BMCR 2017.06.48

The Boundaries of Art and Social Space in Rome: The Caged Bird and other Art Forms. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs

, The Boundaries of Art and Social Space in Rome: The Caged Bird and other Art Forms. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. xii, 196. ISBN 9781472526120. $114.00.

What constitutes art in the Roman world? This complex question is at the heart of Jones’ new book, which offers an ambitious reflection on the boundaries of art in the Roman imagination. His volume focuses on four cultural phenomena from the Late Republic and Early Empire—the Roman garden, the garden painting, tapestry, and the domestic caged bird—and uses them as test-cases against which a number of typically ‘artistic’ features are measured. This case-study approach dictates the structure of the book: preface, introduction (‘Art’), four chapters each dealing with one of the test-cases, and a conclusion (‘Self Projecting Inside and Out’).

Together, the preface and introduction set out the author’s justification for choosing his four test-cases, and provide us with a working framework within which we can approach them. The subject matter and material discussed here are hardly new, but it is important for the author to set out his own parameters for considering “what makes art art ”. The immediate problem he faces, of course, is that ‘art’ is still a charged term without an agreed working definition. The boundaries of art are fluid and “subject to ideological and evaluative dispute and to social and intellectual prejudices and predictions” (p. 11). In response, Jones offers us a comprehensive list of factors that may contribute to the categorization of an artifact as ‘art’: the prestige of the work; the level of public display; the aristocratic buying audience; the production of the artifact from the producer’s point of view; external and cultural satisfaction; pricing; expectation of ‘meaning’; the artist’s intention; and the consensus of the viewers. The author aims to use these factors as a framework within which we can “investigate how artifacts of various kinds impinge upon social space and contribute to the art-user’s self-projection, how they work, and whether or not they are called art” (p. 16).

Each test-case raises its own intriguing issues. Chapter 2 (‘The Roman Garden’) deals with the gardens of Rome from c. 60 BC–AD 60, and sets them within the context of identity, imagination, and cognitive awareness. After framing the book in terms of the boundaries of art, the author puts pressure on these boundaries by first discussing an artifact that we would not generally regard as a work of art in the traditional sense. Undoubtedly, the most unique and compelling part of this chapter is Jones’ assertion that the physical and social architecture of the garden within the aristocratic domus had such a profound effect on the cognitive development of the Roman child that it dictated the ways in which the Roman adult thought about and interacted with the outside world.1 This argument hinges on the notion that we mentally map the world as a roughly concentric set of insides and outsides superimposed upon one another over time. At an abstract level, experience tells us that inside equals safe and warm while outside equals unpredictable and unknown; but the concepts of inside and outside are not static, since what is deemed ‘safe’ by a child grows in the course of their development. Applying this theory to an analysis of the peristyle garden, Jones argues that the domus and the garden retain a special sense of innerness because they form the “original inside” of the cognitive process. This special status, coupled with the multi-sensory experience of the garden and its emphasis on play (also formative for a child), promotes the learning of a set of patterns that can be expanded to fit the larger worlds the developing individual will have to engage with. Jones demonstrates how the opposition between inside and outside first expressed in the domus -garden relationship can be transferred to other dyads within the Roman world (e.g. town-country, client-patron, Rome-provinces).

The opposition between inside and outside entails a boundary, and the notion of boundaries becomes increasingly important as Jones moves on to chapter 3 (‘The Garden Room at Prima Porta’). Using the specific example of Livia’s Garden Room, the author aims to reflect on the following question: if one of the two entities, the garden and the garden painting, can claim status as ‘art’, what are the grounds upon which we can deny the status to the other? The first section of the chapter covers a general description of the garden painting’s composition and significance (pp. 59-67), particularly focusing on the three levels of boundary at play in the room—real, represented, and imaginary—and how they manifest and embody the tensions between inside and outside as discussed in chapter 2. Jones then pushes into more unfamiliar and perhaps controversial territory. In response to the lack of columns within the composition, the author suggests that there may have been actual columns (perhaps wooden) in the room that acted as illusionary ‘support’ for the ceiling above. This is a provocative suggestion, based on relatively scant archaeological evidence;2 and it appears to be driven by Jones’ disbelief in an unsupported roof as an “adventurous essay in fabulous architecture” (p. 70). In this and the preceding chapter, the author clearly demonstrates that the Romans delighted in playing with boundaries, and yet he does not appear willing to extend this notion of play to a full-scale immersion experiment that removes even vertical support. Whether or not we agree with the notion of illusionary columns in this particular example, the potential for a sort of inside-out peristyle as a lived-in art installation is certainly intriguing.

