BMCR 2016.05.10

Luxus: The Sumptuous Arts of Greece and Rome

, Luxus: The Sumptuous Arts of Greece and Rome. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015. xi, 292. ISBN 9781606064221. $74.95.


Written by the Getty’s curator of antiquities, Luxus is primarily a coffee-table book aimed at the general reader and student interested in classical antiquity. This survey of Greek and Roman sumptuous arts, is, as Timothy Potts states in the foreword, “a valuable counterpoint to the standard textbook accounts of the art and culture of the classical world” (xi).

In a typical survey text on Greek and Roman art, architecture, painting, and sculpture are emphasized above all other art forms. Here Lapatin focuses on Greek and Roman works of art that were made out of expensive materials, like cameos, ivories, and silver. Lapatin focuses on the Greek and Roman art because art historical scholarship of the ancient world has routinely overlooked the luxurious arts of Greece and Rome in contrast to scholarship on the jewelry, metalwork, and other expensive artworks of the ancient Near East, Egypt, Etruria, and the Middle Ages,

While published by the Getty Museum, Luxus is not a museum catalogue of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Of the 216 figures and plates included within the book, only 27 illustrations are from the Getty Museum itself, with the rest drawn from other museums.

Following the introduction, which contains the histories and contexts for the sumptuous arts, Luxus is divided into three chapters, eachdevoted to a particular type of sumptuous material: metals (Chapter One), hard stones (Chapter Two), and organic materials (Chapter Three). Lapatin begins each chapter with a discussion of that particular medium’s history in antiquity, any primary sources that mention the material, and a discussion of the techniques and artists. High quality color plates of examples of the sumptuous arts follow each chapter.

Luxus brings together the most famous and best-preserved works of luxury arts of Greece and Rome and though Lapatin does not present new interpretations for these works. He does often does take a particular stance with objects that have been much debated, like the Tazza Farnese (Plate 124). In the last two hundred years scholars have assigned to this sardonyx cameo, Hellenistic, Ptolemaic, and Roman dates and interpretations. In his commentary on the Tazza Farnese, Lapatin acknowledges the debate surrounding the cameo and proceeds to attribute it to the Hellenistic period, or around 100 BCE. and interprets the scene in the tondo as a symbol of fertility referring to the annual inundation of the Nile River.

A particular strength in each chapter is the inclusion of the representation of the sumptuous arts in other artistic media (e.g. relief sculptures of silver cups or paintings of jewel-encrusted columns). For example, Figure 32 is an encaustic mummy portrait of Isidora, who wears elaborate, pearl earrings along with a gold necklace encrusted with semi-precious gems, reminding the reader that these objects were intimately used by their ancient owners. In another example (Figure 15), a fresco from the House of the Vetii in Pompeii depicts cupids and psychai participating in various goldsmithing activities, thus giving the reader a better understanding of some of these techniques in antiquity.

Another strength of Luxus is Lapatin’s familiarity with current research trends and their emphasis on context and function and his interdisciplinary approach. In the individual chapters, Lapatin places the media of the sumptuous art into their larger historical, religious, social, and political contexts as well as mention of the artistic media in Greek and Roman primary sources.and the objects’function. For example, because the Tazza Farnese cameo was carved on the underside with a gorgon, the dish was not meant to be placed on a table, but instead must have been held in the hands and used for libations.

One weakness in Luxus is that the plates are at the end of each chapter and the commentaries on the individual works are at the back of the book. Greater integration and incorporation of these artworks within the chapter text also would have been beneficial. Another weakness has to do with the provenance of the objects from the Getty: out of the twenty-three objects from the Getty discussed in the plates, sixteen do not give any indication of the provenance, three have some indication of the provenance, and four say that they were part of a previous collection.1

In short, Lapatin does not address, even in a footnote, the ongoing controversies that have plagued the Getty Museum in the last decade and a half in relation to its acquisition of looted antiquities. In all fairness, though, Lapatin and the Getty Museum would not want to highlight this blight.

Overall, the strengths of Lapatin’s book far outweigh any negatives. Luxus successfully brings the sumptuous arts of Greece and Rome to a general audience who probably did not know much about them. Lapatin’s interdisciplinary approach places these works in a larger context, providing the reader with a greater understanding of their functions in the Greek and Roman worlds. Finally, one cannot deny the sheer beauty of the objects included within this book clearly on display in the volume’s high quality photographs.


1. Because the museum bought looted antiquities, the provenance of many objects are not known; for more information on this, see Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities in the World’s Richest Museum (2011).