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Interview with John R. Clarke

Interview by Ursus

John R. Clarke was educated at Yale and is currently a professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Clarke has authored several books on Roman art and culture, including Roman Sex and Roman Life.

Roman Life and Roman Sex quickly became two of my favorite books on Roman culture. Having recommended them to various Romanophiles, many others seem to enjoy them as well. In fact, for a long time Roman Sex was UNRV's most viewed book review - though presumably many of the people googling the phrase 'Roman sex' were not necessarily looking for a scholarly treatment of the subject!

In any event, it is a pleasure to be conducting this interview with John R. Clarke.

Jeremy Baer, aka "Ursus": Professor Clarke, you wear your art historian's cap rather well. Your works provide a delectable visual feast on Ancient Rome that many other studies lack. Excuse me if this seems a banal question, but what motivated you to specialize in Roman art history?
John R. Clarke: I took up Roman art history because of excellent teachers in graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s: Sheldon Nodelman (now at the University of California, San Diego; J.J. Pollitt, now retired; the late George Kubler; Robert L. Herbert, now retired). I had hoped to specialize in 19th-century French art, but once I saw the conceptual complexity of dealing with the history of an art that had gotten very bad press, I wanted to dive in. The history of the study of Roman art demonstrates how early art historians, from Winckelmann on, saw it as a poor, second-rate version of Greek art. The turn of the 19th century, however, saw brilliant art historians (mostly writing in German and Italian) working to see Roman art as an original and extraordinarily powerful art with important social and cultural weight (Alois Riegl, Guido Kaschnitz-Weinberg, Gerhardt Rodenwaldt, Ranuccio Bianchi-Bandinelli). By 1952, when Otto Brendel wrote his famous essay, "Prologeomena to the History of Roman Art," Roman art had become the most exciting and controversial subject in the field of art history: theoretically complex and ripe for new approaches, especially applying the methods of Structuralism and Social Art History.

Ursus: Much to the chagrin of some of my fellow Romanophiles, I have sometimes expressed boredom and cynicism with the intellectual pretensions of the educated, Hellenophile elite of Roman society. I have always doubted that Hellenistic philosophy appealed to the common man in Italy. Your works are one of the few I have read that explore the other side of Roman civilization. Tell me, do you think your visual research, by including the other 98% of the Roman population, will help rewrite our perspective on classical society?
Clarke: It is my hope that the textbooks as well as the scholarly literature will continue to include the art of ordinary Romans. For one thing, this is an art that avoids repeating accepted formulas; for another, it reveals the personalities, tastes, and beliefs of the people who paid for it much more directly than elite, hellenophile, art.

Ursus: Let me say I enjoyed Looking at Laughter, though it was not as easy a read as your other books. Trying to immerse oneself in the "social matrix" of the Romans, as you put it, and see events through their eyes can be complicated. The theme of just how alike or how different the Romans are from us runs through your other books, but I think it reached a zenith in "Looking at Laughter." Did you have any revelations while researching and writing this book, any moments of surprise or wonder at what you had unearthed about Roman society via humor?
Clarke: I think the biggest revelation came when studying the wall painting in the Tavern of the Seven Sages at Ostia, where you have images of the Seven Sages seated on their Philosophers' chairs with ordinary men below them seated on a common latrine bench. Both have speech captions--surprising in themselves--but the Sages say silly things about digestive functions while the men say practical things about those same functions. (For instance, we read that "clever Chilon of Sparta taught how to fart without making noise.") What surprised me was how the artist inverted elite values (the Sages are supposed to say noble things like "Know Thyself" and "Nothing Too Much") even while making ordinary men into smart--or at least sensible--people. This inversion I compare to Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of carnival--the temporary world-turned-upside-down, where often the upper body (symbolized by the head/intellect) gets replaced by the lower body (symbolized by the belly and genitals). The other big revelation in these paintings, as well as the Rhone valley ceramics, is how they rely for their humor on the viewer's ability to read. The lower classes were not illiterate dummies; quite the contrary!

