Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 2022
Stephanie Pearson The Triumph and Trade of Egyptian Objects in Rome: Collecting Art in the Ancient Mediterranean Image & Context 20. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. 272 pp.; 35 color ills.; 28 b/w ills. Cloth $114.99 (9783110700404)

This book explores the use of Egyptian objects in the Italian peninsula during the Late Roman Republic (ca. 146–31 BCE) and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Rather than focusing on production and initial use, the author examines the longer-term use and display of objects, particularly how imports and spoils were curated and received in multiple media. Pearson is interested in the ways these objects were perceived as art; that is, how Romans collected and used Egyptian objects, and how they valued them. The book argues that Roman economics, religion, and understandings of the foreign created a multifaceted sense of luxury that surrounded the use of Egyptian objects in Italian contexts.

Pearson’s book is organized into five parts, coupled with a preface and a conclusion. Each part is subdivided into five to eight very short chapters and illustrated lavishly, including many color illustrations. The short chapters, typical of De Gruyter’s ICON series, make it difficult for the reader to follow the argument. In the first part, titled “Introduction: Egyptian Art in Rome as Art,” Pearson sets the parameters of her study and defines key concepts. The most important of the chapters focuses on the term “Egyptianizing” and the role of Egyptian and Egyptian-imitation art in the Roman canon. Pearson argues that three factors in modern scholarship have marginalized Egyptian art: an Enlightenment-based distaste for imitations and other “unoriginal” art, our tendency to minimize the importance of ornament, and our overreliance on Roman literature, in which Egypt is often the object of vitriol. Pearson then shifts to the use of “Egyptianizing,” a term without a clear definition that nevertheless appears frequently in scholarly texts. Looking to Marian Feldman’s work on international styles in the late Bronze Age (Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 14001200 BCE, University of Chicago Press, 2006), Pearson argues that the term presupposes a modern idea of national styles; that is, that Egyptian art needed to be produced by an Egyptian person to have value. Instead, Pearson follows Eva Mol and Molly Swetnam-Burland and suggests that Romans “considered both locally made and imported Egyptian imagery to occupy a single conceptual category” (11). Given this confluence, Pearson argues against using the term “Egyptianizing” and instead prefers the larger category of “Egyptian,” which does not distinguish between objects based on geographic or national origin. This approach allows her to focus on more specific styles and motifs that produced narrower effects, such as “pharaonic,” which refers to art that uses iconographies and styles typical of Egyptian art produced under the pharaohs, and “Nilotic,” which describes a popular iconography that imagines the natural landscape of the Nile River.

Pearson’s introduction also argues against assuming that only religious and political meanings are salient for this corpus. Many previous works have seen Egyptian art primarily in association with the popular cults of the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapis or through the lens of the literary propaganda produced to frame Octavian’s victory over Cleopatra. These readings have been productive, but Pearson’s more expansive view adds nuance that probably reflects better how the average Roman viewer understood these objects. In her book Egypt in the Roman Empire: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Swetnam-Burland took a biographical approach to the question of how Roman viewers responded to Egyptian objects. Though she too emphasized the importance of luxury in understanding Egyptian artifacts, Swetnam-Burland’s readings are more political and literary. Similarly, Caitlín Barrett’s Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens (Oxford University Press, 2019) also explored the ways that Egyptian iconography and objects helped to construct an atmosphere of leisure and luxury in domestic gardens at Pompeii. Barrett focuses, however, on these depictions of Egypt as a facet of Roman political ideology. A third vein of scholarship in this area, represented by work such as Katja Lembke’s study of the Iseum Campenese—the large sanctuary to the Egyptian gods that lies under the modern church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome (Das Iseum Campense in Rom: Studien über den Isiskult unter Domitian, Verlag Archäologie und Geschichte, 1994) and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s book on Roman imperialism (Rome’s Cultural Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 357–58), casts Egyptian art into the derided realm of fashion. Pearson instead uses luxury as an interpretive model that takes ornament and decoration seriously as a way of making meaning that persists and changes over the long term.

