For over twenty years, the primary text used in Greek Art courses taught in the US was John Pedley’s Greek Art and Archaeology, (Prentice-Hall, five editions beginning in 1993). In just the past few years, however, three new options have appeared, authored by Judith Barringer, Richard Neer, and Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell.1 All are the work of widely respected scholars with substantial research profiles, each of whom brings his or her own expertise and perspective to the daunting task of presenting an account that is clear and comprehensible, yet reflective of the breadth and complexity of the topic. Each also seeks to update its approach not simply by mentioning recent developments in scholarship but also, and more conspicuously, by weaving thematic and synthetic treatments into a traditional structure organized by date, location and/or medium. Neer and Stansbury-O’Donnell each divides his work into fourteen chapters (corresponding to the weeks in a standard college semester). Neer devotes three of his chapters to what he calls “case studies,” which seek to present all categories of material from one or more sites: Olympia and Delphi as Panhellenic sanctuaries, Cyrene and Paestum representing the extended Greek world, and fifth-century Athens, as a case unto itself. Stansbury-O’Donnell includes two chapters on “contexts”: “civic, domestic, and funerary” vs. “sanctuaries and architecture”; in addition, there are two other thematic chapters, on “narrative” and “identity.” Each volume allows a student to appreciate a work of art both as such (i.e., as a statue, or a building or a vase within the context of such objects) and with respect to its location, function, and reception. Nonetheless, there are potential pitfalls in execution with such an arrangement, since the thematic chapters can interrupt a flow that is primarily diachronic, making it difficult to assign specific chapters to specific weeks and causing monuments to be discussed in more than one place, prompting more flipping of pages than is necessary.
Barringer’s book offers a more successful solution to the challenge. First, there are fewer, longer chapters (six plus a short seventh chapter on Greek elements in Roman art), which permit the development of themes across a greater period of time. In addition, each chapter includes several subsections, most with additional subtopics. Some subdivisions are straightforward, traditional categories, such as a particular medium as it occurs and develops in a particular time period. Many, however, are more thematic, weaving different media together within a particular time or place, or setting artistic developments within specific historical contexts. In addition, each chapter includes three or four explanatory “boxes” that deal with a variety of issues, such as techniques of production, issues of marketing and consumption, and special cases of iconography or historical context. Consequently, there is an appropriate treatment of synthetic themes without interrupting the chronological flow, enabling a student new to the subject to comprehend clearly where each monument fits in the greater scheme of things. Additionally, readers are continually re-oriented by the title page for each chapter, which presents both a listing of all subsections and an informative timeline of objects and events. Consequently, this excellent book achieves the difficult goals of an introductory text more successfully than its competitors. Its selection of monuments includes all of the most-often-discussed pieces in histories of Greek Art, and the very large number of illustrations allows the corpus to be expanded in order to develop further those ideas that the author wishes to highlight. She does not pursue a selection/omission of works that strives to achieve novelty for its own sake, as current handbooks are apt to do.
The well-designed structure of the book is complemented by its excellent physical design. In addition to the helpful chapter divisions, outlines, timelines, and boxes, there is an extensive glossary, an extraordinary number of beautiful maps, and some 400 illustrations, nearly all in color and crisply reproduced from high resolution sources. The spacious and readable layout is successfully designed to orient the reader at every stage, as is essential for an effective textbook. The smooth shifting between description, analysis, and synthesis, and from object to explanation to context, is both logical and engaging, and should play well to an information-overloaded generation of readers that can be, at times, attention-challenged. For this reason many current textbooks (and print media generally) are designed to look like websites, but in this as in other ways, this book finds an effective middle ground. Of course, none of this would matter were not the text not so authoritative and well written. The clarity of thinking and expression that runs throughout the presentation of objects and ideas is precisely what we would expect from an author with such a rich and impressive record of scholarship.2
By way of brief illustration, one can look at what is surely the most inherently difficult section in any Greek art text: that dealing with the Hellenistic period. The plethora of changes that occur during and after the late fourth century are disorienting to author and reader alike. Much that has structured the previous treatment—for example, the sequencing of styles in art or the polis-based environment in which works were created and received—give way in the Hellenistic era to far more heterogeneous phenomena. Therefore, many criteria for organization suggest themselves, but each, whether chronology, function, style, subject matter, region, or some other factor, is at once problematic and constricting. The typical result is a relatively short and vaguely conceived treatment of Hellenistic art that is little more than an epilogue. Barringer, however, meets the challenge head on, giving due regard to all of the ways in which things change while not losing sight of the way things stay the same. There is an implicit tripartite chronological structure here. She begins with character and royal portraiture, both of which are rooted in the era of Macedonian ascendance, moving thereafter from characterization to more striking forms of exploring individualized subject matter. Since sanctuaries served as a central focus for the treatment of earlier eras, Samothrace then provides another link to earlier chapters, illustrating both continuity and change. Next she explores regionalism among the now-established kingdoms of the Diadochs, moving from Alexandria to Pergamum to the seldom-discussed reaches of Kommagene and Baktria. The third stage focuses on Delos, where one sees most clearly the early stages of cultural interaction between the Roman conqueror and a Hellenistic world still in the process of conquest. This sets up, of course, the Roman epilogue of chapter seven. The narrative flows smoothly, each monument is treated fully and clearly, the sense of development over time is maintained, as is the rich variety of Hellenistic artistic experience, yet the potentially disorienting fissures of the Hellenistic world disappear into a coherent and cohesive account.
