Book Review by Ursus
So you like Roman history, and want to know something about its art? Well, my friend, there are a variety of books out there. There is Roman Art by Nancy Ramage, a very thorough and surprisingly reader friendly study on the subject; unfortunately its hefty price tag is a distinct deterrent to the neophyte. John R. Clarke, on the other hand, writes art books at a cheaper price; however, his studies utilize cutting edge research in social theory and may not greatly endear themselves to someone who wants a quick and fast study. A third choice for those who want a very inexpensive and basic overview can be found in Roman Art, written by Michael Siebler and published by Taschen.
I had never heard of Taschen, and did some research on it. It is a German based outfit who have a long line of books on basic art and architecture, providing a survey from Ancient Egypt into postmodern times. These basic books are usually under $10. The company also furnishes art on pornography and homosexuality, and has published such works as The Big Penis Book and The Big Book of Breasts. Apparently their mission is to bring the wide spectrum of art to a broad audience at an affordable cost. I have since first writing this review bought several of their introductory studies on other genres, and found them all worth the inexpensive price.
Michael Siebler has a doctorate in classical archaeology. He has worked for both the German Archaeological Institute in Damascus and the Institute for Classical Archaeology in Mainz University. He has also been a feature editor for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Siebler wrote the entry on Greek Art for Taschen which I have also read, and which is even better than his Roman entry (due to the more interesting subject matter - Greek art is simply more engaging than Roman art).
Roman Art stands at ninety-five pages. Pages six through twenty-five offer the reader a brief historical overview and timeline of Roman civilization. There is nothing here a well-read Romanophile will not already know, but it would serve a neophyte with a handy crash course. The basic theme relevant to the art student is the increasing Hellenization of the elite classes, climaxing with the reign of Augustus and the artistic propaganda of his and subsequent regimes.
The remaining pages survey thirty-six Roman art pieces through the ages; the right page is a beautiful photograph of the subject under study, while the preceding left page provides a sound analysis. The artist is given (when known), along with the location where the artefact was made or discovered, and the time frame when it was developed.
As I mentioned, the analysis is relevant but basic; don't expect to find cutting edge artistic social theory or revisionist agendas here. This is an introductory text. And so we find ourselves treated to the more well-known examples of Roman state art. Sculptures, busts of statesmen, statues of gods, replicas of paintings and mosaics, and triumphal arches are offered here for the reader's consideration. Siebler describes in concise yet elucidating prose why each piece was created, and the cultural or political values it served.
For instance, here is the author's take on the portrait of Julius Caesar from the 1st century, currently housed in the State Museum of Berlin (and which serves as the cover piece for the book):
The slight turn of the head is intended to impart to beholders an air of energetic drive, while the eye area with frowning eyebrows was supposed to demonstrate concentration on what was important. Both authority and majesty, auctoritas and maiestas, can be seen in the eyes. In this likeness the Egyptian sculptor only sparingly reproduces the physiognomic qualities of the man who sealed the fall of the Roman republic with his quest for absolute power.
The samples under study take you from Rome's Etruscan roots to the Christianization of the late empire and its murky transition to the Medieval world. The surviving artefacts tend to favor the late Republic and early empire; but that is all fine and well as those are the most interesting pieces, representing the fusion of Hellenstic technique and Roman cultural values.
Really, what do you want for $10? As I said, there are more involved studies on the market, but Taschen is providing a service by delivering inexpensive introductions of art to the laymen. I was satisfied enough that I explored some of their other titles beyond ancient history. I do however hope the reader forgives my lack of commitment to complete artistic expression if I were to pass over The Big Penis Book.
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