By Paul Zanker. Translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon. Pp. ix + 205, b&w figs. 60, color figs. 60. Getty Publications, Los Angeles 2010. $60. ISBN 978-1-60606-030-8 (cloth).
A scholar of Zanker’s longstanding reputation and achievements has every right to publish what is, in effect, a lengthy essay summarizing his thoughts on how to look at Roman art. Because he has devoted years to producing a body of influential and carefully documented research, it is interesting to find out what he thinks the general public should know about the subject, for communicating with the general public is what this book is about. The author asserts in the opening sentence that this is an introductory text, and we all know the difficulties inherent in writing those: ideas must be simplified, documentation must be omitted, and scholarly disagreements must be elided, all in the name of a clear narrative that is easy for the beginning enthusiast to follow. It is churlish to make an issue of these sorts of compromises: without them, introductory texts would never be written.
That said, there are different sorts of introductory texts. This one is, I think, more appropriate for a museum-goer whose interest has been piqued by an encounter with a few pieces of Roman art and who wants some idea of how to start understanding those pieces. It is, in other words, a book for the autodidact. Readers will be exposed to a number of the most famous monuments of Roman art as well as to a smattering of interesting works that are not commonly treated in introductory texts. They will also encounter some of the major themes of Roman art history, including, for example, Greek influence on Roman art; imperial art as a showcase for public messages; and the Roman house as a place of self-presentation.
The book is nothing if not generously illustrated. More than half of its pages are taken up with illustrations and captions, and there are as many color photographs as there are black-and-white. In addition, the captions to these illustrations are so lengthy and thorough that they provide what is almost a second text—one that is attentive to the specifics of the illustrated works. Every art historian and archaeologist dreams of the ability to provide enough images to illustrate the argument at hand. The layout, however, is not always as user-friendly as one might want. For example, in less than one page of text (from near the bottom of p. 26 to near the bottom of p. 27), six figures are cited; one has to flip five pages to see the last of these.
What this work is not is a college-level textbook. It was never intended for that particular audience. American university instructors will, I think, be more likely to want to continue using one of the texts that have been explicitly produced for college-level courses in this country. These contain a semester’s worth of factual information and leave college instructors with wide leeway to provide the overview themselves and to supplement the core text with readings that introduce their students to the theoretical approaches of various scholars.
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