Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2016
J. J. Pollitt, ed. The Cambridge History of Painting in the Classical World New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 500 pp.; 140 color ills.; 237 b/w ills. Cloth $250.00 (9780521865913)
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This substantial and important volume, edited by J. J. Pollitt, offers a comprehensive and updated survey of the evidence for mural and panel painting in the ancient Mediterranean, from the Aegean Bronze Age to Late Antiquity. The range of material under analysis is quite inclusive: the authors evaluate how a variety of painted media might have related to larger-scale or “free” painting, which in certain periods might be considered a “lost art” (see chapter 2). Those most familiar with the wall painting from Campania and Rome will find a more panoramic view, one that contextualizes Roman wall painting as part of a continuous artistic tradition that stretched over a millennium. Apart from Mary Hamilton Swindler’s pioneering Ancient Painting: From the Earliest Times to the Period of Christian Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929), nothing as ambitiously expansive as this volume has ever existed.

The authors of the nine chapters, ordered chronologically, retain their unique scholarly voices, and while each one covers the “greatest hits,” they also have space to express their own opinions. This results in refreshingly honest discussions about what we have evidence for and what we do not, distinguishing this volume from a standard survey textbook. While the majority of chapters are straightforward in their presentation of painted material and explanation of its excavation and reception (chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9), others (chapters 2, 4, 7) are more speculative, as the authors analyze other kinds of evidence (e.g., vase painting, literary sources) and reflect on their possible relationship to ancient painting and its place in the ancient world.

Anne P. Chapin’s “Aegean Painting in the Bronze Age” (chapter 1) begins with helpful explanations of Aegean geography and dating systems, then proceeds chronologically, from Protopalatial Kamares ware, to the famous “La Parisienne” of the Final Palatial Period at Knossos, to the Mycenaean frescoes from Pylos, and more. Ceramic evidence has a prominent place in this chapter, and Chapin is conscientious about defining its possible relationship to wall painting (e.g., 7, 28). She also carefully explains problematic terms and concepts—e.g., “palace” (6), “thalassocracy” (19)—and provides updated interpretations of iconic paintings such as the Priest-King Fresco (11–13). Chapin ably presents a subfield offering unique challenges, not least among them some modern characters (Arthur Evans, Heinrich Schliemann) who projected their own imaginations onto archaeological discoveries, necessitating rounds of revisionism.

Jeffrey M. Hurwit’s “The Lost Art: Early Greek Wall and Panel Painting, 760–480 BC,” (chapter 2) and Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell’s “Reflections of Monumental Painting in Greek Vase Painting in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC” (chapter 4) are the most speculative of the volume, attempting to reconstruct Greek wall and panel painting in the Archaic and Classical periods. Hurwit reviews the literary evidence with a properly critical eye, and his discussion of archaeological evidence is more promising. The comparison of a terracotta plaque and a small vase, for example, both signed by the Corinthian vase painter Timonidas, is illuminating: stylistically, the plaque and vase have nothing in common, and so it seems the painter could and did adopt a different technique and style depending on the context (74–75). Hurwit describes several vessels that are thought to have taken inspiration from wall painting because of the use of white background, polychromy, or treatment of characters in space. He does not believe that vase painting is directly derivative, but concludes that various innovations in vase painting could represent a response to wall or panel painting. Hurwit’s witty, conversational tone makes the chapter especially readable.

Stansbury-O’Donnell’s challenge is even greater: no Classical polychrome wall painting survives in Greece. His premise, then, is that vase and wall painting shared a common visual language, and his goal is to follow changes in the concept of painting reflected by contemporary vase painting and later literary evidence, including interest in naturalism and emotional expression. The important techniques of skenographia and skiagraphia are credited to painters of this period, and Stansbury-O’Donnell dedicates a section to both. He does not exhibit Hurwit’s skepticism of literary sources, and he also puts far more stock in vase painting, although as he admits, the three-dimensional nature of vase painting and the context of pottery production must have differentiated vase painters from mural painters (144). His reconstructions of the paintings of Polygnotos of Thasos in the Lesche (“clubhouse”) of the Knidians at Delphi nevertheless are perhaps a bit too speculative: while they do reflect careful conjectural work, they are based on the descriptions of Pausanias, who is interpreting them perhaps six hundred years after their creation (if indeed the original wall paintings of Polygnotos survived that long).

