ElAnt v6n1 - REVIEWS - Classical Art: From Greece to Rome

Volume 6, Number 1
July 2001

Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, M. Beard and J. Henderson. Oxford History of Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-284237-4. Pp. 298, plus 223 illustrations, with 91 in full colour, and 18 maps and plans.

Reviewed by Tom Stevenson,
Dept. of Classics and Ancient History, University of Auckland,

The brief of the Oxford History of Art series is to combine 'beautiful illustrations with fascinating new perspectives' (back cover). The book under review certainly does this, and should be praised, though it is not really a suitable introduction for students attracted by the lavish colour illustrations and reasonable price. In general, the series addresses a stage above the complete beginner. Beard and Henderson (B & H) have produced a work which sets out to be different. It is not a traditional, chronological treatment of Roman art in which examples are compared according to their formal properties and assessed as to their style. It is more about a cultural process: the reception of works of Greek art at Rome and beyond, with a concentration upon the middle-late Republic and early Empire. Those familiar with the authors' earlier books will not be surprised to hear that the general tone is one of energetic iconoclasm. B & H are very much concerned to show the shortcomings of previous approaches that have tended to treat art as something produced in a vacuum, lacking a social context and a history.

An 'Introduction' (1-9) outlines the authors' approach. They are concerned with the period from Alexander (c. 330 BCE) to the death of Hadrian (138 CE) and propose to treat classical art 'by topic, theme, and genre, with chapters on painting, sculpture, desire, power and scale, and portraiture (4).' There are various reasons why the book cannot be organized chronologically, along a linear thread of stylistic development, but the main one is that this fails to appreciate the full implications of the process of imitation whereby Greek art was mediated through Rome. B & H think that we have been terribly wrong to search so concertedly for 'originals', and place primary emphasis on the style, date, context and intent of the 'originals'. For a start, this ignores the history of these works since their period of manufacture. In addition, the culture of imitation permitted a wide variety of practices, e.g. seizure, copying, imitation, faithful replication, innovative 'variations on a theme', modulations, even parodies and subversions (cf. 22). Consequently, the search for an 'original' is continually frustrated. It needs to be borne in mind that copying recreates but also creates an original (6). B & H want to show that we have been led to see and understand classical art through the filters of a variety of scholarly and other practices that inevitably remove us from original conditions. As I read their book, it is often about the pernicious effects of modern assumptions and restorative treatments on our capacity to understand the function and meaning of art in an age of imitation.

There are five chapters. Chapter 1 is entitled 'Painting Antiquity: Rediscovering Art' (11-63). The mosaics and wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum are of pivotal importance for modern understandings of ancient painting. But how well have we done? Well, the 'Alexander Mosaic' is actually centred on 'Darius' (16), and although it was displayed in a made-to-measure room (18), its significance must have changed over time for the owners and visitors who moved about the House of the Faun (20). There is no agreement as to its date (21) and equally no agreement about the degree to which it might replicate a lost Hellenistic painting (22). B & H would like to shift our emphasis from the origin to the process. They are sceptical of the idea of 'pure' originals in the period they cover (22), and they want us to contemplate a viewing world in which 'famous designs might bring the pleasure of recognition; piquant juxtapositions in different idioms would startle, puzzle, or amuse; between them the images would texture the ambience of individual rooms within the house (23).' A succession of examples are employed to illustrate how limiting is the approach which concentrates on searching for lost 'originals'. It hardly helps, for instance, in appreciating the ubiquitous sex scenes on Pompeian walls (33). We need to account for the function of a room, and the ways in which painted scenes are integrated into the overall decorative scheme of a room, or of groups of rooms. One of the most destructive of all practices has seen numerous 'panels' ripped from their original contexts and displayed in isolation in museums as reflections of lost 'masterpieces'. August Mau's historical system for classifying Pompeian wall design describes a series of styles which supersede one another in a uniform manner. Apart from ignoring the functions of rooms, this 'disguises the fact that all these styles were visible in the last days of Pompeii (38).' Whereas modern interpreters have tried to assign a definitive meaning to individual works, B & H show that groups of paintings may be connected by narrative, thematic, or visual features. Ancient viewers had a range of options open to them for constructing meaning (45). In the Villa of the Mysteries, the very point about the famous 'Mystery Frieze' is not religion or ritual but to emphasize the endless complications of viewing (47). For a modern viewer, there is the added complication of the effects of preservation, which B & H illustrate disturbingly in relation to the paintings from Boscotrecase (52). The fame of a work like the 'Aldobrandini Wedding' has a lot to do with the fact that it was one of the first Roman 'masterpieces' to be rediscovered, 'and with a distinctive title to keep it on the map (58).' Even what we know of the 'Neronian fantasia' of Nero's 'Golden House' comes from lesser corridors and service areas (61).

