by J. J. Pollitt
CUP (2015) h/b 477pp £150 (ISBN 9780521865913)
This sumptuous volume, embellished with nearly 150 coloured illustrations, over 200 black-and-white figures and another 200 images on a supplementary CD-ROM, covers the whole sweep of painting from the Greek Bronze Age to the fall of the Roman Empire. Over recent decades our understanding and appreciation of painting within the classical world has been sharpened by abundant new finds: the house paintings on Santorini, the tomb paintings at Vergina and elsewhere in Macedonia, the palatial villa at Oplontis near Pompeii, etc. Never before have we been presented with such a treasure-house of images.
The editor has assembled a team of eight internationally known experts to present a stunning panorama, from Minoan wall paintings to the beginnings of Christian art. The material available varies in type and quantity and demands attention to techniques, iconography, composition, literary sources and so on. Where appropriate, pottery, mosaics, stuccos and textiles find a place.
The Greek Bronze Age gives us stunning wall paintings from Crete, the Cyclades and the Greek mainland—landscapes, wild animals, public performances, elite display, and the bull leapers (now also to be found also on a fresco from Avaris in Egypt). The Flotilla fresco at Akrotiri (Santorini) prompts a discussion of the link in subject matter with epic sources and to what extent Bronze Age wall-painting had a connection with later art.
The Greek Archaic and Classical periods are the centuries that still furnish the least data for monumental painting, but decorated ceramics, particularly white-ground funerary lekythoi, are skilfully used to fill the gap in presenting an overview of the crucial developments made then, such as perspective, foreshortening and emotional responses.
One chapter covering the same period handles the tomb paintings in Italy, both Greek and, more importantly, Etruscan. The painted tombs of Etruria, particularly Tarquinia, furnish scenes that tease us with their apotropaic and symbolic meanings, their augurs and demons, the cult of the dead, and their use of Greek myths.
We then move back eastwards on a broad tour of the Hellenistic centuries that begins with the astonishing finds in Macedonia and Thrace (Vergina, Pella and Lefkadia, and Kazanlak). Then it’s back to the west where we are shown the later Etruscan and Italic tomb paintings from 400-200 BC in which the earlier decorative system is deconstructed. The François Tomb at Vulci still attracts and bewilders for its scenes from myth (Achilles sacrificing the Trojan prisoners) and history (Mastarna, the future king of Rome, Servius Tullius).
After the editor has presented a short chapter on art criticism and how the new finds help us form a clearer idea of what the secondary literary sources were trying to say about art, its practitioners and its development, the last two chapters take us from the 3rd C BC to AD 400. The Late Republic and Early Empire, leading to the eruption of Vesuvius, present a splendid array, encompassing Rome, Pompeii and surrounds, with detours to the provinces. In the Middle and Late Empires there was a decline in momentum. There is much ground to cover: the increase in the use of stucco, the decoration of painted ceilings and vaults, the startling synagogue at Dura Europos, mummy portraits, the Piazza Armerina mosaics, and 5th C illustrations on parchment codex.
The whole book is a joy to pore over. It is state-of-the-art, full of deep research and shrewd analysis. The text is not for absolute beginners, but the illustrations are beyond compare.
Brian A. Sparkes—Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology at the University of Southampton