BMCR 2004.12.01

Ancient Greece: art, architecture, and history

, , Ancient Greece : art, architecture, and history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 143 pages : illustrations (chiefly color), color map ; 21 cm. ISBN 0892366958 $16.95 (pb).

Marina Belozerskaya and Kenneth Lapatin have produced a book on Greek material culture that is rich in illustration, stimulating in discussion, and clear in its organization of information. Ancient Greece: art, architecture, and history focuses on art and architecture, with historical commentary serving as a backdrop to provide context for the archaeological evidence. The authors aim to cover nearly 2,600 years of Greek history, art, small finds, and buildings in just 144 pages — a feat they accomplish by keeping background discussions cursory and relying on extensive image captions to elucidate important points.

The book begins with Minoan Crete and ends in the Hellenistic period, and is divided into six chapters: ‘Between Myth and Reality: Minoans and Mycenaeans’ (2600-1100 B.C.), ‘From Geometric to Orientalizing’ (1100-610 B.C.), ‘Archaic Art’ (610-480 B.C.), ‘The Early Classical Period’ (480-450 B.C.), ‘The Classical Period’ (450-323 B.C.), and ‘Art in the Hellenistic Age’ (323-31 B.C.). Within each chapter are further sub-divisions. As the authors’ ‘Browsing Guide’ explains, information is divided into three categories, coded by colored tabs in the margins: yellow marking pages devoted to architecture, blue for larger historical and artistic contexts, and pink denoting analyses of specific masterpieces.

Chapter 1, ‘Between Myth and Reality: Minoans and Mycenaeans,’ explores the emergence of ‘palace’ complexes on Crete in the late third and early second millennia B.C., and the rise of the Mycenaean civilization around 1600 B.C. Discussion of the Minoan ‘Snake Goddess,’ also called the Boston Goddess, is notably circumspect, as might be expected from Lapatin, whose work elsewhere has cast doubt on the authenticity of this figure.1 Readers are told that the object is ‘heavily reconstructed,’ and that the significance attached to it by Arthur Evans was inspired, in part, by mythologies of non-Minoan civilizations. The so-called Mask of Agamemnon, meanwhile, is neither confirmed nor denied as a likeness of its eponymous king, but the authors suggest that 19th-century restorers may have added the mask’s moustache in order to fit their notions of an ancient warrior-king.

Chapter 2, ‘From Geometric to Orientalizing,’ comprises just four sections and concentrates on historical and artistic contexts. The long decline of Greek cultures after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century is explained as a period in which monumental architecture and luxury arts ‘virtually ceased to be practiced,’ not to emerge again until the Greek ‘Renaissance’ between the tenth and eighth centuries B.C. Analyses of social phenomena, such as aristocratic patronage of the arts and increased contact with the ancient Near East, help to explain how and why Greek culture was revived. With respect to art, emphasis is placed on a funerary krater and amphora from the Dipylon cemetery (New York 14.130.14 and Athens NM 804, respectively). Discussion of the latter, in particular, is excellent, as readers are provided with clearly-reproduced details of individual bands of decoration as well as a mathematical analysis of the amphora, showing its system of proportions. Both objects are explained as funerary markers for the wealthy, presenting in their primary registers the prothesis and decorated with human figures rendered in conceptual rather than naturalistic forms. The lower register of the Dipylon krater in New York is said to show a procession of chariots and warriors carrying shields, perhaps for funeral games or the ‘heroic military exploits expected of [the dead man’s] class.’ The authors do not mention the possibility that, because hourglass shields and chariots played a more limited role in the mid-8th century than in the earlier Bronze Age, this procession may not reflect reality at all: rather, they may simply evoke the glorious ancestry and traditions to which the deceased belonged. Absent from this chapter is architecture. The votive model of a temple or house from the Sanctuary of Hera at Argos (now in the Athens National Museum) stands in as a possible model of the Temple of Hera. The second Temple of Hera at Samos or the Temple of Apollo at Thermon, with its impressive terracotta metopes, would have provided useful insight to the development of Greek stone temples. As it stands, the Temple of Apollo at Corinth and Temple C at Selinus, which are studied in the following chapter (‘Archaic Art’), seem to emerge from an architectural vacuum.

The third chapter begins with the Greek polis, and it is from the polis (here defined as the urban center and its outlying territories) that the demand for monumental architecture and art emanated. Belozerskaya and Lapatin state that art in the polis’emphasized the normative roles of the citizens and other inhabitants’ (34). Particularly for the non-experts, who are presumably the target audience for this book (more on this below), it is important to stress that images of athletes, warriors, wives and ‘barbarians’ served to give visual form to imagined ideals. They could be abstract ideals rather than windows onto real bodies and real people. Separate ‘Analysis of Masterpieces’ sections are devoted to kouroi and korai, with the generic nature of kouroi deemed appropriate to their multivalent nature: they served as grave markers, votives, or images of gods. The korai section does not concern itself with recent debates about the original display contexts2 or individuality of the figures.3 Instead, their costumes are described in detail (with attention paid to East Greek variation) and their gestures decoded. The significance of the western colonies appears in two sections on architecture, one devoted to Paestum and the other to Selinus. Color photographs of the Temples of Athena and Hera 1 at Paestum, and of Temple C at Selinus, illustrate the wealth and architectural sophistication of these colonies. The chapter ends with a look at Athenian vase-painting, in which the techniques of black- and red-figure vessels are contrasted, and well-known examples (the François Vase; Achilles and Ajax gaming, by Exekias) interpreted.

