Thursday, October 10, 2013


Viccy Coltman (ed.), Making Sense of Greek Art. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2012. Pp. xxii, 250. ISBN 9780859898300. $110.00.

Reviewed by Susanna Sarti, Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, Florence (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume is in memory of John Betts (1940-2008), professor at the University of Bristol from 1966 to 2003 and founder of the Bristol Classical Press. The introduction irecounts Betts's life and career and explains the aim of the book, which primarily intends to be a contribution to reception studies, by examining different aspects and materials of Classical art in their ancient context as well as discussing how Greek art has been understood over the centuries. It also explains the title, which at first glance appears to be quite pretentious. Ten case studies are used to introduce various issues on not only Greek, but also Etruscan and Roman art.

The first essay by Nicki Waugh, "Contextual Iconography: The Horses of Artemis Orthia", examines a votive image of Artemis with horses (potnia hippon), dated between 750 and 500 BCE. The author analyzes the differences and similarities among the offerings found in the four main religious sites of Sparta during this time period. The aim is to demonstrate that a misleading use of ancient literary sources and the habit of explaining a cult by looking at other cultures might be deceiving. Thus, she disagrees with the hypothesis that Phoenician masks 1 and material survivals from the Neolithic period 2 may explain the terracotta masks discovered in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, a presence which appears to be exceptional in Greece. Through the case study of the equine motifs, Waugh prefers to highlight "a contextual, socio-political reading" (p. XVII), and she demonstrates how such iconography is connected with the rise of the Spartan polis.

Zosia Archibald's article, "Reconsidering the Meaning of Athenian Figured Vases", deals with the scholarship and reception of ancient pottery. Through discussion of two recently published books on ceramics — quite different in their approaches but both important for the progress of research—the author in some way confirms that "Athenian pottery can be studied both from the point of view of production and consumption, and through aesthetic perspectives" (p. 23). However, since the main aim should be the understanding of contextual meanings of Athenian ware, it becomes essential to fill the gap that often exists between surviving pots and their context. Since style and signatures are as important as shape, measure and subject as well as the organization of the workshop, scholarship should now delve into the social status of potters and painters and investigate the relationships between painted pottery and coarse ware, figured and plain pottery, "an archaeological rather than art historical objective" (p. 29). The author's case study focuses on the deposits from a residential complex in the ancient river-port Pistiros in Thrace (today Vetren in Bulgaria).

Vedia Izzet, "Reflections of Greek Myth in Etruria. Thetis", explores the importation of Greek myth in Etruria by analyzing the depiction of Peleus and Thetis on a mirror dated to the mid-4th century BCE. The author shows how the use of Greek elements in an Etruscan context appears to be careful and informed by following a deliberate selection of aspects of the myth. She confutes the idea that Etruscans trivialized any myth that came from Greece, and supports the less Hellenocentric vision of several scholars who stress the importance of local context. She also compares this recent approach with the post-colonial analyses of cross-cultural interaction, which illustrate the significance of local cultures in the reception of objects, in a process of re-contextualisation.

The fourth-century CE mosaic of Venus, from the Maison de l'Âne at Djemila in North Africa, is the case study in "Aphrodite's Mirror. Reflections of Greek Art in Roman Houses" by Shelley Hales, who treats the reception of Greek art in the Roman world. The image of Aphrodite with her mirror is analyzed through the numerous Hellenistic and Roman variants of classical and Hellenistic iconography, showing how the "image of the mirror-gazing woman became such a popular image of elite women" (p. 62) in Roman times. The author also noticed how the subject of the mosaic is linked to its physical context in the Djemila house, – plenty of fountains and water which possess reflective properties. Thus, the theme of reflection is used as a metaphor to analyse how Greek art could be introduced into the domestic Roman setting.

"The Archaic Style in Sculpture in the Eyes of Ancient and Modern Viewers" by Christopher Hallett, focuses on the reception of the Archaic Style, through the study of a group of "Archaistic sculpture", which modern scholarship has generally not appreciated and has even ignored. The author analyzes the modern reaction to ancient Archaistic work concerning a small bronze of the Roman goddess Spes, a popular type in late Hellenistic and Roman times. The Romans' admiration is seen to contrast with our negative perception of Archaistic works. He includes an interesting account of nineteenth-century discoveries and twentieth-century reception of Greek Archaic monuments, stressing their importance, as well as that of the Archaistic works, for the birth of modern art. The admiration for Archaic and Archaistic art is evident in the sculptures of Aristide Maillol, André Derain, Constantin Brancusi, Adolf von Hildebrand and, slightly later, in the American Paul Manship and the Art Deco sculptors of 1920s' France, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. However, the case study of Hallett is Rome in the 30s and 20s BCE. After a fascinating survey, the author presents the triumviral and early Augustan periods as a time of "Archaic revival" in art as well as literature, raising several questions on why such a choice was made.

