BMCR 1998.01.16

98.1.16, The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture

, The artists of the Ara Pacis : the process of Hellenization in Roman relief sculpture. Studies in the history of Greece & Rome. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. xviii, 145 pages : illustrations ; 29 cm.. ISBN 9780807823439 $65.00.

In 1951 J.M.C. Toynbee broke some difficult news to all enthusiasts of Roman art: most Roman sculpture was actually Greek, at least to judge from extant artists’ signatures. 1 We might sputter all we wanted about the fact that the patrons were Roman, so that the works were still, in some sense, Roman. We might object that the renowned sculptor of the first century B.C., Pasiteles, though a native of Magna Graecia, obtained Roman citizenship for himself and was therefore, in some sense, Roman. We could brandish the few Roman-sounding names that were to be found in texts and inscriptions: in Pliny, there is Coponius, who executed statues for Pompey’s theater; in the Forum of Augustus, a certain C. Vibius Rufus signed his named to one of the replicas of the Erechtheion caryatids. 2 Still, this one fact is irrefutable: most of the signed sculptures that we have from the Roman world were made by men with Greek names. Small wonder, then, that Toynbee concluded a few years later that the artists of the Ara Pacis must have been Greeks, though admittedly Greeks “with a deep understanding of Rome and Italy.”3 Neither the style of the Ara Pacis, nor the signatures on most Italian sculptures suggested otherwise.

Diane Atnally Conlin’s recent work serves as an effective response to this argument: Italian artists, though they did not sign their works, often did leave their signatures in the form of recognizable tool marks and distinct anatomical details. Conlin argues this convincingly and applies her discoveries to an analysis of the Ara Pacis. Her work owes its inspiration, in part, to her mentor Elaine Gazda, who had earlier demonstrated the existence of a vernacular tradition in certain Roman funerary reliefs—a tradition that developed from Etruscan workshop practices rather than under the influence of Greek artists. Gazda’s work demonstrated, among other things, that even funerary reliefs which looked superficially to be the product of Greek artists might, on closer inspection, be seen to rely on renderings and techniques that derived from Etruscan stoneworking traditions. 4 Gazda’s investigation made it clear that a work of art could not be assumed to be the product of Greek masters just because it looked that way at first glance: there are other, more convincing criteria than quick impressions, even when they are the quick impressions of scholars who are blessed with a good eye.

The shame is that this approach has not been applied to more sculptures that are on Italian soil—sculptures that we have all assumed, based on nothing more convincing than a general impression, were produced by Greek masters; but perhaps Conlin’s expansion of these basic ideas, as well as her thoroughgoing application of them to one of the great warhorses of ancient art, will inspire others to take a second look at other Hellenizing sculptures, and actually demonstrate what has only before been assumed.

The first three chapters of the book serve to set the problem in historical, technological and (if you will pardon a dirty word) antiquarian perspective. Chapter 1 is a survey of modern assumptions about the artists of the Ara Pacis and their unfortunate subordination to nationalist agendas, notably because of—and in reaction to—Mussolini’s attempts to appropriate the identity of Augustus for his own purposes. This is a sadly familiar cautionary tale about the dangers of nationalism to the objectivity of scholarship. Still, one might give someone like Toynbee the benefit of the doubt and assume that, even in the environment of post-war England, those Greek signatures meant more to her than a patriotic need to disprove Italian superiority.

Conlin follows this chapter with an examination of known and probable workshop arrangements for sculptors in the Roman world. One crucial point to emerge is that, in what was a traditionalist society where most professions were passed down through family lines, the craft of stoneworking tended to be particularly conservative because of the limitations placed on experimentation by the material: mistakes and flaws in stone are difficult to repair or work around. So, in order to ensure a successful product, sculptors’ apprentices tended to reproduce the techniques and stylistic choices of their masters quite closely. The traditionalism inherent in stoneworking has further interesting implications: it means, among other things, that a combination of particular techniques is less likely to be the product of individual style—as we commonly assume when we practice Greek vase attribution—and more likely result from a workshop tradition. This is an essential point for Conlin’s overall argument: if tool-handling skills tended to be highly individualistic or innovative, there would be little justification for the theory that the sculptors of the Ara Pacis can be identified as Italian by an appeal to their techniques.

In her attempt to paint a plausible picture of workshop life in the Roman world, Conlin depends extensively on the documentation of many different cultures, ranging from the Persian Empire to Medieval Europe. This is fascinating information, and would make for an interesting and independent article; but I believe that here it detracts from the book’s most important points. Since the object of Conlin’s overall argument is to isolate what is distinctly Italian about the Ara Pacis, she might seem to cloud the issue a little with the assumption that, say, Greek vase painters or Persian patrons provide analogies for the individuals who were involved in Roman sculptural production.

