Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.16

Lori-Ann Touchette, The Dancing Maenad Reliefs. Continuity and Change in Roman Copies. Institute of Classical Studies Bulletin Supplement 62. London: University of London, 1995. Pp. 119, 56 ill. ISBN 0-900587-65-2.

Reviewed by A.A. Donohue, Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010,

In 1889, Friedrich Hauser (Die neuattische Reliefs) identified the category of "Neo-Attic" among the sculptural production of later Hellenistic and Imperial Roman times. The corpus in question consists of relief sculpture in forms that for the most part appear to be "decorative", such as vessels and plaques; the figural repertory is evidently derived largely from pre-Hellenistic Greek models. Very soon, Neo-Attic art became a standard element in the theoretical opposition between Greek original genius and Roman artistic deficiency. Neo-Attic works were considered to be inherently inferior because they were decorative and derivative. It is only with the rehabilitation of Hellenistic and Roman art during the past decade that anything like an unprejudiced appraisal of Neo-Attic production has become possible. During its century in the shadows, the Neo-Attic corpus was redeemed only by the belief that sufficient mental effort would permit its noble models to be retrieved. It was this enterprise that won a place for the "dancing Maenads" in the scholarship of classical art. Hauser had identified eight recurring figures of maenads within the Neo-Attic repertory as comprising a coherent group. Abstracted from the monuments that carry them, these eight types (Hauser 25-32) have persisted to the present day as putative reflections of a hypothetical Greek original of the fifth century B.C. On the basis of the somewhat florid style of the drapery of some examples, they were long connected with the Athenian sculptor Callimachus, whose work is known only through literary sources. Faith in this association has declined along with the popularity of such attribution studies, but consensus still finds the prototype for the maenads in a late fifth-century work, possibly a base for a "cult statue" of Dionysus.

The shift in attitude toward Graeco-Roman art makes a thorough and authoritative review of the maenads desirable, but Touchette's monograph, despite the promise of its title, does not offer such a comprehensive treatment. Her specific aims sharply restrict the scope of the study, and its flaws reduce its usefulness. While the introduction states the goal of the work as "the positive assessment of copies of the dancing Maenad reliefs within their Roman context as indicators of Roman taste and culture" (1), in practice its focus is limited to two points: "The reconstruction of the original as a base for a statue of Dionysos will be proposed" (2), and "It will be argued that although the form and function of the Maenad reliefs was [sic] altered, their religious meaning was retained and even reinforced in the Roman copies" (2). Each point is treated in a separate chapter ("The Greek Original", 5-30; "The Roman Copies", 31-56).

The weaknesses of the study range from errors in the treatment of individual works to an overall conceptual confusion: "Copies of the dancing Maenad reliefs of the Roman period are considered broadly as representatives of a broad cultural phenomenon (Roman versus Greek use of these motifs)" (27). Most serious is the absence from catalogue and text alike of a sustained or consistent engagement with the corpus of monuments.

The eighty-one brief entries of the catalogue, arranged by form of object, provide little information beyond what is already available in the frequently unsatisfactory existing published treatments. The specific points of description that are offered here are not always correct: for example, in the entry for sarcophagus cat. 39, we are bidden to "Note how the drapery of the Maenad overlaps the Herm at the corner" (79), although pls. 26a and 27a show very clearly that there is no overlap. The reliefs differ considerably in details of costume and accoutrement, but because such features are not consistently noted, it is difficult to tell which the author thinks are significant; for instance, attention is drawn to the indication of sandal-soles in some cases but not others (e.g., cat. 4). Some comments are peculiar: it is unclear, for example, why it is noted that in a sixteenth-century drawing of type 25 "the forelegs of the kid" are "missing", since the type is, as usual, carrying the hindquarters. An attempt has been made to furnish an illustration for every catalogue entry, and while many are clear enough to compensate for the brevity of the descriptions, many are not. The allusions to the style of the reliefs are unsystematic, superficial, and sometimes cryptic (cat. 17: "The style is simplistic and cursive.")

