BMCR 2013.10.71

Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology. JRA Supplementary series, 92

, , Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology. JRA Supplementary series, 92. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2012. 197. ISBN 9781887829922. $99.00.

Table of Contents and Introduction

The papers gathered in this 92 nd volume of the JRA Supplementary series are based on a session held at the 109 th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in 2008. The session was partially funded by the Danish Research Council and the faculty of humanities of Aarhus University. Four of the nine contributors belong to this last institution.

The opening contribution, by T. M. Kristensen, is a short introduction to the main themes of the book. The author insists on methodological questions linked to the problem of identifying ateliers in Roman artistic production, mainly mosaic and sculpture. A goal of this publication, regularly expressed in the different contributions, is to supply new clues for this identification, especially by means of an archaeological approach. The last paper (Zohar, and not Wootton as stated on p. 10), is particularly involved with this methodology. It is anchored in a deep historiographical approach that might have been provided to the reader earlier in the book. This problem of identification is important but hazardous, as evidenced in many cautious conclusions of the volume. Most of the contributors try to answer the question by studying the production methods of the operae : is it possible to identify the stylistic mannerism of a workshop ? Of an artist ? Inevitably, in the end, the real question is : what was an atelier ? How many people were involved ? was it static or in perpetual reframing, depending on the patrons’ desires ? As Kristensen announces, the problem of definition recurs again and again in the various papers. A greater effort at synthesis, in either the introduction or in a global conclusion (there is none in the book), would have made more meaningful the value of the answers suggested by the authors. Similarly, a global bibliography would have been very helpful to readers.

S. Birk’s contribution focuses on the sarcophagus industry, mainly in Rome. In a very thorough essay on the chain of production of the sarcophagi, she offers new arguments for reassessing the role of the patrons in the iconographic choices. The re-use of big blocks of marble, like architraves, would have attenuated Rome’s dependency on outlying sources (mainly the Carrara quarries). The use of stone already in Rome would reduce the time needed for its ultimate form and give more time for the clients to choose their own model. The idea is appealing, although it would need a more extensive inquiry to be fully accepted, especially given the evident standardization of the numerous sarcophagi extant. 1 Birks gives a new elaboration on the subject, but she recognizes that a block imported from the quarry in a partially finished state offered the same opportunities. The use of compass and pattern-books, the probable specialization of the sculptors for features of the production (such as faces and hands), the fact that those specialists could be mobile, paved the way to both mass-production and standardization. In these circumstances, the identification of a workshop is difficult and Birk suggests that to this purpose, historians should concentrate on plinths rather than on sculptures themselves.

J. Van Voorhis presents a case study on Aphrodisias. The situation of the Carian city is exceptional, both in the importance of the “school of Aphrodisias” within the whole Roman world and in the archaeological opportunities it presents. The discovery of a sculptor’s workshop, in the vicinity of the bouleuterion, enabled the study of the Aphrodisian production. The author identifies the different spaces of this workshop, active between c. 200-400, and examines the evidence found during the excavations. She gives insights on the sculpting techniques (multiple specialists on a single statue, training of apprentices, re-use of a statue) and questions the mere fact that some statues remained on site.

The contribution of E. Friedland on marble sculpture in the Roman Levant is less technical. As there was no marble quarry in this territory, the author focuses on importation and its consequences. Petrographic analysis show that almost every marble piece came from Greece and present-day Turkey. As a consequence, we should not be surprised by the lack of evidence for workshops and specialists of marble sculpture in the Levant, even though there could have been some in the main ports of the territory. More convincing, even if not surprising, is the analysis of the adaptation of some Roman iconographical code by local artists, on local material. Rather than on a territory, N. Hannestad chose to focus on a type of sculpture, mythological marbles. His stylistic analysis of many sculptures aims at demonstrating that quality cannot be a criterion for an “early dating” (2 nd -3 rd century). Late antique sculptors could produce pastiches of earlier iconographical motifs, sometimes misleading even contemporary experts. The author insists on the predominance of Aphrodisias’ workshop(s?), whose sculptures were broadly exported in late antiquity. An explanation for this success could be found in Aphrodisian carving procedures, which would have made possible successful long distance transport. A specialist would have accompanied the sculptures to their destination, repairing eventual damages occurred during travel. Specialists will find in this contribution many detailed analyses on particular pieces, such as the Esquiline group, the Dioscuri of the Metropolitan Museum, the sculptures from the Chiragan villa or the mithraeum of Sidon.

