BMCR 1995.04.04

Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity

, The diffusion of classical art in antiquity. Bollingen series ; XXXV, 42. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. 352 pages : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780691036809. $45.

On March 28, 1993, John Boardman began his series of Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., by showing a slide of a satellite map of Europe and Asia upside down. It seemed at first a clever oratorical trick, meant to startle his audience while stressing the point that the speaker intended to look at the Classical world and its influence in an unconventional manner, not so much topsy-turvy as from a different perspective. Yet, in this beautifully produced and elegantly written book, here is the map again (pp. 310-11), and not at the beginning of the discussion, but virtually at the end, to emphasize the shifts in balance and viewpoint that reading the text has required. As the caption explains, from this angle, Italy and Greece look insignificant compared to the vast expanse of India and Central Asia, and Persia seems the center of the world. The Mediterranean becomes a “tortuous funnel” pouring the waters of the Black Sea into the Atlantic, and Britain is seen to be “thoroughly peripheral.” “How satisfying for a Briton,” adds Sir John, “that this projection makes it so much bigger than it should be in comparison with Mediterranean lands!” These quotations should give a slight sense and flavor of what the reader is to expect from the entire book: a thoroughly intelligent, literate, enormously learned account of the penetration of Greek artistic forms into non-Greek lands from the personal, at times sardonic, perspective of a philhellene who tries hard, but not always successfully, to be objective about other cultures and their artistic achievements.

The Preface sets the stage for what is to come. The book is “about media rather than messages,” an unpopular position at present, when archaeologists and art historians are vying with one another to explore hidden texts and meanings in all works of art, whether artifacts or masterpieces. Yet the point is well taken; we cannot be entirely sure of what such objects meant to their viewers within their own culture, despite the abundant literary information we have about ancient Greece. How can we then expect to fathom what they may have conveyed to the foreigners who imported and imitated them, and from whom we often get no written account at all? We can note the appearance of the Greek motifs, speculate on their means of transmission, and point out the changes they underwent as they diffused abroad, hoping that this very process of transformation will eventually tell us something about intentions and perceptions. But the book ends with “Conclusion,”not Conclusions, as the author underscores (p. 312), and he eventually acknowledges that answers can only be general, and reflections personal, albeit borne of a lifetime devoted to investigating all forms of Greek art, and not simply, as modestly stated (p. 321), of the few years spent in preparing this specific book.

Most of it was already written when B. undertook to deliver the Mellon Lectures, so this volume is not an expanded version of an oral presentation but rather the result of B.’s continuing interest in fields to which he had abundantly contributed in previous publications: his work for the CAH, the Oxford History of Classical Art, and the LIMC; his Greek Gems and Finger Rings, the numerous (innumerable ?) articles and books on vase painting and sculpture, and especially The Greeks Overseas, which he had revised and expanded for the 1980 edition. Nobody was therefore better prepared than B. to look at the wider picture. Even so, the reader cannot fail to be impressed by the ample and very up-to-date bibliography, the span of time covered, and the geographical range of the survey, which is not limited to the area of Alexander’s conquests—vast as they were—but encompasses the spread of the Roman Empire. Chronology is a bit of a problem, not only because the limits set by the author are somewhat vague, but also, and primarily, because information is relative and hard evidence difficult to find (cf., e.g., p. 116). Yet, I would have appreciated some approximate indication of date in the captions to the many photographs, which only identify piece, provenance, and present location. End notes for each chapter provide bibliographical information, but they too are quite concise, only occasionally used for asides and personal comments. Since the book is intended for the general reader as much as for the specialist (and I doubt that many could control such different fields of specialization), more encapsulated help would have been welcome.

Because of its very nature, therefore, this is a difficult book to review, and I shall have to fight off the temptation to quote too extensively, letting the author, as it were, speak for himself. Here, I cannot resist a citation from the brief “Introduction” (p. 10): “this is decidedly not a book about people waiting for something interesting and Greek to happen to them.” B. is careful in assessing the extent and value of Greek influence from place to place, which he sees ranging from almost total adoption of Hellenic forms and techniques (in Etruria and Rome) to minimal (in the Keltic world); even areas traditionally considered to have absorbed a good deal (e.g., Persia) are judiciously scrutinized and re-evaluated. Very few, I believe, will quarrel with B.’s assessment in broad terms.

