Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.40

Sarah Lepinski, Susanna McFadden (ed.), Beyond Iconography: Materials, Methods, and Meaning in Ancient Surface Decoration. Selected papers on ancient art and architecture, 1.   Boston:  Archaeological Institute of America, 2015.  Pp. 218.  ISBN 9781931909310.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Molly Swetnam-Burland, The College of William and Mary (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Beyond Iconography is the first volume of the Archaeological Institute of America’s new series, Selected Papers on Ancient Art and Architecture, whose aim is to publish innovative presentations at the annual meetings of the society. This promising series is much needed in the field, particularly welcome for its publication of short-form essays, research in progress, and the work of emerging scholars. The essays in this volume were presented between 2012 and 2014 in three panels sponsored by the Ancient Painting Studies Interest Group (APSIG). Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

As Sarah Lepinski and Susanna McFadden explain in their introduction, APSIG was created to bring together scholars from many disciplines working on surface decoration, broadly understood, from all cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and open, as well, to scholars of any pre-modern society. The collected papers certainly meet this promise: the range of materials discussed includes fresco and other painting, ornamental stucco and plaster, and mosaics. The geographical range is broad, including case studies from Campania, Crete, Israel, Corinth, and even Guatemala. The introduction offers an overview of the essays, and provides a brief, but useful, discussion of the state of the field, listing major works and noting those of particular methodological interest. The volume appears roughly divided into papers that foreground issues of archaeological method (techniques of conservation, physical or virtual reconstruction) and those that explore the production and meaning of compositions using various approaches (Morellian analysis, study of artists’ tools such as grids and pattern books). It is a stimulating collection, sure to foster communication between specialists working on surface decoration in its many forms. In what follows, I describe the dialogues that emerge from the papers rather than summarizing them in order.

Sarah Lepinski’s essay, “Methodologies and Materiality: Excavating and Analyzing Fragmentary Mural Painting, a Case Study from Ancient Corinth,” details a method for dealing with painted fragments discovered during systematic excavation. She advocates treating fragments of painted plaster both as individual artifacts and collectively as a corpus. Treating each fragment as an artifact enables better understanding of how they relate to the site’s history of deposition; treating them as a corpus reveals the decorative scheme of the wall at a specific time, when it stood complete. The discussion builds to the interesting observation that artists working in Corinth soon after the city’s Roman foundation in 44 BCE used Italic methods of production, but that after a century or more artists instead followed the methods more typical of wall painting in Delos and Northern Greece.

Heather Hurst and Caitlin O'Grady’s article, “Maya Mural Art as Collaboration: Verifying Artists’ Hands at San Bartolo, Guatemala through Pigment and Plaster Composition,” also discusses recently excavated material. The San Bartolo frescos shed light on a period of Maya culture in which the role of the artist-scribe is little understood, attesting to three painters at work in a single space. The authors identified artists’ hands using a method that combined stylistic, material, and chemical analysis, revealing a fascinating collaboration in which each individual artist mixed his own pigments and primarily worked alone on specific sections of the design. As the decoration neared completion, however, the artists may have touched up each other’s work. Together, these two papers show how careful archaeological method can enhance what are often considered to be art historical questions, and that the methods they advocate for are applicable to any cultural context.

Two essays in the volume illustrate new approaches to previously excavated paintings, showing how digital reconstruction and modern conservation methods can expand on conclusions we often take for granted. Francesca Pique, Emily Macdonald-Korth, and Leslie Rainer, “Observations on Materials and Techniques Used in Roman Wall Paintings of the Tablinum, House of the Bicentenary at Herculaneum”, describe in depth the degradation of frescoes left open to the air, woefully familiar to any scholar of the Vesuvian cities, explaining how pigments change colors and why certain parts of mural compositions, including figural scenes, are especially vulnerable to flaking. John Clarke’s article, “Retrieving the Decorative Program of Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Oplontis (Torre Annunziata, Italy): How Orphaned Fragments Find a Home in the Virtual-Reality 3D Model” discusses how the Oplontis Project created a digital reconstruction that joined previously conserved remains with fragments of fallen plaster that had never been incorporated into the reconstructions of the villa. The digital model simultaneously allows scholars to study the entire composition of the room while still acknowledging the state of preservation of its many components.

Several papers in the volume address issues of artistic production or materiality. Stephanie Pearson, “Bodies of Meaning: Figural Repetition in Pompeian Painting,” takes a fresh look at the evidence for pattern books in Pompeian painting, arguing both that artists had the ability to adapt their source material and, indeed, that often adaptations were done in order to create harmony between paintings within a room and to encourage programmatic interpretation. Benton Kidd, “Masonry Style in Phoenicia: Reconstructing Sumptuous Mural Decoration from the 'Late Hellenistic Stuccoed Building' at Tel Anafa,” documents and reconstructs an elaborate mural scheme from the site and compares it to other known examples of the pan-Mediterranean ‘Masonry style’; he makes the interesting observation that the frescos were gilded. In “Living Surfaces: The Materiality of Minoan Wall Paintings,” Seth Estrin questions a common interpretation of Minoan palace frescos—namely, that they were intended to represent flora and other motifs in a naturalistic way. Instead, he argues for an interpretation of the wall surface as animated, occupying the same conceptual and physical space as the viewer, sometimes even emerging from the vertical plane (e.g., features rendered in low relief) to do so. Finally, in one of the volume’s most interesting and energetic pieces, “Working within the Lines: Artists' Grids and Painted Floors at the Palace of Nestor,” Emily Eagan takes a new look at an enigmatic feature of the floors of the Mycenaean palace: painted ‘mini grids’ previously explained as serving a vague ritual function. Combining archival documentation with new observations made while cleaning the floors, Egan shows that the grids were used by artists during production. She moves beyond documentation of the features in question to make two overarching points: first, that mini grids reveal a relationship between the practice of floor and mural painting (perhaps to be expected, but an important point nonetheless); second, that the grids reveal how labor was organized on site and how artists were trained in their craft as part of workshops. She posits that the grids may have been used by less experienced craftsmen as guides to help them control the spacing of complex designs. Her essay is a model of how even short-format writing can build to important conclusions.