M. Henig is passionate in his attempt to make Roman Britain a place of artistic production. To do so, he surveys all kinds of art, major and minor, from mosaic to jewelry. The author identifies many schools, in mosaic or sculpture, essentially on the basis of the support or the technique used. Those workshops would have had a local market and local techniques. They would not have needed the intervention of specialists from outside the island, even if a very specific help from a Gallic artist cannot be excluded.

B. Poulsen’s contribution on the identification of mosaic workshops in late antiquity illustrates very well the complexity of this problem when inscriptions are missing. She hypothesizes that workshops presented a combination of geographical stability and mobility, that they were composed of mosaicists with various levels of specialization, who could furthermore move from one atelier to another. In these conditions identification is hard, but Poulsen suggests, as does S. Birk, that experts should concentrate on the details of an opus rather than on its predominant motif. She applies this methodology to the tangent 4-pointed star motif, frequent in southwestern Caria and in the Dodecanese, and reaches the conclusion that the motif was shared by two or three workshops. The conclusion relies partly on the analysis of a mosaic from Halikarnassos which is published here for the first time.

Britain is back with W. T. Wootton’s presentation of the mosaic from Badminton Park. In this case study, the author outlines the whole process of realization of a mosaic, from the choice of the tesserae to the estimation of the length of construction. He is, thus, making a real contribution to the history of the techniques. It seems that tesserae could be supplied by either the contractor or the client, depending on the situation. The workshops would have been composed of one to four workers, with a low level of specialization.

D. Zohar’s presentation closes the book with an essay on late antique production in the Mount Nebo area. To overcome the general absence of a common method for the identification of workshops, the author carefully suggests a range of seven criteria. They all belong to an internal analysis of the document and can be easily applied to other mosaics : illusionistic overlapping ; internal division of the figure ; repetitive gestures ; recurring features ; size and shape of the tesserae ; color and level of their sorting ; inlay patterns. This model of analysis is applied to the production procedures of the mosaic of the Church of Lot and Procopius and, by comparison, to the upper chapel of the priest John, both at Khirbet al-Mukhayyat. The conclusion that the two teams of artisans involved shared a master mosaicist is convincing.

In the end, something must be said about the title, as the reviewer finds a gap between it and the content of the book. In its broad formulation the title promises a global approach to the topic, both chronologically and geographically. Yet the contributions appear to be much more concentrated in time and space. Except for the short introduction, five out of the eight papers are exclusively focused on late antiquity (Van Voorhis, Hannestad, Poulsen, Wootton, Zohar), the remaining three having a broader chronological perspective (Birk, Friedland, Henig). The same (dis)proportion applies to the territories studied : five papers focus on the Roman East, whereas only three are interested in the western part of the empire. Even more surprising, two of those three deal exclusively with Roman Britain ! Since I agree with M. Henig that any province of the empire deserves the same scrutiny, I cannot fail to wonder why the Gauls are considered only minimally, mainly by citing the mosaics of the villa in Lillebonne (p. 115 and 130), not to mention the total absence of African and Germanic artistic production. The choice to focus mainly on late antiquity and the eastern part of the empire is proper and understandable (especially given the importance of the often mentioned Aphrodisias school, including its links with western provinces, as in the case of the Chiragan villa, cf. Hannestad). I only note that the reader would have been better informed by a more precise title for the volume.

Nevertheless, this book has the courage to explore a very complicated problem, with multiple methodological issues. Many contributions are highly valuable, both for the case study they present and/or the archeological solutions they suggest. The subject is vast and there is little doubt that further investigations, in time or space, will help the evolution of our knowledge about workshops and artisans in Roman art and archaeology.2


1. As frequently noted, most recently by E. Mayer, The Ancient Middle Classes. Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire 100 BCE-250 CE, Cambridge-London, 2012, p. 147 and 164. The author even advocates an “aesthetic of standardization”.

2. As an example of a very useful contribution, one could cite the recent essay by F. Demma on the marble workshops of Puteoli which happily combines the analyses of archaeological datas and inscriptions : F. Demma, “Scultori, redemptores, marmorarii ed officinae nella Puteoli romana. Fonti storiche ed archeologiche per lo studio del problema”, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 122/2, 2010, 399-425. ​