Chapter 2 examines 'Moving Statues: Art in the Age of Imitation' (65-105). The catchy title has less to do with animate properties than with the fact that many of the works under discussion have been lifted from their original contexts and transported, for a variety of purposes, to a variety of locations, where they have been 'installed', 'restored', 'cleaned', or otherwise acted upon in ways that add to the stock of meaning of each piece. The Laocoon is 'the single most important stimulus behind the invention of the whole discipline of art history (65).' But there is no certainty about its date, about the position of the middle figure's raised right arm, or about the issue of whether it is an 'original' or a 'copy', whatever that really means (65-74). Winckelmann taught us to be concerned about such questions because he described the history of art in terms of development, so that each account which hinges on the model of style that rises, reaches efflorescence, and then declines, owes a great deal to his theorizing (70). Yet he understood clearly that he was dealing with an aesthetic of imitation (71), and so should have seen that the idea of any statue having an assigned place in a linear development of style is simply false (74). Imitation is a creative, expressive process, rather than a mechanical one. Thus, all the efforts to fix the truth of a statue like the Laocoon become the very stuff of its fame (cf. 74). This applies similarly to the more than 7,000 fragments of marble sculpture which have been recovered from the 'Cave of Tiberius' at Sperlonga. We have been so concerned to discover the experience of Tiberius that we have overlooked the huge number of pieces which existed in addition to the main sculptural groups, and we have failed to see that the grotto was in use from the third century BCE to the third century CE. Scholars have not responded to the grotto as a whole and have not thought about meanings for viewers outside the age of Tiberius (74-82). Ancient statues have been almost constantly on the move, often as plunder but also through legitimate sales or as gifts, and so on. Each move sets up possibilities for exchange, imitation and display that result in a viewing world characterized by a complex set of possible responses. Charles Townley was concerned about the position of the head of his Discobolus (87-8). Would ancient viewers have been so worried? Are modern impressions of sculpture from the Villa of the Papyri any approximation of ancient ones (93-6)? Was Verres' wholesale plunder of famous Greek statues anything more than time-honoured behaviour (96)? How would the ancients have viewed Aemilius Paullus' victory monument at Delphi? B & H see a range of possibilities, fuelled by tension, resolution, and the energy of dissonance (96-8). Similarly, the 'Altar (really a base) of Domitius Ahenobarbus', so difficult for modern commentators to agree upon, 'must have served to challenge viewers to react, to agree and disagree about the stylistic message (100).' Even an apparently authentic 'original', like the statue of Hermes with the baby Dionysus from the Temple of Hera at Olympia, continues to throw up problems for those fixated on origins and definitive meanings (101-2). Finally, 'Hadrian's Villa' was used by emperors for a century after Hadrian's death, and its many statues, some identical and positioned side by side, are now spread across more than 50 collections worldwide (104). Hadrian was not concerned about relocating statues, even versions of temples, or about preserving original forms and meanings in a precise, mechanical way, when putting together his collection (102-5). This is what should be expected of an imitative process.

The subject of Chapter 3 is 'Sensuality, Sexuality, and the Love of Art' (107-44). It is concerned with the encoding of desire and how we may now (mis)understand it. 'What theories and construals of desire', the authors ask, 'should we be prepared to find in the art of the ancient world (108)?' There can be little doubt that the awakening of desire was an ancient aim. Statues of Antinous (107-9) and the Apollo Belvedere (110-11) leave little doubt about it. On the other hand, statues of Apollo ought to have a religious dimension, and nakedness was a costume of power with significance beyond its erotic potency (111-12). Equally, Venus was both a goddess and a sex-goddess. B & H make the good point that Venus can easily come across as a generic image; it is the local variants which set up a tension with the generic image and create meaning (115). The endless debates about how the arms of the Venus de Milo should be restored have prompted different understandings of the statue's function, which in turn have fed or denied particular erotic fantasies (122-3). The 'Callipygian Venus' hardly seems 'religious' in a modern sense, for Venus is admiring her shapely backside. But the head turns out to be a restoration, and of course a differently angled head would instantly remove the element of narcissism (123). The Aphrodite of Cnidus is commonly touted as the first monumental female nude and is placed at the head of a line of imitations. But Pliny has been misinterpreted; he does not say that the Cnidia was the first naked statue of the goddess in classical times (127). A work like the Louvre Hermaphrodite inevitably focuses attention not only on the nature of sexuality and desire, but also on the very basics of sexual arousal (134). Finally, there are other kinds of attractiveness beside sexual attractiveness. Perhaps the 'Boy and Goose' from Rome explores desire in a wider sense (142-4).

