BMCR 1994.10.09

1994.10.09, Boardman,Oxford History of Classical Art

, The Oxford history of classical art. Classical art.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. ix, 406 pages, 28 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780198143864. $45.00.

An Editorial Preface gives the rules: the pictures form the meat of this meal; extra spices, vegetables, and pasta or potatoes come from the written matter. The editor’s Introduction (ch. 1) sets out to explain the meaning(s) of the title chosen for the book: there will be nothing on the Mycenaeans; we shall virtually ignore the Etruscans [why, since Geometric and Archaic Greece are covered?]; Christian art of the later empire will get short treatment because it is too important to deal with en-passant.

The first text chapter (2) shows a significant benefit to be gained from the limitations Boardman has imposed. Alan Johnston—best known for his works on Greek letters, letter-forms, and literacy, and his books and articles on trade and trademarks—writes on Pre-Classical Greece. There is a capsule description of the Geometric period and more leisured dealing with Orientalizing (artistic trends; birth of literature and literacy; developments in government and in warfare). The Archaic period—sculpture, architecture, pottery, minor arts—provides the bulk of the chapter. Johnston’s style is admirably suited to this approach. Information and opinion, though clearly demarcated, move smoothly, pari passu, and virtually painlessly. Only in retrospect does one realize just how much has been ingested. The illustrations (pp. 24-82) are admirably chosen. There are many old favourites—but even they are given often in new photographs of excellent quality—and many less known but equally deserving of attention. Text accompanying the photographs not only describes and identifies, but serves to place each object in its place in time, and in its social and artistic milieu. The theoretical of the continuous text is thus expanded substantially by illustrating the concrete and individual—the spices and condiments, and the continuity, added in the text to the pictures. Athens and Attica get most space; but there is also Corinthian, Laconian, Euboian, Ionian, West Greek. Geographical diversity is important for this period. It is to be regretted that the other ethnai whose cultures informed Greeks much as Greek culture helped shape them—Etruscan and Phoenician particularly—have been dealt with only as supplements, and with little illustration.

The choice of illustrations is also influenced here, as elsewhere in the book, by the fact that many of the most important (perhaps more the best known?) monuments are already illustrated in the Oxford History of the Classical World, for which this volume is meant as a supplement, though it often goes far beyond that limited goal.

Boardman writes ch. 3, on the Classical period proper. (84) ‘This is Classicism in its narrower sense, attempting to perceive patterns, to set standards. In this the playwrights, philosophers, and politicians of the fifth and fourth centuries BC achieved no little success. So did the artists.’ This should be taken with (89) ‘Like his fellow[s,] playwrights and philosophers, he sought a way of reconciling the variety of human experience and appearance with absolute rules or forms. [He] sought to achieve an equilibrium between the almost opposed interests of absolute proportion and anatomical realism.’

‘Propaganda begins to get the upper hand over simple piety.’ (85) ‘Funeral mores say at least as much about the aspirations of the survivors as they do about the merits of the dead.’ (Dexileos?) (85) Greek art moves towards becoming a KOINH in the fourth c., with patronage by kings and satraps in Karia and Lykia, kings and tyrants and fledgling ‘democracies’ in Sicily and southern Italy. ‘Portraits’ of living and recently dead individuals begin to be produced, eventually becoming visual replicas.

Controversy: Silver plate is probably an indication the wealthy had their bullion converted into vessels, rather than that artists kept stocks of precious materials. (86) ‘Pots decently decorated with about five or six figures cost about two or three days’ wages—which is not altogether cheap but did not put them beyond the range of the ordinary household (which used them, as we can judge from excavations). There was foreign trade in painted pottery, the potential for profit clearly outweighing the risk of loss or damage.

(87) on large-scale marble sculpture: master sculptors prepared models (in clay); workshop apprentices copied and carved them. (99) The complex process of ‘lost wax’ casting is described in a picture caption. Seven illustrations—two in color—of the Royal Tombs of Vergina and two pages of description reflect a temporary shift of equilibrium to the north and Macedonia.

Ch. 4: Hellenistic—R.R.R. Smith. Much distilled from Smith’s recent book on Hellenistic art. Prestige and wealth of artists (152); elaborate and costly decoration of private houses (154); invention of tesselate mosaic and of the emblema technique; growing wealth of middle classes with consonant increase of jewelry and other gold and silver artifacts; invention and elaboration of artistic environments for the human figure (including mythological landscape); extension and refinement of perspective drawing; elaborate scene-painting for the stage; illustration of scientific ‘books’; invention of the portrait, especially the ruler-portrait with its combination of recognizable image and conventional ‘characterization’ for propaganda purposes. Here I felt most keenly the absence of Etruscan and other Italic art of this period: the portrait in its modern sense (both painted and sculptural) is frequent in Italy, and develops at times quite differently from and virtually independent of its Greek near-contemporaries (see also below). The text to the Terme Ruler (194) expresses the Greek end clearly for the class of ruler portraits; the Terme Boxer (211) and the Artemision jockey (212) the generic (?) athlete.

