BMCR 2005.06.17

Ancient Greek Painting and Its Echoes in Later Art. Translated by John Davis

, , Ancient Greek painting and its echoes in later art. Αρχαία ελληνική ζωγραφική και οι απηχήσεις της στους νεότερους χρόνους.. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 319 pages : color illustrations ; 30 cm. ISBN 0892366834 $75.00.

Stelios Lydakis’ (L.’s) Ancient Greek Painting and Its Echoes in Later Art is a gorgeous book. It is also an unexpectedly tendentious book, and its likely reception by individual BMCR readers may be measured by the following comment on the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii: “Although certain scholars consider the villa frieze to be Roman and date it to the reign of Augustus (30 B.C. – A.D. 14), the work is clearly a copy; a certain inflexibility of line at several points, coupled with obvious structural uncertainty and insecurity, can leave us in no doubt as to this” (p. 238). For readers who are convinced that the work is derivative — on account of its linear inflexibility, structural uncertainty and general insecurity — L.’s program of subsuming great swaths of Roman art under the rubric of Greek art will be welcome and appreciated. For many scholars, however, it will appear that L. attempts to elevate the prestige of Greek painting by denigrating (or appropriating) Roman achievements in the same realm, which is much the same battle as specialists in Greek and Roman poetry fought a half century ago. As a consequence, readers are apt to be sharply divided on L.’s analysis of traces of Greek painting in later Roman art. This is a shame, because L.’s individual chapters on the history of Greek painting, and his comparisons to Renaissance artists are truly valuable and handsomely illustrated. Only in the chapters on the Roman period does one sense a true polemic between the forces of Hellenism and those later barbarians with a brush.

L.’s narrative of Greek painting up to the Roman period is well written and neatly translated by John Davis, and also accompanied by eye-poppingly beautiful illustrations. L. begins with a prelude on Minoan and Mycenaean art, including Knossos’ bull-leaping fresco and the famous blue monkeys. He then segues to a brief overview of the relationship between Greek and Roman art and then to a generally diachronic overview of Greek vase painting, from the Dipylon Painter’s geometric amphora of an heroic funeral to individual chapters on Zeuxis, Pamphilos, Antipholos, and other luminaries. In the case of individual painters, of course, L. must often describe styles and patterns not so much from surviving art as from accounts in ancient literature, especially Pliny and Lucian.

A useful chapter on Apelles (pp. 156-171) gathers and examines the bulk of the evidence about this shadowy painter and also demonstrates how well L. handles the reception of Greek antiquity in the Renaissance. After detailing the few details of Apelles’ life that we do know, L. delves into the busy “after-life” of Apelles, the manipulation of his myth in later European art. In a famous episode known from Pliny and Aelian, Apelles was commissioned to paint Alexander’s mistress Campaspe in the nude. When Alexander later discovered that Apelles had fallen in love with his (naked) subject, he gave Campaspe to Apelles as a gift outright. Depending on one’s point of view, this vignette is either a lovely testament to the power of portraiture or seriously creepy; in any case, it seems to have inflamed the imaginations of generations of Renaissance artists eager to paint a painter eager for his subject (in effect, meta-painting). The paintings culled by L., including those of Nicolas Vleughels, Giambattista Tiepolo, and Jodocus A. Winghe, run the gamut of interpretations, from coy Campaspes to starstruck Apelleses, and mostly in the name of Art rather than Eros. L.’s book is full of these delicious forays into Renaissance interpretation, including re-envisionings of Zeuxis’ ‘Centaur Family’ painting (pp. 135-136), Aetion’s ‘The Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne’ (pp. 152-154), and Philostratus’ Imagines (p. 58). Those with a penchant for the surreal will surely want to have a look at Giovanni Francesco Penni’s interpretation of Lucian’s ‘Hercules Gallicus’ (fig. 49), in which an aged Hercules drags around a mob of people by chains that have been strung through his tongue. (This makes Hercules the forerunner, it seems, of Xtreme Body Piercing.) These chapters show L.’s treatments and methods at their best.