On the other hand, this is a book of surveys and generalizations. As such, from time to time, it lays itself open to criticism of over-simplification, and I could think of several specific exceptions to B.’s occasional statements. Yet it would be unfair to take the author to task, when his intent is obviously to focus only on the highlights or the most convincing examples. Undoubtedly, others would have written different sections differently; the important point is that a single mind has written them all, and we therefore get a consistent, if somewhat subjective approach.

The first chapter gives an encapsulated definition of Greek art, from the Geometric to the “sub-Hellenistic” period, when Greece and the eastern Mediterranean were under Roman domination. The second deals with the Near East and the Persian Empire, divided into two chronological sections—before about 550 B.C., and down to the time of Alexander the Great. It subsumes the post-Hittite Anatolian kingdoms of Phrygia, Lydia, and Lykia, but the Nereid Monument in Xanthos rates exactly two lines of text, and quantities of extant sculpture seem summarily dismissed by comparison with the attention given to Greco-Persian gems. The third chapter covers the Semitic world and Spain, the former encompassing the settlements in North Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia. The Sidonian sarcophagi are said to be among the earliest examples of the relief-decorated form in Greek style, but word-of-mouth news of a recent find from the Troad may now help fill the apparent gap. In the art from Spain, B. sees a good deal that is native or Keltic and deplores the emotional tendency in existing scholarship to ascribe too much to the Greeks. He is equally critical of the pro- and anti-Semitic positions that have either derived everything from black Africa or pictured the Greeks as major antagonists of the Phoinikians: “The extreme views on this matter are nonsense, supported by a degree of selectivity and distortion in handling of evidence that would be more appropriate to a pre-election politician” (p. 49).

With the fourth chapter we enter the vast expanses of the East after Alexander the Great, and new subdivisions are needed: A, Persia and Parthia; B, Baktria; C, Gandhara and North India; D, Central Asia and the Far East. It is here that I find B. most difficult and most fascinating to follow. The transformation of Greek motifs into new yet recognizable compositions, the infusion of local meaning into foreign vessels, the Greek idiom of the humanized standing Buddha, achieve their most revealing expression. We learn as much by contrast as by similarity. I am really not competent to comment, I can only marvel and admire, since this is an art to which I tend to respond, especially to the opulent volumes and decorative lines of Gandharan sculpture. In Baktria, it is surprising to find that “Fine Art” is barely touched by Greek forms, yet plain Hellenistic pottery keeps up with Aegean developments (pp. 105-6), although those Baktrian Greeks cannot chronologically be responsible for what happens in Gandharan art during the second century after Christ. Rome in this case receives proper acknowledgment for the phenomenon (p. 123).

I find myself on more familiar grounds with chapter 5, on Egypt and North Africa, and therefore more capable of disagreement. The introductory pages are excellent (because I know more?), but the suggestion that Hellenistic Aphrodites “may well have prompted the Egyptian nude” (p. 172) seems to me both inaccurate (since the cited example of fig. 5.25 is in fact draped, albeit revealingly) and anachronistic, given the equally tight dresses of Old and Middle Kingdom female statues. A section on Coptic art has illuminating comments on why its products appear somewhat comic to our eyes: “Wherever in antiquity classical art had lost its roots in carefully planned and proportioned monumentality, it readily turns into something marionettish, seemingly superficial and decorative, although this must often do less than justice to the intentions of its makers. But there is a remarkable sameness in the peripheral classical arts of late antiquity, be they in Gaul, Egypt, Persia or beyond” (p. 178).

Chapter 6 covers the countries of the Black Sea: Thrake, Skythia, and Kolchis. Here readers’ eyes are dazzled by nomadic jewelry and metalwork, the latter including a good and rare photograph of the recently-found Classicizing bronze torso from late Hellenistic Vani (fig. 6.51). The gilt silver flask from Borovo (fig. 6.4a,b), the gold rhyton from Panagurishte (fig. 6.5a), the gold plaques from Kul Oba and Deyev (fig. 6.41) serve to reassure me that the motif of the frenzied maenad in swirling drapery indeed goes back to the fifth century and is not a creation of Hellenistic times, as some would advocate. B. has a personal acquaintance with the land of Kolchis and its museums, and offers a careful evaluation of Greek penetration and settlement. I wish he had made mention and expressed his own opinion of the great Battle Relief (Skythians? Amazons?) from the Taman peninsula now in the Pushkin Museum ( RA 1987, 10-18).

