Online Review: Book

Akragas arcaica: Modelli culturali e linguaggi artistici di una città greca d'Occidente

Lela Urquhart

117.4

By Gianfranco Adornato (Archeologia e arte antica). Pp. 254, figs. 102. Edizioni Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, Milan 2011. €30. ISBN 978-88-7916-468-9 (cloth).

In 1933, Marconi published Agrigento arcaica: Il santuario delle divintà Chtonie e il tempio detto di Vulcano (Rome), in which he summarized the results of ongoing archaeological campaigns at Agrigento. At several points, he remarks on the importance of discussing “in a single study” the remains of early Agrigento; in his words, the study would illuminate “the darkest period of the city’s origins” (7). These motivations and Marconi’s own interpretation reverberate strongly in this well-argued volume by Adornato. Making deliberate reference to Marconi’s title, Adornato’s work provides the first new major study of early Agrigento in 80 years. Beyond contributing a much-needed synthesis of the city’s literary and archaeological evidence (much only excavated recently), the work draws on recent studies in ethnicity and identity to provide an innovative and theoretically sophisticated picture of Agrigento, and more generally of the idea of the ancient Greek colony. In Adornato’s revision, archaic Agrigento was an adaptable and integrative community, with only ephemeral attachments to a single ethnic nucleus. Civic identity, moreover, was consolidated only at the end of the sixth or early fifth century B.C.E., rather than playing a dominant role in the early development of the colonial settlement.

Adornato frames the study as a reconceptualization of the “cultural models” and “artistic languages” evident at Agrigento from its foundation to the early fifth century B.C.E. Chapters 8–12, in which the author delineates the different formal vocabularies that make up such “models” and “languages” and postulates their origins, are the main chapters that carry out this task. Adornato produces a refined analysis of the chronological development of Agrigentine art and its influences, laid out schematically as (1) Geloan-, Corinthian-, and Megarian-influenced, with likely mediation through Syracuse and Selinunte, during the first half of sixth century; (2) Ionian-influenced, particularly from Miletus and Samos, from the third quarter of the sixth century; and (3) Athenian-influenced, in the last quarter of the sixth century. It is only in this last phase, Adornato argues (125–26), that a particular “Agrigentine style” can be identified. This style drew on earlier (mostly Geloan-influenced) traditions of design but also incorporated new Attic-type motifs and forms, marking a departure from former approaches; the Atticizing tendencies in Late Archaic Agrigentine art additionally distinguished it from other Siceliot productions. This new language was formalized across multiple categories of objects, all distributed across Sicily.

Complementing this analysis of movable Agrigentine art is an examination of the city’s architectural evolution (chs. 4, 7, 9). Here the emphasis is more on identifying early structures and sketching their occupation phases. Scholars aware of the excavation histories of these buildings will acknowledge the effort that went into this synthesis; students who want an introduction to the architectural history of archaic Agrigento and a convenient bibliography will also find these chapters useful. The comparison of Agrigento’s visual culture and its architecture allows Adornato to recognize an interesting tension: while smaller, movable pieces of art were standardized into an “Agrigentine style” in the late sixth century B.C.E., the city continued to experiment in the field of architecture, building a diversity of structures that did not conform to any specific architectural model.

These analyses are informed by a broader motivation to rethink conventional interpretations of Agrigentine art and architecture, many of which privilege the literary oikistic tradition. In the opinion of this reviewer, this contribution of the book could be fronted a bit more, but only because it is especially interesting (and successful). Modern scholars have usually focused on parts of the tradition that associate Agrigento’s foundation with Rhodes, largely because of the Pindaric reference in Olympian 2 to the Rhodian origins of the tyrant Theron’s ancestors. In chapters 1–3, however, Adornato shows that this association is both a misinterpretation of Pindar’s Emmenid genealogy (22–3) and the product of a Hellenistic scholiastic debate that attempted to reconcile the Antiochan-Thucydidean account of a Geloan-led foundation with Pindar’s story of the Emmenids’ journey from Thebes to Agrigento via Rhodes. Using the scholia, Adornato shows that the story of Theron’s ancestors as oikists of Agrigento was largely a fifth-century B.C.E. attempt to self-legitimize and self-celebrate the house of the Emmenids, probably in conjunction with the reign of Theron.

Retrospective reconstructions are also apparent in other episodes of Agrigento’s early history, the most significant being that of Phalaris, the first “tyrant” of Agrigento. In addition to his legendary cruelty, the literary sources credit Phalaris with the architectural elaboration of the city and its territorial expansion ca. 570–550 B.C.E. This image of Phalaris’ and Agrigento’s activity in the first generation of settlement has had major interpretive repercussions; most notably, it has been assumed that by the mid sixth century, Agrigento was the hegemonic power in central Sicily, with control over both the “indigenous” peoples of the interior and Himera. However, the correspondence between the Phalaris stories and the events of the late sixth–early fifth century suggests that “Phalaris” is a largely ahistorical construction of Pindar, who designed him to reflect the negative qualities of a man in power while simultaneously retrojecting onto Phalaris the actions of Agrigento’s “negative” tyrant, Thrasydeus (65–7).

Such reinterpretations of the literary traditions profoundly affect the way in which the archaic history of Agrigento is approached. Understanding that misreadings of Pindar have led, for example, to the false impression that Agrigento was ethnically tied to Rhodes means that there is no basis for seeing Rhodes (or Crete) as the dominant influence in early Agrigentine art and architecture; when examined in concert with the archaeological evidence, Gela and Selinunte are both revealed as more likely candidates of “influence.” Likewise, the recognition that the territorial expansion usually attributed to Phalaris more likely reflects a late sixth-/early fifth-century situation suggests that interior, “native” settlements maintained their independence longer than traditional “colonialist” or Hellenization paradigms have suggested.

Adornato has brought a large amount of material normally discussed in isolation together in a volume that is easily accessible to both the specialist and the novice (as long as he or she reads Italian). While the recapitulation of points can at times feel overdone, the logic of the argument is nonetheless made absolutely clear. The book is also beautifully supplemented with plans, photographs, and illustrations of the objects and buildings discussed therein. For studies of Sicily, colonization, and the archaic Mediterranean, this work provides a much-needed revision of the early history of Agrigento and its art and architecture.

Lela Urquhart
Deptartment of History
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia 30302
lurquhart@gsu.edu

Book Review of Akragas arcaica: Modelli culturali e linguaggi artistici di una città greca d’Occidente, by Gianfranco Adornato

Reviewed by Lela Urquhart

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 117, Number 4 (October 2013)

Published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/1679

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Urquhart

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