Monday, January 14, 2019


Brenda Longfellow, Ellen Perry (ed.), Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2017. Pp. xiv, 255; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780472130658. $75.00.

Reviewed by Sinclair W. Bell, Northern Illinois University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The study of Roman visual culture, especially figural sculpture, has long been dominated by two related concerns: originality and imitation. Discussions about these topics have focused upon the image of the Roman emperor and its wide-scale reproduction, and Roman marble copies after now-lost Greek bronze originals. Both of these subjects have proved highly influential on ancient art historical scholarship, their assumptions deeply embedded in its methodology through the creation of a cult of the artist (e.g., Hofkünstler, Meisterforschung), and the manifold taxonomies that this has generated. But both methodologies—as highlighted in recent studies—rest on a shared set of problematic assumptions.

Imperial portrait analyses in the Das römische Herrscherbild series, for instance, have tended to assume a high degree of uniformity between metropolitan prototypes and provincial copies, despite well-documented cases of 'eclectic' or non-canonical works among the latter. In following the prototype-replica model, scholars have explained inconsistencies between provincial copies and their metropolitan template (Haupttypus) as the result of poor local craftsmanship or the unavailability of an official model. Value is thus conferred primarily on formalist grounds—the degree of similitude shared between the portrait's likeness and its official model—rather than assessed through consideration of the socio-historical circumstances of its production, such as the wishes of civic patrons or the impact of local carving traditions. As Lee Ann Riccardi notes, "by giving such a priority to the prototype, all of these scholars imply that Roman rather than civic concerns were the primary force determining the appearance of portraits."1

A similarly problematic trope underlies Kopienforschung, in which now-lost Greek masterpieces (nobilia opera) are enshrined as the works of Old Masters while their Roman reflections are disparaged as 'mere' copies, from slavish knockoffs to eclectic tributes.2 Little stock is given to the strength and complexity of the vernacular traditions through which these Greek "originals" were filtered and reconceived for their new, Roman audiences. Instead, these copies, like Roman artworks more generally, are seen as presenting the ancient art historian with "the problem [that] lies in the task of accounting for the quality of works that differ considerably from the standards of 'excellence' allegedly inherited from the Greeks."3 Thus "Roman copies after Greek originals," like provincial portraits, are widely held to have value insofar as they faithfully reproduce an immutable original.

A more recent strand of scholarship, however, has demonstrated how our analyses can profit from moving beyond these entrenched approaches. Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway's 1984 monograph was a landmark in spurring new approaches to Roman copies by advocating their study as the products of Roman civic and religious needs.4 Scholars since have built on Ridgway's approach in different ways by seeking out Roman art objects within their own cultural milieu, by paying greater attention to their graded hierarchies of material, form, and style and by reconstructing the different categories of viewers who gave them charge. 5 As R.R.R. Smith puts it, "Today the trend is towards historical relativism—to the view that art and images work in different ways in different periods and circumstances, that history and society shape the formation, viewing, and reception of images, that the same kind of image and style can mean different things in different sets of circumstances."6

Elaine K. Gazda has been an influential figure in these developments. The author of a series of seminal articles on the "ethos of emulation" in Roman art, she also edited the agenda-setting collection The Ancient Art of Emulation: Studies in Artistic Originality and Tradition from the Present to Classical Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 2002). The book under review is appropriately produced by the same publisher and honors her many contributions over her 40-year career as an educator, supervisor/mentor, and museum curator at the University of Michigan. The chapters are mostly written by her former students but also include several of her peers. They are united in building on Gazda's scholarship on the Greek/Roman copy debate as well as treating Roman art as a semantic system deserving of its own, careful scrutiny. As a consequence, the contents of this volume represent not "just" a Festschrift, but also a significant intervention of their own into the overlapping fields of ancient visual imitation, viewer reception, and social history.