The most significant discussion to emerge from the volume, in my view, concerns surface decorations that engaged with, improved on, or restored earlier compositions. Regina Gee’s article—“Fourth Style Workshop Deployment and Movement Patterns at Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Oplontis”— previews some results from the Oplontis Project. Gee argues that the work of two different workshops is visible on the walls, including one that operated in the final years before the eruption =: the “Fourth-Style Workshop” or “Workshop B.” These painters retouched the murals in the atrium and in a series of modest rooms, in all cases working carefully to maintain the design of the earlier frescos but at the same time using forms more typical of later painted production. This is a sensitive observation, deriving from painstaking study. Yet the terminology used to describe the artisans as belonging to a “Fourth-Style Workshop” has some potential for confusion. In my opinion, it would be helpful to draw a clearer distinction between our understanding of “style” as revealing artists’ manner of treatment of line and form, and “style” as an observable and evolving phenomenon that allows us to date the wall on which it appears —a distinction particularly important for a publication intended to engage with scholars working in periods and places beyond the Bay of Naples. It might be useful to describe the workshop as dating to c. 60 – 79 CE and comprised of artists trained to produce works in contemporary fashions (that is, what we consider “Fourth Style”) but equally capable of working within the broad parameters of earlier visual vernaculars (in this case “Second Style”). This is not to quibble with Gee’s point, but rather to underscore it: her work has far-reaching implications and reveals that preserving older material culture was a matter of both aesthetics and expedience, even for the elite. A later paper in the collection, Lynley McAlpine’s “Heirlooms on the Walls: Republican Paintings and Imperial Viewers in Pompeii,” also discusses a similar phenomenon, exploring why “First Style” paintings were maintained in some houses through the city’s final years, including in the impressive House of the Faun. She suggests that, as houses changed hands, preserving paintings that were perceived as antique or as heirlooms was a sign of social prestige. Lea Cline’s fascinating treatment of mosaic floors—“Painted Pavements: Illusion and Imitation at Villa A (“of Poppaea”) at Oplontis”— also points to a similar conclusion. She discusses the little-known process of over- painting, possibly applied to hide joins between tiles or employed as a strategy for maintaining the floor over time. She also describes pigments added to flat concrete surfaces with the goal of giving them the appearance of expensive marble.

This volume has much to recommend it. It brings together new work, bridges the worlds of the archaeologist and the art historian, and is gorgeously produced on high-gloss paper with many color photographs. If I have one criticism, it is that the color illustrations could have been better deployed to support the intellectual contributions of the papers. Many of the color illustrations are used for aquarelles or digital reconstructions of full-wall schemes that, though lovely, relate rather indirectly to the main points of the essays in question. Yet several authors – including Gee and Estrin – discuss color more substantively, and including illustrations in color, however fragmentary or humble the example, would have made their points easier to visualize. All in all, however, the editors and the authors are to be commended for their forward-thinking scholarship.

Table of Contents

Sarah Lepinski and Susanna McFadden: Introduction
Sarah Lepinski: Methodologies and Materiality: Excavating and Analyzing Fragmentary Mural Painting, a Case Study from Ancient Corinth
Heather Hurst and Caitlin R. O'Grady: Maya Mural Art as Collaboration: Verifying Artists Hands at San Bartolo, Guatemala through Pigment and Plaster Composition
Francesca Pique, Emily Macdonald-Korth, and Leslie Rainer: Observations on Materials and Techniques Used in Roman Wall Paintings of the Tablinum, House of the Bicentenary at Herculaneum
Benton Kidd: Masonry Style in Phoenicia: Reconstructing Sumptuous Mural Decoration from the "Late Hellenistic Stuccoed Building" at Tel Anafa
John R. Clarke: Retrieving the Decorative Program of Villa A ("of Poppaea") at Oplontis (Torre Annunziata, Italy): How Orphaned Fragments Find a Home in the Virtual-Reality 3D Model
Seth Estrin: Living Surfaces: The Materiality of Minoan Wall Paintings
Regina Gee: Fourth Style Workshop Deployment and Movement Patterns at Villa A ("of Poppaea") at Oplontis
Stephanie Pearson: Bodies of Meaning: Figural Repetition in Pompeian Painting
Lynley McAlpine: Heirlooms on the Walls: Republican Paintings and Imperial Viewers in Pompeii
Emily Catherine Egan: Working within the Lines: Artists' Grids and Painted Floors at the Palace of Nestor
Lea K. Cline: Painted Pavements: Illusion and Imitation at Villa A ("of Poppaea") at Oplontis
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