The Cambridge History of Painting in the Classical World

The Cambridge History of Painting in the Classical World
J.J. Pollitt (ed.)
Cambridge University Press  500pp  £150

Faced with a man in overalls flecked with white, saying 'I am a painter', we know we are talking to a painter and decorator. Faced with a book entitled Victorian Painting, we expect it to be about the pre-Raphaelites, not about how Victorian industrialists got their houses painted. In the Greek and Roman worlds the same distinction was made: in the price edict of the emperor Diocletian from the early fourth century ad the pictor imaginarius gets 150 denarii a day, the pictor parietarius (wall-painter) just 75.

What fascinated Greek and Roman writers about painting was the work of the pictor imaginarius: the relationship between a flat painting and the world that it represented. Whether they found the possibilities of representation wondrous, as when Zeuxis painted grapes to fool the birds, or, with Plato, dangerous, it was painting that put the very possibility of representation starkly on the line. The only point at which wall-painting roused intellectual interest was when a wholesale change from realistic representation of the world as it might be to representing the world in ways that defy the laws of science aroused the moral indignation of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who fulminates against the 'monstrous things' painters have taken to creating.

Except for Egyptian mummy portraits, discussed in two pages here, effectively nothing survives of panel paintings from antiquity and the only history we can write is of what the pictor parietarius got up to. Here the evidence has increased significantly in the past 50 years as more careful excavation and preservation have recovered painted plaster from public and private buildings from the Bronze Age to late antiquity. Where once all that we had to go on were the walls of the palace at Knossos, the tombs or Etruria and Pompeii and Herculaneum, supplemented by some material from Rome, this book displays Bronze Age material from Thera and the Greek mainland, archaic fragments from Greek temples, extraordinary Macedonian and Thracian tombs from the fourth and third centuries and a previously unknown tradition of tomb painting at Paestum, as well as material from all over the Roman Empire.

The editor and authors of this book hanker, however, after this history that we cannot write – hence Pollitt's own chapter on painting in Greek and Roman art criticism and Stansbury-O'Donnell's chapter on what one can deduce about 'monumental painting' from what is painted on Greek pots. For the first half of the book any story is crushed by catalogues of examples as the reader juggles between the in-text halftones, the grouped sections of colour plates and additional images on a CD.

How Greeks, Etruscans and Romans decorated the private and public spaces in which they lived is quite as interesting as the story of high art. That emerges above all from the discussion by Irene Bragantini, brilliantly translated by Pollitt himself, of Roman painting in the Republic and early Empire. In an impressive display of what high-quality archaeology enables, she shows that we can date very precisely the sea-change in Roman decorative practice that so appalled Vitruvius, when trompe l'oeil recreation of the world beyond, denying the very existence of the wall on which it was painted, was replaced by decorative schemes which turned rooms back into boxes whose re-affirmed walls showed off pictures and fancy decoration alike. That change comes with the Battle of Actium and is part of the Augustan revolution in visual imagery. Here the history of decoration becomes part of the political history of Rome – a reminder of the totalitarian nature of Augustus' control and how much it matters how people decorate their environment.

Publishers like multi- authored volumes, which tend to be faster to write, and it is hard to imagine that any single scholar could command the enormous range of data on display here. But writing a history demands following through a common set of questions and working within a common framework. The contributors here seem to have been left to define painting as they wish and even authors of adjoining chapters adopt very different manners of working. There is much that is eye-opening in this weighty and expensive book, but not even an attempt to give the reader a story to take away.

Robin Osborne is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge and author of Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Oxford, 1998).

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