The book consists of a brief introduction, and nine chapters arranged according to two groupings: the reinvestigation of various sculptural types (chaps. 1-5) and visual culture from Pompeii (pp. 6-9). In the "Introduction: Roman Art Reconsidered," Brenda Longfellow and Ellen E. Perry very briefly locate the volume within the context of current trends in Roman art history and discuss the influence of its honorand as both scholar and teacher/mentor, especially her "emphasis on close visual analysis and careful attention to context" (p. 3). A bibliography of Gazda's publications and exhibitions follows the editors' summaries of the nine contributions. While these contributions vary in scope—some are fine-grained autopsies of singular objects (or groups of objects), others are surveys of particular sculptural types or painted motifs—all of them speak directly to the volume's central concerns. Moreover, many interact with one other in a way that promotes cross-fertilization and internal dialogue.

One shared interpretive framework that emerges clearly and consistently is the permeability of meaning in Roman art. For in stark contrast to the high degree of conviction with which earlier generations of Roman art historians (e.g., Karl Schefold, Franz Cumont) posited their unitary interpretations of works of art (e.g., Jocelyn Toynbee's "picture-language"), these authors hold that an object sits within a web of semiotic associations, and that those associations are enriched further still by their viewers, each of whom leverages different emotions, experience, and knowledge in consuming images. So in her chapter on the small bronzes from the fountain basin in the House of the Citharist in Pompeii, Barbara Kellum speaks of "a fluid interpretive universe in which the possibilities for comparing animals and humans were many and protean" (p. 209).7 Molly Swetnam-Burland uses the painting of the courtship of Mars and Venus in the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto as a springboard for a wide-ranging survey of the amorous pair in Roman poetry, from which she concludes that the "rich ambiguities inherent in the narrative" (p. 185) are key to understanding their broad visual popularity.8 Similarly, Bettina Bergmann argues that "the appeal of female faces painted on [Pompeian] walls … resides in their very indeterminacy" (p. 162). And Jessica Powers' analysis of a votive relief from Pompeii concludes expansively: "to search for an overriding theme or program of a domestic sculpture, in this or other Roman houses in the region, is perhaps ultimately a futile endeavor" (p. 233). Here, as in other recent studies of imperial art, "meaning" is synonymous with "ambiguity" since Roman viewers did not all share the same visual culture.

Another, related framework that connects many of the papers is the manifold ways in which people and place interact through things, and how things manifest agency as a product of these interactions. By employing objects in all of their daily rituals, from social exchanges to political activities to religious worship, Romans become "entangled" with material culture in ways that in turn shape their own lives. In her chapter on the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (now in the Palazzo Massimo), Jennifer Trimble sees a dance of agency between the sculpture itself (via its own materiality) and the humans viewing it (who are conditioned by social practice): "essential elements of these effects were movement and replication, including the sculpture's invitations to move around it and look again and again, as well as the repeated movements of clients, friends, and owner through the social and visual rituals of an elite domus" (p. 32). Diana Ng reconstructs the crucial role played by mobile icons (gilded and silver statuettes) in the "synergy between periodic rehearsals, representational objects, and textual display that made the Salutaris Foundation a cognitively powerful monument" (p. 81).9 And Lea Stirling describes the Aspasia statue type's dynamic "journey" across the empire: while it had its origins as a Greek "type," Stirling's interest lies in how that form assumed different scales and migrated to a range of settings (domestic, honorific, etc.) "as Roman artworks filling the needs of Roman society" (p. 112). These contributors and others illustrate how Roman works—like their viewers—were "rooted in the soil of social life," and in this way became nourished with an agency all their own.10

The discussions of statuettes by Stirling, Ng, and Kellum also offer salutary reminders that, despite the longstanding scholarly preoccupation with life-size sculptures (e.g., statues of divinities, imperial portraits), dynamic exchanges between human and thing regularly took place at a smaller register, too. As Kellum evocatively demonstrates, the attraction of objects such as the bronze beasts can be located in their ability to tantalize ancient viewers with the suggestion of, even longing for, familiar worlds that they ultimately could not inhabit or possess, much as Schleich animal figurines are thought to do today: "In fact, you need never have ventured outside the boundaries of civilization to be instantly transported and held spellbound there by these carefully rendered creatures. Each day in my office, a mere glance at the windowsill becomes a way of traveling in place."11 This interest in the power of small-scale works dovetails well with the burgeoning study of the social nature of miniaturization in the ancient world.12