Obvious errors like the confusion between entries 72 and 73 or the assignment of type 32 instead of 31 to cat. 15 in the chart on p. 94 are minor and less troubling than is the impression that the extent and nature of the catalogued corpus have not been thought out thoroughly. For instance, base 81 has been relegated to the position of addendum "on the basis of the broader adaptation of the figure types." Yet some of the "adaptations" that have been admitted to the body of the catalogue (e.g., in cat. 38, 41, and 46) are, if anything, even further removed from the more usual forms of the types in question. Both the catalogue and the study it supports have failed to engage the fundamental problem established by Hauser's treatment: to what extent are the figural types to be separated from the monuments that carry them? Touchette bases her assertion of the religious significance of the maenads on the nature of the objects that show them, but her study perpetuates the traditional emphasis on the abstracted figural types. A telling example is the case of the "Drawings of Pieces of Uncertain Form" (cat. 72-75). The antiquarianly challenged reader may or may not, in the absence of any cross-reference, succeed in linking 75, a drawing of a base, with another sheet from the same codex, 78, which shows a vase, and may or may not realize that the drawings by Pierre Jacques (72-74), which in contrast show figural types, come from a sketchbook by the sculptor from Reims, resident in Rome from 1572 to 1577 (information that could easily have been supplied by citing the full title of Reinach's publication of 1902). The author's lack of attention to -- or curiosity about -- these drawings has more than antiquarian consequences. Catalogue items 72-75 are included in the enumeration of types on p. 91 and in the "Chart of Figures and Ornaments" (94-95), concerned with the distribution and order of the types, and are not differentiated from the more securely documented objects, even though some of them almost certainly illustrate monuments already accounted for (e.g., the entry for 72, shown on p. 46b, not 46a, reasonably connects the drawing with Mus. Torlonia 421, which ought to be identified as cat. 55 and there cross-referenced). The inclusion of what are effectively "virtual maenads" is methodologically problematic for any attempt to seek possible patterns within a figural repertory numbering significantly fewer than one hundred.

The renderings by Pierre Jacques suggest that the process of abstracting the figures from their material existence began long before Hauser created the corpus of line drawings that has all but eliminated interest in the monuments themselves. Touchette's efforts to collect these objects should have provided an opportunity to break free from the customary approaches of Kopienkritik and the search for models and instead to engage in a serious consideration of the question of "copying", but, "Although I am wary of casting myself headlong into the same traps which have waylaid others" (18), she perpetuates the conventional exercise of shuffling Hauser's types to produce an "original", without confronting the implications of the existence of such an endlessly manipulatable group of elements or even giving serious consideration to the issues surrounding Roman copies that have received serious attention for a decade. "The most successful reconstruction" (19; it is the author's own) is not appreciably different from any of the arrangements that have been proposed before. Again at work is a mentality of reconstruction that devalues the actual monuments. For example, in discussing the process of "excerption", she cites the example of one of the well-known Piraeus slabs with scenes of an Amazonomachy; it combines two types of Amazons, "although [they are] separated in the reconstructions of the fifth-century BC shield postulated by E.B. Harrison and T. Höscher" (19-20). Is this really "evidence that Roman copyists need not always copy groups as they appeared on the Greek original" (19)? Or is this a particularly clear case of wrong priorities? It may at last be time to admit that as far as the maenads are concerned, the entire quest for a fifth-century prototype is misguided and that any attempt to reconstruct such an "original" -- in this case, another base for a statue of Dionysus -- is dead on arrival. There is simply no evidence to support such a prototype. The significant points for a reasonable inquiry are well established: Bieber showed the way by pointing out that the maenads are not classical but classicizing; Ridgway asked the right questions about the nature of the repertory; and proper account must be taken of the bronze krater Berlin 30622, the earliest object to carry related figures.

Fundamental to any study of the maenads must be a serious consideration of the sculptural corpus, but Touchette's treatment of the "Roman copies" is so directed toward asserting their religious value that the monuments are lost in generalities about Roman society and citations of great quantities of material with Dionysiac themes. The focus on "religious force" (36) and "sacred function" (39) means that objects such as bases or altars (eight), oscilla (at most three), and candelabra (at most three) are emphasized; yet the twenty-three reliefs, the single most numerous category, are mostly of unknown function. To argue the religious significance of so fragmentary and deracinated a corpus requires a more thoughtful treatment than is presented. The assumption that the maenads originated as the decoration for a base for a statue of Dionysus is sufficiently questionable; the further assertion that "this religious meaning was retained and even intensified in the Roman copies" (2) surely demands careful consideration of the Roman situation in all its complexity. Yet, because of the difficulty of assigning precise dates to the objects, "No attempt is made to break down their use diachronically within the Roman period" (2). Further, "By Romans, [the author] refer[s] to those who lived in the Roman period, whether Roman by birth or by virtue of being under Roman rule" (1, n. 2). Such an approach does not seem defensible in view of the vast changes in society and culture attested over the centuries during which the maenads were produced. The past decade has seen a revival of interest in the question of the Roman response to Greek culture, and the picture that is emerging is one of huge complexity -- both synchronic and diachronic. The study of religion, the most subtle and elusive of subjects, requires more than superficial assumptions. Touchette has instead set up a simple contrast between "art for art's sake" (32) and religious significance that badly underestimates the possible range of meanings within the variety of Roman contexts. With respect to the specific problem of dating the corpus, the situation is not so hopeless as to justify dismissing the question completely. For example, the presence of two maenad-bearing kraters of known type in the cargo of the Mahdia shipwreck is not uninformative (see now D. Grassinger, "Die Marmorkratere," in G.H. Salies et al., edd., Das Wrack. Der antike Schiffsfund von Mahdia, Cologne, 1992, 259-283).

While this monograph does not provide a comprehensive treatment or a sustainable interpretation of the maenads, Touchette deserves credit for demonstrating that these figures, despite a century of ill-use, may yet provide opportunities to explore significant issues in Graeco-Roman art.