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Style and Function in Roman Decoration: Living with Objects and Interiors

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

Style and Function in Roman Decoration: Living with Objects and Interiors

By Ellen Swift. Pp. xxxii + 231, figs. 70, color pls. 18, tables 2. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, England 2009. $99.95. ISBN 978-0-7546-6563-2 (cloth).

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What does decoration mean? Swift proposes that we can find new or extended meanings in decorated interiors, sympotic vessels, and jewelry, particularly if we consider them as forms of social display. Her approach is both old-fashioned and new-fashioned. On the one hand, following Riegl’s brilliant formal method in Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Vienna 1901), she employs stylistic analysis of specific examples of Roman decoration from the early empire to late antiquity to validate decoration as a leading art form. On the other hand, taking her cue from Gell’s Art and Agency (Oxford 1998), Swift argues that decoration, like representational art, not only reflects social experience but also shapes society. Decorative art has power. Swift’s introductory chapter intelligently reviews approaches to decoration that range from the semiotic to the anthropological to the psychological. Particularly striking is the observation that decoration can be ontological; for example, Gombrich proposed that decoration, such as that found on uniforms, can create ritual and enforce behavior. Swift’s discussion of the visual effects of decoration constitutes another foundational notion for her study; citing mosaics that play with figure-ground reversals, she turns to Gell’s suggestion that sensations deriving from visual effects, including disorientation and dizziness, “feed directly into social encounters and the development of social interactions and relationships” (15).

Swift finds a validation of this notion in that Romans observed perspective effects in the real world and reproduced them using isometric perspective in wall painting; therefore, they must have applied “perspective awareness” to the decorative mosaics. She explores this idea by looking at decorative mosaics in chapter 2, where, after discussing patterns used in parts of the house, including thresholds, framing borders, corridors, and dynamic spaces (where the scale pattern, the guilloche, and the checkerboard consistently show up), she gives us four “house visits” that consider the decoration of the whole: the House of the Muses at Ostia Antica, the villa at the Couvent du Verbe Incarné at Lyon, the House of the Masks at Sousse, and the House of the Fish at Ostia.

Here, the illustrative apparatus for analyzing how decorative mosaics address the viewer disappoints, consisting mostly of published floor plans with mosaics drawn in. We see nothing in three dimensions: no axonometric drawings to locate the viewer in space or computer-modeled screenshots to show us what a viewer would have seen of the floor from the key points of view that Swift highlights in the house visits. Instead, we have verbal description limited to decorative pavements without full consideration of how the decoration on the floor complemented or opposed the other elements of the decorative ensemble: walls, ceilings, moldings, thresholds, door and window frames, and furniture.

Speaking of the later empire, Swift concludes that “the function of the patterns in the larger audience spaces, through the agency exhibited by the motifs themselves, is to create a relationship of dominance and submission appropriate to their purpose as rooms in which to receive lower-status clients in a much more hierarchized society” (102). Although I have discussed at length the kinesthetic effects of figural mosaics, demonstrating how figuration on the floor can direct a viewer through a space (e.g., axial views) or define spaces (e.g., dynamic vs. static spaces), I find it a stretch to claim, as Swift does, that abstract patterns on the floor have the power to put a viewer in his place by disorienting or overpowering him.

The jump from in situ decorative pavements to drinking vessels and dress accessories is a big one, and it is to her credit that Swift clearly articulates the interpretative problems. Without a physical context for the decorated objects (mainly silver and glass dining ware, ceramic vessels, toilet articles, and jewelry), she turns to literary texts and the analysis of the spaces for entertainment and reception where these objects and adornments were meant to work their magic. In a brief chapter (“Vessels: Articles for Dining and Toiletry”), she invites us to imagine how dinner guests would have handled sympotic vessels and how they would have understood their imagery. Particularly interesting is that although extant dining sets are made up of disparate rather than matching pieces, there is some matching of decoration on cups and indications of axial symmetry in the arrangement of vessels. She takes this point further in her fresh analysis of the Projecta Casket, where she concludes: “in the context of widespread iconographic ‘matching’ of decoration to function seen on other silver, glass, and pottery vessels, Venus, the personification of beauty and femininity, is above all, in this context, an example to follow” (128).

In the final chapter, Swift examines dress accessories in terms of social display and conspicuous consumption. Following a chronological overview that takes us through the Late Antique period, she looks at women’s hairpins and marriage rings (with normative imagery expressing the proper behavior of Christian spouses) before launching into a lengthy and somewhat bewildering discussion of crossbow brooches and belt fittings, important items of military costume beginning in the fourth century. Here, I would have liked a drawing of a Roman soldier wearing these items to clarify what their visual effect might have been. The coda to this chapter—on apotropaic, magical, and votive decoration—is fascinating but all too brief, especially considering the extensive anthropological and art historical literature on the subject.

Swift is to be applauded for turning our attention to these overlooked arts. She advocates convincingly for their importance in the lives of ancient Romans, fulfilling her aim “to demonstrate that Roman decoration is a lubricant of elite and aspirational Roman living” (187). Although I hesitate to embrace all her conclusions, this is a book that made me think about decoration—especially the decorated objects she discusses—in new ways. Swift has produced a book of great interest to historians concerned with the ways that the study of Roman material culture can shed light on social dynamics. It has fresh insights that contribute significantly to the discussion, opened so long ago by Riegl, of the place of so-called decorative arts in the formation and expression of the culture of Late Antique and Early Christian society.

John R. Clarke
Department of Art and Art History
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712-0337

Book Review of Style and Function in Roman Decoration: Living with Objects and Interiors, by Ellen Swift

Reviewed by John R. Clarke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.Clarke

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