Chapter 4 ('Sizing up Power: Masters of Art', 147-202) explores the impact made by size. Anyone who has experienced the modern Italian reaction to the Victory Monument of Victor Emmanuel II in Rome (the 'Birthday Cake') will be receptive to B & H's view that someone seeking the big impression runs the risk of subversion, ridicule, even ruin (147). Once more, questions of style and date are pushed into the background. The Great Altar of Pergamum, for instance, described as 'an unapologetic exercise in hyperbole' (147), took decades to construct (150), and the idea of a 'Pergamene style' is endlessly complicated (159). Indeed, the concept of local schools is problematic in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world (160). The Dying Gauls, usually seen as versions of Pergamene originals, though links with Pergamum are tenuous (163), must have conjured up Roman victories when displayed in Roman contexts (164). The Forum of Augustus looks unassailably impressive as reconstructed by Paul Zanker (165-75). B & H, however, find many problems. Like the Great Altar of Pergamum, a monument on this scale could never have avoided accusations of bombast and aggressive hyperbole. There would be inevitable tensions in the mythological pairing of Mars and Venus (their relationship tainted by adultery). The train of kings and heroes only underlines the fact that Augustus was the end product of civil war. It can only be at their expense that Augustus could claim forever the title of 'Father of the Fatherland' (170). The processes of reconstruction, in particular the (mis)interpretation of several crucial texts, mean that we might be visualizing the forum quite incorrectly (174). Interpretations of Trajan's Column, on the other hand, ought to suspend concentration on minute details of the spiral frieze. Instead, the point was really the 'sheer spectacle of all this precision stonework soaring beyond the reach of any human eye (181).' The apotheosis panel in the ceiling of the Arch of Titus transports the emperor to heaven - but like Ganymede or a god (186)? Comparable points about hyperbole and bombast are made about the fabulous sculptural programme of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias (189-92). Interestingly, it is possible to be both impressive and over-the-top in miniature too. The Boscoreale Silver Cups, for instance, manage to shrink down four scenes from the repertoire of imperial state sculpture (193-5). B & H would not search for an 'original' in a lost imperial arch or frieze. Instead, they would emphasize the spread of imperial images into the domestic lives of the Pompeian élite. Then again, how majestic could the ruler be to a man in his cups (cf. 195)? The small size of a cameo, even one as striking as the Great Cameo of France, is what enables it to make 'the largest claims imaginable about imperial power and its relations with the divine (196).' B & H find a fundamental play with reduction and enlargement in the Age of Imitation. A big Hercules falls harder than a small one (197-202).

Finally, in Chapter 5 ('Facing up to Antiquity: Art to the Life', 205-38), B & H look at portraiture. Their main target is the modern preoccupation with finding life in art. Are any of the many heads and busts preserved in today's museums fashioned 'to the life?' The short answer is 'no', they are not. There is certainly consistency and recognizability about, for example, images of Pompey (209-13) and Augustus (214-18), but this is due to ideological reasons and to central approval of a model portrait for mass dissemination (219). As a result, we do not have an 'original' Augustus portrait - even the famous pointing finger of the Prima Porta statue is a restoration (216). In contrast to studies which emphasize stylistic change, B & H note the stability of Augustan portraits which in turn stands for the stability of the new political order. This political message was more important than securing a 'likeness' between the ruler and his portraits (224). Many imperial portraits were designed for display in family groups, something like reliefs which depicted the ruling dynasty (225). The portrait as an image of power can be traced back to Alexander (226), and ideology, rather than a fanciful link with death masks, is the way to understand the 'verism' of Roman Republican portraits (227-32). Such wizened images were evocative of the exaggerated prestige that the Republican élite gave to seniority and experience. When Augustus turned away from 'verism' to a classicizing image, he was bidding to supersede the values embodied by Republican portraits (230). Images of philosophers were no less about power. We would apparently love to have a photograph of Socrates. However, ancient sculptors supplied what the patrons wanted - a picture of the Socrates they read about in the works of Plato. As always, the Socrates we now have is an image, 'and images are neither reality nor reliable guides to it (237).' For Jesus, on the other hand, we do not even have an image from the first two centuries of the common era (238).

