On Writing Histories of Roman Art

By Kampen, Natalie Boymel | The Art Bulletin, June 2003 | Go to article overview

On Writing Histories of Roman Art


Kampen, Natalie Boymel, The Art Bulletin


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

On Writing Histories of Roman Art
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.