BMCR 2014.07.45

Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in archaeology

, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in archaeology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. x, 168. ISBN 9780715640647. $78.00.


Shaky Ground arose out of Marlowe’s teaching, in particular from the discrepancy she experienced between her lower-level Roman art survey and her upper-level seminar on looting, faking, and collecting antiquities. While students in her survey learned about Roman art through its canonical works, many of which (somewhere between one third to one half of freestanding sculpture in leading Roman art textbooks) have no reliable data about their ancient settings, those in her seminar quickly realized the degree to which a statue’s historical interpretation depends on knowledge of its ancient context. During the semester, Marlowe writes, the epistemological contradictions between her two classes became impossible to ignore.

Shaky Ground is a call for a critical conversation about the methods and canon of Roman art history. It advocates for the foregrounding in teaching and scholarship of artworks for which we have more contextual data over those for which we have less or none at all; for consistent and full itemizing of find-spot data and ownership history of all objects discussed; and for paying more attention to the reception history of canonical but archaeologically undocumented objects. Marlowe argues that the field must recognize and address the risks of relying on artifacts that lack archaeological context. Such artifacts are “shaky ground” upon which to build histories of Roman art.

The terms “grounded” and “ungrounded” are key to the study. A grounded work has a known find-spot. While find-spot data vary dramatically, any evidence that exists about an object’s final deposition should play a central role in decisions about which objects are the focus of teaching and scholarship. At the very least, “groundedness” helps ensure a work’s authenticity. For artworks lacking a recorded find-spot, or ungrounded objects, we have to depend on connoisseurship, or the attribution of artifacts to particular hands, places and times through comparison to works with known historical or archaeological contexts. While formal analysis can be a powerful tool, it is by no means perfect. It presumes a great deal about the consistency and development of style and the methods and desires of artists and patrons.

Chapter one, “Histories Modern and Ancient” demonstrates Marlowe’s case by comparing and contrasting historical interpretations of grounded and ungrounded works. For instance, Marlowe juxtaposes the ungrounded Fonseca bust (a.k.a. the “Flavian Beauty”) with two female figures uncovered between the south agora and the Hadrianic baths at Aphrodisias. While the Fonseca bust is one of the most frequently reproduced works of Roman art, we have to depend on connoisseurship to answer questions about its date, origins, and possible identity of its subject. Its coy demeanor is peculiar in Roman portraiture as is its tall crown of curling locks, both of which warrant caution. The modern history of the bust within the Museo Capitolino, by contrast, is well attested, making it a rich piece of evidence not for ancient portraiture but for the history of collecting. The figures from Aphrodisias, on the other hand, with their nearly complete bodies, concrete urban context, and other statues that stood by, allow for a much more nuanced reading, especially in regard to public self-fashioning and viewers’ shifting experiences of images over time. The statues were a pair, perhaps a mother and daughter, that stood together for centuries in celebration of matronly virtue and youthful modesty. The contrast between the ungrounded and the grounded examples highlights how much knowledge is lost when works lose their archaeological context and the degree to which ancient settings shaped the meanings of Roman art.

Indifference to context is a deep-rooted problem in Roman art history, Marlowe argues. The discipline developed in part around the study of collections of freestanding sculpture. Early Roman art historians valued these objects as beautiful artworks endowed with the ability to transcend time and space. Their interests centered on artists and forms, not archeological context. Chapter 2, “Indifference to Context,” examines some of the ways in which early preoccupations of Roman art history continue to resonate today. Despite the vast expansion of the corpus of Roman art in the last half century, visually spectacular but archaeologically ungrounded masterpieces still star in textbooks and handbooks rather than their grounded but less stunning counterparts.

Discussions of these ungrounded masterpieces typically focus on artists, stylistic evolutions, and iconography, topics that do not depend on knowledge of ancient context. Other practices within the discipline that point to the field’s indifference to archaeological context include “tombstone” labels that do not distinguish between secure archaeological context and tenuous “said to be” or “alleged” find spots; the undifferentiated presentations of grounded and ungrounded objects; the breaking up of known ensembles (i.e., the tritons discovered with the bust of Commodus as Hercules); and the dramatic, solitary display of ungrounded but splendid fragments (i.e. the headless bronze philosopher in the Cleveland Museum of Art).

What are the methodological and intellectual consequences of the field’s indifference to archaeological context? Chapter 3, “Lessons Learned and Not Learned,” argues that connoisseurship is still alive and well in Roman art history despite its dismissal by much of the discipline. Roman art historians who practice connoisseurship stand accused of all too often failing to explicitly lay out the evidence behind their attributions. Worse, these attributions are built on the shaky assumptions that Roman art followed consistent styles and iconographies over time. However, one of the hallmarks of Roman art is its multiplicity of styles; many Roman artists and patrons deliberately chose particular styles that they thought were appropriate to the ideas they wished to express. In addition, attributions based on style can only confirm and reinforce existing patterns of knowledge; by necessity they cannot surprise us or challenge preconceived ideas.

