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Peintures romaines de Tunisie
January 2015 (119.1)
Peintures romaines de Tunisie
By Alix Barbet. Pp. 336, figs. 466. Picard, Paris 2013. €79. ISBN 978-2-7084-0944-6 (cloth).
While the magnificent mosaics of Tunisia are well known and justly celebrated, the considerable remains of painted walls, ceilings, and other structures have rarely been studied in depth and are consequently far less well known. This book goes a long way toward correcting that situation, though the author makes clear that much more study is needed.
Barbet is well known to scholars of Roman painting for publications on paintings from regions as diverse as France, Italy, and North Africa and for developing a classification system for the decorative motifs in Roman painting. This penchant for systematic study is clearly exhibited in the present work, for it follows a clear and logical order. The author divides Tunisia into geographic regions and then discusses the sites with paintings, concluding each section (and the work as a whole) with a discussion of paintings without provenance, of which there are unfortunately very many. The study of each major city and its region begins with a brief historical sketch, then a discussion of each monument, in many cases using plans from the original publications. Each painting’s current state and location is given, where possible, and it is as carefully described as the evidence permits, including estimated dimensions, if they were recorded at the time of discovery. Barbet makes every effort to identify the type of room where the paintings were found (e.g., cubiculum, portico). Each entry is provided with a possible date when evidence warrants. References are listed at the end of each entry, with footnotes in the margins of the pages. The book concludes with a brief attempt at synthesis and a conclusion.
The quality of the illustrations in this volume is for the most part excellent; most of the plans are easily legible, with room locations clearly labeled. For the paintings themselves, the author in many cases provides outline sketches, which serve as an aid to the viewer when the photographs are hard to read, and they also help to demonstrate past misattributions and misplacements, which are corrected in this volume. Recent color photography, also often taken by the author, is uniformly excellent. In the case of the fourth-century C.E. stibadium/fountain from Carthage, the author and colleagues prepared a digital reconstruction of the structure that allows the reader to appreciate both its three-dimensional form and the interplay of its mosaic floors and painted surfaces. Barbet is to be commended for attempting to describe paintings known today only from dim black-and-white photographs or extremely brief, published descriptions.
The author faced severe constraints in the pursuit of this project. As indicated often in the text, early excavators tended to leave in place wall paintings found in situ, and many are no longer extant. Others were removed from the walls and have subsequently disappeared. Paintings found in fragments during excavation were often discarded; in most cases, only fragments containing particularly attractive designs or figural elements were kept, leading to a disproportionate focus on them in the literature. Additionally, many museum storerooms and other locations contain boxes of painting fragments to which the author did not gain access. Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand why few attempts have been made in Tunisia to reconstruct paintings. A major exception is the magnificent ceiling of Dionysos from Thaenae (Henchir Thina), dated to the third century C.E. and currently located in the Bardo Museum. This painting, as Barbet makes clear, is unfortunately marred by overzealous restoration, resulting in significant deviations from its original appearance as documented in early photographs. Purely decorative panels, such as extensive panels of imitation marble opus sectile, were often given only the most cursory descriptions by early excavators and were only occasionally photographed. Another unfortunate tradition in early excavations was the setting of painting fragments into beds of plaster or concrete, preventing subsequent examination of the sides and backs of the fragments, which could have provided important information.
Despite these and other constraints, this work makes many important contributions to the study of Roman painting. First, it places the wall paintings of Tunisia within the corpus of Roman painting by providing well-chosen comparisons from around the Mediterranean, frequently from Campania but also from as far away as Spain and Jordan. Barbet also makes an effort to identify subjects and themes particularly favored by the inhabitants of the region. These include a particular fondness for marine imagery, including Nereids, tritons, and sea creatures, and are best exemplified by the aerial marine scenes from Neapolis (Nabeul) decorating the sides of a fountain in the House of the Nymphs. For the author, these scenes represent the port of Carthage itself, based on the unusual depiction of a deer hunt that appears to reference Aeneas’ sojourn in the city. Such a reference would certainly not be unusual for North Africa, where several sites have produced examples of Virgilian graffiti.
Dionysiac imagery is ubiquitous, as evidenced by numerous depictions of maenads, silens, and grapevines, as well as images of the god himself and his animal companions. Scenes of hunting and blood sports of the amphitheater are also common, and both the Dionysiac scenes and the hunting and sporting themes have numerous counterparts in mosaic.
Barbet’s decision to limit discussion to paintings of the Roman period, excluding “Paleo-Christian” paintings, is regrettable, since it is apparent to this reader that many of the paintings uncovered in Tunisia are quite late in date and would have benefited greatly from comparisons with Early Christian works. This is especially true for the enormous number of Tunisian paintings in imitation of marble opus sectile, which are part of a koine in the Late Roman world and are found from Spain to southern Russia. Opus sectile decoration is often found on the walls of Christian structures, and this may also be the case for some Tunisian paintings. An example is the peacocks flanking a vessel decorating a fountain at Utica (Bou Chateur) and known from baptisteries around the empire. In the case of the funerary cippus from Thaenae of uncertain date, the author acknowledges that a Christian interpretation is possible for the scenes of men attacked by a bull and a bear (martyrdom in the amphitheater) but prefers to see the scene as honoring a fallen venator. Another side of the cippus contains a scene of a figure in a boat with a mast forming a cross that is remarkably similar to depictions of the subject in the Christian catacombs of Rome.
Most ambitious of all is the author’s attempt to reconstruct the entire decorative scheme of a room or area and to connect the designs with possible room functions. In some cases, Barbet is able to point out a correspondence between the motifs and the subjects of both wall paintings and mosaics in the same locations. An example is the motif of dolphins in both painting and mosaic from a house in Hadrumetum (Sousse). This correspondence is attributed in part to the close relationship between the workshops of painters and mosaic workers, for whom the master of the painting team usually provided designs, as proved by the well-known mosaic inscription from Enfidha cited by the author in which a mosaicist boasts that his work was done “without a painter.”
Little scientific analysis of the plaster and pigments has been conducted on the paintings of Tunisia to date. Could such analysis provide valuable evidence to assist in the attribution of paintings without provenance? If more paintings could be associated with specific sites, a more accurate synthesis of style and theme would be possible.
Barbet concludes with a call to future researchers in Tunisia to continue the work presented in this volume; to pursue study of the remains of wall paintings still languishing in storerooms; to document and reconstruct wall paintings with the same attention provided to mosaics, stucco, and sculptural works; and to explore the relationships between painting, mosaic, and architecture to create a more complete picture of the visual context of the ancient Roman world.
State University of New York at Potsdam
Book Review of Peintures romaines de Tunisie, by Alix Barbet
Reviewed by Caroline Downing
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/1970