BMCR 2005.06.15

The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome

, The aesthetics of emulation in the visual arts of ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi, 208 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521831652 $75.00.

Those who study Roman art, particularly the medium of sculpture, often find formulaic labels along the lines of “marble copy of X attributed to the Greek master Y.” Frequently, such labels appear in museums and contemporary scholarship thanks to the nineteenth-century methodological approach known as Kopienkritik. This approach has largely defined the way in which scholars perceive Roman sculpture, despite attempts to represent this medium otherwise.1 The basis for Kopienkritik is that Roman sculpture, particularly Idealplastik or ideal sculpture (a genre of sculpture that pertains to divinities, mythological figures and heroes) originates from an original Greek masterpiece, making the Roman “copy” inferior. In order to liberate Roman sculpture in particular and the visual arts in general from such misconceptions, Ellen Perry’s monograph offers new strategies that focus on the role of Roman aesthetics.

Aesthetics is currently receiving a renaissance in the domains of art and literary criticism from two theoretical perspectives.2 One is the social historical perspective, which investigates how people think about art within a certain period in history. The work of art including its aesthetic qualities can only be understood fully with an explanation of its social, political, and/or religious context(s) through a thorough examination of the literary evidence. The second perspective, ahistorical by nature, argues that appreciation of art is innate irrespective of such social, political or religious contexts. According to this position, aesthetics is simply aesthetics, irrespective of a qualifying adjective (e.g., Greek, Roman, Jewish, Islamic, etc).3

Perry’s work employs the social historical perspective to establish criteria for Roman aesthetics. Through her analysis of ancient anecdotes and literary criticism, Perry maintains that Roman aesthetics comprises the concepts of decorum (appropriateness), eclecticism (the intentional blending of styles), and phantasia (artistic visualization). Her examination unfolds in six chapters along with an introduction and a conclusion. In the introduction she opens with the controversial Apollo Belvedere to reveal how little, if any, evidence exists to trace the origin of this work. This case study offers the perfect segue for her to situate her own study within the existing corpus of scholarship.

For Perry, decorum is paramount for the understanding of a Roman aesthetics. Subsequently, the first two chapters devote themselves to unpacking this term. Chapter One, ” Decorum and Tradition: The Beginnings of a Theoretical Apparatus” defines fully the term decorum. In addition, Perry demonstrates that decorum appealed primarily to the aristocratic élite and was a means for both patron and artist to subscribe to tradition. Chapter Two, ” Decorum and the Patron: The Functions of Art,” expands upon the theoretical considerations presented in Chapter One. Decorum, Perry believes, was a very conservative and formulaic principle in the eyes of the Roman patron, a principle that directed attention to context. For example, sculpture and painting were suited for specific purposes within particular architectural spaces. Furthermore, the artwork that a patron chose was regarded as a means of self-representation, in other words a reflection of his “career and interests.” This inherent conservatism, however, still allowed for innovative artistic creations.

Decorum is an underlying theme in the remaining chapters of this work but now takes a subsidiary role. Perry’s interest in Chapters Three through Six is to draw the reader’s attention to other aesthetic concepts, both ancient and modern, that further our understanding of Roman imitation in the arts. Chapter Three, “The Marginalization of Innovation” continues with the topic of innovation in Roman art in order to challenge contemporary opinions indebted to Kopienkritik. In this chapter she provides a detailed historiographic analysis to show how the term “free copy” has rendered Roman art as inferior to its Greek counterpart. Perry weaves the aesthetic principle of decorum back into the discussion and demonstrates that when Roman artists sought to imitate a so-called original, they did so with the intent of improving it to suit its new context.

Chapters Four and Five bring to light the ancient aesthetic concepts of eclecticism and phantasia. In Chapter Four, “The Strategy of Eclecticism,” Perry argues that our eagerness to search for and compartmentalize multiple prototypes of Roman works circumvents a true understanding of what these works intended to convey. A reading of Roman literary theory helps to show that a blending of imagery or styles helps to communicate multivalent meanings. This blending of styles continues into the visual arts and carries the same effect for the viewer. To demonstrate this blending of styles, Perry concentrates on how Roman artisans have transformed the sculpture known as the Venus Capua both thematically and physically over time. Chapter Five, ” Phantasia : The Artist’s Vision as Model,” explains how the artist perceived the veracity of divine, heroic or mythological figures. Perry maintains that the goal for the artist was neither to create a new vision nor to reformulate a creation from the past but rather to create a set emotional impact for the viewer.

Perry’s final chapter, “The Role of Antiqui in Roman Art” addresses why Roman artists and patrons made allusions to the Greek masters. Here, she argues that a Greek “canon” of artists existed that invariably appealed to Roman tastes and values. It was a canon that did not ask for the exact replication of a particular object or idea, rather it acted as an exemplum for any Roman literary or artistic endeavor.

Perry’s work will generate further discussion particularly in the areas of patronage and the visual arts in general. As regards patronage, the author states “the aristocratic patrons who shared the aesthetics outlined here had significant connections and business with the city of Rome, and they recognized the prestige and auctoritas of the élite that gathered there”(23). But would such criteria necessarily apply to the non-élite patrons? Wealthy freeborn men and ex-slaves commissioned artworks in the Roman world. Would have they acquired or commissioned art for the same purposes as their aristocratic counterparts?4 Can Roman aesthetics, then, be treated in such monolithic terms?

Since the title of this work invokes the phrase “visual arts,” readers may be disappointed not to find more detailed information about architecture, vase painting, or even wall painting. This is not to say that references to other forms of visual art do not exist, but they are not as obvious as the references to relief sculpture and, especially, sculpture in the round.5 The author’s goal is to dismantle the misconceptions about sculpture as a result of scholarly dispositions towards Kopienkritik. But, has Kopienkritik ultimately shaped how we perceive and discuss other examples of visual art from ancient Rome? If so, how and why?

Such criticisms aside, this work is a must-read for art historians and literary critics alike. Perry’s approach is refreshing, carefully construed, and thought provoking. Readers will appreciate her use of anecdotes and complementary case studies to substantiate her arguments. The accessibility of this work makes it a requisite edition for the specialist’s shelf. In addition, this book should be placed on recommended reading lists for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses devoted to Roman art.


1.Perry, 16, particularly, note 29. For attempts to change the way we look at sculpture, see, E. K. Gazda, (ed.) The Ancient Art of Emulation: Studies in Artistic Originality and Tradition from the Present to Classical Antiquity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

2.Some recent titles include: K. P. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual Princeton University Press, 2000; O. Leaman, Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004; A. W. Hughes, The Texture of the Divine: Imagination in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Thought. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.

3.See, for example, O. Leaman’s treatment of Islamic art and aesthetics. Op. cit. (n. 2).

4.For instance, J. R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representations and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy. 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Reviewed by Matthew B. Roller in BMCR 2005.04.68.

5.For instance, only one section, “Theon of Samos and Timomachus of Byzantium” (pp. 163-70), is devoted extensively to wall painting.