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Teaching a survey course whose objective is to offer undergraduates an overview of either Greek or Roman art in one semester is fraught with many challenges. The first problem confronting an instructor involves defining a clear plan for a course intended to offer a comprehensive view of a culture’s artistic production. What are students expected to retain from an abundance of monuments, dates, and cultural information presented to them? And, in view of the daunting number of works that can be covered in a semester-long course, how does an instructor select and organize the material so that the students are not overwhelmed by all the information presented to them? For many years the traditional approach to teaching a survey course has been to focus on monuments from a well-established canon and to study them stylistically within a chronological framework. Consequently, the textbooks that have typically been chosen for such courses have been organized historically, with an emphasis on the ways in which works of art exemplify the stylistic and iconographic characteristics of their respective periods. This approach, however, has always been problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it runs the risk of creating the impression in students’ minds that Greek art underwent a stylistic evolution over time from abstraction in the Early Iron Age to naturalism in the Hellenistic period and that, in the case of Roman art, the trajectory was in the opposite direction.
Since 2010, the study of Greek and Roman art has been substantially enriched by scholars who have considered works of art in the context of a variety of cultural issues. Topics such as gender and sexuality, ethnicity, reception studies, and cultural patrimony, have expanded our view of ancient art and, consequently, influenced ideas about the best approach to teaching a survey course. For example, Richard Neer (Thames & Hudson, 2011) and Judith Barringer (Cambridge University Press, 2015) have written surveys of Greek art that both maintain the chronological framework and offer new perspectives on the key monuments and the cultures that produced them. Both authors present a large body of material and adhere to the traditional chronological format while, at the same time, recognizing the importance of viewing works within a wider cultural framework. In the case of comprehensive surveys available for the history of Roman art, the texts by Fred Kleiner (Cengage Learning, enhanced ed., 2010) and Nancy and Andrew Ramage (Pearson, 6th ed., 2014) have been popular texts, with the authors contextualizing representative works by including relevant cultural material. In the latter text, for example, the authors include information about non-elite burials in columbaria in their chapter on early Imperial art and architecture.
In 2015, Wiley Blackwell took the unprecedented step of simultaneously publishing surveys of Greek and Roman art and architecture, written by respected scholars and meant to be companion texts. Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell has written a survey of Greek art and architecture in which key monuments are coupled with numerous works that are less well known. His organization is chronological, with timelines paralleling the dates of key monuments with significant historical events. At the same time, the author includes within each chapter and in separate chapters thematic material, like Greek ritual practices and ethnic identity. Steven Tuck’s companion volume on Roman art and architecture is also chronologically structured, with key monuments discussed within the framework of Roman history. In each chapter there are textboxes introducing additional historical, cultural, and artistic material. Both authors have endeavored to strike a balance between presenting Greek and Roman art within an historical context and, at the same time, introducing the reader to the issues and problems being addressed by today’s scholars.
In 2016, the English translation of a survey of Greek art and archaeology by Dimitris Plantzos was published. In five chapters the author introduces the reader to the research methodology of archaeological investigation and discusses a select number of mostly familiar monuments within their historical and cultural context. Textboxes focus on specific works of art and various cultural issues, with topics ranging from the symposion to the problems associated with using Roman copies to reconstruct lost Greek works. The material covered in the textboxes serves to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the material covered in the chapter. The monuments presented in each chapter are, for the most part, canonical but the author departs from the approaches of other authors of survey texts by taking a decidedly archaeological approach and including issues such as excavation history and authenticity.
The objective of this review is to offer a critical evaluation of these three texts in an effort to provide a useful guide to instructors who offer comprehensive surveys of Greek and Roman art. It will also include some personal thoughts on alternative approaches to introducing undergraduates to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome by utilizing the visual arts as the focus.
