BMCR 2007.04.11

A History of Roman Art

, A History of Roman art. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007. xviii, 340 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 28 cm. ISBN 0534638465. $85.95.

[ Reviewer’s Note (in the interest of full disclosure): The author of the book under consideration, Fred S. Kleiner, was my dissertation advisor and primary mentor throughout my doctoral studies and early professional career. But since I regularly teach undergraduate level survey courses on Roman art, and am one of the professors at whom this text is aimed, I am a prime candidate for evaluating it.]

Choosing an affordable, well-written textbook in English for a course on Roman Art has always in the past presented a challenge because it has been a case of deciding between the least of several evils. None of the previously available books satisfies on any but a few levels. With the introduction of Fred S. Kleiner’s new A History of Roman Art, at last the choice becomes simple. This textbook fulfills many of the most important criteria for a survey textbook and exceeds expectations in most. It is informed by current research and theories of interpretation but presents a balanced, non-controversial tone; it is written in a way that is both interesting and easy to follow, while still respecting both the complexity of the subject and the intelligence of the readers; it is well-organized chronologically and thematically; the works of art and monuments that are included, while mostly standard choices, are excellent representatives of the most important themes of each section; and perhaps most important of all, it is beautifully and lavishly illustrated with extremely high quality photographs and other pedagogical material, nearly all in rich color. In short, this book is so superior to all other textbooks on Roman Art that it will certainly become the standard for all surveys of this subject.

In the past, the choices of textbook for a survey of Roman art have been bleak. Roman Art from Romulus to Constantine, by N. Ramage and A. Ramage, has of late been the dominant option, despite its superficially written text, the odd choice of works of art represented, and its mostly mediocre illustrations. Now in its fourth edition, this book first appeared in 1991, and except for gradually improving photographs, has changed little since the first edition. But it was the first comprehensive attempt at a single text for a course like this, and it replaced the earlier and now quite outdated Roman Art by Donald E. Strong in Yale University’s Pelican History of Art series, the last edition of which was published with significant revisions and additions by Roger Ling in 1989, well after Strong’s death. The Ramage and Ramage text essentially drove Strong’s book out of the market, and Strong’s is now out of print and largely unavailable. But it was never satisfactory as a single text anyway, as it was poorly illustrated, too densely written (the one time I used this book, my students uniformly proclaimed it ‘boring’), and it lacked any treatment of the major Roman art form of architecture, which was covered by two other books in the Pelican series, J. B. Ward-Perkins’ Roman Imperial Architecture, another problematic text published posthumously, with the last edition in 1992, and Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture by Axel Bo√ęthius, also last published in 1992. A more recent alternative to Ramage and Ramage is Roman Art, by Eve D’Ambra, published in 1998, as part of Cambridge University Press’s new series designed with the dramatic mission to rethink the field of art history thematically rather than chronologically in a series of short and inexpensive books. While the results are often interesting, D’Ambra’s text itself is too slight and the works included too sparse to be really useful as a sole text and it therefore requires so much supplementation that it is rarely worth choosing. Aside from these comprehensive works presenting Roman art, textbook options become even more problematic. For example, an instructor might put together a collection of books on different media, such as Diana Kleiner’s Roman Sculpture (Yale University Press, 1992), Roger Ling’s Roman Painting (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Ancient Mosaics (Princeton University Press, 1998), and so on, but this becomes cumbersome and expensive. Fred Kleiner’s new book eliminates the need for choosing among these various unsatisfactory options.

The quality of A History of Roman Art is immediately apparent upon visual inspection. Its production values are very high, including the physical components like the cover and the high-grade paper. Care was obviously taken arranging each page, and the layout is attractive and engaging. The font is large enough to be easy-to-read, and the pages are arranged in a visually appealing way with a balance of text, illustrations, and side-boxes. Each section is clearly announced with centered headings, and subsections labeled in bold-face. There are very few typos. The superior quality of the production suggests the confidence the publisher has in this text, which is not surprising considering that Fred S. Kleiner is already a well-known figure at Thomson Wadsworth, as he has been a co-author of their major art history franchise, Gardner’s Art through the Ages since the 10th edition. The publishers have not skimped on this book, despite the fact that it will not command the mass market of Gardner.

The content of an art history survey textbook is driven largely by the decisions made in two areas: the choice of works of art to include, and the method used to organize them. Other textbooks designed for surveys of Roman art have experimented with both of these things as a way of introducing a measure of freshness and originality to the subject, and of trying to avoid some of the pitfalls of age-old prejudices, but they have achieved only limited success. Ramage and Ramage’s text, for example, illustrates many basic types of Roman art with objects found in North American or British collections in order to allow students in these areas greater possibility of seeing the originals. This results in some odd choices, however, that are not always the best examples of a type. For example, Ramage and Ramage illustrate only one marble portrait of Marcus Aurelius, that in Fort Worth (they also show the bronze equestrian statue from the Campidoglio), and two Caracallas, one in New York and one in Philadelphia, in order to discuss the portraiture of these emperors, and in each case, the type is better served and illustrated with European examples. The quirkiness of these choices at best forces a knowledgeable instructor to bring in comparative material, but in a worst case scenario, those teaching the class with limited knowledge of Roman art who rely heavily on the textbook do not get a full picture of the real developments in Antonine and Severan portraiture. D’Ambra, in keeping with the Cambridge series, organized Roman art thematically rather than chronologically. Her text contains chapters with titles such as “Houses and Painted Interiors,” and “The City and Urban Space.” As with the Ramage book, an instructor well-versed in Roman art can use this as a starting point and supply the necessary chronological background, but the instructor who is largely relying on the textbook might easily lose the way. These texts both attempt creative approaches to teaching Roman art history, but both present drawbacks that force the instructor to disregard, compensate for, or even contradict the textbook.

