Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.39

Niccolò​ Mugnai, Architectural Decoration and Urban History in Mauretania Tingitana. Mediterranean Archaeology Studies, 1.   Rome:  Edizioni Quasar, 2018.  Pp. 410.  ISBN 9788871408538.  €40.00.  


Reviewed by Nichole Sheldrick, University of Oxford (nichole.sheldrick@arch.ox.ac.uk)

In this volume, Mugnai sets out to analyse the architectural decoration and urban development of the cities of Mauretania Tingitana (modern Morocco) from approximately the mid-1st c. BC to the 3rd c. AD. In particular, he is concerned not only with investigating the style and development of the architectural elements themselves, but also the urban contexts in which they were situated, in order to examine the relationship between decoration and setting and explore what such relationships can tell us about the people who created and lived amongst these buildings. As the basis of his study, Mugnai undertook fieldwork at four ancient cities in Morocco, recording, cataloguing, and creating a new typology for all of the visible and accessible column-bases and capitals that could be identified at each of these sites (pp. 26–30). While other types of architectural elements are considered where relevant in the text, as he explains, column-bases and capitals “are the most diagnostic architectural elements among all the material recorded” and “provide crucial data…which are less evident on entablatures and other mouldings” (p. 27). Many of the elements in his catalogue are published here for the first time, and this cataloguing and presentation of the extant material alone is a significant achievement and contribution to this field. His careful assessment of this evidence, combined with a re-assessment of previously identified material and research has resulted in a book that will be useful to both students and specialists of provincial architecture and Roman North Africa.

The book can be divided into three broad sections: introduction to both the subject and region; case studies and discussion; and the catalogue. The first section presents the background for this work, establishing the aims and methodologies of the study (Chapter 1) and providing useful and important context in terms of the history of archaeological research in Morocco (Chapter 2) and a historical background for the region (Chapter 3). As Mugnai points out near the start of Chapter 1, the province of Mauretania Tingitana has rarely been the focus of studies on its own, particularly with regard to architecture and urban development (pp. 23–24). His review of previous archaeological work in the region traces a story familiar across much of North Africa, from early explorations in the nineteenth century, through the period of French and Spanish colonialism, and finally to the shift to more modern archaeological techniques following Moroccan independence in 1956 (pp. 37–47). As he outlines, studies dedicated specifically to the topics of urbanism, architecture, and architectural decoration have so far been limited in Mauretania Tingitana and often focussed only on individual sites, such that the need for Mugnai’s study is plain (pp. 48–54). By synthesising the previously existing scholarship, Mugnai has been able to better identify and address gaps in our knowledge and, drawing on the primary data he collected during his fieldwork, move towards a more complete narrative for the region.

The second section comprises five chapters: four case studies that form the basis of Mugnai’s investigation (Volubilis, Banasa, Sala, and Lixus, respectively), followed by a final synthesis and discussion (Chapter 8). Each case study follows the same general structure, beginning with a survey of the evidence divided by district, followed by a discussion of the trends observed at the site. The latter three sites were surveyed in full by Mugnai during his fieldwork, but, due to its size and the volume of material, only selected areas of Volubilis were studied. A major theme illustrated through the case studies is the ways in which “different artistic and architectural traditions were merged together in Tingitana during the Roman period” (p. 21). He identifies three broad styles of architectural decoration which were present in the region: “(1) decoration of pre-Roman tradition; (2) ornament influenced by Roman official-style art; (3) local-style decoration”, though stressing that these should not be thought of as strictly separate groups, but rather as “decorative trends” which could overlap and work together (p. 171).

Mugnai argues convincingly that the appearance of these varying carving styles and decorative motifs, sometimes within the same building complex, can be explained by the existence of a “heterogeneous” group of ateliers based at Volubilis, with some more clearly owing their inspiration to “official Romano-Carthaginian models”, and others following the “local Volubilitan style” (pp. 108–109). This Volubilitan style of decoration, which was indebted to Punic-Hellenistic traditions (as previously argued by other scholars), can be seen at several other sites throughout the region, and it is likely that Volubilis itself was a centre of production. Direct imports of this work can be seen at Banasa (p. 176), and apparent imitations of this style seem to have developed at Lixus and Sala as early as the mid-2nd c. AD, suggesting that this style of architectural decoration and its production at Volubilis was already well-established by this point (pp. 181–182).

