Basilica that separates it from the public square, is read in terms of increased interest in reaching the masses. These would moreover perceive the explicit message carried by the Trajanic statues of subjected barbarians much more readily than the implicit one conveyed by the copies of the Erechtheion Karyatids in the Augustan Forum (over which even modern commentators debate!). Eventually, through reference to urban monuments and popular divinities, as well as the explication and perpetuation of symbols and concepts, this initially aulic language of forms was made accessible to the lower classes and the different ethnics embodied within the later Roman Empire.

I have no quarrel with the basic theories of this essay, perhaps the most important in the volume and the single one squarely to address the promise of its title. I would however note additional issues that need clarification. The subject is approached from the point of view of "which was the public that could understand the message," rather than asking "which was the public that used, or saw, the monuments." From the very beginning, complex sculptural programs like that of the Ara Pacis would have been seen not only by uncultured Roman citizens, but also by important foreigners, especially those whose children were brought up within the capital or those who came to negotiate help or treaties. Obviously, such messages were meant to be understood, perhaps through additional help (like possible inscriptions on the Ara Pacis, to identify individual figures), or public explanations of which no trace remains in the written record. Horace's Carmen Saeculare may not have been as restricted in its diffusion -- and therefore as incomprehensible in its iconographic quotations -- as we might think, if oral presentations of it were given. In Fascist Italy, a popular hymn repeated the words of the Carmen and was sung by the masses, although few of the singers might have recognized the origin of the verses. Similarly, in Augustan Rome, more people might have understood the implicit messages than the aristocratic few.

To argue the opposite side of the coin: how could carvers and masters, even if under the guidance of an imperial official, comprehend the complexity of the visual language desired for the Ara Pacis? Who formulated the program and supervised its execution? Are we being too clever in seeing multiple layers of meaning in what might have had a simpler message to convey? To be sure, any masterpiece "speaks" to each viewer according to the latter's level of understanding; and context, intended as the contributing background to each work of art, can be expanded ad infinitum. But then one might object to the contrast established by H. between Late Republican/early Augustan art and earlier or later periods, or even Greek art, since, obviously, major permanent monuments like the Parthenon and the Pergamon "Altar" meant different things to different observers, at different times. We should finally keep in mind that our own understanding of antiquity is limited. H. derives important inferences from the fact that a Classical Diomedes type was used for portrait statues of Emperors as Savior of the State (p. 256 n. 66), yet nothing assures us that the Greek prototype indeed depicted Diomedes (see, e.g., Ch. Landwehr, JdI 107 [1992] 103-24).

The final chapter (VI; originally "Actium und Salamis," in JdI 99 [1984] 187-214) develops a point already made in the previous essay. A group of Neo-Attic reliefs alludes not only to the Battle of Actium, but also, and perhaps primarily, to that of Salamis, thus placing the two events on the same ideological plane. Since stylistically the reliefs seem to belong to the Augustan period, and were obviously meant for the embellishment of private houses, H. finds in them confirmation of the elitist purpose of much contemporary art, and of its implication for the status and culture of its acquirers. He has most recently expanded on this concept in "Hellenistische Kunst und römische Aristokratie," written for the Bonn exhibition of the finds from the Mahdia shipwreck (Das Wrack [1994] 875-88), which indeed support his position.

As a final question, we may ask: since the component articles were all previously available, was this volume worth publishing? The answer for this reviewer is definitely "yes." Each essay acquires strength and definition through its proximity to the others, and the sequence forms a mini-handbook of Roman official art, especially for the Late Republican-Early Imperial phases. Translation has occasionally improved clarity, and availability will lead readers to ponder anew some of the many important points made by H. throughout. In fact, it is striking how "modern" some of his methods appear, despite the passing of time. Even on those issues (especially of Greek art) where I disagree, I always find myself stimulated and informed by H.'s penetrating scholarship.