The sixth article, by Ed Lilley, "Jacques-Louis David, the Greek Ideal and an Alternative", examines Greek subjects in the works of that French painter . The author describes David's links with classical art, from his first mythological painting, "The Combat between Mars and Minerva" to his last "Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces" David's pictorial language shows changes due to historical events, but it generally appears to strike a balance between classical tradition and contemporary life. The painter looked at classicism for his "Marat ", but he also included contemporary elements such as the letter from Marat's killer, Charlotte Corday. Even in his choice of subjects, David adapted classicism to his own times, in that the classical "Intervention of the Sabine Women" was a compelling theme for the period, a sort of "invitation to reconciliation" (p. 107). The author mentions a lecture by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth 3 on the use of a mirror in the exhibition of the painting in Paris, suggesting again a strong connection between the classical theme and contemporary historical events: "As they looked into the mirror, eighteenth- (and very quickly nineteenth-) century bourgeois Parisians would have thought of their own recent past", so that here the classical language and the new one— which the author defines as "the alternative"— "come together in a close and meaningful way". The rest of the article focuses "on divergence rather than convergence" between past and present, on how borrowing from antiquity results in the painter's interpretation, which may even become a parody, as it has been supposed for David's last work "Mars and Venus", as well as a dissolution of the classical world, i.e. David's "alternative" to the classical tradition.

The essay entitled "The Most Ancient Monuments of the Fine Arts. Collecting and Displaying Greek Vases in Early Nineteenth-Century English Interiors" by the editor, Viccy Coltman, describes the collection of George Lucy, the owner of Charlecote Park. Clive Wainwright published the property as an example of the so-called "Romantic interior", but he considered the ancient vase as "an odd choice for a house like Charlecote" (p. 123). Unpublished documents relating to the acquisition of vases include letters of the Earl of Warwick and of Lucy's London dealer, Joseph Browne, which provide us a great deal of information. The analysis of the display of George Lucy's vases in Charlecote allows the author to make comparisons with contemporary exhibitions of such vessels. In the libraries of British aristocracy ancient wares were generally exhibited on top of bookcases , together with Wedgwood's imitation vases. Coltman concludes that such an example is not an odd choice for a house like Charlecote, rather it is "representative of the trade and taste in these luxury possessions – both ancient vase and imitation examples – in England in the first half of the nineteenth century" (p. 139).

The eighth essay by Genevieve Lively, "Sculpturae Uitam Insufflat Pictura. Breathing Life into Greek Sculpture in the works of Alma-Tadema and Jean-Léon Gérȏme", examines the relationship with antiquity in the works of the two painters. The progress of archaeology can be spotted in Alma-Tadema's paintings, from the inclusion of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus, discovered in 1863, in "After the Audience" to the frequent reproduction of domestic objects and settings similar to the findings at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Tanagra figurines, which are characters in "A Roman Lover of Art" by Alma-Tadema, inspired the French painter Jean-Léon Gérȏme, who brought an imaginative contribution to archaeological records, to the extent that he painted a lively Tanagran workshop in "Sculpturae Uitam Insufflat Pictura".

Michael Liversidge, "'Living Alma-Tadema Pictures'. Hypatia at the Haymarket Theatre", presents Alma-Tadema as a designer, publishing for the first time a group of 43 drawings of costumes and accessories. The classical past and the idea of Rome were essential for Victorian and Edwardian Britain, being the base for analogies and exempla virtutis for the present. Alma-Tadema was significantly chosen to illustrate the stage of Hypatia performed in London in 1893 (Herbert Beerbohm Tree's production) and adapted from a novel first published in 1853. The author points out the painter's knowledge of antiquity and the accuracy and attention he paid to each detail of his work. This essay also recalls Betts' fondness for the theatre.

The last essay, "Marble for the Masses. The Elgin Marbles at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham" by Kate Nichols, deals with an exhibition held in the London suburb of Sydenham in 1854. The author stresses the ancient sculpture section at the Crystal Palace, in particular the reproductions of the Elgin Marbles. The description of the display points out how Greece and Rome were widely known among the nineteenth-century British public, who appreciated ancient literary sources as well as objects. Classical art was successfully employed to educate, as well as to entertain, the public through museum display and reconstructions like the Greek court of the Crystal Palace, where Owen Jones created a temple, an agora and a stoa.

The stimulating reading of such a volume cannot entirely explain the choice of the title, even if we consider Making Sense of Greek Art as a sort of advertising slogan for "a work in progress" (p. XXII). However, this tribute by Betts' pupils and colleagues clearly shows the variegated interests of the teacher; moreover, the book is rich in information and hints for future research on the various subjects.


1.   J. Carter, "The Masks of Ortheia", AJA 91, 1987, pp. 355-358.
2.   B.C. Dietrich, Tradition in Greek Religion, Berlin, de Gruyter, 1986.
3.   E. Lajer-Burcharth, "David's Sabine Women: Body, Gender and Republican Culture under the Directory", Art History14, 1991, pp. 397-430.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.