BMCR 2017.01.09

A Companion to Roman Art. Blackwell companions to the ancient world

, A Companion to Roman Art. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. xxv, 637 p., 8 p. of figures. ISBN 9781405192880. $224.95.

Authors and table of contents are listed at the end of the review.

The book under review offers a substantial approach to Roman art and includes 30 contributions on various themes from methodology to modern reception. The editor, Barbara E. Borg, has brought together established and well-known scholars including experts in their fields.

Each article follows a specific structure, which enables the reader to gain a quick insight into the topic, with a guide to further reading, a bibliography, and black-and-white images of good quality; a few color plates are included at the end of the publication.

The book guides the reader through eight areas, beginning with a substantial contribution on methodology by Christopher H. Hallett, who opens the discussion with the challenging question of how Roman art is defined. ‘Romanness’ in Roman art is here not only the representation of Roman culture in context, but also a counterpart and a more developed expression of Greek art. Furthermore, he argues that Roman art relates to the Roman reception of Greek art, a key point in understanding Roman visual culture and its manifold eclecticism: “the Roman reception of Greek art is the missing center of Roman visual culture.” The goal here is a wider discussion encompassing all genres of art in the Roman Empire, in order to provide a deeper understanding of Roman visual culture, given the lack of a convincing synopsis of Roman art.

Next, Tonio Hölscher presents a straightforward view of ‘Romanness’ in Roman art. He points to historical representations as a Roman method of creating art and to contextualizing it with political ideology and historical reality. A clear insight into the purpose and meaning of Roman portraits is given by Klaus Fittschen, who discusses different ways to approach the portraiture of the Romans and special problems of further research, including the relevance of workshop studies and the limits of arguing historical contexts. Fittschen emphasizes the importance of considering any type of portrait to get a better understanding of the sociological aspects of Roman portraiture. The fourth contribution provides a highly distinguished approach to gender studies by Natalie Kampen. The issue of power in the context of gender studies is emphasized and the following quotation underscores the important role of the ‘player’ and ‘viewer’: “the visual realm becomes an arena of power relations, since the viewer may see and accept as well as see and resist; may misinterpret and reinterpret.” (85).

The articles in the second part of the volume highlight the three important periods for Roman art. Art in Republican Rome and in Italy is discussed by Massimiliano Papini. Rachel Kousser engages with the adaption of Greek art and points to the leading role of Greece for aristocratic families in Rome. She regards the Augustan period as path-breaking with regard to the definition and characterization of Roman art. The ‘revival’ of Greek art and the interest in exotic artefacts and materials is exemplified in the sculptural decoration of the Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Alessandra Bravi engages in a contextual approach to the art of Late Antiquity, concentrated in the capitals Rome and Constantinople. She draws attention to sculpture in public spaces, the honorific statues which remained on display in some cases for centuries, and which shaped public space, e.g., in Aphrodisias. The phenomenon of trading with sculptures and a busy art market characterizes Late Antiquity, as does the presentation of “images of mythical and human characters” (137) as an expression of conceptual structures and religious and social life.

Questions of facture, the role of the artist, and the context of art produced by and for both elite and and non-elite actors are addressed in the four essays of Part III. Mont Allen deals with questions of style and technique, including material, polychromy, sculptural procedures and different ways of tooling, and considers the reception of finished works by both patrons and viewers. Michael Squire continues the examination with a closer look at the role of the artist, addressing questions of identity, forms of practice and working processes. Peter J. Holliday addresses Roman art and the state, discussing the role of patrons and the types of monuments which represent specific content and historical events from the republic to the empire. Lauren Hackworth Petersen asks how arte plebea can be defined, and what efforts scholars have made in analyzing monuments which incorporate this phenomenon. Monuments subsumed under arte plebea include images featuring the work of craftsmen, grave reliefs referring to freedmen, and images of Roman officials and soldiers.

Part IV covers the various non-sculptural genres of Roman art. Jane Fejfer addresses Roman portraits, summarizing the purpose and meaning of portraiture within Roman culture (likeness, material, fashion, costume, and context). Kenneth Lapatin discusses the importance of luxury artefacts as signs of social hierarchy and political significance.

Part V is dedicated to contextual discourses and subdivided into three sections, private spaces, death spaces, and Roman art in the provinces. The decoration of Roman houses is discussed by Simon Ellis who relates decorative form to the different functions of a room. For example, cubicula should be perceived not only as sleeping rooms, but as private spaces where people might linger; triclinia were also multifunctional, serving as dining rooms and spaces for representation. The overall design of a room underlines its functions. By comparing houses in Pompeii and in the provinces, the author identifies the dominance of rich mosaic floor decoration in the latter versus the luxuriant wall paintings of the former. Richard Neudecker focuses on the decoration of large Roman villas, highlighting the meaning of gardens and nymphaea for sculptural décor. Susanne Muth juxtaposes the function of a room as a space of action, dining, representation, social hierarchy, to name a few, defined by the iconography of the decorated floor and walls, with their sculptural décor. She presents the villa of Piazza Armerina as an example of the perception of space in a Late Antique residence where function and decoration are finely tuned, personalized and directed towards the point of view of the visitor and viewer. Images refer to scenes of life (depiction of individuals in various actions) and forms of aristocratic representation. The author emphasizes the increasing prominence of multi-figured floor decoration relative to wall decoration, and the resultant impact on the form and function of interior space.