Stephan Steingräber’s “Etruscan and Greek Tomb Painting in Italy, c. 700–400 BC” (chapter 3), Stella G. Miller’s “Hellenistic Painting in the Eastern Mediterranean, Mid-Fourth to Mid-First Century BC” (chapter 5), and Agnès Rouveret’s “Etruscan and Italic Tomb Painting, c. 400–200 BC” (chapter 6) largely focus on funerary contexts, as public and domestic sites are underrepresented in the archaeological record for these periods. Steingräber’s chapter focuses mostly on the painted rock-cut tombs at Tarquinia, which are surveyed in detail for their architecture, technique, and iconography. Steingräber also discusses problems of dating and interpretation, which he argues have been too oriented toward comparisons with Greek art (97–98). He helpfully includes discussion of the relatively recently (1985) discovered Tomb of the Blue Demons, which has not yet been definitively published, and concludes with a small section on tomb painting in Southern Italy.

Miller’s chapter is similarly straightforward, with detailed sections on Hellenistic tomb painting and painted grave markers, with smaller sections on pottery, painting from free-standing structures (notably, but too briefly, at Delos), and mosaics and textiles as they related to painting in both composition and theme. Particularly important in this chapter are the appendices on attribution, as no Hellenistic painter left a signature, and on the scientific study of the paintings (222–30), which consolidates scholarship in several languages, providing an important resource for specialists seeking recent work on ancient painting techniques.

Rouveret’s chapter begins with fourth-century BCE Etruscan tombs, innovative both in their new architectural freedom and the inscriptions allowing the identification of the families who used them. Important tombs—e.g., the Tomb of Orcus, the François Tomb—are described in detail, along with Hellenistic examples and painted sarcophagi. She also addresses Campanian and South Italian painting in the fourth and third centuries BCE, notable for its expanded palette, finer drawing, and rendering of figures in representational space, which helps contextualize the wall painting in subsequent centuries (and chapters). She concludes with the fascinating observation that at the end of the fourth century, several styles coexisted: a simplified style with zonal decorations, a precursor to Masonry Style, and an early form of architectural illusionism associated with the Second Style of Romano-Campanian painting (281).

Pollitt’s “Painting in Greek and Graeco-Roman Art Criticism” (chapter 7) is entirely focused on the literary evidence for serious critical analysis of painting in ancient Greece. This is not an easy task: just as with archaeological evidence, there are considerable gaps in what has survived antiquity. Interestingly, these writers seem to have been practicing artists interested in the technical evolution of Greek painting, and some evidence suggests that they perceived its origins to have been in the late Archaic period and its high point in the late fourth century BCE (292). This important excursus from the visual and technical analyses of the other chapters underscores the volume’s mission to define ancient painting from around the Mediterranean as an art form with its own historical awareness and traditions of continuity and emulation.

Irene Bragantini’s “Roman Painting in the Republic and Early Empire” (chapter 8) and Roger Ling’s “Roman Painting of the Middle and Late Empire” (chapter 9) consider the vast evidence of wall painting surviving from the Roman world. These are the most wall painting-rich chapters, and, unlike the rest, there is no supplemental evidence other than literary sources. Bragantini begins with third-century BCE funerary painting from the Esquiline and Arieti Tombs, as well as literary evidence for the painted decoration of public monuments and patrician homes. She describes the new second-century BCE preference for walls featuring not only decorative stucco, but stucco with painting mimicking precious marble, as illustrated by the House of the Ship (Casa del Naviglio) at Pompeii. The constant innovation of the first centuries BCE and CE is attributed to the growing demand for domestic luxury among Roman aristocrats (309). Consequently, perhaps, the majority of the Italian residences examined in this chapter belonged to the elite (e.g., Oplontis, the Villa of the Farnesina, the Domus Aurea).

