Friday, February 7, 2020


Nathaniel B. Jones, Painting, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Rome. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 291. ISBN 9781108420129. $105.00.

Reviewed by Nikolaus Dietrich, Heidelberg University (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review provides a multifaceted study of an aesthetic phenomenon most characteristic of Roman wall-painting: the importance given to framing in general, and to painted picture frames specifically. By adding (painted) frames to depictions that may be found at different central or marginal positions of a painted wall, such images—mythological subjects, landscapes, 'still-lives'—are presented as "paintings of paintings", as Nathaniel Jones puts it. This basic observation constitutes the starting point for an exploration of several overarching phenomena in Roman wall-painting.

A concise introduction ("The Painting of Painting in Ancient Rome': 1–8) provides a general outline of the book's central issues. The first chapter ('Winckelmann and the Cultural Dynamics of Painting': 9–46) takes a historiographic perspective, focusing on the very beginning of art-historical engagement with the paintings from the Vesuvian area: Winckelmann's account of these freshly unearthed examples within his History of the Art of Antiquity. More specifically, Jones discusses a set of four paintings from the palaestra of Herculaneum seen and described by Winckelmann. These paintings seem to have been excised from a wall and were waiting to be re-inserted into a new painted wall in 79. Functioning as would-be independent panels, they not only serve Winckelmann's agenda of singling out (Greek) high art within (Roman) decorative wall. They also hold a key position in Jones' general argument. First, they strongly support the idea that – conceptually speaking – the framed picture panels of Roman wall-painting constitute "mobile objects" on "immobile walls". Indeed, these excised sections of plastered and painted surfaces provide concrete reality to the (painted) fiction of movable panel paintings, and thereby prompt us to take this fiction seriously. As a second important point, these fictive Roman panels play with the idea of coming from somewhere else: they could mimic Greek panel paintings exposed in Roman domestic context. The dialectics of mobile objects on immobile walls and of Greek art in a Roman context set the interpretational frame for this book.

The second chapter ('Disrupting the Frame': 47–92) situates the book within the larger context of Derrida's critique of the Kantian distinction of framed and (parergonal) frame, thereby linking it up with recent scholarly engagement with the frame.1 Jones then looks for precedents to the painting of paintings in Roman murals, which may be traced back to the later second style but which became a widespread phenomenon only in the third and (above all) fourth style. Not surprisingly, earlier Greek and Roman imagery provides very many examples of images (e.g. vase-paintings, reliefs, coins) themselves comprising the depiction of images (e.g. statues, reliefs, busts, etc.). Indeed, elements of metapictoriality are not necessarily a late development in a visual culture becoming growingly self-reflexive in Hellenistic and Imperial Age; pictures of pictures are frequent throughout Archaic and Classical art. Jones then investigates the range of possibilities for the Greek term pinax. Temple inventories from Hellenistic Delos draw a much more varied picture than the few preserved wooden examples of pinakes from Egypt. The author stresses that these inventories—while generally very succinct in their descriptions of the depictions—are surprisingly attentive to forms of material support and framing. In line with the general assumption that the painted panels on Roman walls mimic specifically Greek painted panels, Jones tries to identify shapes and frames found in Roman wall-painting with categories of pinakes mentioned in the Delian lists. However, such matches hardly reach an undisputable level of certainty and therefore cannot provide any hard external proof of the assumption on the 'Greekness' of the Roman fictive panel.

The third chapter ('The Ethics and Politics of Art': 93–136) takes up the possible relations with the political history of Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome, one of the central issues in Roman wall-painting-scholarship of recent decades. Jones attempts to adopt a balanced view between the political and the more aesthetic readings of Roman wall-painting that is gaining more support among a new generation of scholars. However, he cannot conceal his skepticism vis-à-vis the general assumption that political ideology directly affected the decoration of the private sphere.2 For Jones, it is not any possible connection of Roman murals to political history that would make them political, but rather their connection to the ethics of the Roman elite and whether Greek art in Rome was of public benefit or represented private moral corruption. A survey of positions in Latin literature makes clear that, broadly speaking, Greek art on public display is seen as beneficial, whereas private ownership of these same precious things is seen as morally problematic. Jones suggests that by displaying painted instead of real Greek panels in one's house, one would avoid the moral corruption brought about and signaled by Greek luxury goods such as panel paintings, while at the same time reaping the benefits of highly esteemed Greek art. This reading takes for granted that the fictive panels painted on Roman walls are indeed essentially 'Greek', which does not fully convince the reviewer. The author's exploration of the politics of Roman wall-painting, mainly in the way it negotiates the 'Greek' and the 'Roman', follows a line of argumentation already tried by Michael Squire concerning the Augustus of Prima Porta.3 Especially because his muscle cuirass would have both shown and concealed the nude body, Squire takes this nudity as something essentially 'Greek' and potentially problematic in a Roman context.

