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Roman Art.

Roman Art

Paul Zanker; translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. ix + 205 pp.; 60 color and 60 b/w ills. $60, hardcover.

As the former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome (and now a professor at the prestigious Scuola Normale of Pisa), Paul Zanker brings an unparalleled first-hand knowledge of ancient Roman art to his latest book. Roman Art is more than a translation of the excellent, concise study he wrote in 2008 for the Italian publisher Giuseppe Laterza; this English-language edition, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, features a lavish complement of 115 illustrations whose extended captions almost create their own companion text. The images themselves, ranging from nineteenth-century black-and-white photographs to contemporary color plates, present their own wide-ranging proof that there are many ways to document--and hence to see--ancient works of art.

From the beginning of his illustrious career, Zanker has trained a singularly imaginative eye on ancient art; his first book, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988), departed dramatically from art history's traditional attention to medium and style, concentrating instead on the way that imagery shaped and reflected the social, political, and cultural developments of a complex, transitional phase in Roman history. Roman Art applies the same broad scrutiny to a period ranging all the way from the late Republic to Late Antiquity, examining everything from monumental, state-sponsored projects to modest personal effects, extending his attention to every corner of the Empire. By evocative use of a few telling details, he manages to pinpoint general cultural trends in ways that are both concise and suggestive, with the result that this general study is much more than an art-historical handbook. Roman Art is really a book about the power of imagination in ancient Rome, a compelling tale recounted by a master storyteller.

Promising to focus on "the concrete historical circumstances that led to the formation of images and their use in a variety of social situations" (vii), Zanker begins his story in the later years of the Roman Republic, when the Romans made meaningful contact both with the realities of empire and with Greek culture (the fluid translation is by Henry Heitmann-Gordon):
   For me Roman art begins with the period of the
   great Roman victories over Syracuse (211 B.C.E.)
   and Tarentum (209 B.C.E.), and then over Perseus,
   the last king of Macedon (168 B.C.E.), culminating
   in the conquest and destruction of Corinth and Carthage
   (both 146 B.C.E.). For the first time, the
   Romans beheld quantities of Greek art (1).


This personal, almost conversational tone continues throughout, and it is thoroughly engaging. Zanker makes no pretensions to omniscience (although he gives a credible demonstration of it), suggesting rather than declaring--all the while exercising thorough control both of his material and of his readers' likely response to it. In effect, his own observations about Roman art work much in the way that he sees Roman imagery itself working--as the subheading of his first chapter puts it, by "Opening Up Worlds of the Imagination."

In Rome, those "worlds of the imagination" were inspired, above all, by Greece, especially by the Hellenistic Greece that was contemporary to the growing Republic and therefore also included the cosmopolitan mixtures of far-flung cities like Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria. As Horace famously observed, "captured Greece in turn captured her fierce conqueror;" and thus Roman military looters turned, within a generation or so, into Roman connoisseurs. From the second century B.C.E. onward, wealthy Romans began to inhabit an imaginative world that in many ways was as artificially "Grecian" as any eighteenth-century European Arcadia. From those wealthy households, taste trickled down to the middle and lower classes. At the same time, however, Rome's conquests fueled a slave trade that put a premium on talented, educated people (especially Greeks) to serve the victors as tutors, secretaries, and business managers. The effects of these individuals on Roman culture at large were profound; many of them were eventually manumitted, but even as slaves they exerted a decisive effect on the imaginative world and the educational practices of ancient Rome.

Zanker's chosen time frame leaves out the regal period of Roman history; thus he does not need to consider the large questions that earlier era raises about Rome's relationship with Etruria and, in turn, about the Etruscan relationship with Greece. For many reasons, this is a legitimate decision and a judicious one. In the first place, the book is far more concise for concentrating on Rome's rise and fall as a major Mediterranean power. Furthermore, recent archaeological discoveries, like the Fanum Voltumnae site in Orvieto's Campo della Fiera or the Tomb of the Roaring Lions in Veii, along with new books like Nancy Winter's study of Etruscan roofing systems (and, by extension, Etruscan cultural relationships), have turned the Etruscan period of Roman history into a particularly fast-moving, changeable field. It is clear that Etruria had a crucial role in the development of one of Rome's most distinctive artistic genres, the realistic portrait, and Zanker brings in (Fig. 33) one of the most unforgettable of such portraits, the "Arringatore" ("Orator") Aule Metelle of Perugia, whose statue, inscribed in Etruscan, is preserved in the Archaeological Museum at Florence. Characteristically, his caption emphasizes both what is local about the portrait, what is Roman, and what is universal--with his short, parted hairstyle, this man of the first century B. C.E. could easily walk down the street today without attracting notice.