Ursus: What struck me the most from the book were the numerous depictions of the imagined pygmies of Egypt. I liked your phrase of how the Romans "othered" a subject culture; the gazing culture created a demeaning picture of the exotic culture in order to assert its own superiority. The Romans are generally lauded for their tolerance, but clearly they were not above what the post-colonial world might construe as racism. If you can remove your objective scholarly cap for a moment, what are your private thoughts on this ugly side of Roman imperialism?
Clarke: No need to remove my scholarly cap to recognize the racism and downright cruelty of many Romans. In addition to "othering" the inhabitants of Egypt by concocting the visual representation of the pygmy, Romans bought deformed people as special slaves in the Forum Morionum (they thought of them as human lightning rods to deflect evil from their owners), collected artwork depicting deformed or maimed individuals, and fully believed that a beautiful body meant you had a beautiful character! Lots to object to here. . .

Ursus: I think my favorite part of the book has to be on Roman sexual humor. I recognized many of the items there from your Roman Sex book. I loved the lamp with the liberated women swinging weights while she sexually dominates the passive male from above. While you demonstrated that the Romans intended to jibe liberated women, maybe we should put a replica of it in the weight room of every woman's gym as "girl power" inspiration?
Clarke: Why not? The idea that the first century A.D. was one of liberation comes from the scholar Eva Cantarella, who bases her ideas on the changes in the legal status of elite women. But we shouldn't think that this kind of freedom penetrated into the lower classes. But you wonder who the audience is for these objects. It's fun to think about a man looking at these images of his powerlessness in sexual matters as opposed to the thoughts and feelings a woman viewer might have. And you also begin to wonder about the construction of gender roles both in Roman society and our own. Remember, there were women gladiators, and Romans, like the Greeks, were fascinated with Amazons and frequently depicted them in visual art.

Ursus: To you, what is the most compelling piece of Roman art? Is there a visual artifact that is the sine qua non of Roman culture?
Clarke: I find the Column of Trajan amazing in its conception and execution (100 feet high; 2,500 figures; centerpiece of the biggest, richest architectural complex of the ancient world). As a work of architecture and sculpture, it stands somewhere between a documentary history (with amazing details of the Roman army and the Dacian enemy) and an allegory of Roman piety, bravery, and cold-blooded efficiency. The carving is splendid--even though much damaged in places by smog. And it is a work that couldn't be seen in its entirety before the modern period: through casts, drawings, and photographs taken with the aid of scaffolding. There are other artifacts that I love as well: the painted cubiculum from Boscoreale it the Metropolitan Museum of New York--a perfectly preserved Second-Style room of amazing virtuosity both in fresco technique and subject matter; the Augustus of Primaporta for its majesty and beautiful carving; the head of Caracalla (also in the Met) for its psychological tension. Oh, the list goes on and on!

Ursus: Of all the books you have written, what was your most favorite and why?
Clarke: My favorite is the most recent one: Roman Life, 100 BC-AD 200, because it's the most daring. After all, here I am writing historical fiction and presenting a state-of-the-art CD-ROM of the best-preserved house at Pompeii. It took 10 years to come up with this version of the CD, and I could add more to it, but it works well and is gorgeous to look at. The plates in Roman Life are equally beautiful.

Ursus: What is next on your agenda? Any more forthcoming publications?
Clarke: I'm in Rome for the next 6 months working on the publication of the ancient Roman villa of Oplontis (www.oplontisproject.org). It is an amazing collaboration, which should result in a 3-D virtual model of the villa done with dual laser scanning technology. In a few years we should be able to meet in Second Life there.

Ursus: Consider yourself as having a standing invitation to join our discussion fora at UNRV. We have a few respectable scholars such as Andrew Dalby of Oxford and Phillip Matyszak of Cambridge. We also have a dedicated core of well-read laymen who could benefit from your erudition. Plus you may just want to say hello to a growing fan base. What would it take to get you to visit our little home?
Clarke: Am I not visiting it now? Let me know how and I'll drop in.
Ursus: Visit our discussion fora and register an account!

On behalf of UNRV, I thank Professor Clarke for his time and indulgence, and wish him good luck for his project concerning the Roman villa of Oplontis.

...back to the review of Looking at Laughter

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Interview with John R. Clarke - Related Topic: Roman Culture


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