Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Jean-Michel Croisille, Natures mortes dans la Rome antique: naissance d'un genre artistique. Antiqua. Paris: Éditions Picard, 2015. Pp. 160. ISBN 9782708409842. €43.00.

Reviewed by Shana D. O'Connell, Howard University (shana.oconnell@howard.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Jean-Michel Croisille's book is a well-illustrated survey of the depiction of still life in ancient Roman wall painting and mosaic primarily from the first century CE. Building on his earlier monographs, 1 Croisille collates evidence from images and texts in order to produce an inter-disciplinary study that will be of interest to scholars of ancient art and aesthetics as well as epigram and satire. Both painting and poetry, Croisille explains, reflected contemporary tastes for objects in quotidian use: comestibles, tableware, writing implements, and other small-scale items.

In the preface Croisille discusses why the modern term "nature morte," and its synonyms (e.g., Stillleben), are useful to the academic discussion. In Part 1 he traces the history of this genre from textual and visual evidence. In Chapter 1 he compiles a vocabulary of ancient Greek and Latin terms used to describe still-life subjects. The most important is xenia which scholars often use interchangeably with "still life." While Croisille identifies the origins of still life in the Hellenistic period he nonetheless presents much earlier depictions of non-human subjects such as a Minoan jug, emblems from Greek coins, an Attic fish plate, and tomb painting from Nola.

In Chapter 2 Croisille focuses on Roman wall paintings and mosaics, identifying several key characteristics: the types of objects presented, their arrangement, location within frescoes (many were originally painted to create the illusion of panel paintings), and degree of complexity. Compositions with only one or two objects are described as simple, while those with a variety of objects of different types are complex. In this chapter and throughout the book Croisille classifies the still lifes using Mau's system of the Four Styles.

The last chapter of Part 1 features case studies from specific archaeological contexts and the ways in which the trends outlined above are relevant to paintings and mosaics in situ. These examples are organized by context—domestic, funerary, and religious—and demonstrate how the function of a space informs the meaning of the paintings. For example, the eclectic variety of food depicted in the still lifes of the garden at the Casa dei Cervi (Herculaneum, IV.21), suggests the fertility of the land and sensual pleasures of dining (64-66); at the Praedia of Julia Felix (II.4.3), a painting of varied instrumentum scriptorium suggests not culture and erudition but rather a profitable business, made evident by the pairing of a ledger with coins (78-79).

In the second part of the book, Croisille presents his case for the poetics of an ancient "goût pour l'objet quotidienne" in both art and literature. As with the chapters that present visual evidence, those that feature texts are organized into sub-sections by type: scientific and gastronomic writing, ekphrasis, epigram and satire, and the cena Trimalchionis. The final chapter presents a comparative analysis of select epigrams from Martial's Xenia and Apophoreta alongside depictions of the same comestibles (fruit, legumes, fish, game, et al.) and domestic objects (vases, cups, scriptoria).

Two arguments are central to Natures mortes dans la Rome antique. The first is that a genre of still life existed in antiquity. Croisille makes this claim in spite of Michael Squire's cogent objection to the use of a modern category to understand ancient art. 2 As discussed in studies on this topic, however, what to call the depictions of non-human subjects always presents a problem. Like their counterparts in antiquity, artists of later European traditions, chose to depict a wide spectrum of objects ranging from living animals to those prepared for consumption, from tableware to grand dining services. Thus, scholars frequently note that what we call "still life" or "nature morte" today is often neither still nor dead. By presenting a diversity of objects from ancient art and literature, Croisille demonstrates what appealed to Roman tastes if not, precisely, what they called it.

Croisille's second argument provides the foundation for his study and its organization. He demonstrates that there was a specific "taste for objects of daily life" made evident by the frequency of such subjects—small animals, foods, vessels, et al.—in the paintings and poetry of the first century CE. In exploring the paintings and epigrams by object, Croisille succeeds in highlighting the importance of things in visual and verbal media. The epigrams are grouped by content, including gifts (xenia, apophoreta), and dining ("an intimate meal," V.78.3-21, pp. 127-128; feast to honor Julius Cerialis, XI.52.5-14, p. 130). The final section treats vignettes within Martial's Epigrams such as "the Chariot of Bassus" (III.47.5-14, pp. 139-140) or a description of provincial life (IV.66.5-8, pp. 142-143).

Croisille has been one of a handful of researchers to treat the ubiquitous depiction of objects in the complex decorations of ancient Roman houses and villas. The book's thematic organization and illustrations make it an important volume for the interdisciplinary study of ancient surface decoration and literature that privileges objects. While Croisille highlights a yet understudied topic and provides a basis for reference, two articles that he does not cite—Elizabeth A. Meyer on the depiction instrumentum scriptorium and Bettina Bergmann on the "realia" of the paintings from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale—provide a model for the in-depth approach necessary to appreciate the place of things in Roman art. 3 If Croisille had presented a similar level detail his book would have been much longer and no doubt more expensive.

