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Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology

Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology

Edited by Troels Myrup Kristensen and Birte Poulsen (JRA Suppl. 92). Pp. 197, figs. 145. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2012. $99. ISBN 978-1-887829-92-5 (cloth).

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This volume evolved from a session held at the 109th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in 2008 in Chicago; four additional contributors were invited to contribute to the publication to expand the thematic range, thus aiding the development of a thorough discussion. It became “a product of shared research interests” (10) of nine European and American specialists to provide an up-to-date, integrated account of approaches to “ateliers as well as their staff (artisans or artists)” (7) within the broad framework of Roman art and archaeology. The volume’s grand scheme is to assess the commonalities in the operation and organization of various workshops through time and space by drawing on archaeological, epigraphic, and literary evidence to cover a variety of disparate subjects, expanding to include themes uncommon in ancient workshop studies, such as personal accessories and wall paintings.

Kristensen’s introduction sets the stage by pioneering the idea of exploring the social contexts in which artisans produced and consumers commissioned their artworks, rather than cataloguing the names of ateliers and their craftsmen. One is also reminded here of the definition problem: the existing variety of terms describing the working place of an artisan pollutes our understanding of some practical aspects of the ateliers’ operation—for example, on a stationary or itinerant basis, on a hired or apprenticeship basis, or family-based labor (8–10). This terminological issue does not, however, explain the reasoning behind the choice of the word “atelier” in the volume’s name: it is never addressed by the editors. Yet throughout the volume, the contributors prefer the complex term “workshop,” which lacks a clear definition and is rarely critically assessed.

Kristensen’s essay is followed by three uneven sections dealing with the production of marble statuary and sarcophagi (four contributions) and of mosaics (three contributions), interrupted by one general essay on workshops operating in Roman Britain.

Together, the four contributors in the section on marble draw a convincing picture of the way these workshops might have been operating. The recurring theme is the flexible, cooperative nature of workshops, where artisans constantly reused materials and adopted cultural themes and practices, where multiple craftsmen might have worked on one product, and artisans might have been employed at different workshops at the same time because they were experts in particular carving methods. Birk’s essay explores the relationship between customers and artisans operating in workshops that produced sarcophagi. Its main proposition is that sarcophagi were “made to order,” and the purchaser had more freedom to choose what was carved. The role of customers is further deepened in Friedland’s contribution, which skillfully investigates the supply routes of marble in the Roman Levant and the transfer of knowledge “between the Greco-Roman and local artistic realms” (69). Friedland stresses the prominent role of the patrons, who actively participated in the propaganda of Graeco-Roman iconography and materials (e.g., marble) but were confined to local artistic traditions and materials (e.g., basalt, lime, sandstone). Hannestad’s somewhat descriptive contribution meticulously discusses the common features that can be used to date marble mythological sculptures and provides a new Late Antique dating for many sculptures originally known to be from the mid second or third centuries C.E. In contrast, Van Voorhis’ essay is a vivid case study of the daily activities of a single Sculptor’s Workshop in Aphrodisias involved in “production of new sculpture, refurbishment and repair of old sculpture, and the training of apprentice carvers” (53).

Henig’s interlude contribution between the marble and mosaic workshop sections is neither confined to a particular chronological period nor focuses on one subject. Rather, it is a survey of many disparate workshops operating in Roman Britain. These varied workshops specialized in different media (sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, jewelry), yet they share some common threads, especially in terms of their practical organization. While most consisted of highly mobile teams of artisans traveling to greater extents for a commission, it is shown that many were members of a centralized network of guilds. Cooperation was common, and there is indirect evidence for the existence of ateliers working in different media collaborating with one another (119, 125). This raises a problem addressed in the volume’s introduction—how one should define workshops so diverse and complex in their internal structure, for example—but this is not developed here.

The third section explores the world of Late Antique mosaic workshops in three geographical areas: Greece, Britain, and the Near East. This part of the volume is an excellent demonstration of how production procedures of a mosaic, rather than its stylistic features, can provide ground for determining particular workshops, since many of them, especially in neighboring regions, employed similar motifs and patterns. The three papers of the section are the most stimulating chapters in this volume for their attempt to discuss the term “workshop” itself. Poulsen’s introductory essay weaves together the epigraphic evidence for the workshops’ designations in general before delving into the question of what repetitive patterns can tell us about mosaicists operating in different workshops. Wootton, in his impressive account of the production and execution of fourth-century mosaics excavated at Badminton Park in Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, avoids the words “workshop” and “mosaicists,” preferring the more neutral term “craftsmen.” In so doing, he emphasizes the flexible nature of the mosaic trade and production, where the speed of the production was more important than the overall quality. Zohar’s essay reminds us that by referring to “a mosaic workshop,” one implies a team of specialists working together at particular occasions, rather than an artisan studio with a fixed group of employees (169). Zohar, moreover, introduces a convincing seven-step system of identifying the “handwriting” of individual mosaicists (171, 177), which also helps to understand how mosaics were laid.

As a whole, the volume delivers what it promises in a thoughtful and stimulating collection of essays that are also visually well presented, and it substantially contributes to the current rich field of studies on workshops and their craftspeople. However, it is not without minor imperfections. The standards of spelling and syntax are inconsistent throughout the volume, switching between American and British English. The stylistic quality of some contributions is rather poor: Birk’s and Hannestad’s longer and wordy narratives are encumbered with repetition and contain many qualifiers, diminishing the strength of their claims. A discrepancy in the chronological scope will distract the reader. While the book has been broadly conceived, it is largely centered on the Late Antique period; this choice is understandable, as both editors are prominent figures in late antiquity studies, but this implies that the title of the volume has been poorly chosen. A more explicit engagement with the terminological issue would have enhanced the theoretical potential of what is otherwise a thorough publication. While extensive and up-to-date bibliographical entries after each essay are beneficial for general readers and newcomers to the topic, the volume overall is probably more appealing to specialists, as it is somewhat technical and filled with jargon.

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Book Review of Ateliers and Artisans in Roman Art and Archaeology, edited by Troels Myrup Kristensen and Birte Poulsen

Reviewed by Tatiana Ivleva

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Ivleva

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