Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.47

Caroline Vout, Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 362.  ISBN 9780691177038.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by Manolis Mikrakis, National Technical University of Athens (


“But is it Art?” the Devil keeps asking in Kipling’s The Conundrum of the Workshops (1890) as he encounters the products of human creativity through the ages. For several decades now, archaeologists, and art historians have been debating the same question with regard to ancient Greek art. “Classical art is a battleground”, as the author states in the first sentence of her new book, which is the product of a British Academy-funded research project under the title Classical Art: A Life History. An exhibition and its catalog entitled Following Hercules: The Story of Classical Art at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2015 were early outcomes of the same project.

The book’s basic argument is that classical art became both “art” and “classical” over centuries of diverse engagements with ancient Greek visual culture (essentially monumental sculpture) from the Hellenistic period through to the present day. Covering this entire period, nine chapters are organized chronologically to outline this long process. Chapter 10 (“And the Moral of the Story…”) is a short epilogue. Therefore, the book does not provide just another overview of Greek and Roman art, but it has not been conceived of as an exhaustive treatment of the reception of Greek and Roman art either, although the large amount of data assembled in this medium-sized, lavishly illustrated volume and the large sections for the endnotes (247-300), bibliography (301-342) and index (343-359) certainly make the book useful to scholars of the post-antique life of Greek and Roman art. However, more than anything else, Classical Art: A Life History is a book-long essay, “a biography or travelogue” (242), written in a lively, accessible language to advance a longue durée approach from an often very British perspective.

Chapter 1 (“Setting the Agenda, or Putting the Art into Heritage”) introduces the reader to the intended approach through the (well-chosen) example of the Tyrannicides Group, whose life history is illustrative of the multitude of processes that have shaped classical art across time.1 In Chapter 2 (“Finding the Classical in Hellenistic Greece”), Vout first reviews the evidence for aesthetic appreciation of images in the pre-Hellenistic world (20-29), but does so without giving similar attention to evidence for statues being treated as animate beings.2 Vout then turns to art in Attalid and Ptolemaic contexts (29-42), confirming the predominant view that it was in the Hellenistic period that earlier Greek art first became “classical” after its original functions and contexts had lost much of their relevance.

In Chapter 3 (“Making Greek Culture Roman Culture”) and part of Chapter 4 (“Roman Art, the Building Blocks of Empire”), Vout credits Romans with the resignification (“repackaging” or “domestication,” 56) of Greek material culture into “art” and “heritage” that signified military, political, and economic power, as well as nobility and connoisseurship. To trace this process, the author reviews Augustan and Hadrianic sculpture but relies even more upon Polybius, Cicero, Livy, Plutarch, Velleius, Pliny the Elder and other writers, who provide insights into the Roman consumption of Greek art—even for decorative purposes. The decline of classicism during the Tetrarchy, as well as Christianity’s break with ancient religions, instigated the reuse of ancient remains and the substitution of their ritual significance with aesthetic appreciation. After the foundation of Constantinople, “Christianity need[ed] the antiquity of ‘pagan art’ to sponsor its ambitious imperial narrative” (82). Vout then goes on to Venice and its claims on Roman imperial heritage after the Fourth Crusade (88 ff.), giving Carolingian and Ottonian classicisms, engagement with antiquities in medieval Pisa and Rome, and Frederick II’s proto- Renaissance in southern Italy and Sicily only brief mentions, perhaps inevitably given the available space. Some attention could have been given, however, to the multifaceted Byzantine classicisms after Theodosius II,3 particularly during the Macedonian and the Palaeologan dynasties.4 It is perhaps misleading to call each of these medieval phenomena a “renaissance,” as earlier researchers often did, but taking them into account nevertheless makes Giotto and the Italian Renaissance after 1400 appear more similar to a maturation than a rebirth.

In Chapter 5 (“Reviving Antiquity in Renaissance Italy”), the treatment is equally selective, but does not fail to highlight women collectors (109-111) as a markedly new phenomenon. Here, Vout’s main position is that in the Renaissance, a particularly visual relationship with antiquities developed into a habitus, paralleled by searching for, and collecting, ancient works of art on an unprecedented scale—Poggio Bracciolini, for example, speaks of his passion for antiquities as a “disease” (101). Moreover, ancient art was now critically studied against the background of ancient literature, thus enhancing the fame of celebrated works, the rush for new discoveries, and, more generally, the status of ancient art as a liberal art. Other Renaissance novelties are that “ancient sculpture became… the template for modern figurative art” (104) and that “an association with the antique has become revelatory of character” (107), as implied by a series of portraits depicting the sitter’s active engagement with ancient or classicizing sculpture.

Chapter 6 (“European Court Society and the Shaping of the Canon”) explores how the new relationship with antiquities spread to the rest of Europe. Echoing Thomas Dandelet’s view that the diffusion of the Renaissance in France, Britain and Spain was primarily motivated by imperial ambitions,5 Vout considers the new passion for exceptional antiquities to be part of an imperial policy that naturally led to competition with Rome’s grandeur (125-126, 130), even to a search for the distinctly Greek origins of Roman glory (127-130). François I and Louis XIV of France, Bishop of Paris Jean Du Bellay, Mary of Hungary, Charles I of England, Earl Thomas Howard of Arundel, Philip IV of Spain, Duke Pedro Afán de Ribera, and a number of writers and artists, including Rubens (132), stand out as key figures. However, it seems doubtful that Franciscus Junius had already marked “the beginning of the systematic study of classical art” (131), given the focus of his De pictura veterum (1637) on literary sources rather than on material artifacts.