There is certainly much to admire about this book. The usefulness of the ancillary sections should not be underestimated. There are 'Notes' (239-40), 'Maps and Plans' (242-57), and a 'Timeline' (260-7), followed by an annotated bibliographical essay, which is a valuable feature of the series ('Further Reading', 268-79), a section on 'Museums and Websites' (280-1), a 'List of Illustrations' (282-94), and an 'Index' (295-8). Above all, concentration on the aesthetic of imitation is most welcome, and the book is especially adept at illustrating problems with modern approaches and interpretations. Yet it probably supplements rather than invalidates traditional scholarly method. There were a number of occasions when it seemed that preoccupations with style, date, and subject were being overly demeaned. For example, it is not clear to me that the many attempts to restore the arms of the Venus de Milo should be linked so easily to modern erotic fantasies (122-3), and the identity of the 'Drunken Old Woman' (if it could be fixed) would surely help enormously in the construction of meaning, though B & H are right that singular concentration upon the subject may cause viewers to miss certain visual challenges: is she a variant on the 'goddess with water pot' genre, or the Cnidia past her prime (142)? The Aphrodite, Pan and Cupid group from Delos is described as 'an(other) advanced lesson in the art of love' - for viewers rather than participants (141). I continue to find it a much lighter piece. The suicide of the Gallic chieftain and his wife might have been 'cowardly' rather than 'brave' (as B & H think) in the eyes of Greek and Roman viewers, expecting brave enemies to face up to the consequences of their barbarous behaviour (161). Trajan's Column, we are told, is not a work to be studied in detail (181). Yet it probably supports Trajan's detailed Commentaries on the Dacian Wars which were available to those working in the libraries.

The comments on hyperbole and subversion in Chapter 4 seemed reasonable in the main, and writers like Ovid have convincingly been analyzed along similar lines. However, it is probable that Roman audiences took grandiose claims more in their stride than we tend to do in the modern western world. Titus looks a bit odd to B & H (and to the reviewer as well) on the back of the huge eagle in the ceiling of the Arch of Titus (186). Would Romans, accustomed to the pervasive elements of emperor worship, have been so prepared to exhibit scepticism or subversive attitudes? Something similar could be said about attitudes to Trajan's Column as a means of perpetually enacting the emperor's ascension to the heavens (181). Plus, B & H have a tendency to think in terms of a generic 'ancient viewer', whereas response must have been more individual and varied, governed by factors such as class, race, age, education, visual literacy, gender, and (as they well show) the lapse of time.

Another point to strike this reader is that the word 'ambivalence' seems to have gone out of fashion when describing the impact that ancient works of art had on their viewers. This applies equally to the other 'Roman art' book in this series, Jas Elsner's Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford, 1998). On the whole, it seems a worthwhile development. B & H are in no doubt that ancient viewers were capable of, and practised in, sophisticated and nuanced responses (e.g. 33). Perhaps they do not want to convey the idea that there was uncertainty involved; they seem to have in mind a more stimulating and contemplative general experience than the word 'ambivalence' might imply. It is a world of individual choice:

'Faced by a set of images in one room, or suite, viewers are always challenged to explore ways of reading them together - to devise links, to follow up contrasts, to see what makes (or not) a rewarding story. ... viewers [must] make their own choice whether to explore juxtapositions or settle for appreciating the individual pieces separately (45).'

Complexity of response is not only permitted but even encouraged:

'[referring to the victory monument of Aemilius Paullus at Delphi] there is always the possibility of exploiting the energy of dissonance, and always a series of competing options for reading the visual imagery - from Roman triumphalism to respectful philhellenism on the part of Paullus. The complex multi-culture of Roman Greece and Hellenistic Rome is not to be pinned to any simple formula (97-8).'

Ancient viewers, it appears, must often have paid attention to works of art slowly and in detail. They had more in mind than just the origins and formal properties of the pieces, but it remains likely, in my view, that the original contexts and meanings would have been of particular interest, deemed especially influential in the construction of subsequent meanings. B & H appear to accept this to some degree:

'We shall be concerned not to sever the objects we study from their origins in classical antiquity, but just as fundamental to our approach is the determination to keep in clear view their history since antiquity (5).'

It is probable that some art historians will react to this book defensively, arguing that formal analysis has the virtue of being visually verifiable, that the authors avoid close attention to detail too regularly with a plea that we should recognize the imitative process, and that B & H need to think of responses from different classes and genders, and so on. In addition, it might be pointed out that B & H do not contrast their hypotheses against those of earlier, named scholars, giving a misleading impression of textbook unassailability. There is some justification for this kind of criticism, but B & H have produced a book that is the product of the contemporary tendency to concentrate more on the reception of artworks than on their production. It is largely a matter of preference, or emphasis, which does not totally invalidate traditional scholarly preoccupations but forcefully makes the point that they have severe limitations. It would be a shame to see attention to detail, proficiency at detailed stylistic comparison, and traditional distinctions between (say) 'copies' and 'replicas', swamped by over-acceptance of the arguments made about the imitative process in this book. Each piece has a date (difficult as it may be to pinpoint), an original context together with later contexts, and a particular and a general identity, all of which affect the work's meaning. Some balance or combination needs to be maintained.

by Kaavya Giridhar