BMCR 2005.06.16

The Art of Greece and Rome

Susan Woodford, The art of Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xxi, 163 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0521832802 $17.99 (pb).

In the early 1980’s Cambridge University Press undertook the publication of a series entitled The Cambridge Introduction to the History of Art, described as “a series for the student or general reader coming to the history of art for the first time.” The series consisted of seven volumes covering the Greco-Roman world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and each of the last four centuries. Moreover, it did exactly what it purported to do: it assumed nothing of its readers and truly did provide a primer for the novice in matters art historical. Altogether the cost of the series would have rivaled one of the more popular art history texts, e.g. William Fleming’s Art and Ideas or Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, but the series had the advantage of periodization, which gave instructors the opportunity to pick and choose and gave students lower costs and portability. Most volumes in the series have long since gone out of print, but students of the classical world are well served again as Susan Woodford (hereafter W) has given us a second edition of her volume, The Art of Greece and Rome.

What one notices immediately about the new edition is a five page list of illustrations (which are numbered consecutively throughout the text rather than by chapter), two pages of acknowledgments, and three pages of line drawn maps of the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman world. The maps feature the sites identified in the text and therefore, I presume, are intended to contextualize the material. For someone reading W on his own, they likely serve a useful purpose, but they are rather small and do not really add much. W herself refers to them specifically only a few times in the course of the book. W’s text then follows: an introduction, ten chapters divided into three sections, and a brief epilogue.

In the first section she examines the roots and the flower of Greek art, beginning with chapters on Greek sculpture — archaic through classical, Greek temple architecture and temple art, and pottery and pottery decoration from the Geometric through red-figure. The chapters on sculpture and architecture are exactly as they were in the first edition, including the illustrations and line drawings. The emphasis in sculpture is on the transformation of the kouros into the more natural and idealized style characteristic of the classical period. The kore, though technically more challenging, gets rather short shrift. The chapter on architecture moves quickly from the archaic to the classical and emphasizes the vocabulary of Greek temple architecture; however, the bulk of the chapter is devoted to the sculptural decoration of the temple and the particular challenges represented by the pediment, the metopes, and the frieze. As is appropriate for an introductory text, the decoration of the Parthenon assumes pride of place in the discussion. Chapter three, on painted pottery, discusses the practical uses of pottery and identifies the various shapes/vessels before moving on to an examination of geometric, black and red figure styles. W discusses not only the techniques but the subject matter of many of the illustrations. Her commentary benefits immensely from the fact that, in this new edition, the publishers have enlarged the photos and, in two instances, have provided nearly full page, color photos (#65 & 66) of a black/red-figure amphora from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ironically it is the preceding illustration of an amphora by Exekias which W considers the masterpiece of the three scenes depicting Ajax and Achilles dicing.

In part two W examines the sculpture, painting, and the public/private architecture of the fourth century and the Hellenistic world. These three chapters are exactly as they appeared in the first edition. In her review of sculpture she focuses upon the appearance of the female nude, the rise of emotionalism, and the expansion of subject matter. The last also characterize her discussion of painting, which she supplements with illustrations of mosaics, notably the Alexander mosaic in the Naples Museum. The chapter on architecture is quite brief, but includes a section on domestic architecture based upon examples from Delos and Priene as well as a notice of the development of the theatre. The chapter concludes with three sanctuary complexes, in which the unity of the Asclepieion on Kos or the Fortuna complex at Praeneste is compared favorably with the Athenian Acropolis.

W turns to the Roman world in part three, though one looks in vain for anything earlier than the Empire. Chapter seven, on Roman sculpture, begins with the Augustus of Prima Porta as an example of “the specificity of person” which distinguishes Roman attitudes. W then moves to a discussion of the historical relief, where the “specificity of event” reinforces her earlier remarks on Roman realism. The Ara Pacis, Arch of Titus, and Trajan’s Column provide W’s three examples of the relief. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 offers W the opportunity to examine some well preserved Roman painting, which she explores in chapter eight, offering definitions and illustrations of the four Pompeian styles. A discussion of Pompeian domestic architecture opens chapter nine, but W then passes to the public, imperial architecture of the Roman temple, theatre and amphitheatre. A welcome addition to the chapter is the addition of a section on the Roman bath, which W terms “the palaces of the people,” though the imperial palaces themselves do not appear. The final chapter of the survey is also new and explores the spread of Roman institutions and culture throughout the Empire. Unlike the others, this chapter combines architecture, painting, mosaics, and sculpture; these arts are employed to show how Roman models are adopted, adapted or rejected in favor of local traditions. Here for the first time line drawings often replicate the illustrations, apparently to render more intelligible pieces in a poor state of preservation.

W has added an appendix to this new edition, entitled “How we know what we think we know.” Herein she considers questions of dating, attribution, sculptural techniques, and Roman methods of copying. Each of these discussions is relatively short and addresses a topic at least alluded to earlier in the text. I therefore wonder why they were not included in the respective chapters in which they might more naturally have appeared. Given the fact that the Press apparently reset the entire text of the first edition, the placement of these brief discussions seems curious. Finally, as in the first edition, W includes a very useful glossary of terms and suggestions for further reading. The text concludes with an extensive index.

Art survey texts have a tendency to grow from edition to edition, and W’s is no exception: from a first edition of 122 pages, the second has grown to 163. Enlarged illustrations and an additional chapter account for part of that growth and they are welcome. However, the addition of a long list of illustrations, three rudimentary maps, an appendix, and several blank pages at the end of the book add little of value or importance to W’s survey; what had been a trim little volume seems somewhat artificially bloated.

More important, though, is the fact that the text is once again available. For students approaching the art of the classical world for the first time, W provides a survey that is lucid, coherent, and informative. Her discussion explores the range of artistic achievement from the archaic period in Greece to the late Roman Empire. Moreover, W avoids controversies and idiosyncratic “readings” that often only confuse the novice. Instead diagrams, illustrations, and glossary provide the basic vocabulary of art history and archaeology; the students can (and do!) then raise their own questions. For those of us who teach surveys in the humanities, the paperbound version of the book is both accessible and affordable. Quibbles aside, it is good to see it available again.