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Tristes Portiques: Sur le plan canonique de la maison étrusque et romaine des origines au principat d’Auguste

Tristes Portiques: Sur le plan canonique de la maison étrusque et romaine des origines au principat d’Auguste

By Vincent Jolivet (BÉFAR 342). Pp. x + 343, figs. 171. École Française de Rome, Rome 2011. €100. ISBN 978-2-7283-0875-0 (cloth).

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The subtitle, which complements a rather disheartening heading, indicates the object (and argument) of Jolivet’s oeuvre: the “canonical plan of the Etruscan and Roman house.” This well-organized volume, with a wealth of specific examples, puts forth a set of fairly direct theses: that such thing as a “canonical plan” existed; that it originated in Etruria probably during the second quarter of the sixth century B.C.E.; that local differences are to be interpreted as adaptations of the standard type instead of indicators for heterogeneous origin; and that inner organization mirrored precise functional needs and fundamental divisions according to status and gender. What Jolivet intends for “canonical plan” overlaps only in part with the concept of the atrium house. His “cauaedium house,” of which the atrium house constitutes a specific type, is defined by the following elements: a rectangular surface with symmetrical rooms at the two sides of a longitudinal axis; a large central space (cauaedium), normally not perpendicular to this axis; side rooms that narrow the access and extend the space at the rear with a couple of alae; and a deep end occupied by three halls with similar dimensions.

Jolivet’s effort is especially notable, as it challenges at the roots the current understanding of the Roman Republican house and its history. The author is deeply engaged with the scholarly discourse, as is evident in chapter 1, where he presents previous interpretations about the historical and cultural roots of the Roman atrium house and then makes the case for his own position, based on Overbeck’s idea of an “ursprünglicher Plan des römischen Hauses” (e.g., 11). In this field of study, any attempt to corroborate the ancient written sources with the extant remains is encumbered by major obstacles generated from both the state of our general knowledge about domestic life in ancient times and the often inadequate documentation about individual sites and buildings. These limitations are for the most part overcome by Jolivet’s remarkable command of both textual and archaeological evidence, which is evident especially in the first part of the book, which is devoted to the archaeological record.

Chapter 2 provides the background to his argument and discusses the traditional dwellings attested in central Italy before the emergence of the canonical plan. In particular, Jolivet insists on the interaction between two principal building traditions documented for the seventh century B.C.E.: the house with longitudinal development and the “maison large,” “Breithaus,” or “casa larga,” which is thought to derive from eastern prototypes via the model of the Greek pastas house. Chapter 3 deals with the first attestations of the canonical type during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., focusing on the earliest reliable evidence from Marzabotto. Chapter 4 charts the diffusion of the plan between the fourth and first centuries B.C.E. Jolivet notices a hiatus of about two centuries in the archaeological record between the case of Marzabotto and the earliest attested examples in later periods. From the first half of the second century B.C.E., the record grows substantially, and Pompeii becomes the main source of information. Jolivet concludes that the cauaedium house remained typical for a precise geographical area, which coincides with central Italy. Additionally, he questions the existence of structural links between the ongoing Romanization and the diffusion of the canonical plan.

The second part of the volume covers a number of topics related to the social and cultural context(s) for the emergence and diffusion of the plan. According to the author, three main factors influenced its invention in the sixth century B.C.E.: the political situation, the character of Etruscan society, and the role of religion. The history of the cauaedium house type seems to have followed closely the Etruscan penetration in the Po Valley and toward southern Italy. Therefore, chapter 5 reconstructs this expansion, highlighting its breadth and organized character (albeit warning against the uncritical use of interpretive models based on the Greek apoikia). Among the elements of the Etruscan society that may have influenced the emergence of the canonical plan, Jolivet points out the relationship between the genders (with its corollary of fixed duties and reserved spaces) and the exploitation of servile labor. The generalized use of tripartite spaces seems to distinguish the Etruscan conception of built environment, both in town planning and in the construction of temples, houses, and tombs. Within domestic architecture, this principle takes the form of a double pattern: a longitudinal succession of pars antica, media, and postica, each of which expanded into three aligned sectors (the fauces flanked by two workshops, the central court enclosed by a double row of small rooms, the rear divided into a tablinum and a couple of [reception?] rooms to the sides).

Chapter 6 concentrates on the “parallel architecture” of temples and tombs to enucleate the specific nature of domestic architecture and its indebtedness to other environments. According to Jolivet, the language of temple architecture played a decisive role in the elaboration of the canonical house plan. There is little doubt, instead, that funerary architecture came to employ solutions drawn directly from the experience of domestic building, adapting that model to its specific requirements. Chapter 7, which is probably the least persuasive in the work, concentrates instead on the social life of the cauaedium house. Despite the author’s attempts, the effort to differentiate the cauaedium house “of the origins” (e.g., 244) and the Roman republican atrium house remains largely implicit, especially as the former is explained in light of the latter (and vice versa). Topics such as the nomenclature and function of domestic spaces, as well as the thorny problem of gender segregation, would have been better framed within a broader view of Roman republican society and in-depth analysis of selected contexts. Some of Jolivet’s conclusions on social and functional organization, albeit legitimate, remain in fact open to debate (e.g., that only occasionally activities other than sleeping could take place in cubicula or that the tablinum was typically flanked by a triclinium, which hosted a key ritual of the male community, and an oecus reserved for women). Regrettably (although this falls outside Jolivet’s aims), the book lacks a detailed comment on the crucial evolution that took place from the late second century B.C.E., with the widespread introduction of peristyles and the resulting changes in the traditional cauaedium structure.

Argument and evidence are generally well presented; nonetheless, the useful glossary of Etruscan words and concepts about architecture after chapter 6 could have been more conveniently placed at the very end of the volume. The bibliography is extensive and provides a useful research tool—one could only lament the omission of a title such as Leach’s The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples (Cambridge 2004), which contains a good discussion of the nomenclature of spaces in the Roman domus.

As is customary for publications under the aegis of the École Française de Rome, the volume is elegantly produced and carefully edited. The illustrations are of satisfying quality and include numerous plans as well as maps of the areas under scrutiny. As explained in the opening pages, the author has deliberately chosen not to edit the site plans on which he had to ground his considerations. This results in a considerable diversity of styles, scales, and graphic conventions. Jolivet’s position on this point, however, is understandable because of the diverse state of available documentation. By visualizing the inaccuracies or incompleteness of individual plans, as presented in the original publications, the reader may appreciate their reliability to the book’s aims and the author’s use of this material. Once we move past the perplexities created by the variety of plans, we can appreciate the choice, which was intended to fuel debate and supplement the discussion.

Assuming previous detailed knowledge on the subject, this book addresses an academic audience of specialists. The relevance of the problems discussed, as well as Jolivet’s ability to master an impressive quantity of information about sites and buildings, make this volume a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of scholarship dedicated to the history of the Roman domus. Whatever the reader’s position about the social structure of the Roman atrium house and its antecedents may be, Jolivet’s lucid analysis is, and will be, a must-read for every scholar interested in the topic.

Anna Anguissola
Institute for Classical Archaeology
Ludwig Maximilians University Munich
80539 Munich

Book Review of Tristes Portiques: Sur le plan canonique de la maison étrusque et romaine des origines au principat dAuguste, by Vincent Jolivet

Reviewed by Anna Anguissola

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Anguissola

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