Stansbury-O’Donnell’s text is divided into fifteen chapters, with the first providing an introduction to the format of the book, followed by an explanation of terms and an overview of each chapter’s subject matter. Eight chronologically organized chapters begin with the “Early and Middle Bronze Age” (2) and end with the “Hellenistic Period” (14). In the “Epilogue” (15) the author underscores the continuous communication among ancient cultures by highlighting the adaptation by Greek artists of forms from the artistic vocabulary of other cultures, particularly Persian. There are also five thematic chapters interspersed within the text, with headings such as ‘Civic, Domestic, and Funerary Context’ (5) and ‘Narrative’ (9). In the body of each chapter names and terms are highlighted in red, with definitions in the margins. At the beginning of each chapter there is a timeline and at the conclusion a textbox in which various scholarly issues are discussed. These range from problems concerning the dating of Thera’s volcanic eruption (2) to the use of color in Greek free-standing and relief sculpture (8). Following each textbox there is a list of References and Further Reading, most consisting of recent publications in English. The volume closes with a seven-page glossary of names and terms.
Tuck’s survey of Roman art is divided into twelve chapters, beginning with a note to students on the most effective way to use the book and a ‘Walk Through Tour,’ with information to help the reader navigate the text. In the first chapter the author discusses a number of issues pertaining to the study of Roman art and culture, such as the role of elites in public art and the values embodied in the portraits of women. Each of the following chapters is chronological, with titles such as “The Julio-Claudians, 14-68 CE: The Rise of Roman Dynastic Art” (6) and “Civil War and Severan Dynasty, 193-235 CE: Calm before the Storm” (10). The organization of the material is essentially the same: each chapter begins with a general historical overview of the period; provides a summary of important artistic trends; discusses the portraiture of empresses and emperors; and finally concludes with the public architecture of the period, including historical reliefs. Throughout each chapter, and highlighted in blue, there are boxes in which pertinent historical events and cultural issues are presented. In the chapter on the Flavians (7), for example, there are discussions of the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE; Pliny’s account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; the Roman classes and patron-client system; and the Cretan cycle of myths (related to the section on the murals in Pompeii’s House of the Vettii). Each chapter also contains three large textboxes entitled: ‘A View from the Provinces’, ‘Scholarly Perspective’, and ‘Art and Literature.’ In each of these highlighted sections, the author focuses on a provincial monument or site; a specific problem or issue; and ancient literary sources, all of which serve to broaden the scope of the material covered in the chapter. In the chapter on the Antonine Emperors (9), for example, ‘A View from the Provinces’ focuses on portraits from Palmyra; ‘Art and Literature’ on the connection between Antonine art and the Second Sophistic; and ‘Scholarly Perspective’ on the problems in interpreting the reliefs on monumental sarcophagi. Each chapter concludes with a summary of the chapter’s contents and a list of suggestions for further reading. Tuck ends with a discussion of monuments associated with Constantine, as well as the influence of the Roman visual vocabulary on later monuments, like Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. A three-page glossary of names and terms and a guide to further reading conclude the volume.
The material in Plantzos’ text on Greek art is organized chronologically, beginning with “The Early Iron Age (1100-700 BC)” in Chapter 2 (omitting Minoan and Cycladic Art) and concluding with “The Hellenistic Period (336-30 BC)” in Chapter 5, and it is clear from the beginning that the author, an eminent classical archaeologist in Greece, has taken a distinctly archaeological perspective in discussing the monuments. In fact, following a brief Preface and Introduction, in which Plantzos summarizes the history of classical archaeology, Chapter 1, “Classical Archaeology: Sources and Methodology,” introduces the reader to the development of the discipline of archaeology, defining it as the “systematic and multidisciplinary study” of the societies that produced material remains, and describing classical archaeologists as “cultural historians.” Each chapter ends with a one-to-two page select bibliography of relevant texts and internet sites, and there are textboxes in each chapter that cover a variety of topics, from the contributions of Sir John Beazley to the study of black and red figure vase painting (1) to the lost-wax technique of bronze-casting (4). The centerpiece of the volume is Chapter 4: “The Classical Period (480-336 BC)”, in which fifth- and fourth-century monuments are given equal attention. Plantzos highlights the architecture and sculptural program of the Parthenon in the first half of the chapter, and Macedonian tomb painting in the second half, with particular attention to the Tombs of Persephone and the so-called Tomb of Philip II at Vergina.