Chapter 7 deals with Italy, or rather, with Etruria and Rome; the Italic populations that were closer neighbors of the Greeks in Sicily and South Italy are omitted. I shall return to this topic, because of my own interests. But first I should acknowledge the last chapter, 8, that, under Europe, covers the art of the situlae, the Kelts and Britain: a succinct account with intriguing visual juxtapositions and just a hint of approval for the Hochdorf bronze “rat” translating and replacing one lost Greek lion among the three on the edge of a cauldron (fig. 8.6a-c). This is for me unfamiliar territory where I do not venture to tread.

I feel differently about ancient Italy. B. tries his hardest to be fair, but it is quite clear that he still looks at Etruscan and Roman art with a Greek bias. He remarks for instance, that Etruscan red figure, being painted over the black surface rather than reserved, “is really just a forgery of Athenian, however carefully done” (p. 265), and takes it for granted that it was meant to deceive the inexperienced customer, for monetary gains. Why not accept that it was just a different technique, probably easier to apply than true red figure, although results were comparable? To suggest that the Etruscans failed to appreciate the social potential of art, especial painting, thus being fated to remain always “a disappointment” to students of Greek art (p. 272), is to minimize the fact that our evidence from Etruria is primarily funerary, as contrasted with the very public and religious art of the Greeks—whose monumental paintings, however, are only known through literary descriptions. The Murlo finds (and just the revetment plaques, at that) are mentioned solely in n. 55, and the Civita Alba architectural Keltomachy or the Volterran urns with historical content are not cited. The François Tomb is barely noted—for its Hellenistic shading (p. 269). In brief, the Etruscans still come out as a people who took just about everything from the Greeks, be they the Ionians (which would explain why some myths look unfamiliar to us, since the East Greeks did not use painted pottery as a narrative medium: p. 254) or the Dorians (given the spelling of Etruscan divine names, which suggests the appealing vignette of “a Doric Greek sitting down with a literate Etruscan mirror-maker, probably in Vulci, to improve his product by adding plentiful names to the myth scenes, à la grecque” : p. 253). Yet when a relief mirror (fig. 7.27) uses the Peleus/Thetis motif but labels the figures Herakles and Mlacuch, B. comments (p. 254) that “a Greek hero” has been coopted for a local story, despite his own acknowledgment that Hercle had a long-standing cult in Rome, which, at least to judge from the Cacus episode, might have had its own share of indigenous myths as well.

Needless to say, Rome does not fare much better, and this time the quotation on p. 291 is from Kenneth Clark, but B. seems to accept the reality of “that long slumber of the creative imagination which lasted from the end of the second century B.C. to the third century AD.” What would happen to this conception if it could be proven (not just submitted, as I have) that the Barberini Faun and the “Pergamene” Gauls are instead creations of the Roman Imperial period? To be sure, the answer might be that such proof will never become available, because the idea is simply a figment of my imagination. But as our concept of originals and copies evolves, there might come a time when excellent quality and aesthetic beauty will no longer be automatically equated with a Greek and lifeless imitation with a Roman date.

By the same token, why should Greece itself remain unproductive after the Roman conquest? Political vicissitudes did not totally curtail its creativity during the period of Macedonian supremacy, and we no longer take it for granted, with Winckelmann, that political freedom and civic stability were prerequisites for aesthetic greatness. Contrast, as B. does, the fact that “the Greek east remained more ‘classical’ in the early centuries AD than did hellenized Rome.” I am not sure why this “was due to the continuing tradition of Greek craftsmen ignoring developments to the west.” Could Greeks in Greece not have done the same?

I hope this Italic outburst will be taken in the same vein as the Briton’s comment about the shape of Britain in the satellite map. When a text is thought-provoking it will in fact provoke, and B. is too serious a scholar not to be taken seriously, even when he writes a book of sweeping surveys. Eyes will be sharpened and classical sensitivity increased by this magisterial account of the diffusion of an artistic tradition that so many of us share.