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Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae: Messages of Power and Their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla

Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae: Messages of Power and Their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla

By Maryl B. Gensheimer. New York: Oxford University Press 2018. Pp. xii + 430. $99. ISBN 9780190614782 (cloth).

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Since their dedication in 216 CE, the Baths of Caracalla have stood as an enduring landmark in the city of Rome. The massive remains and long excavation history make the thermae fertile territory for studies of Roman imperial design and aesthetics. In this book, Gensheimer presents an in-depth exploration of their lavish and multifaceted decorative program. She is not the first to tackle these baths, a subject of antiquarian interest since the 15th century, and recent scholarly attention has focused on their architecture, construction, architectural sculpture, and sculptural program. Despite this crowded field, Gensheimer finds a niche via her innovative theoretical framework, a focus on ancient viewers and reception, and her explication of the multivalent interaction of media within the baths. Gensheimer argues that the decoration of Caracalla’s thermae, which represented a significant expenditure, was central to a viewer’s experience of the building and was holistically designed to impart direct messages to diverse Roman audiences. She does not concentrate on a single medium, such as sculpture, but layers mosaic, opus sectile, stucco, furniture, architectural sculpture, and columns in her reconstructions.

Gensheimer begins by situating her study in relationship to scholarship on the baths and by presenting the objectives for her own work. As context for later chapters, she offers a brief discussion of the eight thermae built in Rome between 25 BCE and 315 CE and provides a fascinating description of the modern history of the Baths of Caracalla, from their antiquarian rediscovery to their scientific excavation.

Chapter 2 begins Gensheimer’s own contribution, as she deftly combines antiquarian documents with archaeological and art historical evidence to reconstruct the decorative program of the Baths of Caracalla. She wisely focuses on reconstructing the baths as they may have stood at their dedication in 216 CE, thereby recognizing the challenge of dealing with complex archaeological contexts and shifting histories of ancient objects. After tracing the reuse of sculpture from the Baths of Caracalla now located throughout Rome and Italy (e.g., in Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Farnese collection in Naples, the Duomo of Pisa), Gensheimer presents a short, numbered catalogue of all of the decorative elements recovered from the baths, including freestanding sculpture (portraits, gods and goddesses, mythological figures, athletes, and others), architectural sculpture (reliefs and figural capitals), pavements (mosaics and opus sectile), furnishings, and wall and ceiling decoration (e.g., revetment, stucco). She organizes the material by space within the bath (e.g., frigidarium, palaestrae, natatio) and differentiates between objects with “known” versus “hypothetical but probable” provenances (62–75). This is a significant distinction that recognizes the importance of context when reconstructing the visual effect of an ancient object.

Chapter 3 builds on this catalogue by reconstructing iconographical trends within the Baths of Caracalla. According to Gensheimer, the decor of the baths incorporates both traditional themes found in other Roman baths (gods, portraits, and athletes) and “atypical” themes unique to this complex. These atypical themes include widespread and repetitive emphases on certain gods (Hercules, Bacchus, Venus, Mars), representations of empire and military power (Aswan granite columns, mosaic shield motifs, eagles on Corinthian capitals), and colossal mythological sculptures and sculptural groups. The author convincingly ties these atypical themes to Caracalla’s self-aggrandizing political agenda. Her careful contextualization of the decor offers insights that simple visual analysis cannot afford. For example, Gensheimer’s approach to the well-known colossal statues of the frigidarium—the so-called Hercules Farnese and its pendant Latin Hercules—moves beyond stylistic and topical study and addresses the statues in relation to their varied experiential impacts and as expressions of the emperor’s “command of material resources and remote geography” (98).

It is in chapter 4 that Gensheimer offers her most significant contribution. Employing methodologies from the fields of urban anthropology and cognitive space theory, she explores the multivariate phenomenological experience of ancient viewers in the Baths of Caracalla. Borrowing the language of urbanism (“paths,” “edges,” “nodes,” “armatures,” and “connective” and “passage” architecture) and applying it to the interior of a single building is a bold but effective approach justified by equating the massive baths to their own urban “district” (152). Within this framework, Gensheimer evaluates the holistic effect of color, pattern, material, and imagery to create visual hierarchies that defined the interior spaces of the baths and guided visitors through the complex, using colossal sculptural groups as waypoints.

The volume’s final chapter situates the Baths of Caracalla within their broader topographical context. Focusing on nearby Severan building projects, the author identifies shared themes and argues that together they acted to reinforce Severan dynastic legitimacy, to emphasize Severan ties to North Africa, and to underscore the Severan emperors’ place within the public narrative of Roman military triumph. The proximity of these buildings and careful repetition of common themes magnified a unified message across the urban landscape.

This book is meticulously researched and clearly written. Its subtitle, Messages of Power and Their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla, would have been a more fitting—and equally enticing—main title, as the book engages only briefly with other imperial thermae. Some complex topics are left unaddressed, including direct engagement with the problem of agency (the generic “Caracalla and/or his architect” is used), and some arguments are not entirely convincing, such as Gensheimer’s reasoning for the lack of imperial portraiture in Roman thermae (unnecessary “under the shadow of the imperial residence on the Palatine” [144]). Repetitive lists documenting the extant decorative material (ch. 2; appxs. 1, 2) could have been presented more efficiently. Despite 70 black-and-white images, the bath’s high-quality decor and the author’s focus on polychromy leaves the reader wishing for color plates. In chapters 4 and 5, new plans of the bath and its situation within the city would also be welcome. Yet these are small criticisms and should not detract from Gensheimer’s scrupulous research. Although she focuses on a single building, her innovative methodological approach, emphasis on ancient viewers, and engagement with broader contexts of Severan architecture and politics adds much to the existing scholarship. This book can be used in concert with previous studies, such as J. DeLaine’s The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome (JRA Suppl. 25, 1997) and G. Jenewein’s Die Architekturdekoration der Caracallathermen (Austrian Academy of Sciences 2008), to further reconstruct this vast and complex monument.

Anne Hrychuk Kontokosta
Institute of Fine Arts
New York University

Book Review of Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae: Messages of Power and Their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla, by Maryl B. Gensheimer
Reviewed by Anne Hrychuk Kontokosta
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.HrychukKontokosta 

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