Online Review: Book

Il codice botanico di Augusto: Roma, Ara Pacis. Parlare al popolo attraverso le immagini della natura/The Augustus Botanical Code: Rome, Ara Pacis. Speaking to the People Through the Images of Nature

Rolf Winkes


By Giulia Caneva. Pp. 224, figs. 93. Gangemi Editore, Rome 2010. $35. ISBN 978-88-492-1933-3 (cloth).

Research by classical scholars on the meaning and symbolism of the acanthus on the Ara Pacis has been especially abundant during the 1990s and the first decade of this millennium. A book like this written by a botanist has thus been overdue. Caneva is a full professor of botany and plant ecology at the Department of Environmental Biology at the Università degli Studi Roma Tre and an internationally recognized scholar with a long list of publications and important contributions to plant biology and cultural heritage. With this publication, we finally know the species of the plants and animals we are looking at before drawing conclusions. However, this is just true to a degree, as the author herself states; since we are not always sure about the exact color of the plant, it is at times very difficult to determine the exact species. Nevertheless, thanks to Caneva’s scientific precision, we also know the degree of certainty for the identification of the species. We also know how frequently a particular plant is depicted and where reality is replaced by artistic imagination. All of this is accompanied by numerous tables that break down the information we have.

The book is divided into two parts: “The Botanical Alphabet” and “The Augustan Message.” In part 1, the author presents the history of the discovery of the Ara Pacis (“The Altar of Peace and the Hope of a New Age” [ch. 1]) as well as a general overview of the outer face. Chapter 2 (“Flora of the Great Floral Frieze”) is perhaps the most important part of the book. Here one finds an identification of the species of each of the plants that are represented. The identifications are accompanied by numerous detailed color photographs of both the ornamentation and the respective plant species. She is able not only to reconstruct the landscape that inspired this type of vegetation but also to provide tables documenting all environments within which each plant can be expected to have grown. The catalogue entries for each species provide us with references to the etymology and habitat. She also points out possible confusions and iconographic significance. This information is grouped under small headings (e.g., “The Allusions to the Harshness of Earth,” “Allusion to the Vegetative Force [Dionysus],” “The Rebirth from Water,” “Healing Elements,” “The Solar Divinities,” “Return to the Golden Age,” and many more). Sometimes information about later periods such as the Renaissance is provided. There are, however, rarely direct bibliographical references as one is used to in archaeological or art historical scholarship. Occasionally an ancient author is mentioned, but a precise reference to the text is missing. This will make it cumbersome for future research, when scholars might wish to pursue this information for a particular species. To double check information is thus almost impossible and would be very time consuming.

In the second part (“The Augustan Message”), the author ventures beyond her expertise. This section contains three chapters: “The Compositional Scheme of the Language” (ch. 3), “The Beginning of a New Age: The Aurea Aetas of Augustus” (ch. 4), and “The Message of the Allegory” (ch. 5). There are, again, smaller headings on such subjects as “The Reassembly and the Supermodels in the Reading of the Image,” “Numerical and Structural Organization Schemes,” “Schemes and Rules of Nature,” “The Logic and Symbol of the Ancient World,” “The Message and Method of Communication,” “Further Message of Philosophical Nature,” “Further Naturalistic-Philosophical Message,” and many more. Interpretations and theories are based at times on a depiction of a particular plant, and interpretation and is not quite naturalistic, such as symmetry of composition in the ornamentation. In the opinion of this reviewer, most of Caneva’s approach seems hypothetical, since she does not include iconographic parallels to other monuments. One is thus tempted to see it as reading too much into the image. A plant that ends on top in a trifurcate ornamentation becomes a symbol for Neptune’s trident. More symbolism is piled on top of this conclusion, and whole systems of symbolism emerge. In reviewing Catriota’s book on the acanthus of the Ara Pacis, Elsner has rightfully commented that, “in the end, despite the force and often compelling weight of Castriota’s argument, I still suspect that the great floral friezes of the Ara Pacis were an ornamental backdrop (full of possible symbolism, to be sure) to the main imperial, mythic and sacrificial themes of its prime images” (rev. of The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art. BMCR 1995.09.05). A similar caveat might be applied to Caneva’s conclusions regarding symbolism, which are at times quite hypothetical.

The layout of the book and the organization make it easy to read; there are bibliographical references under various headings at the end, but a scholarly apparatus and footnotes (as is common in the archaeological field for publications of this nature) are missing. While the general bibliography in the back of the book is adequate, as noted above, readers will be frustrated by the lack of precise references. For example, Caneva refers to the acanthus as commonly used on sarcophagi and funerary slabs as symbol of rebirth (186), yet one misses a reference to the important contribution to this subject by Jucker (Das Bildnis im Blätterkelch [Olten 1961]).

Referring to Liverani’s book on polychromy (I colori del bianco: Policromia nella scultura antica. Collana di studi e documentazione 1 [Rome 2004]), the author believes that all ancient sculptures, and thus the faces of the Ara Pacis, were entirely colored and presents in this context two alternatives for the acanthus reliefs: one with an all black, the other with an all red background. She admits that further analysis of the panels might one day shed better light on the problem of reconstructing the color. However, the perception that all Roman white marble sculpture and architectural ornamentation was completely colored seems to this reviewer as much an overinterpretation as attempting to see a symbol in almost every detail.

The quality of the illustrations is superb, and the layout of the plates is excellent; overall, the book is a visual pleasure. Each page is divided in half, with the original Italian text on one side and the English translation on the other. Even though the English text is generally written without grammatical flaws, there are some grave errors in the translation. These will leave a reader who does not know Italian in the dark and confused. To avoid this, the author should have hired a classical scholar as general editor and copy editor. Just a few examples of what the reader encounters in the English translation include “Horatio” (Horace), “posses” (possess), and “social classis” (social class) on page 17; “Aristofane” (Aristophanes) on page 122; “Horo” (Horus) and “Aulide” (Aulis) on page 171; “Fedone” (Phaidon) on page 172; and “Dioscuris” (Dioscuri) on page 174.

The author begins part 2 with the words, “this book could have ended here” (115). This reviewer considers part 1 a success and part 2 to be problematic. This is perhaps because of a lack of sufficient experience with scholarship and methodologies as well as a lack of awareness concerning current debates regarding the interpretations and use of symbols in classical archaeology. Eventually, a more balanced view will emerge as a result of scholarly debate, and, in such a debate, it will be most valuable to have the identifications of the species by a renowned botanist.

Rolf Winkes
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Winkes

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