In any event, Roman Art has more than enough to say in concentrating on Rome itself and its discovery of the Greek world through the discovery of its own power. That power, as Zanker makes clear, was hard won and hard to sustain, though Roman battle scenes (like those of ancient Egypt and Assyria and the socialist realism of most modern dictatorships) never actually show a Roman on the losing side. Instead, the full brutality of Roman conquest emerges in works like the reliefs from Trajan's Column, with its long sculpted scroll detailing that emperor's battles to secure Dacia, the Danubian territory that would one day change its name to Romania and its language to an offshoot of Latin. Trajan's conquests may have taken place early in the second century C. E., at the height of Roman expansion, but the details of battle and its aftermath would have applied just as well to the taking of Corinth, Carthage, or Syracuse four centuries earlier, and, at a later moment, of Gaul, Numidia, Britain, Germany, and Parthia. Zanker shows his readers in unsparing detail what even the "good" Emperor Trajan contrived in the name of Rome: scenes like a crowd of traumatized Dacian refugees and their animals as they stagger through the wild, forested mountains looking for safety. Behind them, their houses stand empty, ready for Roman settlers to take them over. Elsewhere, a troop of Roman soldiers chops down a forest to eliminate a potential shelter for just such refugees--a magnificent virgin forest, as we can imagine with present-day hindsight and present-day sensibilities, a thing as precious as these Dacians' homes, families, and ways of life. How can we not think of the line from the Agricola of Tacitus: "They create a desert and call it peace"?

Compassion was not a Roman virtue. The blood sports that created and sustained the Roman arena eventually emptied North Africa of its wild animals, Roman hydraulic projects permanently altered the North African ecosystem, and Roman military campaigns fueled a thriving international market in slaves, whose labor provided the chief source of energy for the Empire. At the same time, however, the Roman army and the Roman educational system afforded upward social mobility for men of talent from every corner of the empire, and the aesthetic system created by the Roman encounter with Greece produced a standard of beauty that bound together widely disparate cultures and areas of the globe. One of the chief virtues of Roman Art is precisely its universality: Zanker shows, through dozens of fascinating examples, how artifacts from distant reaches of the Roman world observe both shared aesthetic criteria (proportion, pose) and distinct personal and regional individuality (articles of clothing, hair styles, faces, names). Often, as he demonstrates, the repositories of tradition were women. To bolster this point, he presents a striking series of funeral images, from the Egyptian painted images known as Fayum portraits (which were set on mummies) to the stone grave monuments of Romanized Germans, in which the men dress in togas and the women in their indigenous costume, with their hair done up in customary thick braids. Individual tomb monuments of the Roman Empire are, if anything, still more eclectic than tomb sculpture, so much so that the architectural historian William MacDonald has said that in effect there is nothing general that can be said about them.

Roman houses, however, hew more closely to a standard of rooms arranged around atrium and peristyle, although that standard, too, was subject to myriad regional variations. Zanker invites his readers to imagine ancient Roman houses as places of almost overwhelming sensory overload, in which painted walls, statues, and carefully planted gardens combined to provide miniature Arcadias for homeowners at every income level. The tiniest urban courtyards in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia and Ephesus are enlivened by a painted tree or a tiny fountain; the houses of the wealthy provide a succession of pleasant, self-contained environments, from Pompeii's House of the Faun, with its mosaics and its immense rear peristyle, to the most fantastic Arcadia of them all, the Emperor Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.

