BMCR 2004.12.33

The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples

, The social life of painting in ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xvi, 345 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 29 cm. ISBN 0521826004. $95.00.

1 Responses

The 1990s formed a watershed in the study of Roman painting. In 1991 Roger Ling summed up a century of (almost entirely) German scholarship on the ‘Four Styles’ of Campanian painting in what amounted to the first full-scale, detailed and lucid account in English (published with CUP and in something very like the format of Leach’s book under review here).1 In the same year John Clarke used the four styles framework to read chronologically through a group of select individual houses, mainly in Pompeii.2 It is a testament to the power of August Mau’s original work of the 1880s (granted its primacy in Leach’s bibliography by being referred to twice!)3 that his frame of the classification of Campanian wall-painting by the relative realism of its architectural illusionism, and his tying of this to a systematic model of chronology, should have held the field for so long, with constant minor refinements being the principle by which new publications had something to offer. The ‘new Pompeii’ — an attempt to by-pass the four styles and look at social history — was born (at any rate in monograph form and in English) when Andrew Wallace-Hadrill brought together his papers of the late 1980s on social life in the domestic sphere on the Bay of Naples,4 drawing especially on a significant paper by Paul Zanker from 1979,5 which was subsequently the basis for Zanker’s own Pompeii book of 1998.6 What Wallace-Hadrill did was to transpose the controlling model of ‘illusion’, which had governed Mau’s stylistic formulation of Pompeian painting, to a model of ‘allusion’.7 In that the illusions on Campanian walls were able to allude (for instance, to luxurious villas or grand gardens), that allusion carried the charge of social meanings and could be read as evidence for social construction within antiquity. The impact of the new agenda may be seen not only in the study of Campania, but also in the new approaches to Roman mosaics — for example the outstanding work of Susanne Muth.8

The shift away from the predominance of stylistic analysis has been immeasurably aided by two fundamental publication projects — frankly the most important event in a century in the study of Roman painting. These are the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae,9 which finally permits comparative iconographic analysis of any mythological theme across the whole scope of ancient visual culture, and the volumes of Pompei: pitture e mosaici,10 which have systematically published the excavated insulae of Pompeii house by house, allowing us integrated chronological, spatial and programmatic views of the ways wall paintings were deployed. Both publications (but especially the latter) have made extensive and valuable use not only of still-existing ancient murals but also of the many images that survive only in eighteenth and nineteenth century drawings, prints and watercolours. The great German series Haüser in Pompeji will further supplement our grasp of the ways individual houses worked with its still more lavish detail of reproduction and analysis (thought the expense of this project and its volumes casts some doubt on whether it will ever be more than a selection of star houses).11

Like Shelley Hales’ excellent book of 2003 (with the same publisher and rather unfairly reviewed in the pages of BMCR, I thought),12 Eleanor Winsor Leach’s new volume is explicitly indebted to the social agenda created so powerfully by Zanker and Wallace-Hadrill. Her interest, specifically focusing down from the larger questions of the evidence Campania can offer us for Roman social life, is in ‘the construction of a socially oriented perspective in which to view painting’ (p. 16). She worries, rightly, about the ‘diachronic masterplot’ and the ‘developmental narrative’ but ultimately ‘remains generally diachronic’ in her approach (pp. 16-17). Nonetheless this chronology — most strongly apparent in the last two chapters on the ‘Final Decade’ (i.e. until AD 79) and ‘Beyond AD 79 in Rome and Campania’ — eschews the stylistic model. To my taste, Leach is perhaps insufficiently iconoclastic. Her attitude to style is sensible and judicious — ‘a worker does not begin to climb the roof by kicking out the ladder’ (p. 16) — and she remarks later that the stylistic method is ‘a reasonable way to approach the unknowable and absolutely unverifiable’ (p. 142). I guess I am a dangerous ladder kicker who feels the unknowable may as well be left unspeculated over.