‘The Early Classical Period,’ chapter 4, covers thirty years and comprises eight sections, a reflection of the period’s importance in the development of Greek material culture and, I suspect, of the authors’ areas of interest. The first two sections, both devoted to ‘Historical and artistic context,’ deftly touch on the expulsion of the Persians from Greece, the perfection of Athenian drama, and the solidification of Athenian democracy, featuring them as the catalyst for developing naturalistic, assured human forms in statuary and vase-painting. The link between changes in society and changes in art is pursued through the issue of ideal beauty: that kalos could describe not only outward appearance, but also inner value, is exemplified by the demand for images of handsome, nude youths on votive stelai and in freestanding statuary. Large-scale wall-painting is given treatment in a separate ‘Analysis of Masterpieces’ section, in which the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum is highlighted. Five color photos of the tomb’s painted lid and sides, plus detailed captions, provide an exciting and vivid exploration of the Greeks’ admiration for and mastery of the medium of wall-painting.

The fifth and sixth chapters lead readers through the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Chapter 5, ‘The Classical Period,’ centers on the Periklean building program of the mid-5th century and the sculptures of the Temple of Athena Parthenos. A concise but sensitive description of Pheidias’s statue of Athena bespeaks Lapatin’s knowledge of chryselephantine statues.4 The Parthenon frieze is confidently explained as culminating above the east porch with the presentation of a peplos to Athena, without inclusion of alternative interpretations of this scene.5 The dissemination of the Doric temple throughout the Greek world is nicely illustrated with color photos of temples from Cape Sounion, Segesta, Agrigento and Paestum. In fact, several sections throughout the book examine the innovations of Greek architects and artists in peripheral areas of the Greek koine, underscoring the pan-Hellenic nature of the record.6 A stimulating section entitled ‘Lost Masterpieces’ points out that many of the freestanding sculptural ‘masterpieces’ left to us are Roman marble copies of Greek bronze originals and posits that Attic vases shed light on the lost corpus of monumental wall-painting (80-1). Greek culture in the east is examined through the Maussolleion at Halikarnassos, the urban plan of Priene, and funerary monuments and tombs at Kaunos, Myra, and Xanthos. The chapter is rounded out with an architecture section devoted to ‘New Architectural Forms,’ in which the Erechtheion and Temple of Athena Nike are touched upon.

Seven of the fourteen sections comprising ‘Art in the Hellenistic Age,’ chapter 6, are analyses of masterpieces, spanning the rich repertoire of Hellenistic art from portraits of Alexander to the Laokoön. An intriguing section on historical and artistic context, entitled, ‘Urban planning in the service of well-being,’ discusses how the Hellenistic city enabled people to ‘live in a pleasant setting, move and work with ease, and find the necessary facilities for education, amusement, and gratification’ (112). After several detailed sections on art (‘Lysippos’, ‘Hellenistic kingships’, ‘The Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon’) and architecture (‘Urban planning as a magnificent setting’), it was refreshing to read about the more quotidian and human aspects of life in a Hellenistic city. ‘New Genres of Art’ explores Greek artists’ attempts to reflect ‘the experience of the natural and human worlds’ (120), and paves the way towards discussions of the female nude, genre scenes (Muses, the Spinario, pathos), and the Sperlonga sculptures.

Following the main body of the book are five appendices: a map of cited places (from Termessos in Lycia to Selinus in Sicily), a timeline of major historical events, an index of names of major figures (artists, architects, and leaders), an index of myths and gods, and, a section called ‘Major collections of Greek art’ (142-3), in which fourteen European museums are cited and their classical collections summarized.

One question to ask of the book is what sort of reader it means to attract. The publisher calls this an ‘informative handbook,’ intended to serve as ‘an attractive guide for students, travellers, and all those interested in ancient Greek civilization.’ Yet this is not a travel guide, as it is short on maps and reconstructions and moves so quickly from region to region that it would suit only those following a rather quirky itinerary. With respect to students, my undergraduates enjoyed the appendices and extensive illustrations, but found the book less useful for essay writing or research because of the absence of both a bibliography and an alphabetical, paginated index of objects. They were also bemused by the decision to leave out numismatic evidence completely. Further, because it skirts controversies surrounding interpretations of major objects (some of which are mentioned above), the book should perhaps be approached as the starting point, not the main resource, for the university student intent on teasing out the nuances of Greek art. High school students, or those completely new to the study of ancient Greek material culture, would find the book helpful because it covers a great swathe of material. With its rich collection of color photos, the book is handy for the teacher who wishes to flip to a quick example to underscore a paedagogical point.

Minor grousing aside, the book is, finally, a lovely read for anyone who enjoys Greek history, art, and archaeology, whether that reader is a newcomer to the field or is a serious student looking for a brush-up on major themes and objects.


1. K. Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: art, desire and the forging of history. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2003.

2. C.M. Keesling, Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

3. M.C. Stieber, The Poetics of Appearance in the Attic Korai. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2004.

4. K. Lapatin, Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

5. J. Connelly, “Parthenon and Parthenoi : A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” American Journal of Archaeology, January 1996, pp. 53-80.

6. Belozerskaya herself has a practiced eye in assessing the multi-regional influences on another body of visual evidence, that produced by the Burgundian court during the Renaissance. See: M. Belozerskaya, Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian arts across Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.