Wiley Blackwell made a wise decision in contracting Stansbury-O’Donnell and Tuck to write their surveys of Greek and Roman art. Both are respected scholars with impressive publication records. Their research interests, Stansbury-O’Donnell’s in Greek iconography and narrative and Tuck’s in the Sperlonga sculptures and Latin epigraphy, have clearly informed their texts. Stansbury-O’Donnell’s breadth of knowledge is evident in his inclusion of works of art that are not only not part of the canon but not discussed, to my knowledge, in any previous survey text. For example, in the thematic chapter entitled “Identity” (13), the discussion of women’s lives is illustrated by objects from an Early Geometric woman’s burial in the Athenian Agora, the “Boots Tomb” (D16.2). Among the grave goods are personal items, including two pairs of model terracotta boots (Fig. 13.5). The author refers to Susan Langdon’s proposal that boots such as these may have signified the discarding of childhood attire by a bride on her wedding day. Perhaps the woman buried in the Agora tomb died before marriage, Stansbury-O’Donnell posits, in spite of her having reached maturity. By citing the research of Langdon and many other scholars in his text, Stansbury-O’Donnell not only acknowledges his debt to the scholarship of others but also reminds his reader that our understanding of Greek art is constantly changing.
Tuck has also enriched his discussion of key monuments of Roman art and architecture by including works not usually seen in a survey textbook. For example, in the chapter on the Early Republic (3), he underscores the cross-cultural connections between Rome and the peoples of the Italian Peninsula by discussing a number of fourth century BCE Lucanian tomb paintings from Paestum (Figs. 3.6-3.9). Tuck’s own research on the Tiberian sculptures from the imperial dining room at Sperlonga enlivens his discussion of the art of the Julio-Claudian period in Chapter 6 by offering the thesis that the sculptural groups that once decorated the cave may have operated as mythological metaphors for recent events in the lives of the patrons who commissioned them. The figures of Scylla and Polyphemus, he proposes, may have recalled the numismatic and public imagery of Sextus Pompey in his failed civil war with Octavian/Augustus in the 30s BCE (p. 155).
Plantzos is a prolific scholar whose wide-ranging publications in both Greek and English include studies of Hellenistic and Roman engraved gems and of the connection between the discipline of classical archaeology and constructions of Hellenic identity in twentieth-century Greece. It is no surprise, then, that his survey of Greek art is archaeologically focused. While the monuments are, by and large, canonical, there are works that are probably unfamiliar to the average reader, such as the Archaic kouros from the Kerameikos Cemetery (Figs. 167, 169), the paintings from the Macedonian tomb at Agios Athanasios (Figs. 520-522), and two scientific papyri from Hellenistic Alexandria (Figs. 536, 537). The author is particularly strong in the area of painting, viewing painted pottery as “the connective tissue in the study of Greek art” (p. 86) and underscoring the connection between Hellenistic painting and the four styles of Roman wall painting in Chapter 5. Another strength of Plantzos’ text is his attention to the importance of Greek epigraphy. For inscriptions, like the epigram on the base of the Archaic kore of Phrasikleia, he includes both the ancient and modern Greek transcriptions of the text, as well as an English translation of it (textbox, pp. 116-117). Additionally, the link between the development of Greek stone carving in the Archaic period and contacts with Egypt is underscored by the graffiti made by Greek mercenaries who visited the pharaonic Temple at Abu Simbel in the 6th century BCE and marveled at its the colossal statues (Figs. 105, 106); the inscription is included but, sadly, not translated.