Given the indefinite and subjective character of much that we think we know about classical antiquity, differences of opinion cannot help but occur, but a review is not the place to outline the book that the reviewer would have written. Nonetheless, I do include a few suggestions for corrections or adjustments that easily can be worked into a future edition of the text.
Although the layout is generally excellent, it might have been possible to place illustrations more closely to the text that discusses them. Also, there is some inconsistency in the captions, in that some have dates and others do not.
More specific points:
P.60 – 1350 BC in first line of first full paragraph should be 1250.
P.91 – “six-figured centaur” (from Lefkandi) should be six-fingered.
P.104 – “Geometric amphorae as cinerary containers were designated for women (kraters for men).” While this seems to hold for grave-markers, amphorae were often used for male cremation burials, especially in EG.
P.155, Fig. 3.25 – Caption indicates the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, but the image is from Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Text does not discuss this piece specifically.
P.175, Fig. 3.39 – Plan of Acropolis, ca. 500 BC. Includes plans of unfinished marble older Parthenon and Older Propylon, both of which are generally considered post- Marathon.
P.185 – “Athens and Eretria … sent aid (to Ionian Revolt) in 494 BC.” Should be 498.
P.203 – “(see Fig 3.51).” Should be 3.50.
P.221 – Box 4.2: “Bronzeworking Technique.” Direct casting is discussed, but not indirect casting, which was regularly used for Classical bronzes, a fact that is of great significance for the study of such sculptures.
P.224 – “The fourth century sculptor Lysippus was reputed to have made men as they are and not as they appear to be, as was the practice of earlier sculptors.” Actually, Pliny (NH 34.65) has Lysippus make precisely the opposite claim.
P.228-229 – “Unfortunately, they (the Parthenon pediments) survive in very poor condition, particularly on the east, as a result of centuries of damage and, in particular, an explosion in 1687 from a Venetian shell lobbed into the Turkish arsenal stored in the building; this blew out the center of the east side and the central south metopes of the temple.” Generally it is thought, although not proven, that the center of the east side was destroyed in building an apse for the church into which the Parthenon was converted in late antiquity. The damage is visible in the Carrey/Pointel drawing, which dates 13 years before the explosion, so it was not caused by that catastrophe. The badly damaged west pedimental figures did, however, suffer at the hands of the Venetians, not from the bombardment but from attempts to remove them afterward. Several were dropped, shattering on the ground below.
P.235-236 – In outlining the subjects of figures on the Parthenon frieze, the author entirely skips over the chariot groups that take up a large part of the central section of each long side (N&S). These are crucial to the problems of interpretation.
P.237-238. – It seems odd not to at least mention attempts (most recently and conspicuously that of Joan Connelly) to identify the subject of the Parthenon frieze as mythological, which is of course what one expects, based on other temple sculptures.
P.242, fig. 4.48 – The caption dates the Propylaia to 438-432. It is more often dated 437-432 based on building accounts for those years and Plutarch’s statement that the work took five years. Perhaps 438/7–433/2 would be better?
P.244, text and Fig. 4.53. – The caption dates the Nike Parapet c. 410 and the text places it “sometime after 410.” Recent work has plausibly established that the parapet was installed around the same time as the temple, in the mid to later 420s.
P.326-327, text and Fig. 6.8. – The text identifies this as a portrait of Antiochos I, but the caption (correctly) as Antiochos III.
I offer these suggestions not as criticism but only as minor refinements for what is already an outstanding book. In the end, what one wants students to gain from a text on Greek art is, first of all, a mastery of solid factual information concerning the most important examples of sculpture, painting, and architecture and second, an appreciation for the role of evidence in formulating interpretations, including an appropriate selection of up-to-date scholarly viewpoints. The instructor is thus enabled to use lecture to reinforce important concepts while also inducing students to speculate further on evaluation, argumentation, and the plausibility of differing approaches and opinions. This book achieves these goals just about perfectly.
1. In addition to the volume under review, R. Neer, Greek Art and Archaeology. Thames and Hudson, 2011; M. Stansbury-O’Donnell, A History of Greek Art. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
2. Notably, her Art, Myth, and Ritual in Classical Greece. Cambridge University Press, 2008.