Chapter 3 reminds us that numerous acts of post-Augustan restoration make the Ara Pacis a veritable palimpsest, only one phase of which represents the work of the original sculptors. Various panels and figures of the altar underwent Renaissance and Neoclassical restorations, and Conlin even argues for certain late antique restorations. To give an example of how complicated the picture can get, we might consider the four flamines on the South frieze. According to Conlin’s count, three of the four flamines on the South frieze have incised irises, a detail with no parallel in Roman sculpture before the 2nd century A.D. Two of the four wear caps that have been worked with a small-toothed scraper—possibly though not certainly the mark of late antique sculptors; while the other two wear caps that have no traces of that tool, apparently because of an acid-bath wash applied in the 18th century. Finally, at least one flamen shows evidence of rasp work, which may or may not be Augustan in date. I was left longing for color-coded drawings that would at least separate out undeniably Augustan work from possible and definite restorations. Such drawings were provided for the East side of the altar by a publication under the direction of Eugenio LaRocca, but are still lacking for the rest of the monument. 5

Given the extensive restorations, one might wonder whether it is really even possible to discuss the Ara Pacis as a monument of the Augustan period; however, Conlin points out that certain panels -those found most recently and therefore restored the least—are more likely to produce information about Augustan tooling and techniques than others. These, in turn, can help us to locate the original tool marks on the panels that have been heavily restored in modern times.

Chapter 4 forms the core of Conlin’s argument. Her comparanda are, by and large, those funerary reliefs of the first century B.C. that can safely be considered to be the product of Italian sculptors. Conlin compares these to the processional friezes of the North and South sides of the Ara. Some of her reasoning is based on a Beazley-esque observation of anatomical detail: jointless hands, faces rendered in deeper relief than the bodies to which they are attached, and C-shaped locks of hair (for men). For all of these details she finds parallels in funerary reliefs of the late Republic. But a great deal of Conlin’s argument is also predicated on a markedly Italian preference for particular tools and techniques: the use of the rounded chisel as a finishing tool, for example, and a complementary tendency in many places not to smooth away tool marks from the flesh of the figures—a tendency Conlin suggests might be the result of training in coarser stones like travertine and tufa. Another Italian preference is for an interesting technique that Conlin calls ‘contour chiseling’, that produces a wide, concave depression around the heads of relief figures. This depression bears no resemblance to the narrow drilled channels with which sculptors of the Greek East often outlined their figures. Instead, contour chiselling was characteristic of late Republican funerary reliefs.

Conlin’s thesis develops beyond the simple debate of Greek versus Italian. Her book is full of well-observed details that demonstrate the increasing Hellenization of Roman art production before and around the time that the Ara Pacis was produced. On the altar itself, this includes the occasional, though quite limited, use of a drill, and the smoothing of a few faces, possibly the result of abrasives. Several late Republican funerary reliefs also show similar tentative experimentation with Greek techniques. This raises the very interesting question of how this knowledge was transmitted—whether there might, in some cases, have been Greeks and Italians working alongside one another; or whether the knowledge was gained by some other means.

There are a few mistakes in the book which do not, however, undermine its premises or conclusions. A plan of the Augustun horologium labels the gnomon a gnomen; (p.6.) and the phrase in statuis comes out in statutis (p.34). Fig. 25 is identified in text and caption as a fallen warrior from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It is not: it is a fallen warrior from the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina. For the most part, however, the photographs are remarkably helpful: in Conlin’s book there are almost as many pages devoted to images as to text. This means that, in many cases, she does not have to expect us to take her word that certain figures bear the marks of particular tools: she can show us.

The approach to tools and techniques that is outlined and practiced in this book has great potential. At present, the greatest obstacle to a comprehensive evaluation of her argument is that we simply do not have enough comparanda, because not many sculptures of the Hellenistic East have been examined with the attention to technical detail that Conlin has given to the Ara Pacis, or that Gazda has given to Republican funerary reliefs. This makes it difficult to piece together a detailed account of where and under what circumstances Roman sculpture in its various forms becomes Hellenized, and how late into its history we can still detect the Italian vernacular tradition that is so demonstrable in late Republican funerary reliefs. Whether the transition is ever complete, or whether the sculpture of the Roman Empire develops its own unique vernacular—neither Greek nor Italian—is a subject for somebody else’s book.

1. J.M.C. Toynbee, “Some Notes on Artists in the Roman World,”Collection Latomus, Volume VI, Brussels, 1951.

2. E. E. Schmidt, Die Kopien der Erechtheionkoren : Antike Plastik XIII. Berlin, 1973, p.11 and figs 4 and 5.

3. J.M.C. Toynbee, “The Ara Pacis Reconsidered and Historical Art in Roman Italy,”Proceedings of the British Academy, 39 (1953) 89-90.

4. E.K. Gazda, “Etruscan Influence in the Funerary Reliefs of Late Republican Portraiture,” in ANRW I.4 855-870, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 1973.

5. LaRocca, E. Ara Pacis Augustae: in occasione del restauro della fronte orientale. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, 1983.