In Chapters 7 (“‘Neoclassicisms’ and the English Country House”) and 8 (“Seeing Anew in the Nineteenth Century”), Vout’s intention is to show how “classical art is historicized for the first time” (149), but then she adopts a distinctly British perspective, which sheds more light on the construction of Englishness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: young aristocrats on the Grand Tour having their classicist portraits painted or sculpted, public collections emerging as a novel institution, and a ‘war of styles’ raging between the Classical, the Gothic, the provincial Roman, the prehistoric, and the colonial (151-162). Efforts to bring the classical into real life, as distinct from the Neoclassical pursuit of ideals beyond physical reality (163-165), include Emma Hamilton’s embodied performances, collections of antiquities in connoisseurs’ residencies, and cast collections of ancient sculpture mixed with contemporary works in Neoclassical architectural settings (166-184). In the later eighteenth century, excavated artifacts, the emergence of archaeology, the publication of foundational material studies, and the opening of antiquity to wider social groups gradually changed classical art. Greek art was distinguished from Roman. Modernist notions of scientific method, and the spread of photography, inspired comparative art-historical analysis and a shift of interest from artistic to historical value. Additionally, laws in the newly founded Mediterranean states prohibiting the export of antiquities encouraged a shift from material gain to knowledge for its own sake, according to the author.

Chapter 9 (“The Death of Classical Art?”) explores how classical art cut its way through the twentieth-century shift of priorities in leisure activities and education, through totalitarian regimes and destructive wars, as well as through the demise of Western superiority narratives and the deconstruction of aesthetic norms (220-230). Classical art now finds itself amidst fierce controversies regarding the trade in antiquities, the repatriation of cultural property, the publication of unprovenanced artifacts, and the validity of art-historical approaches to ancient material culture. After a section summarizing the ‘rediscovery’ of originality in Roman art (230-235), a discussion follows on the Mougins Museum of Classical Art on the French Riviera (235-240), which can be claimed to embody a diachronic approach to classical art similar to Vout’s approach.

Toward the end, the book slides into a “yes-but” apology for the notion of classical art (240-242). Yes, classical art can construct extremely selective, even distorted representations of ancient realities, and can be exclusive and divisive, but this is how interest in it has survived to the present day; and yes, “the admiration and acquisition of Greek and Roman antiquities have always been ethically problematic,” (241) but crucial for shaping classical art’s status. How far can this reasoning go before starting to trivialize, or even justify, unethical practices? Some readers might think that Vout occasionally does go that far when, for instance, she prioritizes “display contexts” over the primary archaeological context (12-13, 15, 192), or when she compares J. Paul Getty’s antiquarian activities with the ancient trade of Attic pottery (227), Marcellus’ dedication of Greek spoils to Honos and Virtus (52-53) and other similar ancient practices. On the other hand, Vout does not fail to address the “elitism inbred in classical art’s life history” (65), “Britain’s investment in Rome as a model for its own imperialist ambitions” (65), museums being intertwined with the economic elite (238), and other issues that make classical art history the battleground that it is.

In the eyes of this reviewer, the greatest merit of the book as a whole is in demonstrating how much more the history of classical art is about the relatively recent European past than it is about ancient Greece, and how perfectly the history of classical art can work without original Greek material. However, these insights are also what makes any claim that the history of classical art has on the systematic study of ancient Greek visual culture so meaningless for archaeologists and anthropologists. By shifting the focus from the ancient Greek culture proper to its afterlife in post-antique Europe, Vout not only redefines the history of classical art as a branch of the history of European art and culture, but also directs the field onto the path paved for contemporary art studies by postmodern artists in the 1960s—for instance, by Joseph Kosuth, whose installation One and Three Chairs (1965) featured a manufactured chair, its photograph and a dictionary definition of the word “chair” side by side as equally qualified artworks. In a similar manner, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) famously inspired Arthur Danto to suggest that, rather than a special aesthetic quality, all an artwork needs is a meaning —any meaning—and an “art world” to validate that meaning. In all these senses, the book “revolutionizes our understanding of what classical art has meant and continues to mean”, as is claimed on the dust-jacket. Could this “revolution” eventually lead to a clearer conceptual and methodological distinction between the archaeological study of ancient Greek visual culture and the art-historical study of the post-Hellenistic classical tradition? Or could this “revolution” merely prove to be “postmodern fairy dust over the traditional objects of classical archaeology”,6 leading the discipline no further than merely placing Charles Townley, Lawrence Dundas, or even Lord Elgin on the pedestal on which traditional approaches had placed Myron, Pheidias, Polykleitos, and their societies? This remains to be seen.


1.   See, now in English translation, Vincent Azoulay, The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens: A Tale of Two Statues, transl. by Janet Lloyd, Oxford 2017 (BMCR 2018.11.15).
2.   Deborah Steiner, Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought, Princeton 2001; Angelos Chaniotis, “Ἡ ζωὴ τῶν ἀγαλμάτων”, Praktika tes Akademias Athenon 89 B, 2014, 246-297.
3.   Anthony Kaldellis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens, Cambridge 2009 (BMCR 2009.12.18); id., Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Cambridge 2007.
4.   See, for instance, Georgia Xanthaki-Karamanou (ed.), The Reception of Antiquity in Byzantium, with Emphasis on the Palaeologan Era, Athens 2014, in particular the contributions by Melita Emmanouil, Vassiliki Penna and Ioanna Spiliopoulou.
5.   Thomas James Dandelet, The Renaissance of Empire in Early Modern Europe, New York 2014.
6.   James Whitley, “Agency in Greek Art”, in: Tyler Jo Smith, Dimitris Plantzos (edd.), A Companion to Greek Art vol. II, Malden and Oxford 2012, 595.

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