There is excellent discussion of the sources, literary and physical, and cogent discussion of the limitations of each. Smith does not shy away from controversy. The handbook format, however, requires a simplicity which may leave readers thinking that we know about this period much about which in fact scholars are still actively debating: the dates of the Sperlonga statues and their Hellenistic (?) originals—and what we mean by ‘originals’ in such a case; the date(s), purpose(s), origins, and authorship of the ‘Pergamene’ Gauls; and so on. Illustration is generous—75 black and white plates, four pages of colour—and the text is brisk, trenchant, and informative.

Ch. 5’s title, ‘Rome: the Republic and early Empire’, is a little misleading. There is little on the Republic, other than a highly compressed history, and particularly little illustration earlier than the first century BC/BCE. The author, J.J. Pollitt, looks most carefully at the time from Augustus’ accession to the end of the reign of Hadrian. Private housing, Imperial palaces, public buildings, wall painting, sculpture public and private, all are represented—private housing primarily in the illustrations, the others in both text and image. Coins, seal-stones, mosaic—this is rich and varied fare. Italy takes pride of place, and Rome within Italy.

My disappointments and disagreements are few and relatively minor. Capitoline ‘Brutus’ (fig. 237) is tentatively dated around 300 BC—with Martin Robertson ( A History of Greek Art, Cambridge 1975 ad pl. 190a) I would date it in the period 125-75 BC. The head comes from a whole figure—perhaps, as Pollitt suggests (with Brendel/Richardson), equestrian.

(226-7): Pollitt—virtually as an ‘aside’—attributes the verism of the arts of the lower classes in the first centuries of the Empire to the ‘plebeian’ tradition, an interpretation favoured particularly by Bianchi Bandinelli and his followers. A decade ago Bianca Maria Felletti Maj, in La tradizione italica nell’ arte romana, demonstrated that this is rather the Italic tradition—geographic tradition, not class distinction. This needs to be acknowledged—it has much more than mere political relevance to commend it. The art of the Tetrarchy, even more than that of the early third century, owes a great deal to this tradition and to its continuance not only in the art of freedmen and merchants but in many ‘private’ portraits of emperors and their courtiers.

On fig. 261: ‘Gladiatorial games probably had their origin in Etruscan funeral rites which sanctioned bloody death in order to appease the potentially menacing deities of the Underworld’. Many Etruscan scholars would disagree. The Roman tradition says that the Etruscan custom of theatrical performances at funerals was introduced to Rome in the late third century B.C. Scholars have made this into gladiatorial shows, but with scant supporting evidence. It has always struck me as curious, if this were a true accounting, that amphitheatres are virtually unknown in Roman Etruria. Campania is a much more probable source—and the long Republican tradition (continued well on into the empire) of grave reliefs of gladiators in combat, principally from Samnium and Campania, gives this notion excellent archaeological support; and the fact that the first permanent amphitheatre was built in the Campanian city of Pompeii cannot be simple coincidence. One might also suggest that the Flavian Amphitheatre was not just state architecture (228), not merely a crowd-pleaser, but a statement of the integration of an Italic tradition into the mainstream of life in the Urbs, the symbolic centre of the Empire.

Janet Hoskinson’s ‘The later Roman period’ (ch. 6) begins with Antoninus Pius and follows through to the early fifth century and Theodosius. She clarifies at the start the arbitrary nature of the end points, giving plausible arguments for their usefulness. If the reign of Trajan sees the empire at its largest, and that of Hadrian the Empire at its most secure, one can see the reign of Antoninus Pius as the beginning of decline—war primarily defensive; the army less Roman than provincial; government through bureaucrats; and so on. In art, subject matter is to remain ‘Roman’, though style is more and more regionalized.

In ch. 2, Alan Johnston made clear that there is a difference between development in art as its makers see it and the ‘trends’ that later scholars can elicit from it. This chapter has in common with Archaic and pre-Archaic Greece the fact that there is no effective central ‘authority’ controlling the evolution of art; moreover, it must chronicle the developments of a diaspora, rather than those of kindred cultures whose future was to be fused. The Arch of Constantine serves as model for the later Empire, acting as it did as a sort of catchment basin for much from the earlier period. There is clear recognition that there is a style discernible in the Constantinian reliefs on the Arch which cannot reasonably be dismissed as the result of poor craftsmanship. The echoes of the Italic stream (here called ‘non-classical’, ‘popular’, ‘plebeian’) are too strong for that. Eastern influences and Christian art also provide elements of the new style (301). ‘The non-classical element in Roman art came to the forefront in the later Empire because it was better suited than the classical style to the changed priorities which art was trying to express. .. while the classical showed forms in natural, even if idealized, terms and was concerned with the harmonious re presentation of external appearances, the non-classical approach tended to concentrate on expressing the intrinsic qualities of its subject-matter and on setting it within the total scheme of things. The style which resulted was spare yet powerful in its ability to convey ideas by emphasis on significant details. … It … came close to the aesthetic philosophy of Plotinus, which saw art as the representation of concept rather than perceptions.’

