On Writing Histories of Roman Art

Article excerpt

To try to describe the art of a gigantic empire is as daunting a task as one could take on, given the problems that come from covering vast quantities of incommensurable monuments and objects from too many places and times and in too many formats, styles, and settings.1 What, after all, has a delicate little silver cup from Pompeii in the early first century C.E. to do with a massive limestone sarcophagus from a fifth-century Christian tomb in Thessaloniki? How do we think about Hadrian's Wall in the bleak north of Britain in the same framework as Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, with its play of sunshine and glittering pools of water? Add to this the fact that we so rarely begin with an object found in a precisely dated, physically intact context from which its use and history are clear, and the problems of a Roman art history become still more vivid.

Whereas one could, at least in the past, write a tidy book about Greek art and know what one was up to-styles behaving as if a move from archaic to naturalistic made some sense-that was never possible for the writer on Roman art.2 No clear developmental line existed even if one left out everything but the monuments made for the imperial court in Rome from the time of Augustus (d. 14 C.E.) to that of Constantine (d. 337 C.E.). The evolution in style that one could at least pretend to see in Greek art, an almost biological (if fictitious) movement from Archaic to Classical to Hellenistic, had no parallel in Rome. There, monuments deeply informed by the Classical past were succeeded by vigorously illusionistic works, which in their turn were succeeded by things made for one ruler in both classicizing and veristic styles. Sometimes every conceivable style short of Abstract Expressionism seemed to be happening all at once at some spot in the empire.

Romanists have struggled to combat a long-standing presumption in art history that Roman art was at best a boring and mishandled attempt to replicate Greek art, but they did not succeed by producing a unified developmental narrative of style. Such a story never emerged, and in consequence, the first half century or so of our field, starting in the 1890s, was dominated not only by the particularist work of site and region study but also by the great debates about what constituted Roman art in the first place. The attempt to justify its existence, to show that it was worthy of study and not simply a bad version of Greek art, motivated much of the work in the field between 1890 and 1950. To early modern commentators such as Giorgio Vasari and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, there was no serious distinction between Greek and Roman, particularly since the Greek objects these men knew had been found in Italy, and the Ottoman domination of the eastern Roman Empire prevented them from seeing originals in situ there. For Winckelmann, whose chronological ideas placed Rome at the end of a progression that started with Archaic Greece, there was no real split between Greek and Roman art; his argument, favored Greece's essential and inescapable impact on art made in Rome.3

However, from almost the moment of the first publications in the 1890s that argued for a distinct and separate Roman art, a varied and contentious literature poured forth, mainly from Germany and Austria but with contributions as well from Italy and France.4 Positions asserting the fundamentally ethnic nature of Roman art or that connected it to the soil of Italy vied with those that saw either a continuity or a break with Greece or a cyclic alternation between classical and anticlassical impulses. That first half century laid the basis for an understanding of Roman art as a complex cultural formation, but scholars remained committed to the search for a coherent story about style that would pull all the diversity together and get it to make narrative sense. Our second half century finds us in rather a different place, our material seen within different (or without) boundaries, many of us asking new questions and operating in a scholarly world that is far less consolidated than it was in the first half century. …