BMCR 2008.05.36

The Language of the Muses: The Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Sculpture

, , The language of the muses : the dialogue between Roman and Greek sculpture. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008. viii, 304 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm. ISBN 9780892368068. $100.00.

In the course of her career, Miranda Marvin has published relatively little on Roman art—a few articles, mainly in collections of essays by various hands. Yet, both individually and collectively these published papers have been among the most important pieces in English that have led a revolution in how we understand Roman sculpture. Alongside a few others—especially Amanda Claridge and Elaine Gazda, and in a more recent generation Chris Hallett, Ellen Perry and Jennifer Trimble—Marvin has been at the forefront of rethinking notions of classicism and copying in Roman ideal sculpture, which have begun to liberate the field from its long enslavement as a marketplace of second-rate copies of Greek masterpieces. This volume is Marvin’s mature statement on the problems that have governed her research career—magisterial in its command, lively in its writing and utterly exquisite in the Getty’s technical production.

But the book is not at all a summary or collection of Marvin’s earlier work. On the contrary, what she has done is to confront afresh two questions at the heart of the ‘copying’ problematic. First, how did it come to be that (until just a generation ago, and still in some quarters) it was, and even remains, entirely natural to see pretty well all forms of Roman art as no more than copies of (invariably) lost earlier Greek works—as effectively more or less ‘bad’ versions of what were in their original creation outstanding masterpieces by geniuses whose names litter the accounts of ancient art by the likes of Pliny the Elder? Second, if we reject this model, what is left and how are we to approach the replicative and intensely classicizing world of Roman art anew? I have to confess that on opening the book I was expecting a deep and detailed engagement with the latter question, with only a few genuflections to the former; I was in short expecting to discover Marvin’s latest thoughts on the notion of Roman ’emulation’ of Greek art, which is roughly the interpretative consensus where much of the most recent literature on these topics has come to rest.1 Instead, the first seven chapters represent a sustained historical and historiographic analysis of what Marvin designates ‘the copy myth’—’the underpinnings of the belief that Roman ideal sculpture consisted by and large of copies of lost Greek works’ (p. 4), while the last two chapters sketch an overview—brilliant in its scope and panache—of how she sees the dialogue between Greek and Roman art as working. I will discuss both these parts below, but it is worth stressing at the outset the generosity of Marvin’s approach. For while she makes a compelling case in the first part for the need to change the territory in our approaches, her sketch in the second part outlines some of the parameters within which new lines of discussion may develop but resolutely resists closing down potential avenues of investigation. And indeed there is already forthcoming a rich crop of detailed accounts of various aspects and problems which will certainly sharpen the picture.2

After an opening chapter that places ‘the blame (if that is the right word) for the received wisdom that the genius of the Romans came up short in the visual arts’ (p. 10) firmly on the tropes of Roman moral rhetoric and the Romans’ own identity myths, and a second chapter addressing Vasari’s theory of the decline of naturalism before the Middle Ages, Marvin’s third chapter introduces the key distinction underlying her historiography. This is ‘the curious dualism’ between what she calls ‘”the antique” (the surviving art)’ and ‘”the ancients” (the artists celebrated in Greek and Latin literature)’, p. 26. That is, she identifies, much more clearly and systematically than I have seen before, a fundamental distinction between the early modern historiography of the reception of surviving objects and of surviving texts (about artists). The sculptures found in such quantities in Italy became, in the era between Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568) and Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art (1763), effectively a paedagogic model for modern artists to emulate, reproduce and surpass; they were to teach a language of classicism and good taste. The texts, by contrast, in celebrating the masterworks of specific named artists, became a standard of perfection, which had once been achieved and might not be so again. It was from texts rather than objects that the history of art was written, before Winckelmann, while the works of art were the focus of antiquarianism and collecting. Marvin renders a lovingly detailed account of the theoretical and intellectual positions of a series of half-forgotten antiquaries and academicians such as Dati, Monier and Turnbull, as well as more well-known figures like Junius, Montfaucon and Caylus. She brings to life the world of the librarians and inventorists of great collectors, like Aldovrandi, Agostini and Mariette.