In A History of Roman Art, in both the choice of works of art to include and the organization of the material, Kleiner has chosen the conventional rather than the innovative. For Marcus Aurelius, in addition to the bronze equestrian portrait, he includes three marble images representing three of Marcus’s standard types. All are from Rome and all are prime exemplars of their types. For Caracalla, we get not only the marble portrait in the Metropolitan, but an excellent example in Berlin as well. And in terms of organization, Kleiner has chosen to discuss Roman art chronologically, beginning with early Rome under the kings and republic, and ending with early Christian art in the 4th century AD. Sample chapter titles include “From Marcellus to Caesar,” “The Augustan Principate,” “The Julio-Claudian Dynasty,” and so on. Kleiner does, however, include some thematic discussion within the broader chronological framework, so that there are some chapters such as “Preparing for the Afterlife during the Early Empire,” and “Lepcis Magna and the Eastern Provinces.” Still, the overriding organizational principle for the text is the timeline. This is of course, a traditional but not especially original way to organize the material, causing an occasionally disjointed discussion of trends in media such as wall-painting and architecture, where developments are based on technological innovations that may be easier to understand conceptually without chronology, but for most of the material, particularly as so much is linked to the historical circumstances, a chronological approach presents the fewest problems and least difficulty for an instructor and student.

The content of the text itself is solid. I found no errors of fact or information. As expected in a textbook, Kleiner does not put forth anything new, but rather discusses, with a few exceptions, mostly well-known works of art and synthesizes previous scholarship rather than presenting new theories. The reader searching for revolutionary new thinking or the presentation of new material will be disappointed. Virtually every building and every work of art included has been known at least for decades. One might quibble with some of Kleiner’s interpretations, such as on pp. 50-51 where he follows traditional theories when discussing the influence of Greek sculpture on Roman Republican taste without acknowledging contrasting points of view, or on p. 126, when discussing the statue of a Flavian Woman in the guise of Venus from the Porta San Sebastiano, where he summarizes the complexity of this statue type a little too neatly, or in his discussion of the Arch of Constantine, on p. 296, where he attempts to strike a fairly neutral tone about the aesthetics of the monument. But these are all minor points, and in fact it is precisely in the area of interpretation that a professor can engage students in a deeper discussion in the classroom, and Kleiner’s tone is never so strident or dogmatic that students would be unduly prejudiced for or against any particular viewpoint. In general, then, the content is reliable and up-to-date, and, while an instructor might want to explore some areas in more detail, at least there will not often be need to disagree with facts or interpretation.

Another important factor to consider when choosing a textbook for as complex a subject as this one is how well the text is able to condense the subject into manageable segments while still conveying the depth of the discipline, and in this regard, Kleiner’s book is exceptional. Numerous pedagogical devices are provided throughout the text that help to demonstrate the complexity of the subject and yet not detract from the flow of the discussion. As would be expected, many of these are in the form of illustrations, including photographs of the actual works of art in their current states or of models of them (such as Fig. 17-2, a model of the Nymphaeum in Miletus). The photos are nearly all excellent, even the ones that show notoriously difficult to capture items like a badly weathered frieze panel from the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum (Fig. 16-16) and some are quite spectacular, such as an aerial view of the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome (Fig. 6-2). A puzzling exception is Fig. 19-13, an old and very poor photograph of the newly restored and easily accessible Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki. Even more impressive are the computer-generated drawings by John Burge, showing 3-D reconstructions of various buildings, many of them appearing here for the first time. Figs. 1-15 of the Porticus Aemilia, 9-10 of the Templum Pacis, and 20-13 of the Basilica Nova, are all invaluable tools for understanding the appearance and functioning of these structures, and superbly demonstrate the old clich√© that a picture really is worth a thousand words. In addition to the photographs and 3-D drawings, the book contains plenty of plans, sections, and other architectural drawings needed to understand the buildings, and a number of excellent maps.

Aside from the copious illustrations, the book also uses the device of side-boxes to explain some aspect of Roman life or society, to provide further information about an idea or place, or to give more explanation of style and techniques used in Roman art. Five basic categories are used: 1) Architectural Basics, 2) Material and Techniques, 3) Written Sources, 4) Religion and Mythology, and 5) Art and Society. In addition, there is a section on Who’s Who in the Roman World at the beginning of most chapters. These boxes allow elaboration of important issues without detracting from the flow of the text, and most importantly, provide a concrete demonstration that understanding Roman art history requires knowledge of many related themes and ideas that extend well beyond any one textbook’s capacity. The device of the side-boxes serves as a clear indication that not everything about Roman art history is contained within the text.

The main drawback to using this text is the cost. At $85.95, it is actually a bit cheaper than Ramage and Ramage, which is currently retailing at $88.00. D’Ambra’s Roman Art is much less, only $21.99 retail. But both Ramage and Ramage and d’Ambra have been out long enough that used copies are widely available, so most students can pay significantly less than retail. Kleiner’s book is too recent for many used copies to be on the market, and the big online book sellers do not yet have many copies. Still most students say that they expect to pay around $100 in textbooks per class, so the cost of Kleiner’s book is not prohibitive. And in fact, finally having a textbook for a survey course in Roman art that satisfies on so many levels makes it well worth the price.