The overall quality of the illustrations contributes greatly to the book's success as an accessible survey. Detailed reproduction of fresco presents difficulties, given the relatively small size of many still-life compositions, their often-impressionistic rendering, and poor state of preservation. One can appreciate the attention to detail in Roman painting by observing the colorful and intricate rendering of bird feathers (p. 77, fig. 70), the highlights on reflective glass or metal (pp. 26-27. fig.16, 17), even the scales and teeth of eels (p. 119, fig. 105).

Because still-life subjects vary greatly in scale, however, it is unfortunate that this publication does not include the approximate dimensions of individual examples. The vignettes of fighting cocks from the alae at the Casa dei Vettii (VI.15.1) are small yet their reproduction is larger than the compositions from the Praedia of Julia Felix (II.4.3) (H. 74 cm). The reproductions create a false sense of a standard scale, which hinders their consideration in an archaeological context and as surface decoration. Although Croisille discusses these issues in the text, visual evidence for the location of still lifes in paintings and mosaic is imperative to understand their significance in antiquity. A number of examples remain in situ at Pompeii, such as at the Casa dei Casti Amanti (IX.12.6; pp.119, fig. 105) and Complesso dei Riti magici (II.1.12; pp. 33, 36-37, fig. 25 a, b, c). These examples as well as others from Herculaneum and Ostia Antica offer a more complete picture of ancient still life as both subject and discrete element of wall painting.

With the exception of a few mosaics (pp. 93-94, fig. 88-92) and the tavern still life from Ostia Antica (p.113, fig. 102) all of the examples in this final chapter come from Campania. The regional designation, part of the title of Croisille's 1965 publication, is absent from the title of the present volume. While he treats a few paintings and mosaics from ancient Rome, Gaul, and North Africa, his focus perpetuates the largely South Italian emphasis of surface decoration studies. The title is therefore somewhat misleading to anyone unfamiliar with regional trends in the scholarship on ancient Greco-Roman art. It perpetuates a set corpus of the "greatest hits" of ancient painting as exempla of an established genre. Croisille, for example, describes an illusionistically framed still life from the Praedia of Julia Felix (II.4.3) as the "one of the best of the genre that survives." While the painting no doubt conforms to modern aesthetics, the notion of an ideal model detracts from an understanding the painting in context.

This cognitive leap—between ideal still life and actual—comes at the expense of seeing all paintings in their complexity and demonstrates precisely why arguing for a genre of still life remains problematic. Numerous compositions of miniature vessels (cf. p. 41, fig. 29a and b), for example, appear in Third and Fourth Style wall paintings throughout Pompeii and even the stuccos of the Stabian baths. Yet these subjects do not find much attention in Natures mortes dans la Rome antique beyond their identification as "vases divers" and a brief discussion as apophoreta (121-122). The caption of a wall painting from the Casa dei Ceii (I.6.15) at Pompeii fails to mention vases, but does mention depictions of fruit and birds (p. 34, fig. 23). Croisille notes the depiction of miniature vases in his text (33) but he appears less interested in these compositions of manmade objects, even when they serve as doublets of the fruit and birds. Anna Elizabeth Riz (not included in the bibliography) describes the significance of man-made vessels in Roman wall painting, including a comprehensive analysis of type and a well-illustrated catalog of extent examples.4

These critiques aside, Croisille's book has much to offer regarding interdisciplinary inquiry into mimesis, genre, technique, and the reception and representation of objects in Greco-Roman antiquity. From an art historical perspective, furthermore, he provides a much-needed survey of ancient depictions of objects that are too often summarily treated in discussions of still life as a diachronic phenomenon. The thoughtful examination of paintings and poems therefore make this publication a useful contribution to understanding the significance of things in ancient Greco-Roman art and a stimulus to a rich discussion of the problems inherent in their study.5


1.   Jean-Michel Croisille, Les natures mortes campaniennes. Répertoire descriptif des peintures de nature morte du Musée National de Naples, de Pompéi, Herculaneum et Stabies (Bruxelles-Berchem, Latomus, 1965); Poésie et art figuré de Néron aux Flaviens: recherches sur l'iconographie et la correspondance des arts à l'époque impériale (Bruxelles-Berchem: Latomus, 1982), 271-288.
2.   Michael Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 360-361.
3.   Elizabeth A. Meyer, "Paraphernalia, Tablets, and Muses in Campanian Wall Painting," American Journal of Archaeology, 113, no. 4 (2009): 569-597; Bettina Bergmann, "Realia. Portable and Painted Objects from the Villa of Boscoreale," in La villa romaine de Boscoreale et ses fresques, Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire 2013, ed. Alix Barbet, Annie Verbanck-Piérard (Arles: Errance, 2013), 3-27.
4.   Anna Elisabeth Riz, Bronzegefässe in der römisch-pompejanischen Wandmalerei (Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 1990).
5.   See also Sarah H. Blake, "The Aesthetics of the Everyday in Flavian Art and Literature," in A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome 2016, ed. Andrew Zissos (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 344-360.

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