BMCR 2007.12.18

Roman Eyes. Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text

, Roman eyes : visuality & subjectivity in art & text. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. xvii, 350 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780691096773. $49.50.

Table of Contents

In this volume, Elsner presents essays he has written over the past fifteen years. All of them have been substantially revised to create a more or less unified whole that deals with visuality in the Greco-Roman world, spanning both the Classical world and that of late antiquity. Chapter Four of the work and the epilogue are additions written for the current volume. For many years Elsner has been one of the major scholarly figures in the discourse on visuality and ways of seeing in the Greco-Roman world. This current compilation of Elsner’s views is a helpful addition to the field that examines the visual and cultural constructs concerning what and how the Romans saw. As is typical of Elsner’s methodology, this contribution focuses both on art and text in order to discover the ways in which Greeks and Romans interacted with the visual world around them, as well as the ways in which they talked about it as they did. The book examines the social constructs of classical and late antiquity through a study of cultural patterns of viewing that take place during this time. In so doing, Elsner continues the analysis of visuality and the “gaze” that was begun in the 1980s by several scholars, including Norman Bryson. Here, Elsner offers a fascinating continuation of his thinking in this arena that will be of considerable interest to scholars who work in this field.

The book is divided into two parts, preceded by a chapter entitled “Between Mimesis and Divine Power.” In this chapter Elsner lays out his scope for the book, as well as his methodology. His discussion focuses on naturalism and the kinds of viewing that this style of artistic enterprise provoked in the onlooker, especially when the viewer was gazing upon a representation of a deity. Using Pausanias, who describes many works of art and their surroundings in his travel account of ancient Greece, Elsner argues that the ritual setting pulled the viewer into a special and distinct space where the deity that is displayed both sees and is seen. The preparatory ceremonial proceedings were important for setting the stage and preparing the devotee for his or her eventual contact with the god — the culminating ritualized event. Eventually, naturalism as a style of artistic production ceased to be important; instead the visual contact of the viewer with the god became the central ritualized moment. Elsner traces the established cultural parameters of ritual viewing from classical antiquity to the early medieval period. Whether it was a statue by Praxiteles that seemed almost alive or an abstracted icon, an important act in the ancient world, according to Elsner, was the ritualized process of seeing.

Part I of the book centers on “Ancient Discourses of Art,” and contains three chapters. Chapter Two, “Image and Ritual,” picks up on the theme of ritual seeing. Elsner presents evidence that would suggest that “pagan” image-viewing is actually similar to that practiced by Christians in late antiquity. Texts about ancient Greek methods of viewing are, according to Elsner, similar to Christian discussions of the depictions of Christ. A ritual-centered attitude about images influenced not only ways of seeing in antiquity, but also ways of thinking about art itself. The next chapter, “Discourses of Style,” continues the discussion of texts and how classical viewers thought about art. Specifically, this third chapter deals with issues of connoisseurship. Using texts by Pausanias and others, Elsner demonstrates how histories of early art were, in fact, being written by these early authors, centuries before Vasari and other Renaissance scholars penned the “first” art historical texts. The chapter culminates in a comparison of Pausanias’ views on art to the discussion of late antique art by such scholars as Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski at the start of the twentieth century; the parallels are extremely intriguing.

Chapter Four, “Ekphrasis and the Gaze,” was written for this publication, and focuses on Roman poetry and Roman domestic wall painting. This chapter offers an effective distillation of Elsner’s method, which interweaves the textual and the visual to offer interesting insights into the culture of the Romans. As examples here, Elsner offers texts in which authors describe their own experiences of seeing. Elsner then compares these written accounts to the type of paintings that a Roman viewer would have experienced in his or her world, his main point being that the gaze is the central mechanism for both the emotional experience of viewing and the interpretation of meaning of those same works of art. Elsner believes that the gaze itself was both a unifier in Roman culture, and a divider of self and the world. This latter theme is explored more fully in Part II of the book, “Ways of Viewing.”

Part II contains six chapters and an epilogue. The focus of Chapter Five, “Viewing and Creativity,” is the story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Elsner argues that the story of Pygmalion shows us not just a creator of art, but a viewer of it as well. Issues of naturalism and “reality” are explored here, as well as the complex relationship of “sculptor as viewer.” In the following chapter, “Viewer as Image,” the narrative of Narcissus is explored, with the author offering textual analysis as well as visual analysis of several images. In so doing, this sixth chapter centers on the role of self as viewer and object, which is the central theme in the Narcissus story. Elsner contrasts the Pygmalion and Narcissus stories, noting that Pygmalion objectified a statue into a woman, while Narcissus objectifies himself as another until he himself resembles a statue (147). Following this, Elsner explores art collecting in the ancient world, in the seventh chapter entitled “Viewing and Decadence,” which focuses on Petronius’ Satyricon. Elsner compares Petronius’ satire to the elements of illusionism in art that were popular in the age of Neronian Rome, arguing that the literary work both responds to contemporary culture and satirizes itself through clever reflection on art and aesthetics. The focus of Chapter Eight, “Genders of Viewing,” is the Projecta Casket, a fascinating object that offers the modern scholar insight into the world of late Roman women in fourth-century society. This chapter is possibly the most “art historical” in the book, but still combines Elsner’s methodology of text and image inquiry. In his examination of the rich iconography on the casket, he suggests that the visual message was a celebration of Christian marriage that acknowledged more “pagan” views of love through numerous depictions of Venus, nymphs, and other mythological elements. Chapter Nine, “Viewing the Gods,” continues the exploration of the move from pagan to Christian visual themes through an examination of the origins of the icon in the Roman East. For Elsner, remarkable continuity existed between eastern Roman culture in the third century and the development of icons in what would be the Byzantine Empire and Early Medieval world. This chapter again discusses the role of ritual as well as the role of the image in Roman culture but is confined to the Roman East, where Elsner argues that religious rites were practiced and images were worshipped as a way to resist Roman power and dominance. It is this theme of resistance that is taken up in Elsner’s tenth chapter, “Viewing and Resistance.” The art and religious cults of Dura Europos take centerstage in this chapter, and the author cites the city as a case study of resistance to Roman power. Elsner focuses on the Mithraeum, Christian house, and Jewish Synagogue, all of which were used contemporaneously by the faithful in third-century Dura Europos. As “initiate cults,” these three religions did not follow typical Roman polytheistic cult practices. Instead, Elsner argues that it was through initiation into and practice of these non-Roman cults that “Romans” in the provinces, at the periphery of Rome’s imperial territory, were able to resist. These “peripheral” Romans demonstrated resistance to the dominance of Empire by emphasizing the local gods and their own secret initiation rites, which often included images. The epilogue, “From Diana via Venus to Isis,” was written for the volume and summarizes many of the themes explored in the previous ten chapters.

The book is enhanced by many glossy illustrations, including twelve color plates located in the center of the volume. The edition is also supported by a thorough bibliography that will be of significant aid to scholars investigating issues of seeing, viewing, and the gaze in the Greco-Roman world. While the book is likely to be prove a difficult read for all but the most advanced undergraduate students, it is a must-read for graduate students, especially in Roman art and, I would argue, Byzantine art as well. The book should be added to all library collections at institutions with a strong art history or visual culture curriculum.