Mugnai makes a convincing case for interpreting this “eclecticism” in architectural decoration as a reflection of a similar diversity of identities and experiences in the local population (pp. 185, 193). At the same time, however, as he points out, “probably only a minority [of people] would have been able to recognize those motifs and styles which recalled models from Rome…or the forms of decoration that attested to the continuity of pre-Roman legacies” (p. 193). This is an important point to articulate. While analysis of architecture and decoration may give us insight into the character of the communities in which they were constructed, we remain largely ignorant of how or what the average member of those communities thought about architecture and its decoration, if they thought about it at all.

A key success of the book is in its illustration of the importance and benefit of analysing architectural decoration within both its physical and socio-historical contexts. One significant outcome of Mugnai’s approach is that he has been able to revise the accepted dating for certain types of architectural elements, which has implications not only for the sites included in this study, but also for wider studies of provincial architecture. For example, he demonstrates that Attic bases without plinth, which have previously been attributed to pre-Roman periods, not only in Mauretania but across North Africa, are used in the basilica of Volubilis, which can be confidently dated to the Severan period based on its relationship with the Capitolium and nearby Arch of Caracalla (pp. 84–85). In a similar fashion, he argues that “stylized capitals”, particularly plain ones, which had previously been attributed to Late Antiquity based on their similarity to Byzantine period examples from Constantinople, actually belong to a much earlier period in Volubilis, since they can be found, for example, in situ in the Severan basilica just mentioned (pp. 103–105).

Following the case studies and summary discussion, Chapters 9 through 13 make up the catalogue, which is divided into the same four sections as the case studies, preceded by an introduction and followed by photographic plates and plans. The catalogue is organised in a simple and straightforward manner. The plans that show the exact location of each catalogue entry will be a useful tool for any future researchers or students wishing to revisit the material in situ. All of the plans with the catalogue and throughout the text were drawn or re-drawn by Mugnai in a clear and consistent style.

A high-quality photographic plate has been included for each type recorded in the catalogue. These have not been reproduced at a consistent scale, however, but rather have been scaled to be approximately the same size, with each photograph featuring its own, independent scale. The intention was presumably to facilitate direct visual comparison of the architectural elements. However, this approach then disguises the reality of the substantial size difference between some of the examples. For example, on p. 117, Mugnai describes a capital “of remarkable size” from Banasa (Ban 2.35), but the impact and significance of its size in comparison to the other examples from the city is lost in the illustration.

The organisation of the plates also unfortunately ignores the groups and typology that Mugnai has so carefully created. For example, in the text (p. 128), he discusses a specific group of capitals, Ban 2.26–2.30, which belong to the same type (Corinthian capitals with group 6 acanthus, pp. 260–261). However, instead of including these five types in a single plate, with a single scale, the first four are on Plate 30, along with a single example of the previous type, and the last is found on Plate 31, with several others of the next type. A rearrangement of both the scale and grouping of the images would likely have resulted in a larger number of plates, which is an understandable practical concern for a publisher. However, given that there are relatively few images of the architectural elements which form the basis of each case study incorporated into the text itself (until the concluding discussion), the reader must refer to the catalogue with relative frequency in order to connect the descriptions and discussion with the individual pieces. A reorganisation of the plates to conform with the typological grouping of the materials would have resulted in greater clarity and ease of reference for the reader.

In terms of general presentation, the volume is well-edited, with few, if any, grammatical inconsistencies or errors. The only error of any import that I noted is the mislabelling of the location of the forum on the plan showing the areas of Volubilis covered by Mugnai’s study (Figure 4.1), which could cause some confusion for readers who are less familiar with the site. The few minor issues identified above, however, do not detract greatly from the quality and usefulness of the volume. Mugnai is to be applauded for writing a book about architectural decoration which will be welcomed by specialists, but also makes a clear effort to be understandable and accessible to non-specialists, for example by including in the introduction clear and concise illustrations of the component parts of the architectural elements which he discusses, i.e. bases and capitals, for those who may not be familiar with them (pp. 28–29). Overall, Mugnai has managed to strike a good balance between a detailed analysis of architectural decoration and an appreciation of the larger context and significance of these elements, making this a useful and relevant volume for scholars and students of Roman North Africa and wider provincial studies.

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