Instead Leach’s structure for the book is fundamentally thematic, with the themes chosen for their relations to major social or aesthetic debates in the literature of Campanian painting. Chapter 1, ‘Domestic Context’, takes on the problems of domestic space: the nightmare of tying room names (known from texts) onto actual rooms as they survive; the question of privacy (and its general absence, in our sense of the term, in the context of Roman dwellings); the issue of room use (spaces for entertaining, sleeping and dining); and finally the problem of how decoration might define hierarchy. Chapter 2, called ‘Panels and Porticoes’, develops the complex of status, furnishing and décor, with an interesting closing discussion on the relations of mimesis (as exemplified in Roman wall-painting) with meaning. Chapter 3 might be termed a detour into the world of aesthetics and specifically the vast bibliographic argument stretching over the best part of the last century on the extent of theatrical reference in Roman wall painting. Entitled ‘The Model of the Scaenae Frons‘, it takes us, by way of theatrical imagery in houses (both in Rome and Pompeii) via actual theatres and their decoration to an interesting account of Augustan and Julio-Claudian self-staging, a particularly Roman form of self-fashioning, which meshes well with recent studies of theatricality, audience-awareness and ocularo-centrism in early Roman imperial culture and literature.13 Chapter 4, ‘Gardens and Picture Galleries’ rather oddly makes a diptych of two essential but not obviously related topics. I thought the first of these, gardens, missed a trick in being largely about paintings of gardens (of which there are many, and some most interesting ones) rather than paintings in gardens (of which there are also many and no less interesting) and the relation of both of these to gardens themselves, about which we now know so much following the pioneering works of Wilhelmina Jashemski.14 Chapter 5 turns to the ‘Style of Luxury’, both in images and in texts, focussing especially on imperial building in Rome before it shifts to some of the grander houses in Campania. This rather by-passes the key issue of whether allusion to luxurious buildings and furnishings in imitative wall-painting is a statement of the having of such luxury (as implied by Wallace-Hadrill) or its absence (as implied by some of his critics). But the problem is relevant to any juxtaposition of Campanian (i.e. ‘bourgeois’) housing with imperial residences in Rome. Chapter 6, ‘The Final Decade: Demography and Decoration’, focuses on a narrow historical trajectory after the earthquake of 62 AD and indeed largely in a single district in Pompeii, the area of the Via di Mercurio with its repairs and redecorations. I particularly like the narrower focus, which gives Leach the chance to exemplify issues in close and incremental detail. This chapter broadens into a bit of a catch-all — ‘conspicuous donations’ (including the Temple of Isis), civic buildings (such as the Macellum and the Baths), fullonicae, other commercial spaces, restaurants and so forth. The last chapter, ‘Beyond AD 79’, is technically a conclusion, focussing specially on 3 programmes of images, none preserved from antiquity except in seventeenth and eighteenth century reproductions (the Tomb of the Nasonii and the Villa Negroni respectively) or as a third century AD literary description (the Imagines of the Elder Philostratus).

Leach, a Latin literary critic by her primary training as well as a Classical archaeologist, and one of the pioneers of bringing together the study of art and text in Roman culture,15 takes a wide cultural sensibility to this material. The book is excellently presented and discussed by an author as much in command of the range of textual sources as of the archaeological and art-historical issues. Intriguingly, despite her move beyond the four styles to a social life agenda, Leach is curiously reticent about the subject-matter of the main painted panels which form the principal elements of the decorative schemes on Pompeian walls. This might be claimed to be a function of the book’s overt subject: the topics of these pictures (so often mythological) may be seen as not obviously significant for social life, less so certainly than issues like hierarchy and privacy. But effectively it plays into what one might call the deep historiographic genesis of Leach’s subject (Campanian social life as evidenced by decoration) as a translation of the four styles model from formal analysis to social construction (that is, Wallace-Hadrill’s witty shift from ‘illusion’ to ‘allusion’). Mau’s initial turn to the styles, within a nineteenth century positivist paradigm that had an all-encompassing chronology as its grand aim, was in disdain of the painted panels, which had come to be seen as poor copies of lost Greek masterpieces and in resistance to a belle-lettres antiquarian tradition of the whimsical collecting of mythological themes in grand volumes that themselves emulated the Royal Bourbon Museum in Naples, to which so many Pompeian panels, extracted from their original context, had been taken to create an art gallery of ancient painting.16 Mau might have chosen the connoisseurial route of such contemporaries as Morelli or Beazley in identifying the hands of figure painters (and constructing a comprehensive classification that allowed the postulation of chronology, workshops and schools on this basis). But it was perverse to use the minute analysis of scientific connoisseurship on the hackwork of wall painters who did not deserve identification, by contrast with the Greek ‘masters’ that Beazley invented for pots or Morelli’s Renaissance geniuses. Indeed, it has taken to the dawn of the twenty-first century — ironically well after art history pronounced the death of the artist and dispensed with his burial — for Larry Richardson (Leach’s teacher and the dedicatee of this volume) to attempt a systematic identification of Pompeian hands that lays claims to being a comprehensive connoisseurial classification of the kind associated with Beazley or Mau.17 Like the earlier studies of Pompeian painting as social history — Zanker, Wallace-Hadrill, Hales — Leach’s account betrays the genesis of the stones from which it builds its edifice in the formalist quarry of Mau’s four styles.

