Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2004
Sarah Scott and Jane Webster, eds. Roman Imperialism and Provincial Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 272 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (0521805929)
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Far too often works of art produced in the Roman provinces have been studied solely in relation to their supposed metropolitan models, with the notion that provincial art was imitation. This approach has led to a devaluation of the works: since they are regarded as derivative, they have not been examined as products of a specific place and time. Consequently, provincial art’s real role as innovative examples of the negotiation of competing concerns by provincial artists has been ignored. Because the textual sources used for understanding the provinces, especially for the Western part of the Roman Empire, are largely metropolitan and reflect the view of the conquering culture, scholars working on provincial material often categorize it either as reflecting the preconquest culture of the area or as imitating new Roman styles. The authors of the essays in this book attempt to escape this limited construct and redress the imbalance that has dominated the area of study.

Five of the chapters in Roman Imperialism and Provincial Art were papers delivered at a session for the Roman Archaeology Conference in 1997; seven more texts were commissioned. Six of the authors, Sarah Scott, Jane Webster, Miranda Green, Greg Woolf, David Mattingly, and Martin Henig, are well known for their investigations of the larger issues involved in the study of Roman art in provincial contexts.

The volume is a good introduction to current thinking on the subject. The chapters move from theoretical concepts to specific case studies. Scott, Webster, and Catherine Johns address the historiography of provincial-art studies in three articles and explain why it has been marginalized and ignored by many working in the field of Roman art. They proffer a new paradigm that seeks to address the production of art in the provinces on its own terms. Thus, they borrow a number of the theoretical approaches from gender studies, postcolonial anthropology, and postprocessional archaeology that attempt to redirect the investigator’s view from the outside looking in to one that considers the cultural context in its own right. These three authors try to understand distinct but overlapping identities within the provincial context—as provincials, as artists, as Romans—and how these identities worked together or competed. They argue that the art produced within the provinces is best understood as result of this negotiation. Their individual approaches share a feeling of scholarly isolation, yet art historians in other subfields have been engaged in this type of investigation for many years. For instance, those who study the art produced in the Americas in the first century after the Spanish conquest have developed a sophisticated array of tools for their research, and it might behoove us to look at how they have explored this issue of artists negotiating multiple identities in a world dramatically changed by conquest rather than reinventing this aspect of the study anew.

Provincial art cannot really be treated as a category because the provinces themselves did not exist in this way. These regions were not static: their internal contexts, or histories, depended on the nature of the relationship between the province and the central government, on the specific moment in time, on the local demography, and on their preconquest culture. Iain Ferris and René Rodgers offer views from Rome. They both look at monuments that were intended to celebrate conquest, to present the provincial before the gaze of the conqueror. In this sense the reality within the individual provinces means nothing: images of the provincial and personifications of the province operate in the setting of dominant group. However, Ferris suggests that monuments of conquest had subtler meanings influenced by their specific locations and intended audiences, even within the setting of Rome and Italy. Similarly, Rodgers is deeply engaged with questions about the encoded messages of gendered images of conquered groups, and how metropolitan viewers read these messages. This, of course, becomes problematic within the city of Rome, which became home to many of the conquered peoples. Who exactly formed the “Roman audience” is itself a question that needs thoughtful investigation. For example, the poet Martial, a sophisticated and cosmopolitan inhabitant of the capital, could see himself as product of Iberian and Celtic blood. How did he interpret a female personification of Hispania? When it comes to assessing the artistic intent or possible function of a monument in a provincial context, the individual case studies demonstrate just how significant our knowledge or lack of knowledge about internal provincial histories is.

A more complete understanding of the cultural forces at work in the Greek East has allowed for a better appreciation of the changing nature of artistic production throughout the history of provincial regions. This is evident in the articles by Shelley Hales and Zahra Newby, who argue for subtle and nuanced meanings in the private and public art produced in the cities of the Greek East. Because of the lack of good local literary production to augment the visual material, as well as the absence of secure archaeological contexts for many objects, other authors in this volume who attempt a similar kind of investigation of the provincial art in the West find it much more difficult to capture faithfully a sense of the cultural elements at play. Henig offers a traditional framework for the story of provincial art in Britain by defining an internal chronology and then slotting select monuments into it. He ignores questions of provincial identity and artistic negotiation but clarifies the shifting visual concerns within the province itself. Green argues for the creation of new iconography for traditional, pre-Roman Celtic cults in Britain and Gaul during the Roman period. Her ideas are interesting but lack substance, since so much of her source material has been collected without any real context. Woolf’s article also treats the creation of religious iconography within the setting of postconquest Gaul but is stronger because many of the pieces can be better associated with specific cult sites. On the other hand, he is unable to consider the role of identity for the commissioner. Does the higher quality of execution in the representation of standard anatomy for the cult statues of Apollo and Sirona from the Hochscheid cult site, versus the smaller bronze figures from Malain, result from the nature of the commissions? Cult statues were very prestigious items and were the work of better artists, suggesting that this native cult was being redefined in Roman terms. Conversely, the less well-executed bronze may tell us something about resistance to the change. Are the differences between the two works a question of capability or intent? Did the commissioner of the cult statues want Roman forms or the prestige of using the best artist? The questions cannot be answered from the available evidence, and perhaps Woolf is right not to entertain it. On the other hand, Mattingly is able to show convincingly that what are often considered badly done imitations of Roman forms were, in reality, the commissions of a consciously non-Roman people who borrowed and manipulated Roman forms but invested them with new meanings. In this case the archaeological context is better, and Mattingly is able to discuss a group of works located at a particular moment in time.

The modest nature of this collection of papers limits somewhat its more specific usefulness. Whole areas of important provincial art production are completely absent, including the Iberian Peninsula and most of Roman North Africa. There is also an imbalance in the geographic distribution of discussions. Gaul receives two essays while Asia Minor gets but one. Such unevenness is to be expected in a collection of papers presented at a conference, but considering that seven of these chapters were commissioned, it does seem that a more judicious distribution may have been possible. Still there is much to ponder in this book. These scholars know their material and offer thoughtful assessments. There is a similarity of approach, one in which the authors of the case studies do try to employ the constructs being presented in the theoretical section. That some regions offer more satisfying results than others is more a testament to the unevenness of our understanding of the internal artistic and social developments in the provinces than to problems with the scholarship itself. The results also warn us that the new theoretical paradigm being developed will not work successfully for understanding and interpreting much of the art produced outside the Eternal City. These thirteen essays present the strengths and weaknesses in the study of Roman provincial art, and as such, they present a solid preliminary view of the issues that concern art historians working on this material.

William E. Mierse
Department of Art and Art History, University of Vermont

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