Bragantini notably eschews the Four Styles, the chronological classification invented by August Mau at the end of the nineteenth century that many specialists continue to use today. Her use instead of historical periodization seeks to emphasize that painting followed the political and historical changes that marked the transition from Republic to early Empire. This strategy, however, seems to blur the chronology of the painting under discussion. It is unclear if terms such as “manifestations” (310), “decorative system” (310), and “style” (311) refer to the Four Styles or to something else entirely. I also question Bragantini’s dating of the Second Style frescoes from Boscoreale and Oplontis to the first quarter of the first century BCE; they are usually dated half a century later. While I certainly appreciate Bragantini’s intentions, I also have reservations about her strategy in the context of this volume: first, it is important to teach the Four Styles if only so that new scholars may understand past (and some current) scholarship; second, and perhaps more importantly, recent research at Oplontis such as that by Regina Gee indicates that Romans were very much aware of stylistic difference and in some cases manipulated the concept, as in the case of Villa A’s atrium, which seems to exhibit a “retrospective” Second Style (Regina Gee, “Fourth Style Workshop Deployment and Movement Patterns at Villa A [‘of Poppaea’] at Oplontis,” in Sarah Lepinski and Susanna McFadden, eds., Beyond Iconography: Materials, Methods, and Meaning in Ancient Surface Decoration, Selected Papers on Ancient Art and Architecture, Volume 1, Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, 2015, 127–48). This suggests that our understanding of style in this context is less of an “excessive technicality” (359), as Bragantini implies, and closer to a real ancient concept than many current scholars have believed.

In contrast, Ling’s chapter on painting after the first century CE embraces the Four Styles fully, defining—with detailed and vivid description—what came after this innovative period as pastiches of these styles. Despite evidence of its demand (372–73), painting from the third through fifth centuries is not abundantly preserved and faces problems with dating and perceptions of decline, which are carefully explained (371). Ling first reviews Mid-Imperial painting in Italy and the provinces (from Ostia to Ephesos and beyond), noting the iconographic shift in the domestic sphere from mythological subjects in favor of everyday themes. Particularly interesting is the section on the margins of the empire, including Dura Europos and Egyptian funerary portraiture (399–402), which expresses a degree of realism not reflected in contemporary wall painting. The section on the Late Empire presents remarkable examples of “wallpaper patterns,” or Tapetenmuster, and large-scale, polychrome mosaics from the Piazza Armerina, ending with an epilogue on book illustration.

The volume is copiously illustrated with primarily black-and-white figures within the text, color plates at the end of every other chapter, and a set of images on a supplementary CD-ROM, formatted as PDF files organized by chapter, which may be printed for ease of use. Image quality and production are somewhat inconsistent, but this does not detract from the readability of the volume. Several useful maps and a glossary accompany the text.

This volume is what might be described as a very sophisticated textbook, and many different audiences will find it useful. First, and without exaggeration, this is an indispensable text for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses on ancient painting. Moreover, the state-of-the-field analyses from a variety of international perspectives, presentation of new discoveries, and fresh citations make this an important collection for advanced scholars. Finally, the text is introductory but advanced enough to be useful to non-specialist art historians—of European painting or the decorative arts, for example—who are interested in what came before. Like Raphael, Carracci, or Poussin, painters of the Classical world did not work in a vacuum: this volume argues that painters were acutely aware of their artistic pasts and, up until Late Antiquity, operated between the poles of emulation and innovation. If The Cambridge History of Painting in the Classical World becomes the foundational text for the study of ancient painting, one can only wonder what advances the field will make in the future.

Emma Sachs
PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.