Of course the apogee of these traditions was Winckelmann—simultaneously philologist, historian, cataloguer and librarian. Within the specific arena of Classical art, Marvin sees one of Winckelmann’s singular achievements as the uniting of the two discourses of “ancients” and “antique”; some of the fissures, which make his text so interesting (and so inspiring in its time), clearly arise from the complexities of attempting to unify such fundamentally variant lines of approach. Her chapter on the first and greatest of Classical archaeologists is a brilliant and empathetic journey through its subject that culminates on the contradictions and flaws that remained in his system, despite his unsurpassed attempt to merge the many traditions he was working with. She sees Winckelmann as bequeathing to his successors at the origins of the scientific study of ancient art a significant ‘unresolved conflict’ on matters of periodization. From Winckelmann, her seventh chapter takes us to the modern copy myth—the fundamental interpretative problem which her book is attempting to unpick and to which her careful history of the discipline’s origins has built. It is a patient exposition of the Greek ghosts behind every Roman ideal sculpture, the confrontation of Roman art with actual Greek works such as the Elgin Marbles, the rise of Altertumswissenschaft (the ‘science of antiquity’) and Morellian connoisseurship, the influence of philology and its obsession with stemmata, and the rise of Kopienkritik (‘copy criticism’ to establish a series of replicas) and Meisterforschung (the quest for the masterpiece, the Greek archetype behind any given replica series) in the late nineteenth century. These are some of the most acute pages of methodological exposition and criticism available in the study of Roman art—most especially Marvin’s account of the belief structure and assumptions underlying the methods (esp. pp. 164-167). As she says, ‘the distortion of Roman sculpture that resulted was not deliberate but collateral damage inflicted in the pursuit of Greek beauty’.

I suspect the parameters of Marvin’s analysis will be here to stay for a long time. Of course, in so swift and compelling a picture—in certain ways, a sketch—it will surely be the case that nuances will be added. One wonders for instance whether the story is as unified as she tells it, or whether national schools of archaeology—with rather different ancestral investments in Greece and Rome—may not in fact be more differentiated, despite the cosmopolitanism of Renaissance humanists and of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters. In different ways the German and British investments in the idea of Greece (especially, in the British case, after the Napoleonic wars prevented travel to Italy) may engender different attitudes to Roman art from those in Italy or France (with its much more Roman identification, especially in the era of Republic and Empire). It should not be forgotten that the serious positive study of Roman art was born in the German language but not in Germany—the Late Hapsburg passions of Wickhoff and Riegl were for the privileged Roman ancestor of the Holy Roman Empire. And the influence of Riegl in particular on German Classical archaeology in the half century after his death can hardly be over-estimated. Again, the availability of actual Greek sculptures through and after the nineteenth century—which were differently present in different European capitals—may have had a certain local impact on relative attitudes to Greek and Roman art.

Having established her critique of the intellectual substructure of the ‘copy myth’, Marvin moves in her last two chapters to a wonderful account of what she sees as having really been going on. Chapter 8 is quite brilliant—for here Marvin shows that the phenomenon, too reductively studied and incorrectly formulated in the methods of Kopienkritik and Meisterforschung, is in fact far wider than merely ideal sculpture. With a swift overview of Roman architecture (both in actuality and in its Vitruvian textual formulations), the luxury arts of gems and silver, wall painting in Rome, Herculaneum and Pompeii and the intertextuality and allusion in Roman literature, Marvin sets a much vaster cultural context for the complexities of replication in Roman sculpture. Although the aim is to set the scene for a more sustained account of Roman ideal sculpture (in chapter 9), the effect is wonderfully creative picture of the range and inventiveness of Roman cultural classicism in playing with earlier models and canons, not only in all aspects of the visual arts but also (perhaps most paradigmatically) in literature. It is amazing to me that to date there exists no sustained study that compares at all systematically the processes of allusion in Roman poetry with those in Roman art.

The final chapter, drawing on a very wide range of sculptural types including portraiture and sarcophagi as well as ideal sculpture, is Marvin’s attempt to allow ‘Roman sculptural practice to be interrogated for itself’ (p. 6). As with the rest of the book—but now in a more tightly focused art historical discussion—it combines great learning in the range of relevant Roman texts with easy command of a large and disparate range of materials and their long literatures. Marvin’s overview of the relevant issues takes in the objects themselves, questions of display and stationing, sculptors (especially insofar as we know them from their signatures) and the problems of viewing (meaning being always realized at the point of reception, as she rightly insists on pp. 244-5).

As can be seen from my general tone here, I think this a dazzling book—of huge value not only to those with an expert commitment to Roman art and to the deeper historiography of art history, as well as to those in the fields of antiquarianism and collecting, but also to those outside the profession (in other fields, undergraduate and graduate students with a general interest, the educated public). Its excellence for the scholar is only tempered by a genuine and unavoidable envy at the Getty’s quite superb level of production, with so many colour plates (and my attempt to count them above excludes the lavish details which pepper the book’s opening endpapers and front matter). So let me end, in the manner of more brutish philological reviews, with my major cavil: The Greek word ho (on p. 27) ought not to have an accent.


1. I think particularly of E. Gazda (ed.), The Ancient Art of Emulation, Ann Arbor, 2002 and E. Perry, The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, Cambridge, 2005, with some critical discussion in C. Hallett, ‘Emulation versus Replication: Redefining Roman Copying’ JRA 18 (2005) 419-35 and the essays assembled in Art History 29.2 (April, 2006).

2. Already out is C. Hallett, The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC – AD 300, Oxford, 2005. Forthcoming soon are R. Kousser, Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical, Cambridge, 2008 and J. Trimble, Replicating Women in the Roman Empire, Cambridge, 2009.