So if I have a response to the social construction agenda, as it reaches magisterial command in a book as complex and subtle as this, it is that we need perhaps to turn back to a world before Mau. It is time for the iconographic and programmatic evidence — the complex arena of replication and variation, of thematic juxtaposition and invention which constitutes so much of Campania’s rich pictorialism — to be integrated into the fuller picture of a more complete cultural history of the house and its decorations in Roman lived experience.18 The one sustained attempt to build a social picture out of pictorial subject matter has been in the study of Roman sex, fundamentally indebted to Kenneth Dover’s explorations of Greek homosexuality from the evidential base of what was depicted on vases.19 If this is the model, one might argue that Leach has been wise to keep away: the post-Dover study of ancient sexuality, quite apart from the fundamental methodological problems involved in inevitable presentism,20 has insisted on a remarkably literalist interpretation of images so as to argue that what they show is what people did. It may indeed be that what is shown today in what the British coyly call ‘top shelf magazines’ (top shelf being where Newsagents display them) does indeed reflect some people’s actual practices, but of what socially meaningful group? And how does what is depicted in such publications relate to the activities of the majority (or even to their desires)? Likewise, when Greek pots or the cubicles where people left their clothes in Roman baths show scenes of pretty well every imaginable sexual activity (or perhaps my imagination is excessively limited here), we need at least a careful argument to show that this has anything to do with reality. The assumption that such imagery betrays actual practice, or is a positive and celebratory affirmation of contemporary mores, smacks of wishful thinking. The problem here is again the translation of ‘illusion’ into ‘allusion’: once such images (or the visions of luxury with which Zanker and Wallace-Hadrill are more concerned) are seen as allusions, there is a fundamental range of problematics as to how viewers might have responded to them (from identification to rejection, from desire for what one might have to envy for what one could not have, and so on). If the assimilation of ‘daily life’ types of imagery is difficult to use for social history, then mythological imagery is all the more tricky. But it seems to me that the challenge with the wonderfully rich corpus of Roman wall painting is now to incorporate subjects and panels into the Leachian ‘socially oriented perspective’ in order to tackle the fundamentals of Roman visuality itself. We have, effectively, to press the range of meanings of pictorial ‘allusion’ and to accommodate the range of responses (many of them mutually contradictory) which Campanian imagery must have evoked.

[[For a response to this review by Leofranc Holford-Strevens, see BMCR 2005.01.08.]]


1. R. Ling, Roman Painting, Cambridge, 1991.

2. J.R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy 100 BC – AD 200: Ritual, Space and Decoration, Berkeley, 1991.

3. A. Mau, Geschichte der dekorativen Wandmalerei in Pompeji, Berlin, 1882.

4. A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton, 1994.

5. P. Zanker, ‘Die Villa als Vorbild der späten Pompejanischen Wohngeschmacks’, JdAI 94 (1979) 460-573.

6. P. Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, Cambridge Mass., 1998.

7. Wallace-Hadrill, 1994, 17-28.

8. E.g. S. Muth, Erleben von Raum – Leben im Raum: zur Funktion mythologischer Mosaikbilder in der römisch-kaiserzeitlichen Wohnarchitectur, Heidelberg, 1998 and S. Muth, ‘Bildkomposition und Raumstruktur: ZumMosaik der ‘Großen Jagd’ von Piazza Armerina in seinem raumfunktionalen Kontext’, RM 106 (1999) 189-212.

9. Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Munich, 1981-, 8 vols.

10. I. Baldassarre (ed), Pompei, pitture e mosaici, Rome, 1990-2003. 10 vols.

11. V.M. Strocka (ed.) Haüser in Pompeji, Tubingen (later Munich), 1984-.

12. S. Hales, The Roman House and Social Identity, Cambridge, 2003.

13. E.g. S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian, Cambridge Mass., 1994; C. Edwards, ‘Beware of Imitations: Theatre and the Subversion of Imperial Identity’ in J. Elsner and J. Masters, Reflections of Nero, London, 1994, 83-97; R. Gunderson, ‘Discovering the Body in Roman Oratory’ in M. Wyke (ed.), Parchments of Gender: Deciphering the Body in Antiquity, Oxford, 1998, 169-89; B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon (eds.) The Art of Ancient Spectacle, Washington DC, 1999.

14. W. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii, vol. 1, New Rochelle, 1979; vol. 2, New Rochelle, 1993.

15. Note her early book, The Rhetoric of Space, Princeton, 1988.

16. E.g. Real Museo Morbonico, Naples, 1824-57, 16 vols.; H. Roux Ainé and M.L. Barré, Herculaneum et Pompei – receuil general des peintures, bronzes, mosaiques etc. , Paris, 1861-3, 8 vols.

17. L. Richardson, A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters of Ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, Baltimore, 2000.

18. For some pioneering work on programmes, see e.g. B. Bergmann, ‘The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii’, Art Bulletin 76 (1994) 225-256; on replication, see J. Trimble, ‘Greek Myth, Gender and Social Structure in a Roman House: Two Paintings of Achilles at Pompeii’ in E. Gazda (ed), The Art of Emulation, Ann Arbor, 2002, 225-48.

19. E.g. J. Clarke Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100BC – AD 250, Berkeley, 1998; J. Clarke, ‘Look Who’s Laughing at Sex: Men and Woman Viewers at the Apodyterium of the Suburban Baths at Pompeii’ in D. Frederick (ed.), The Roman Gaze, Baltimore, 2002, 149-82; J. Clarke, Roman Sex: 100 BC-AD 250, New York, 2003.

20. On which see J. Davidson, ‘Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex’, Past and Present 170 (2001) 3-51.