Zanker lingers with particular attention over the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum (the model for the J. Paul Getty Villa in Malibu, and hence a building of especial pertinence to this Getty Museum publication), with its strange assortment of bronze statues scattered in the peristyle garden, alongside an elongated pool in which proprietors may have kept pet fish--some Roman ichthyophiles even put earrings on their favorites. Unlike many historians of ancient art, who have endeavored for decades to try to make sense, house by house, of the plethora of themes that appear in the works of art that adorn Roman homes, Zanker suggests that they may well lack an overall program. In other words, the grab bag of sculpture at the Villa of the Papyri may be just that. So, too, he suggests, the Theban legends that decorate one of the alae at Pompeii's House of the Vettii may have no binding theme (having spent decades trying to present them as variations on the localized idea of Thebes, the Greek Bronze Age capital, I find this prospect almost shamefully liberating, but see below).

Instead, he suggests, these marvelously fanciful decorations served above all to create an imaginative environment in which seasonal flowers bloom all year, migratory birds come home to roost all at once, and mythological figures play out their dramas amid what, to some Romans, would have been the familiar scenery of the Bay of Naples. (To return to the ala of the House of the Vettii, we might envision "Thebes" as a dreamland of grim epic rather than the lilting pastoral of Arcadia; this is how Zanker's analysis of Roman art repeatedly sets off a series of associations that stimulate his readers to analyze, but also to muse about, individual artifacts and ambitious decorative schemes.)

The final chapter of the book takes the Roman Empire into the realm of Late Antiquity. Here Zanker argues that a fundamental shift took place in the way that Romans viewed their own lives, from an emphasis on the sensual delights of the here and now, heightened and indulged in every artistic medium, to an increasing preoccupation with the afterlife--a subject that, he argues, hardly concerned most people in the glory days of Roman domination; instead, their grave monuments commemorate their achievements, their professions, their pleasures in the world around them. All that, Zanker contends, changed in the early years of Christianity, no matter what religion an individual might profess. He writes:
   After the middle of the third century, the happy,
   joyful scenes with the dancing, singing and quaffing
   Dionysiac thiasoi, the beautiful Nereids and their
   doting sea-centaurs, and the images of the deceased
   in the form of star-crossed lovers from Greek
   mythology, almost completely vanish from Roman
   sarcophagi. New images, or those that had previously
   been merely of secondary importance, now
   take their place. First are shepherds with their
   flocks, symbolizing a life of contemplation close to
   nature ... The women are often depicted as Muses ...
   Reading is now evidently connected not only to
   education but also to religion (193).


Here, too, the author's decision to limit his analysis to the period of Roman expansion and empire is well taken: it enables him to leave out the problematic issue of Etruscan views of the afterlife, which seem to exist, and powerfully, but also seem to differ significantly from the beliefs of their Latin neighbors. (And given the close relationship between Etruria and early Rome, can we be so sure that even these pragmatic Romans were not concerned on some significant level with what happened after they died?)

Zanker deals perceptively with the differences in style and quality between Imperial and Late Antique art; the clear falling-off in skill between the sculptors of Trajan's monuments and those of Constantine is not simply a matter of changing taste (what medievalists used to call "Constantinian expressionism") but also of training; still, this is a book that prefers to describe the varieties of Roman artistic expression rather than to judge them.

Importantly, Roman Art presents a sustained argument against the idea that Romans, following Vergil's description to the letter, excelled in war and government and little else (as if Vergil's exquisite poetry did not provide its own ringing counterexample). The art of the Roman Empire, like its governance, created the means for a brilliant, ever-changing synthesis of universal aesthetic principles and local detail, refined sophistication and raw emotional power, delight in the present and hopes for contact with, or afterlife in, an ineffable sacred sphere. Both the governance and the art of Rome would live on in a large area of the globe, spurring subsequent innovations in law, diplomacy, city planning, architecture, and art, in the Islamic mosque as much as the Christian basilica, not to mention the artistic triumphs of early modern Italy; in many ways these Roman legacies are living still in a host of present-day traditions. Paul Zanker's beautiful volume has presented this living legacy in all its creative power.

Ingrid D. Rowland

University of Notre Dame School of Architecture

Rome Campus
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Author:Rowland, Ingrid D.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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