Connoisseurship has wider repercussions. When Roman art historians practice it, they share in and legitimize the intellectual premises of the art market which depends upon connoisseurship to identity ungrounded antiquities. While much blame has been cast upon collectors and museums in the debate on looting, the complicity of academia has largely been ignored. If scholars were more critical of the ways in which they handle ungrounded antiquities, Marlowe argues, they would reveal the shaky foundations of connoisseurship and thereby destabilize working assumptions of dealers and collectors.

Indifference to context remains a stubborn problem in the field, despite its move toward the social history of art. Chapter 4, “Connoisseurship and Class,” contends that ungrounded antiquities continue to feature in much new scholarship and undermine its objectives. Roman art historians cannot shift their focus from artists and styles to patrons and viewers if they base their arguments on ungrounded artifacts. Style tells us what artists did; to understand why they did so and for whom, we need grounded archaeological information: where the object was displayed, who commissioned it, what it was displayed with, when, and how it diverges from or conforms to contemporary models and prototypes.

Among Marlowe’s many examples is the case of veristic portraiture. Scholars have identified ungrounded high quality veristic portraits as images of nobles based on the assumption that style corresponds to social class; they then read these portraits as evidence for elite values. But the logic is circular. Furthermore, grounded examples like the freedmen portraits from Columbarium II at Vigna Codini tell a different story. Had these images surfaced on the art market, Marlowe writes, neither their style nor their quality would have identified their subjects as freedmen. Archaeological context, not style, points to the subjects’ status. The portraits offer new insights into the self-representation of freedmen and call the supposedly elite status of other veristic portraits into question.

The final chapter, “Red Herrings”, argues that debates over collecting and looting threaten to draw attention away from these deep epistemological and methodological problems. A focus on forgeries, Marlowe argues, obscures just how much we do not know about canonical ungrounded antiquities whose authenticity is widely unquestioned. The instability in the corpus of Roman art lies not in fakes but in its multitude of ungrounded works. Questions over the treatment of “licit” vs. “illicit” antiquities (that is, antiquities acquired without proof of legal exportation after the 1970 UNESCO Convention) are a second red herring. Many scholarly journals will not serve as venues for the initial publication of illicit antiquities, but for Roman art historians, all ungrounded antiquities — even those that were collected generations ago — should be seen as problematic. Publication policies, Marlowe suggests, should recognize this and require a full account of the origins and ownership history of all pieces discussed. The repatriation debate is a third red herring. While repatriation claims may decrease the incentive for looting, repatriation itself rarely restores lost archaeological context. Unfortunately, in most cases we never learn the find-spots of looted antiquities, even after they have been returned to their countries of origin.

The conclusion, “Best Practices,” advocates for change. Scholars should commit, Marlowe argues, to consistently articulating find-spot data and ownership history of all objects discussed. They should explicitly lay out evidence behind attributions of date and place. The most fully contextualized objects should hold pride of place in scholarship and the classroom. Museums should emphasize the value of the archaeological context of grounded works and should pay more attention to the reception history of ungrounded ones. And they should let visitors know how objects came to be part of their collections. Such practices would encourage scholars and students to think deliberately about what exactly we know and do not know about ancient objects and how we go from evidence to interpretation. Such changes would move the field onto firmer ground. And they might help reduce looting by educating collectors and museum audiences about the importance of archaeological context.

Shaky Ground offers compelling arguments for change in the classroom, scholarship and museum. It is a must read for its critique of the use of ungrounded canonical works in textbooks, survey courses, and exhibits. Shaky Ground is also an important work of synthesis that brings together scholarship on the historiography of Roman art, the history of collecting, and debates over cultural property. Its concise discussions of these topics, together with their bibliographies, will make excellent introductions to interested readers.

The book belongs to the Duckworth Debates in Archaeology Series, devoted to exploring theoretical and methodological questions and their larger consequences. To be sure, not many in the field would argue against the fundamental significance of archaeological context. Yet Marlowe’s work is important as a rallying cry and a rich exploration of the risks of relying on ungrounded artifacts. It is remarkable the degree to which, despite all of our attention to context, the field is still beholden to elements of connoisseurship.

We are left to reflect upon the question of the place of canonical ungrounded works in teaching, scholarship and museums. Marlowe would relegate them to discussions about art and artists, the lives of objects, the histories of collecting, connoisseurship, reception — all of which are central topics in the field today. In introductions to Roman art, are we ready to replace the “Flavian Beauty” with better grounded but less enchanting examples? To this historically minded archaeologist the answer is yes, but others might be more hesitant. And there is much to be said about the wonder evoked by ancient “masterpieces”; the visual aesthetics of some ungrounded objects together with their long-standing canonical status can stir students to want to know more, which can be a powerful teaching tool.

While Shaky Ground will provoke discussion among students, art historians, archaeologists and curators, it should also be read by epigraphers and ancient historians for Marlowe’s argument about the groundedness applies equally well to inscriptions. In this regard, Marlowe left some ground untraveled; her discussion of archaeological context could have paid more attention to inscriptions and statue bases.

All told, the great merit of Marlowe’s work lies in the critical eye that she holds up to epistemological and methodological problems that continue in the field, despite the best efforts of scholars. These problems deserve serious scrutiny, reflection and response. Marlowe is to be thanked for putting them so clearly before us.