It’s only with the Romans that L. seems to hit specific interpretative obstacles. In his forward, L. speaks glowingly of the “magnificent artistic achievements” of “both ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy.” The intervening period of 2000 years appears something of a disappointment. For instance, here is L.’s take on the (Roman) Alexander Mosaic now in the Museo Nazionale in Naples: “It is in cases such as this [i.e. the Alexander mosaic] that one most mourns the loss of the original artworks — works that set all those who saw them to pondering the miracle of creation and the spirit of these uniquely sensitive, powerful artists who had mastered all the skills the Renaissance was to set about rediscovering some two millennia later” (pp. 181-182). It is true, of course, that many Roman mosaics and wall paintings have, in some fashion, Greek painting as a precursor; but it’s another step entirely to gaze at an astoundingly deft work of Roman mosaic artistry and mourn. A caption to the Medea in Pompeii’s Casa di Giasone provides an additional clue to L.’s interpretative framework (caption 181): “The original, or originals, was often copied by craftsmen and decorators who cared more about adapting a painting to make it work as decoration than being completely faithful to the original.”

This of course begs the question not only of whether the Romans were being faithful, but whether fidelity is even a useful term when talking of Roman art. For L., the answer is obviously yes. This puts L. squarely at odds with much recent criticism on the Roman sides of things. As Peter Stewart puts it in his recent survey of Roman Art, some scholars continue to “see Roman art as stale and derivative, creatively bankrupt”, because Roman artisans apparently rely on Greek models.1 For Stewart and like-minded art historians, however, the matter of Roman copies is not a simple one. As Stewart argues, while some well-known pieces closely match surviving Greek works — such as the “Roman” Doryphoros from Pompeii, “the fact that a particular work of art looks Greek is not a good reason for labeling it a copy.”2 L., however, not only sees copies everywhere, but seems also to have a clear idea of what the originals looked like. For instance, L.’s comment on the Odyssey landscapes from the Esquiline Hill in Rome: “… [the artists] make no attempt to differ from the original” (p. 226). How can we (or, more to the point, how can L.) possibly know? Likewise, a caption from the frieze at the Villa of the Mysteries: “A monumental work that has preserved some of the magnificence of the original” (caption 187). Is L. hiding the original somewhere? Is that why it’s a mystery?

In fact, it’s difficult to puzzle out whether L. considers the Romans to have any sort of independent artistic impulses at all. Even so Roman a project as the paintings in the House of Livia were created by “ancient copyists” who happened also to be “major artists in their own right” (p. 268). The prominence given to the notion of that these artists were “copyists” gives L. free reign to lump together all four styles of Pompeiian wall painting as well as Nero’s house as Greek painting. Even the later Roman portraits from Egypt are part of a portraiture tradition “in which the Greek aesthetic and artistic heritage was still very much alive” [p. 282]. Is nothing Roman? When the artistic provenance of a work is in doubt — such as the “Nekyia” of the Odyssey Landscapes — L. still avoids the dreaded ‘R’ word: “rarely has a European painting conveyed the sense of the world beyond death so successfully” [p. 208, my emphasis]. L. seems to appropriate as Greek everything with any possible claim to it being such and to label what’s left over as a general, European development. For the Romans, just the aqueducts.

In sum, Ancient Greek Painting and Its Echoes in Later Art is both an exhilarating and frustrating book. Its individual analyses of Greek painters are well-researched and illustrated, and its chapters on antiquity’s reception in the Renaissance include some of the keenest visual analysis to be found in the field of reception studies. L.’s chapters on Roman painting, however, are quirky at best, and at least some of BMCR’s readers will quarrel with L.’s ex cathedra pronouncements about Roman originality and imitation. The quality of production is so high that most art historians will want this volume on their shelves for referring to specific artistic biographies and early trends. Only in its sweeping generalizations about Roman art must the book be approached with a more jaundiced eye.


1. Stewart, Peter. Roman Art. Greece & Rome. New Surveys in the Classics 34. Oxford: 2004. 106.

2. Stewart, 107.