In choosing a text for a survey of Greek art, an instructor would be hard pressed to find one that offers students more information than is presented in Stansbury-O’Donnell’s volume, but there is a downside to this approach: there are, in fact, too many works discussed in this book and this plethora of monuments may create a distraction for the reader. To compound the problem, when the author refers to monuments discussed in previous chapters and to works to be covered in future chapters (particularly evident in the thematic chapters), one can only wonder whether or not the reader will, in fact, follow the author’s direction to flip back and forth through the text. For example, in the introduction to the chapter on Narrative (9), the author refers to six representations of the Gorgon Medusa that were discussed in previous chapters by indicating their pages and figure numbers in parentheses (p. 211). If each chapter had begun with an historical and artistic overview of the period, the text would have been more cohesive. In this way, the reader would have had a clear picture at the outset of the ways in which the works of art to be discussed exemplify the time when they were produced. For example, Chapter 12, “The Fourth Century to 330 BCE” begins with an historical snapshot of the period and a discussion of the differences between Greek culture in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. While the author quite rightly describes fourth-century art as more diverse in its style and mood than Classical art, he might have included a preview of how the works to be considered in the chapter exhibit these qualities. Additionally, if Stansbury-O’Donnell had focused on fewer objects, he might have been able to incorporate the major monuments more successfully into their cultural milieu. If this approach had been taken, the thematic material would have been more smoothly integrated into the body of the text and textboxes and separate chapters might have been unnecessary.
While Tuck’s approach to his material is different from Stansbury-O’Donnell’s, it is no less problematic. His primary focus is on the most familiar works of art and architecture in the Roman canon, and while monuments not as well known are included, their number is limited. In point of fact, Tuck has, for the most part, restricted his survey of Roman art to public monuments that served to promote imperial ideology. In “The Age of Augustus, 31 BCE-14 CE” (5), for example, he examines well known monuments, including the Via Labicana and Prima Porta portraits of the emperor, as well as the imperial building program in Rome, in particular structures in the Campus Martius and on the Palatine. In view of the numerous publications in recent years on the funerary art and social history of non-elites in the early Empire, it is disappointing that Tuck chose to limit his discussion of non-imperial funerary art to only two works (the reliefs of the bakery scenes on the Tomb of Eurysaces and the funeral procession on the Amiternum Relief). More troubling is the fact that in his discussion of these works the author seems to be primarily interested in discussing the ways in which these reliefs illustrate the “Italic Style,” a concept set forth by R. Bianchi-Bandinelli more than four decades ago. If a relief panel from the tomb of a freedman family or a columbarium had been included in his discussion, the social position and cultural values of this large segment of Roman society would have balanced the author’s discussion of the imperial works. As it is, Tuck has created the impression, evident throughout most of his text, that Roman art primarily consisted of monuments that served to promote elite, imperial values.
Plantzos takes an archaeological approach to his survey of Greek art, but in so doing gives discussion of the monuments’ stylistic features relatively short shrift. For a text geared to a student reader with minimal background, it is essential that there be a clear presentation of the ways in which a given work of art is stylistically characteristic of and culturally relevant to its period. Further, unlike Stansbury-O’Donnell and Tuck, Plantzos does not imbue his discussion of the monuments with information about current scholarly research. There is, for example, no mention of the ongoing discussion about the meaning of the Parthenon’s Ionic frieze which the author definitively states depicts the procession of the Panathanaea. Similarly, he declares that the two bronze warriors from Riace were produced in different workshops without noting that alternative views have been proposed.