In the penultimate paragraph of chapter 3, Jones briefly introduces the concept of the caged bird by likening the guests of Livia’s Garden Room to the caged nightingale within its painted walls: the bird is enclosed and surrounded by nature within the painting, just as the guests are within the room; and both engage with the room to become “collaborators in its expression” (p. 74). It seems strange, then, that the author’s full-scale analysis of the caged bird does not follow directly on in the next chapter. Instead, it forms the basis of chapter 5 (‘The Caged Bird’), where it is considered under the headings of luxury and craftsmanship; metaphoric content; cognition, mental modeling, and drama; and social content (collectability, value, and fashion). In this way, Jones’ analysis in this chapter engages most explicitly with the framework set out in chapter 1 concerning the definition of art. Of particular interest is the way in which the caged bird is seen as contributing to the cognitive development of the citizen, as already explored in chapter 2. Jones sees the birdcage as a scale model of the human home, a “recursive house within a house”, noting that, when Trimalchio’s magpie in his golden cage greets the guests, it welcomes them both to Trimalchio’s house and its own.3 The caged bird thus becomes an image of the home, its owners, and its dramas. Catullus 2, for example, (pp. 109-11) uses role- play centered on his pet sparrow as a means of working out his feelings for Lesbia—the formative play learnt in the garden is transferred to the role-play used in adult life, and this is implicit in the way Catullus interacts with the sparrow (the ludic element is emphasized by iocari, ludere). It should be noted, of course, that there is no explicit mention of a cage in Catullus, nor in many of the other poems featuring birds, but Jones argues that any reference to a bird as a pet does imply a cage by default (p. 101).

Chapter 4 (‘Tapestry in Rome’) feels in many ways like the odd one out of the four test-cases. The three other examples have an obvious connection to nature, and they are also shown to contribute to cognitive development in the way they map out and embody the various sets of boundaries within the domus. The analysis of tapestry, however, does not engage directly with either of these factors—Jones quite directly states that, for textiles “there is not so much to say in this regard”. In the course of the chapter, the author analyses four Latin passages centered around an ecphrasis of an imaginary textile—Catullus 64 and three accounts of weaving by Ovid4—and uses these examples to demonstrate how, although often fantastical, the tradition of describing representational textile points to an elevated status for textile in general by association with poetry. A key part of Jones’ discussion involves the distinction between textile as art and textile as mere craft; and he demonstrates how the ability to convey ‘meaning’ is integral to establishing this distinction—meaning, and the participation of the subjective viewer in processing that meaning, is viewed as fundamental to the production of textile ‘art’.

Creating a coherence between the four chosen test-cases is perhaps the biggest challenge for the author.5 Each test-case on its own delves into a potentially huge and wide-ranging set of topics, and the conclusions in each section relating specifically to the author’s central questions are relatively minor; but these threads are eventually brought together in the conclusion. Although the inclusion of tapestry breaks the coherence established by the other three examples, Jones is successful in arguing for the inclusion of all four as “potential art” by drawing our attention to their shared characteristics: they are all framed as elements of visual culture, bound up with the space of the elite domus or villa; they all impact on social space; they are all concerned with the self-projection of the owner; and they are all implicated in the mindset of the society that produced them. He invites us to think of the domus as a sort of themed art-assemblage in its own right, a purposeful arrangement of various artifacts designed to project a metaphorical portrait of its owners. We do not have to accept that every artifact ticks all the boxes from the list of contributory artistic features, but they do all participate in the same cultural language, which is constantly reinforced by a complex pattern of insides and outsides (a pattern shaped by, and helping to shape, the resident’s mind). The boundary between art and ‘not-art’ is clearly fluid, but Jones argues that there is an emergent consensus between artistic objects that prioritizes aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual content, as demonstrated by the four test-cases and the overarching ‘system’ of the domus.

Overall, this book succeeds in its central tenet of investigating the boundaries of art. Although space only allows for four test-cases, the author’s working framework for a definition of art could surely be used to interrogate other artifacts found in the domus. The use of cross-media evidence makes the book approachable to scholars of both literature and material culture; and the emphasis on nature and cognitive awareness in three of the test-cases will make it especially appealing to those interested in landscape, spatial studies, and psychogeography. Jones’ brisk style does take some getting used to and may be challenging for some readers, but it is a worthwhile read. The text is supplemented by ten grayscale images, and pertinent endnotes and bibliography. The endnotes are a particularly useful supplement to the discussions of cognitive theory, a topic likely unknown to many readers. There are a few typographical errors, but none that impede the author’s meaning.


1. This notion builds on a ‘brief flirtation’ with the idea in his previous work on Virgil’s Eclogues. BMCR 2012.08.26.

2. M. Gabriel, Livia’s Garden Room at Prima Porta (New York, 1955), 5.

3. Pet. Sat. 28.9.

4. The three weaving narratives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses discussed are the daughters of Minyas (4.1-415); Philomela (6.412-676); and Arachne (6.575-87).

5. Note that versions of chapters 2, 3 and 5 have appeared in Mnemosyne 67(5), Latomus 72, and Syllecta Classica 24.