Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 18, 2020
Nathaniel B. Jones Painting, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Rome Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 308 pp.; 15 color ills.; 77 b/w ills. Cloth £75.00 (9781108420129)

The aim of Nathaniel B. Jones’s book Painting, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Rome is to reconsider the nature of Roman wall painting by focusing on the “paintings within paintings,” or “fictive panels,” as Jones prefers to label them, that are a dominant feature of the medium. By doing so, the plan is to shed light both on the nature of Roman aesthetics and on the practical and metaphorical roles that art, particularly Greek art, played in Roman life (the “ethics” part of the title). Central to the investigation is configuring the point of the Greek nature of these panels, not as a sign of a subservient Roman imitation of Greek tradition but rather as a creative disruption of it (5). As such, the book is a product of the moment, drawing on several current lines of inquiry, particularly as practiced by the editors and other authors of the Greek Culture in the Roman World series: the nature of representation and emerging interest in the frame, Roman visuality, wider material and cultural investigations into the dependence of Roman culture on Greek influence, and the ways in which art historians have reimagined the creativity of this relationship (though in this respect it seems a shame that Rachel Meredith Kousser’s Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical [Cambridge University Press, 2008] does not get a spot in the bibliography, despite its excellent and original discussion of creative uses of Greek models in Roman contexts). The wall paintings are investigated with a mixture of close visual analysis of key examples, an understanding of social and historical context, and the application of predominantly Aristotelian theory along with a number of approaches and ideas borrowed from modern art historical and literary criticism. These ideas come to a head in chapter 4, which is the key chapter of the book, much denser in content and concept than those that precede it.

The most important aspect of this book is its willingness to tackle one thing that the tradition of art history long tried to withstand: ambiguity. It is perhaps not hard to grasp why ambiguity has often been avoided by scholars. After all, what are we getting paid for if we cannot state with authority what we are looking at? Ambiguity, however, is incredibly difficult to articulate and the strategy employed here is to seek these ambiguities as they are played out around a series of polarities or paradoxes recurrent in wall painting. Such paradoxes proliferate in chapter 4, whose title, “Transparency and Opacity,” refers to literal qualities of painting, in the case of the nature of white ground, while also serving in a more metaphorical capacity to illustrate the way that models of painters’ apparent illusionism can sometimes appear obvious and direct and at other times ambiguous and partial. One of the strengths of this approach of investigating ambiguity from the perspective of the poles at either extreme of the paradox is that it allows previous investigative approaches to wall painting (August Mau’s Four Styles; Richard Brilliant’s programmatic analysis) to be retained alongside newer ideas that might seem at first to necessitate their downfall. One of the possible downsides is that occasionally the book’s commitment to ambiguity seems to waver. So, on the one hand, the discussion of the indeterminate ontological status implied by white ground in the paintings of the tablinum in the House of Livia favors inscrutability, even while it is apparently easy to identify the architectural landscape in the same wall as a depiction of a specific object—a periaktos or screen flat (139). This tension is somewhat exacerbated by the structure of the book. Ambiguity is not really developed as a theme until chapter 4, and in the early chapters it often feels that we are being lulled into a false sense of security about the clear identity and status of fictive panels. In chapter 3, for example, we appear to have been invited to understand that the paintings Gaius Cestius commissioned for his tomb “may thus have served as replacements or substitutes for the more opulent gold tapestries” that he had not been allowed to hang there (131). A more deliberate return to these previous assertions in the conclusion might have been useful in helping the reader reconcile them with developments in later chapters. For instance, the productive and inventive interpretation of the role of paradigm—as a way of explaining how fictive panels show Romans inserting themselves into Greek culture—throws a different light on discussions in chapter 3, which seem to give Augustus an enormous amount of power in determining choices about the use and role of Greek art that are reflected in wall painting, even though many of these tricks (by our imposed dating schemes, at least) predate him.

Augustus plays a major part in chapter 3, which is about the ethics of the display of art in late republic and early imperial Rome, where the political ramifications of the Roman elites’ choice of decoration is at the center of attention. I would certainly agree that the appeal of wall painting to this elite came in no small measure from the fact that its relatively low cost enabled wider participation in such display, and the medium’s fictive display of luxury materials and objects afforded protection against politically and socially damaging accusations of overreaching behavior. But it is another thing to suggest that these paintings are predominantly alternatives to the display of “real” luxuries. Is it necessary to presume that the residents of the Palatine Hill did not complement their painted decoration with real sculpture or other artifacts? After all, as the author admits during his analysis of a watercolor of a painting from the Domus Augustana in the introduction, the paintings of the palaces of both Domitian and Nero were matched not only by the emperors’ sculpture collections but also by the extravagant “real” architectural environment in which they were set.

In terms of the central premise of the book (and indeed of its series), there is one more paradox lurking here that does not get a proper walk-through: that between the Romans looking to a classical Greek past for the models of their aesthetic aspirations and the role of a wider Mediterranean koine to which both belong, in which presumably it would be hard to extrapolate what is actually Greek and Roman, as well as in what direction (and between which points) ideas about and styles of art are moving. At some points, the author refers to such a koine (refreshingly, the popularity of Egyptian motifs in Roman wall painting is understood not as a consequence of victory at Actium but as part of an influence reaching Rome during the course of the city’s long interaction with the Hellenistic world; 111), but, in the main, the argument sticks to the Plinian rhetoric with which the book opens: that wall painting is essentially a Roman medium but that the “fictive works of art” represented in it are essentially Greek.

As a result, this Hellenistic koine is not seriously considered as a mechanism that complicates the Greek/Roman relationship. This causes some awkward and somewhat unconvincing arguments. The one wall painting beyond Italy included in the book is from the royal box at the theater in Herodium, Judaea, decorated in what we would term Second Style, complete with fictive shuttered panels. In order to understand this painting, we are asked to entertain the idea that Herod the Great must have commissioned it in direct reference to Roman art, calling in decorators to kit out his royal box in advance of a visit by Agrippa (133). The more tempting line of inquiry might be to pursue instead the implication that these tricks circulated far beyond Rome. While, as a consequence of the Herodium discussion, chapter 3 does end with a rather vague nod to a common Mediterranean visual culture, there is no explanation of what this means, how it operated, and what effect this would have on the Romanness of Roman wall painting.

That Jones does not expand in this direction is not a criticism of his project. One book can only do so much, and the nature of publishing is such that frames have to be constructed in order to make any discussion at all manageable. The book makes a great contribution to a number of different strands of inquiry current in Roman art and cultural history. It is an extremely well-controlled monograph that deals with complex ideas with a light touch (the introduction and conclusion are concise and straightforward, the argument avoids stodginess throughout, and focus is consistent) and provides a useful vocabulary and provocative framework for future discussions of wall painting.

Shelley Hales
University of Bristol