(304) ‘The representation of the successful hunt on the sarcophagus [354] may look back to past achievements of the deceased, or forward to eternal recreation in the afterlife; it may be a statement about the mores of his social class, or express a belief in the ability of virtue to overcome the forces of death. The image contains all these possibilities at once, but does not force us to choose just one of them; the totality is acceptable. That in effect sums up the potency of later Roman art: its vigour is linked to the multiplicity of ways in which it expresses the interests of a society in transition.’

Though little is said here explicitly in the text about the extent of the Empire, the monuments chosen for illustration make very clear the fact that Empire, in this later period, means something quite different from what it had meant in the time of Augustus. Under Augustus, the major building programs we know of were in Rome (Theatre of Marcellus, Baths of Agrippa, two Fora, and so on) and at centres which already had considerable importance in Roman history: Carthage, for example, got a new forum. Under Septimius Severus an enormous building program was undertaken at Leptis Magna in Tripolitania [302]. Diocletian built his retirement home at Salonae (Split) in Dalmatia in the former Yugoslavia [304]; Galerius built a triumphal arch at his capital, Salonica (Therme, Thessalonica) in northern Greece [336]; and Maxentius built a residence (at least some scholars think he did) at Piazza Armerina in Sicily [305]. Constantine had imperial capitals at Constantinople (the former Byzantium) on the Propontis and at Trier [303], as well as at Mediolanum (Milan). In one sense, the Empire was where the emperor was; in another sense, clearly, Rome was no longer the centre of the universe; and no geographical region of the Empire had convincing reason to claim primacy over any other.

Boardman returns to supply the final chapter (7) ‘The diffusion of Classical art’. An impressive two-page satellite map gives the find-spots of the items illustrated. Three chunks of time, and three rather different phenomena, are all to be included under the term ‘diffusion’. First is the pre-Archaic and early Archaic phenomenon of colonization, especially in the West, and the processes by which, in the hinterland, local artistic fashion changed because of contact with Greek artifacts, Greek artisans and artists, Greek taste. Second is the Hellenistic period, inaugurated by Alexander’s conquests of Persia, Egypt, etc., and continued with the kingdoms of the Successors and the substantial expansion of trade, settlement, and a different form of colonization. Third is the period of Roman empire: in some senses continuing the Hellenistic age by spreading a Greek-influenced ‘Roman’ art into Europe and N. Africa; but also something rather different in that in its earlier phase there was a substantial effort towards uniformity, only gradually replaced by the reassertion of local and regional styles and tastes as the centrality of the Empire weakened. In this chapter, we have some Etruscan art, as an instance of ‘translations from the Greek’. Boardman has, I think, some difficulty with this: for one of the Boccanera slabs [359A], he does not mention the subject, a particularly witty Judgment of Paris. Hera/Juno/Uni and Aphrodite/Venus/Turan were on the panel to the right of this. There is only one large-scale wall painting, a rather dingy reproduction of dancers from the Tomb of the Triclinium [359B]. The marvelous pioneering achievements of Etruscan painters in the fourth century and the early third—the portraits from Orvieto, Tarquinia, and Vulci; complex perspective drawing from Tarquinia (Amazon Sarcophagus) and Vulci (François Tomb: this also has the earliest surviving painting illustrating Roman history, and some fine painted portraits)—are effectively dismissed. Etruscan painters, we are told, ‘sometimes [show] some awareness of new Greek styles of drawing, with shading and highlighting of detail, though never approaching the more significant new styles which we first glimpse in the Macedonian graves of the fourth century’. For most of what Boardman admires in the painted tombs of Vergina we can show in earlier examples from Etruria. Diffusion is rarely in only one direction. Perhaps the Etruscans would have fared better in the hands of someone more sympathetic to them.

It would be absurd to expect ‘justice’ in a chapter so eclectic in subjects. More sensibly, one would expect variety—and that there is in abundance. A Persian frieze from Persepolis; Greco-Persian seals of high Classical date and style; a Libyco-Punic grave monument of Hellenistic date from Dougga in N. Africa. Greco-Scythian art is represented by one of the large gold fish-shaped relief plaques (used as horse harness) now in Berlin, with its reliefs of lions hunting deer, a flock of fish complete with mer-shepherd; and the fish’s tail fins ending as rams’ heads separated by a flying eagle.

This is a very handsome book. Its price is not at all excessive for a textbook, particularly for a year-long course. Taken as supplement to the Oxford History of the Classical World (available also as two paperback volumes: Greece and the Hellenistic World, and The Roman World) it will do particularly well the task it sets out to perform.