The volumes written by Stansbury-O’Donnell, Tuck, and Plantzos are noteworthy additions to the textbooks available to instructors who teach survey courses in Greek and Roman art. They are attractive volumes, with high-quality images and minimal typographical errors, and are fairly affordably priced. The authors have met the challenge of providing their readers with a coherent picture of each culture’s artistic production while, at the same time, including relevant cultural material and current scholarly research. Stansbury-O’Donnell’s strength lies in his acumen in formally analyzing the style and iconography of a Greek work of art; Tuck’s is in his ability to interpret Roman monuments as visual expressions of imperial values; and Plantzos’ in presenting key monuments with a view to their archaeological history. However, while Stansbury-O’Donnell and Tuck have expended considerable effort in offering new perspectives on the traditional, linear approach that is so often the organizing principle in Greek and Roman survey texts, this reviewer does not believe that either author has succeeded as well as one would have hoped: in one work, there is too much; in the other, too little. Plantzos’ text, in contrast, offers a good balance between monuments and narrative; that is, the number of monuments is manageable and the discussions include, to a certain degree, stylistic and cultural information. While this reviewer regards Plantzos’ text to be the most readable of the three, it is somewhat lacking in cultural information, so it might be useful for an instructor who chooses it to supplement it with a text like R. Sowerby’s The Greeks: An Introduction to Their Culture (Routledge, 2015, 3rd edition) or R. Garland’s Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks (Hackett Publishing, 2014, 2nd edition).
Comparing the strengths and weaknesses of these survey texts has prompted this reviewer to pose a question that may appear to some as heretical: does the long-standing approach to teaching a comprehensive ancient art survey course have a place in today’s undergraduate curriculum? Would it be worthwhile to consider, and more in keeping with the learning modes of today’s students and their financial constraints, taking another approach? Could an instructor instead choose a limited number of works of art and organize them into units of study, with topic headings such as ‘Gender and Identity’ and ‘Death and Commemoration’? Monuments, which could cover the spectrum of elite and non-elite artistic and cultural sensibilities, could then be examined within an overarching socio-historical framework as a way of providing a coherent picture within each topic. At the same time, pertinent archaeological, literary, and historical material could be integrated into each unit, resulting in a seamless presentation of the material. An instructor might even consider offering a more focused type of ancient art course, organizing the material around one or two themes, such as “Life in the Ancient Greek City” or “The Art and Identity of Non-Elite Romans.”
In lieu of requiring a single comprehensive textbook, readings could be assigned from a wide variety of secondary sources, thereby introducing students to a diversity of scholarly writing styles and methodologies. It is worth noting that in 2012 Wiley-Blackwell published A Companion to Greek Art, edited by Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos. This two-volume work is a compendium of essays covering a variety of archaeological, art historical, and cultural topics, each written by a distinguished scholar. In 2015, Wiley-Blackwell published A Companion to Roman Art, edited by Barbara E. Borg (reviewed in BMCR 2017.01.09). Although both are extremely expensive and well out of an undergraduate’s price range, selections from these publications could provide students with readings that would contextualize the monuments and expose them to current trends in scholarship. An alternative approach would be to frame a course around a thematically organized text like P. Zanker’s Roman Art (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008) or P. Stewart’s The Social History of Roman Art (Cambridge University Press, 2014). In truth, students are usually interested in the human element of any subject. And, when it comes to the visual arts, they are fascinated by the ways in which works of art relate to lived experience.
I must confess that, as an educator who taught survey courses in Greek and Roman art for more than three decades, I saw the value of a comprehensive textbook primarily because the students found it a useful resource, especially in view of their inadequate background in ancient history. However, while they often stated that they learned a great deal from reading the text, I always suspected that they used it primarily as a way to review for tests. At the same time, students admitted that the cost of the textbook posed a financial hardship.
Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell, Steven Tuck, and Dimitris Plantzos deserve credit for providing respectable choices to instructors who want to provide their undergraduate students with a comprehensive view of Greek or Roman art and architecture in a one-semester course. Each of the authors has provided a coherent historical context for ancient works and, at the same time, informed their readers of important trends in scholarly research. It is this reviewer’s hope that their efforts to meld the standard comprehensive/chronological approach with cultural material can serve to stimulate a meaningful conversation about pedagogy and, possibly, serve as a catalyst for rethinking the traditional approach to offering traditional survey courses in ancient art.