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Peintures murales et stucs d’époque romaine: De la fouille au musée

Peintures murales et stucs d’époque romaine: De la fouille au musée

Edited by Julien Boislève, Alexandra Dardenay, and Florence Monier (Pictor 1). Pp. 492, figs. 363, table 1. Ausonius, Pessac 2013. €45. ISBN 978-2-35613-089-1 (paper).

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With this volume, the Association Française pour la Peinture Murale Antique (AFPMA) inaugurates a new series of publications under the general title of Pictor. Pictor 1 presents the results of two colloquia held by AFPMA, in Narbonne in 2010 and in Paris in 2013. One of the main goals of the series is prompt publication of conference proceedings, though publication of related monographs is also planned. Given the detailed site reports and technical vocabulary used throughout, this book is most suitable for a specialist audience, although a broad spectrum of researchers, including archaeologists, conservators, restorers, and museologists, will find something of interest.

The part on the 2010 Narbonne colloquium is divided into two sections: presentation of site research and discussion of methodology and conservation/restoration. For the 2013 Paris colloquium, the three sections include site research, material analysis, and a roundtable discussion in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Communication with the goal of establishing protocols for selective preservation of these “archives of the earth” (479).

Both proceedings are similarly organized; each article begins with an abstract, and most helpfully, each author is identified on the first page by role (e.g., archaeologist, conservator) and by professional affiliation. Footnotes are provided, as well as a bibliography at the end of each article. Most articles begin with maps and plans to establish the locations of painting and stucco remains, and sections detailing relevant excavations are also sometimes provided. Most articles include, where possible, stylistic comparisons within France and neighboring countries. In some cases, the best parallels are from Italy, as in the case of the domus at Clermont-Ferrand, with first-century C.E. decoration so rich that the closest comparisons are with the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis and the Villa Farnesina at Rome (357–67).

The quality of illustrations throughout is outstanding, including photography, drawings, watercolor reconstruction paintings, and digital reconstructions. This kind of documentation is particularly important because many sites described were salvage excavations, such as those in the rue des Magnans at Aix and the Villa of La Garanne at Berre-l’Étang; in fact, approximately 500 salvage excavations are being conducted at any given time, so documentation is of paramount importance. Even with excellent documentation, however, the paintings found in salvage conditions often come from unidentifiable contexts, so the functions of rooms and buildings are often not determinable.

Particularly impressive is the attention paid in many of the reports to the preparation of mortar layers and to the supports of the paintings, too often neglected by researchers. When these are carefully documented in descriptions and photographs, as in the case of the stratigraphic cross-section of mortar from Chateaudun at Chartres (fig. 9), they can provide very useful information about painting workshop materials and methods. Sometimes such information can even help to determine whether a specific workshop was involved in painting production.

It is gratifying to see the careful attention also paid to decoration in stucco, since in the past, this material has not always been given its due on archaeological sites. Boislève’s presentation of the relief decoration at the Gallo-Roman villa at Mané-Vechén (137–56) is a particularly good example, as the stucco remains found there include not only very high-relief figural decoration, vegetal designs, and architectural elements but also an elaborate and sophisticated wall decoration that combines stucco moldings with an imitation opus sectile design.

In the second part of the Narbonne colloquium, presentations in the section titled “Methodology and Conservation/Restoration” include discussion of the database “Décors antiques,” of various restoration methods and techniques, and of innovative new ways to display paintings in museum settings. Barbet and Carayon (225–36) discuss improvements to the database, which include documentation of painting, mosaic, and stucco. Screenshots from the database provide the reader with an idea of the kind of information provided, which includes images of the inventoried works themselves, reconstructions in various media, restoration methods, museum presentation, and bibliographic references. An important new addition to the database is the identification of building type (where possible); this was not part of the original database because of the vast amount of material from unidentified buildings, from fill, or even without archaeological context at all. A future field may be set up for other nonportable painted objects such as altars and funerary monuments. In addition, three specialized extensions to the database have been added, one on marine fauna depicted in the artworks, one on Bolsena, and one on Pompeii, the last particularly useful to researchers.

Restoration techniques described in the report by Wagner and Bujard on Avenches (237–53) show how the painting restorers dealt with very difficult conditions, such as working with curved surfaces, extremely fragile paintings, and three-dimensional forms. Their solutions are of great use to other specialists, as the authors detail the materials and methods of conservation employed as well as their approaches to the paintings’ museum display. Work by Amadei-Kwifati and Pedroso at the Centre d’Études de Peintures Murales Romaines (CEPMR) in Soissons over the past 10 years highlights several important innovations in museum display, including use of transparent polymethacrylate to allow display of two sides of a work at the same time and use of digital projection of a complete reconstruction of a very fragmentary painting to enhance visitors’ appreciation of the original (254–59).

At the Paris conference, site reports from Europe were followed by a presentation on the urgent need for remedial conservation of the magnificent painting of the Ambassadors to Samarkand on display in Uzbekistan (435–46). To preserve the painting and prevent further deterioration, it is vital that the interventions suggested be implemented very soon. A report on Chalcolithic paintings from Tell Azmak, near Stara Zagora in Bulgaria, presents impressive fragments of curvilinear forms, accompanied by images showing similar designs in ceramics (447–58).

Material analysis plays an increasingly important role in the study of ancient paintings. Articles in this section include study of the materials and methods used in the preparation of mortar beddings for paintings and the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn from such studies. For example, Tessariol and Coutelas concluded from their study of a number of different mortars that no single painting workshop can be identified at Strasbourg; however, the similarity between mortars from two different rooms from the domus in the rue du Hâ in Bordeaux indicate that two rooms that are now separate must once have been connected (466). Analysis of pigments from the latter location using X-ray fluorescence and a scanning electron microscope have provided important information; for example, the presence of cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) indicates that the workshop had access to expensive imported pigments.

A fascinating study of the use of organic binders presented by Treilhou is in its early stages (471–76), but it shows promise for the future. Analysis from microscopy to chromatography revealed the presence of proteins and amino acids in the pigments, but unfortunately the author was unable to determine their source.

My only reservation is that some reconstructions of painted rooms did not include discussion of the mosaic floors, even when they were visible in excavation photographs. This would have been particularly valuable, since it is important to include all of the decorative elements to provide a more complete understanding of the decoration of Roman houses. That reservation aside, this book makes an outstanding contribution to the study of Roman painting and a worthy beginning to the Pictor series.

Caroline Downing
Art Department
State University of New York, Potsdam

Book Review of Peintures murales et stucs d’époque romaine: De la fouille au Musée, edited by Julien Boislève, Alexandra Dardenay, and Florence Monier

Reviewed by Caroline Downing

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Downing

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