To sum up: this slender, elegantly-produced, and well-edited volume is primarily geared towards specialists in Roman art and architecture, from advanced undergraduates and graduate students to scholars.13 Those who read it in its entirety will be rewarded with a balanced sense of the field's past approaches as well as its current trajectory. For in shifting the lens away from hallowed Greek masters' timeless models to local Roman artists' fluid creations and their dynamic viewers, this volume stages a debate between traditional connoisseurial approaches and current socio-historical ones. The resulting collection is a solid and thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation about the function and value of emulation, the diversity of ancient viewership, and the character and complexity of Roman art.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Roman Art Reconsidered / Brenda Longfellow and Ellen Perry
Beyond Surprise: Looking Again at the Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the Palazzo Massimo / Jennifer Trimble
Dismembering a Sacred Cow: the Extispicium Relief in the Louvre / Melanie Grunow Sobocinski and Elizabeth Wolfram Thill
The Salutaris Foundation: Monumentality through Periodic Rehearsal / Diana Y. Ng
From Mystery Masterpiece to Roman Artwork: The Journey of the Aspasia Statue Type in the Roman Empire / Lea M. Stirling
The Sebaste Apollo: Form, Function, and Local Meaning / Elise Friedland
At Face Value: Painted Ladies on Pompeiian Walls / Bettina Bergmann
Marriage Divine? Narratives of the Courtship of Mars and Venus in Roman Painting and Poetry / Molly Swetnam-Burland
Beyond High and Low: The Beauty of Beasts at the House of the Citharist in Pompeii / Barbara Kellum
The Votive Relief from House V.3.10 in Pompeii: New Perspectives on a Sculpture and its Context / Jessica Powers


1.   Lea Ann Riccardi, "Uncanonical Imperial Portraits in the Eastern Roman Provinces: The Case of the Kanellopoulos Emperor," Hesperia 69 (2000) 105–132; at p. 114.
2.   Adolf Fürtwängler's Meisterwerke der griechischen Plastik (1893) is the classic example.
3.   Eve D'Ambra and Guy P. Métraux, "Introduction," in The Art of Citizens, Soldiers, and Freedmen in the Roman World, edited by Eve D'Ambra and Guy P. Métraux, viii–xviii. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006; at p. xi.
4.   Roman Copies of Greek Sculpture: The Problem of the Originals. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.
5.   John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003; Miranda Marvin, The Language of the Muses. The Dialogue between Greek and Roman Sculpture. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2008.
6.   R.R.R. Smith, "A Greek and Roman Point of View," in "Viewpoint: Is there a Place for Aesthetics in Archaeology," Cambridge Archaeological Journal 4.2 (1994) 260–264, at p. 262.
7.   Her discussion of the now-lost imagery on the podium of Pompeii's amphitheater is complemented by the recent study by Michael J. Carter, "Landscaping the Roman Arena," Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 35.2 (2015) 115–123.
8.   See also S. Hales, "Men are Mars, Women are Venus: Dressing Up and Down," in The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, edited by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Mary Harlow, 131–142. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005.
9.   See also Sylvia Estienne, "La construction du divin au prisme des processions a Rome," in Fabriquer du divin: Constructions et ajustements de la répresentation des dieux dans l'Antiquité, edited by Nicole Belayche and Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, 105–126. (Collection Religions 5.) Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2015.
10.   Tonio Hölscher, Visual Power in Ancient Greece and Rome: Between Art and Social Reality. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018; at p. 9.
11.   Charles Siebert, "Schleich Figurines," New York Times Magazine 3.25.2018: 26–27.
12.   E.g., The Tiny and the Fragmented. Miniature, Broken, or Otherwise Incomplete Objects in the Ancient World, edited by S. Rebecca Martin and Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
13.   I found few errors: e.g., p. 33: the first entry, by Abbe (1997), mistakenly confuses different authors and titles, and should be deleted; p. 163: under the entry for de Kind 1991, "Jahrbuch …" should read "Kölner Jahrbuch."

No comments:

Post a Comment

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