The second section, “The Lure of Egyptian Treasures,” examines the reproduction of imported Egyptian objects in wall painting to reconstruct how Roman households valued and displayed these objects. Roman wall painting has always been considered a fantastical genre. The complex scenes represented include mythological beasts, piles of silver vessels, and impossibly fine candelabras (for further discussion, see Roger Ling, Roman Painting, Cambridge University Press, 1991). Pearson argues instead that many motifs, particularly in borders and frames, are imitations of Egyptian objects like jewelry. The presence of Egyptian objects is echoed by the reproduction of other three-dimensional Greek objects like marble kraters, columns, and panel paintings with wooden shutters. The similarities in use suggest that “artists in many media were creating a common visual language of luxury” in wall painting (53). More importantly, Greek and Egyptian objects provided equally useful models for creating a luxurious environment.

In the third section, “Triumphal Splendor,” Pearson analyzes the Roman triumph: ceremonial processions in which victorious generals paraded their spoils of war through Rome to advertise and commemorate conquest. She argues that Octavian’s 29 BCE triumph itself, rather than his conquests, inspired the taste for Egyptian products in domestic contexts. This approach allows her to contextualize Egyptian objects within the larger corpus of triumphal material culture, particularly the Corinthian bronzes that came to Rome as war spoils in the mid-second century BCE. But Roman Republican authors often decried the adoption of luxurious items. Items like tables and metal vessels were associated with royal feasts, and the increasingly luxurious form they took brought a new element to domestic dining, creating an ambivalent dynamic within Roman culture.

Turning to the question of economics, the fourth section (“Trading in Luxury”) considers how trade routes brought Egyptian goods to Italy, which Pearson argues helped sustain their popularity long after Actium. Through a comparison of clothes depicted in wall painting with the handful of extant textiles preserved from antiquity, Pearson argues convincingly that many borders and decorative patterns in wall painting derive from fabrics imported from Egypt. The careful, detail-oriented description in this section supports this novel argument and makes a major contribution to our understanding of decorative features in Roman painting. The final section, “Sculptures for Cult and Collecting,” argues for a more expansive interpretation of Egyptian sculpture in Roman houses. Though the monumentality of sculpture often leads to the assumption that these images belonged to temples, Pearson returns to wall paintings and archaeological context to argue that many statues came from gardens and were displayed alongside objects fashioned in Greco-Roman style. In many cases, then, Roman collectors used Egyptian sculpture to create an air of luxury rather than a sanctuary to the Egyptian gods.

Throughout the book, Pearson makes a strong argument for the practice of art collecting in this period and uses historical context to connect collecting with Roman imperialism and conquest. She also argues successfully for a reconsideration of the role of fantasy in Roman wall painting. The connection with Egyptian objects, especially textiles, demonstrates that much of what we have considered fantastic was merely foreign, which also challenges wall painting’s status as a categorically Roman art form.

Pearson’s work also contributes to a growing body of research on luxury and ornament in Roman art history, including Ken Lapatin’s Luxus: The Sumptuous Arts of Greece and Rome (Getty Publications, 2015), which explored the materiality and affordances of luxury objects in the Greco-Roman world. But in my view, Pearson’s biggest contribution is to the growing body of work by scholars like Verity Platt and Michael Squire that examines the roles of ornament, frame, and other parts of ancient art that have often been treated as superfluous. Pearson’s stunning corpus carefully selects objects rarely included in other studies, such as furniture, metal vases, and jewelry. These kinds of small finds appear only in the margins of most studies of ancient art. Even when studying a canonical medium like wall painting, Pearson’s interest lies in the edges, in border decoration and upper zones that are often dismissed as fantastical. By taking this understudied corpus as the heart of her study, Pearson advances our interpretation of the kinds of everyday luxury objects that populated the domestic sphere.

Lindsey Mazurek
Department of Classical Studies, Indiana University Bloomington