In the context of the space of death, Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais engages with the decoration of Roman tombs and points out the diversity of urban funerary culture in Rome and beyond. She stresses the need for comprehensive studies and interpretation of tomb decoration, and for additional work on the correlation of the architectural form of a tomb and its interior decoration. She considers iconography vis a vis the social status of tomb patrons, and contrasts the mythological themes prevalent in tomb decoration with the apparently more personalized myths on sarcophagi. Norbert Zimmermann turns to the decoration of catacombs as a model for the decoration of Christian tombs. He addresses the iconography and subject-matter of Christian tomb painting from the early second to the fifth century AD, and juxtaposes narrative scenes with decorative themes.

Defining Roman art in the Greek East is seriously challenged by Roland R. R. Smith, who points out the necessity of a wider view and more discerning discourse in general. Surveying a range of extant monuments, he recognizes the existence of a kind of symbiosis between a wide range of Roman ideas and Greek traditional features placed into a new context. Roger J. A. Wilson gives insight into the Roman artefacts and remains in the western provinces, beginning with the evidence of the African provinces, and highlights both the highest quality and more simple forms of sculpture; additionally, he considers mosaic remains, wall paintings, pottery, and metalwork and also the regional diversity in iconography and style within the provinces.

Part VI turns to themes of Roman art. Maureen Carroll posits two main Roman approaches to visualizing nature: landscape design ( ars topiaria) and landscape painting, referring to written sources. Landscape design has been a focus of scholarly research for many years and the results provide deep insight into garden designs, for example at the huge and rich villas in and around Pompeii. The inspiration for Roman gardens is sought in the Greek world. garden and landscape painting from the Second to the Fourth Style (80 BC – 79 AD) in the domestic realm is often connected to a sacred sphere and leads the viewer into an artificial nature and a sacro-idyllic landscape (543). Gardens as galleries are discussed and point to the “effective juxtaposition of reality and artifice” (548). Zahra Newby engages with depictions of spectacle in Roman art, e.g. the visualization of theatrical and sporting spectacles. Newby defines two genres, illustrated by examples: images relating to public spectacles and those referring to a private context of festivals and contests. The function and reception of the mythological images that were so pervasive in the Roman world is extensively explored by Franceso De Angelis. He juxtaposes the free and flexible space of thinking in Greek mythology with the more rigid didacticism of Roman myths, a contrast that may help to explain the popularity of Greek myths in Roman art .

Two articles in the final part engage in the reception of Roman art in the modern world. Rosemary Borro deals with the influence of painting, and Pompeian wall painting in particular, while Stefan Altekamp considers Roman architecture’s influence on structures from the Middle Ages to modern times.

One is left wondering why the very important theme of Roman art in the Empire has not been separated from the contextual chapters, and why the southern part of the Empire, including North Africa, has not been discussed separately. Although some contributors refer to artefacts and architectural features in the provinces, a separate discussion of the perception of ‘Romanness’ in North Africa and the Levant region remains underrepresented. Some contributions show the difficulty of making complex themes the subject of discussion in a limited frame. But the volume remains an important and substantial contribution. It presents a critical view of the state of the field, and reveals the variety and intricacy both of Roman art and of modern scholarly approaches to the subject.

Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors viii
List of Abbreviations xiv
List of Illustrations xv
Introduction 1, Barbara E. Borg
Part I Methods and Approaches 9
1 Defining Roman Art, Christopher H. Hallett, 11
2 Roman Historical Representations, Tonio Holscher, 34
3 Methodological Approaches to the Dating and Identification of Roman Portraits, Klaus Fittschen, 52
4 Roman Art and Gender Studies, Natalie Kampen, 71

Part II The Beginnings and End of Roman Art 93
5 Republican Rome and Italic Art, Massimiliano Papini, 95
6 Adapting Greek Art, Rachel Kousser, 114
7 The Art of Late Antiquity: A Contextual Approach, Alessandra Bravi, 130

Part III Producing and Commissioning Roman Art 151
8 Technique and Message in Roman Art, Mont Allen, 153
9 Roman Art and the Artist, Michael Squire, 172
10 Roman Art and the State, Peter J. Holliday, 195
11 “Arte Plebea” and Non elite Roman Art, Lauren Hackworth Petersen, 214

Part IV Genres 231
12 Roman Portraits, Jane Fejfer, 233
13 Wall Painting, Katharina Lorenz, 252
14 Mosaics, Roger Ling, 268
15 Roman Sarcophagi, Michael Koortbojian, 286
16 Decorative Art, Friederike Sinn, 301
17 Luxury Arts, Kenneth Lapatin, 321
18 Roman Architecture as Art?, Edmund Thomas, 344

Part V Contexts 365
Section 1 Roman Art and “Private Space” 367
19 Art in Roman Town Houses, Simon Ellis, 369
20 Art in the Roman Villa, Richard Neudecker, 388
21 The Decoration of Private Space in the Later Roman Empire, Susanne Muth, 406
Section 2 Roman Art and Death 429
22 The Decoration of Roman Tombs, Francisca Feraudi ]Gruenais, 431
23 Catacombs and the Beginnings of Christian Tomb Decoration, Norbert Zimmermann, 452
Section 3 Roman Art and the Empire 471
24 The Greek East under Rome, Roland R.R. Smith, 473
25 The Western Roman Provinces, Roger J.A. Wilson, 496

Part VI Themes 531
26 Contextualizing Roman Art and Nature, Maureen Carroll, 533
27 Roman Art and Spectacle, Zahra Newby, 552
28 Roman Art and Myth, Francesco de Angelis, 569
Part VII Reception of Roman Art in the Modern World 585
29 The Myth of Pompeii: Fragments, Frescos, and the Visual Imagination, Rosemary J. Barrow, 587
30 Roman Architecture through the Ages, Stefan Altekamp, 602
Index 620