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Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered

Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered

Edited by Brenda Longfellow and Ellen E. Perry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2018. Pp. xiv + 255. $75. ISBN 978-0-472-13065-8 (cloth).

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This edited volume serves two purposes: to re-evaluate Roman artworks within their physical and cultural contexts and to honor the estimable career of Elaine Gazda, Professor and Curator of Hellenistic and Roman Antiquities, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan. The book succeeds in both endeavors and is indeed a worthy tribute to Gazda, a scholar of Roman art and mentor to many scholars, especially women, in classical art and archaeology, and it is thus no surprise that the editors and contributors of this volume are all women.

The nine chapters revisit both well- and lesser-known sculptures and paintings, including some lost statues known only through inscriptions. The objects discussed were originally located across the Roman empire, from Gaul to Asia Minor, Syria, and Cyrene, as well as in Rome and Pompeii. As the editors explain, over the last several decades scholarship on Roman art “has dramatically shifted focus from issues of connoisseurship, typology, and chronology to analyses of objects within their contemporary contexts and local environments” (1). Likewise, the appeal of Kopienkritik (looking for lost, usually Greek, originals) has waned in recent decades, giving way to more direct engagement with the objects themselves and their roles in public or private display. Throughout this volume, the contributors take similar approaches, reviewing the history of the objects under consideration, establishing their original contexts (both time and place) so far as possible, and analyzing them within those historical, social, and physical environments.

The first five chapters of the volume examine sculptures in a variety of contexts. Jennifer Trimble (“Beyond Surprise: Looking Again at the Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the Palazzo Massimo”) considers viewer reception of a statue in its second century CE context: the peristyle of a domus on Rome’s Viminal Hill. Her analysis incorporates Roman views on hermaphroditism, Ovid’s tale of Hermaphroditus’ transformation, and the characteristics this statue shares with the so-called “sexy boy” figures in Roman sculpture. The original position of the sculpture seems to have limited its viewing possibilities (26–32), limiting access to the “surprise” of the figure—that is, the male genitalia. This suggests to Trimble that while an artist could perhaps envision viewing possibilities, such as this “surprise,” the patron could limit viewing, and the viewer would respond based on prior experience of the figure type or knowledge of the myth.

The Extispicium Relief in the Louvre is the focus of the second chapter (“Dismembering a Sacred Cow”), coauthored by Melanie Grunow Sobocinski and Elizabeth Wolfram Thill. The authors’ primary goal is to challenge the date of the relief, generally viewed as second century CE. The size of the relief suggests an imperial commission, but the best comparanda for the style are from the mid third century CE. While the authors do a thorough job of establishing a case for the date of the relief and demonstrate its oddities in comparison with other sacrifice scenes, their interpretation of this sculpture is promised in a future article.

Diana Ng (“The Salutaris Foundation: Monumentality Through Periodic Rehearsal) offers a masterful rereading of inscriptions found in the Great Theater at Ephesos in the mid 19th century. The inscriptions record the donation by C. Vibius Salutaris of a series of gilded and silver statuettes. Ng examines how the dedication served as a monument to the elite patron Salutaris and attempts to reconstruct the “impact of recurring rituals and events” linked to the statuettes (75–76). Combining knowledge of Roman rhetorical training practices with applied cognitive research, such as that of semantic memory, she argues that the dedication put Salutaris into the Ephesians’ memory in a positive and active way (78).

Lea Stirling (“From Mystery Masterpiece to Roman Artwork: The Journey of the Aspasia Statue Type in the Roman Empire”) tracks the wide geographic spread of the “Aspasia” statue type, looking for clues to its usage and later interpretation. She focuses on the Roman use of the type because it provides “an opportunity to study the roles that a defined statue type could play in the Roman world” (95), as an image of divinity or as a base for individual portrait heads, or even for nonlikeness portraits where identity was conferred by now lost inscriptions. Stirling provides a catalogue of 39 statues and statuettes, about half of which have known findspots.

A statue of Apollo from the sanctuary of Kore at Samaria-Sebaste is the focus of Elise Friedland’s chapter (“The Sebaste Apollo: Form, Function, and Local Meaning”). She rejects the usual identification of this work as a copy of the Praxitelean Apollo Sauroktonos, arguing that it is better to see this work as a Roman creation of the late second or early third century CE (126–31). Comparing several other Apollo types, she demonstrates convincingly that the artist of the Sebaste Apollo drew from multiple types and styles in the creation of the figure.

The last four chapters of the volume are centered on artworks from Pompeii. Bettina Bergmann leads off this group with an examination of female “portraits” (“At Face Value: Painted Ladies on Pompeian Walls”). She details the shared conventions, “female Romanitas,” of these representations (148) and compares the variety of painted portraits to the multiple iterations of women as different divinities in funereal contexts, “where blurring of mortal immortal identities was a deliberate representational choice” (155). She notes, also, the contrasting of opposites—for example, mortals vs. Bacchic revelers—as “flipsides of self-representation” (160). In all, this is a well-grounded look at the intersection of social developments and artistic representation.

Molly Swetnam-Burland (“Marriage Divine? Narratives of the Courtship of Mars and Venus in Roman Painting and Poetry”) questions how to read the divine relationship of Mars and Venus in the context of a Roman house. Bringing poetry into her interpretation allows Swetnam-Burland to suggest that, although the tale of Mars and Venus is titillating, it ultimately upholds traditional Roman values because it “acknowledged the fragility of marriage and treated it as something to be protected” (184).

Barbara Kellum (“Beyond High and Low: The Beauty of Beasts at the House of the Citharist in Pompeii”) explores interpretive readings of a group of bronze animal sculptures arrayed around the garden fountain of a house owned by two freedmen. She suggests as a first reading that the group of figures can be linked to the animal fables of Aesop. A second way of reading sees the animals as “live action” tableaux of mythical stories, for example the Caledonian Boar hunt. Kellum posits further references to dining, arena games, or aristocratic animal parks, suggesting that all of the themes that can be read in the sculptures cut across social classes.

Jessica Powers (“The Votive Relief from House V.3.10 in Pompeii: A Sculpture and Its Context Reexamined”) looks at a marble votive relief found in Pompeii that has long been considered a Greek original of the fifth or fourth century BCE. Offering a close analysis of the stylistic details and composition of the relief, Powers argues that the work was more likely created in the first century BCE or early first century CE (215–20). The identity of the female divinity in the votive relief is unclear, but in the end perhaps not important, as Powers demonstrates how the relief was just part of a larger decorative ensemble that conveyed the status and achievements of the household.

The book itself is well edited, with no obvious typographic errors. There are 16 color plates, which are particularly helpful for the discussion of wall paintings but equally useful for sculpture. The black-and-white images in the text are generally clear, though not of sufficient size and sharpness for discerning details.

Overall, this is an excellent and satisfying volume, and everyone interested in Roman art should take the time to engage with it. The methodology of each essay is explicit and well reasoned; the collection can serve as an excellent model for advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students.

Susann S. Lusnia
Department of Classical Studies
Tulane University

Book Review of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered, edited by Brenda Longfellow and Ellen E. Perry
Reviewed by Susann S. Lusnia
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Lusnia

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