Chapter four ('Transparent and Opaque: Medium and Materiality on the Roman Wall': 137–178) takes up the interplay in Roman wall painting between breaching the wall and denying its materiality (e.g., by illusionistic perspectival vistas), and reaffirming its closed surface (i.e., by large monochrome expanses). Fictive panels of Roman wall-painting take an interesting position within this interplay: they serve both ends by presenting at once an illusionistic picture (as if a view through the transparent wall) and the illusion of a material object (a framed panel hanging on the wall). Jones comments on varied aspects of Roman wall-painting, such as the uses of perspectival renderings, the importance of theatrical effects, or more specific topics such as mirroring (within the paintings and between the painted wall and its beholder). Within this very rich chapter, Jones' comments on the use of white (especially on the walls' upper zones) stand out. He convincingly explains that white signals the material wall, appearing amidst the painted illusions and thereby exhibiting the duplicity of the "decorated wall".

The final chapter ('Paradigms, Ensembles, and Anachronisms': 179–229) deals explicitly with some difficult questions. How should we imagine concretely the relation between the fictive panels in Roman wall-painting and their supposed Greek models? How do the single painted panels of a same room/house work together? To what extent is the mimicry of a Greek panel painting a symbol of the past? The relation between mythological pictures in Roman wall-painting and Greek panel painting has been conceived within the logic of Roman copies of Greek 'masterworks', like ancient sculpture, but with disappointing results, because almost no case of a Roman copy of an actual Greek panel painting can be certainly identified. Jones does not take this as a serious counter-argument against the 'Greekness' of the Roman fictive panel but rather proposes that the Roman (wall-) painting and Greek (panel-) painting is not a mechanical copy, but should be viewed within the broader (or, from the perspective of a critical reader, diffuse) concept of the paradigm. For meaningful ensembles of paintings juxtaposed on Roman walls, the author turns to houses like the Villa Imperiale, where several panels address the same mythological topic. One might object here that the author largely ignores the more frequent cases where there are no straightforward narrative connections among the different mythological pictures in a room. That putting together mythological images relating to different myths may nevertheless make sense – though not so much within the logic of (text-oriented) narrative, but through more image-oriented means (as e.g. by compositional parallels) – has been shown by Lorenz. 4 For understanding ensembles of pictures not bound together by one narrative, Jones follows another path by bringing in the concept of collecting – a subject intensely discussed in recent scholarship. His chief example of Roman fictive panel painting that mimics a collection is the Villa della Farnesina. He points to the intentional diversity of materials, subjects and styles among the painted works in this Villa, convincingly taking it as defining criterion of a collection, aspiring to the idea of completeness through heterogeneity. One may have some reservations concerning the extent to which the diversity of styles in these paintings was understood as a diversity of historical styles. This is an important point for the author, helping him to characterize such images as anachronic, according to the concept developed by the art historians Nagel and Wood. 5

In line with the book's general attempt to integrate scholarship on Roman wall-painting within a general thinking on 'art' instead of keeping it solely within the confines of ancient studies, the short conclusion ('Epilogue: Reflection and Reflexivity': 230–234) connects the self-aware Roman art of painting of painting ("metapainting") with modern art's reflexivity. Generally speaking, Jones' engagement with Roman wall-painting profits from his parallel engagement with ancient (especially "art historical") literature. Another context in which Roman wall-painting and its fictive panels could have been discussed is largely missing: the social ambience of the Roman house, which had become central in Roman wall-painting scholarship since the groundbreaking works of Wallace-Hadrill and others.6 Indeed, the author sees no necessity of situating painted walls and rooms within the structure of the houses, nor to show their ground plans. As long as we value diversity of approaches in scholarship, this remark cannot count as criticism. As already signaled above, one might, however, disagree with the author's general assumption that the issue of the painted fictive panel is fundamentally about Greek art in a Roman context. Disregarding this potentially debatable aspect, the book´s multifaceted discussions reveal a general phenomenon of great interest, namely that adding another layer of fictionality within the decorative apparatus of the painted wall by turning paintings into 'paintings of paintings' was seen not as a weakening, but as a reinforcement of decorative splendor.


1.   See especially Verity J. Platt and Michael J. Squire (eds.), The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History, Cambridge, 2017.
2.   As posited, e.g., in Paul Zanker's Augustus und die Macht der Bilder, Munich, 1987.
3.   Michael J. Squire, "Embodied Ambiguities on the Prima Porta Augustus", Art History 36 (2013) 242–279.
4.   Katharina Lorenz, Bilder Machen Räume: Mythenbilder in pompeianischen Häusern, Berlin 2008.
5.   See e.g. Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, New York, 2010.
6.   See e.g. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton, 1994, and Yvon Thébert, "Vie privée et architecture domestique. Le cadre de vie des élites africaines", in: Paul Veyne (ed.), Histoire de la vie privée I. De l´empire romain à l´an mil, Paris, 1985, 305–397.

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