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Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia

By Betsey A. Robinson. Pp. xxxi + 386, figs. 178, pls. 22, tables 2. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2011. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-965-0 (cloth).

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In the world of Graeco-Roman fountains, Peirene was a real celebrity. The “εὔυδρος” or “well-watered” city of Corinth praised by Simonides (720–23) counted numerous fountains, some of which were as renowned as those of Athens or Rome. A quick look at the abundant bibliography devoted to Corinthian waterworks demonstrates the continuing importance of the city in the research on ancient water networks. In many aspects, Corinthian fountains were peculiar: the local hydrogeological conditions and the architectural and technical solutions these implied make any attempt at typological classification very arduous. Equally remarkable is their survival and evolution through the troubled history of the city. The most famous among them, Peirene, was a topographic, architectural, mythological, and poetic landmark of Corinth. Beyond its long and complex architectural, technical, and decorative evolution, it has remained for centuries a source of inspiration for writers and artists. Abandoned but not forgotten, Peirene was rediscovered in 1898 and fully excavated by 1901. The long-awaited publication by Hill only came out in 1964 (The Springs: Peirene, Sacred Spring, Glauke. Corinth 1[6] [Princeton]). In his influential monograph, the result of decades of personal involvement, Hill draws an extremely detailed account of the architectural and technical development of Peirene, supported by a well-argued chronological framework. Fifty years later, the time has come to reevaluate Hill’s results in light of more recent fieldwork. It is also the occasion to underline the other facets of Peirene, which, as a matter of fact, was much more than just a fountain.

The title of the monograph, Histories of Peirene, deserves an emphasis on the “s,” for it successfully brings together the complex and multilayered facets of Peirene, not only in antiquity but also as the subject of a tremendous scientific and artistic interest up to the present. The peculiarity and interest of the book resides in the oscillation between a traditional, very accurate archaeological report and a rich, almost novel-like historiographic inquiry. Robinson not only reviews Hill’s canonical architectural and chronological framework, she also expands our views through a wide-ranging contextual approach that investigates the artistic, architectural, political, religious, geographic, geological, and even biological dimensions of Peirene.

The monograph is divided into two parts, and it starts with an exposé of the long and complex history of the place. Chapter 1, rightly titled “Anatomy and Physiology,” is the ideal starting point for any reader not familiar with Peirene. In the detailed description of the extant remains, the main characteristic of Peirene shines through: it was above all a spring progressively given a monumental appearance, a combination—in fact a constantly negotiated compromise—of underground chambers, reservoirs, and water-collection galleries, with a springhouse and its open-air court. In that first chapter, but also throughout the book in general, the author shows a real talent for helping the reader to visualize the complexity of the ensemble, supported by the rich graphic documentation and chronological tables contained at the end. Additional topics such as hydrogeology and sanitary aspects are equally relevant: they demonstrate that, until recently, the system was extremely sensitive to contamination and instability, as it must have been for the inhabitants of the ancient city. Chapter 2 is devoted to the immaterial dimension of Peirene, source of inspiration for countless writers and artists from Archaic times until late antiquity. In turn personified, celebrated as the place where Bellerophon tamed Pegasus, seen as a poetic topos for Corinth, the Isthmian Games, or as a source of inspiration for poets through the Imperial and Late Antique periods, Peirene’s fame went well beyond its physical abandonment. This explains the frenzy around its discovery and further study by Hill and his successors, vividly exposed in chapters 3 and 4. Almost reading as a novel, these chapters enlighten brilliantly what we tend to forget while reading the finished product that each monograph represents: the tremendous influence of scholars, scientific practices, and circumstances of history on the excavation, documentation, interpretation, and publication of archaeological evidence. Peirene was clearly no exception in that respect.

The second part of the book is conceived as a more conventional yet no less meaningful biography of Peirene. As acknowledged by the author herself, the backbone remains Hill’s original, well-argued chronology. Based on a thorough reexamination of the evidence, however, Robinson convincingly fine tunes and/or reviews extensively some phases of the established chronology. She sees archaeological fieldwork and documentation as a beginning and not as an end (xxvi–vii): wishing to avoid “what might be termed monument fixation [...] dissociated from its context” (xxvi, quoting J. Pinto, The Trevi Fountain [New Haven 1986] 4), she indeed draws into deeper interpretations and contextualization, going far beyond the mere description of architectural remains. From the earliest human interventions in the (pre-)Archaic period (ch. 5) to its probable abandonment in the 14th century (ch. 11), Peirene underwent countless minor and major interventions, evolving from a water tapping point sheltered under a cliff to a magnificent Early Imperial fountain court (ch. 7). The redating in the fourth century C.E. of the Triconch Court—previously attributed to the second-century C.E. benefactor Herodes Atticus—deserves to be noted. This hypothesis is convincingly supported by a reexamination of the stratigraphy, the broader context of building activity in Corinth, and architectural parallels (ch. 10). The presentation of the nearby Cyclopean Fountain and the strong religious associations it maintained with Peirene until after 146 B.C.E. (ch. 6), as well as the hypothesis that a colossal depiction of Scylla was displayed in the courtyard in the second and third centuries C.E. (ch. 9), are important additions to our knowledge of Peirene and its surroundings. The strength of this second part of the monograph lies in the meticulous contextual interpretations proposed by the author. These are supported either by the general evolution of the Corinthian cityscape or through the search of parallels in the wider architectural and artistic context of each period. The only point of criticism is, perhaps, the almost systematic tendency to look for antecedents in Italy, which sometimes appears too one-sided, even if the author always remains careful. For example, the hypothesis that Augustus or Agrippa were personally involved in the early first-century C.E. transformation of the court (202–3) seems a bit too straightforward, as much as the frequent search for decorative parallels in the universe of wealthy Italian aristocrats or in the architecture of Rome. In comparison, the sphere of Roman fountains in the eastern Mediterranean, which could have provided interesting parallels for the Roman phases, is not fully exploited.

As a whole, Robinson’s monograph clearly fulfills the requirements of present-day scholarship in Graeco-Roman architecture: going beyond the mere description of architectural remains, she offers a striking example of multidisciplinary interpretation and contextualization. Focusing on the location rather than on the building, including its immaterial universe, Nachleben, and scholarly context, makes us realize what kind of evidence we miss when we “simply” describe architectural remains. Even if every ancient fountain or building was not as exceptional as Peirene, this monograph is a welcome invitation to scratch the marble of ancient facades to see what was lying behind.

“As befits an eternal spring, there is no conclusion” (xxv).

Julian Richard
Catholic University of Leuven
3000 Leuven

Book Review of Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia, by Betsey A. Robinson

Reviewed by Julian Richard

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Richard

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