Luxus. The Sumptuous Arts of Greece and Rome

Lapatin, Kenneth
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 292 S., über 200 farb. Abb.
€ 71,71; $ 74.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Wolfgang Filser, Winckelmann-Institut für Archäologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Opening Kenneth Lapatin’s book, in purple wrapper, with golden letters on dark hardcover, one will immediately discern a central aspect of any material luxus: that it is a phenomenon of the surface. The first pages consist of close-ups of polished cameos, gems, golden and silver works, precious textiles, all of them related with one another by their outstanding workmanship and distinguished by their brilliance due to their differing texture. The book on luxus becomes itself an example of the phenomenon it is dedicated to by illustrating the most precious objects in a conspicuous manner: all 179 plates and 37 figures are of best photographic quality and they are all printed in color on fine paper. To this joins suggestively the fact that the phenomenon of luxus is defined by the author primarily by the criteria of material value and (artistic) effort.

The volume begins with an introduction labeled “Histories and Contexts”(pp. 1–18) for which Lapatin partly reused an older piece.1 The main part of the book consists of three chapters that treat the superior material groups: precious metals (pp. 19–105, incl. pls. 1–80), hardstones (pp. 107–169, incl. pls. 81–145) and organic materials (pp. 171–220, incl. pls. 146–179). These groups are further subdivided due to their specific material properties and workmanship – an approach that makes sense, but of course is not new.2 An epilogue (pp. 221–222) and the catalogue (pp. 223–270) with short entries to each plate and some central bibliography conclude the book.

The introduction tries to shed light on the topic not only via archaeological and literary sources in the tradition of a “history of mores”3, but to explain why the sumptuous arts tend to be ignored by modern researchers. Based on the Renaissance fondness of the three main arts – sculpture, architecture, painting – art forms such as intaglios, cameos, glass, metal, ivory and wooden objects have in the long run been labeled “minor arts”. Lapatin underlines (p. 4) the reduced role that ancient luxury furniture plays in art history and stresses that the ancients didn't know of a distinction between “minor” or “decorative arts” and the supreme genres. He also emphasizes the importance of gems and generally precious stones in Antiquity, with Pliny's 37th book being the paramount testimony for this appraisal. That this categorization is indeed not free from moral prejudices is proved by Winckelmann's praise of the pure Greek style which – of course – is pure ideology based on his refusal of late Baroque court art (p. 11). Winckelmann's insisting on “guter Geschmack” in art, being an aspect of the modest Classical Greek way of life in general, thus becomes the starting point for the decline of the precious arts in the eyes of the archaeologists who have found nobler subjects in plain white marble sculpture and – most of all – vase painting, which matched Winckelmann's criteria for good taste and conveyed an idea of Greek painting: “…painted pots fill the gaps created by the loss of panel paintings.“ (pp. 10f.)

This at first glance appealing derivation of the neglect of the sumptuous arts must turn a blind eye to a series of facts. Firstly, for every material class, abundant specialist studies exist – the researchers are not as uniformly and ideologically biased as the author wants to have it, at least not consciously and not resulting in a particular refusal of the objects and their role in art. Secondly, one of the reasons why, for instance, marble sculpture figures much more prominently in research, is, naturally, that it has survived in a much greater number, and one can thus trust much more its authenticity. In fact, Lapatin barely touches the question of the authenticity of the artifacts he presents (p. 8) without drawing any conclusions. This problem should have been addressed with more readiness, all the more as half of the pieces in the catalogue are without certain provenance, a factor that becomes even stronger due to the uniqueness of many objects. Thirdly, as noted above, the author admits only objects of considerable material value to be considered part of his discussion of ancient luxus. Why this is problematic becomes clear in the fuss that he makes about the (non-)importance of the “painted pots”, id est Athenian vase painting (pp. 9–12). Following the lines of Vickers and Gill he dismisses Attic vases as products of the luxury culture due to their unquestionably low value in comparison to metal ware. Certainly, in order to sustain this, one has to overlook what is depicted on those vases, which is a purely elitist view on the world: beautiful women and men clad in rich garments, horse-breeders, specialized servants and slaves, revelers drinking from (indeed!) precious metal vessels and so on… By focusing solely on its low market price – due to its cheap material – Lapatin suggests to ignore categorically red- and black-figure ware despite the great amount of information it transmits for the very subject of his book, which in turn is why he only once uses vase painting as a source (for rich textiles, on pp. 186f.). It seems as if the question of “luxus” polarized to the point of a struggle between ideologies.

Any elite culture uses high-priced luxury goods as topmost incentives for the emulative practices that constitute and maintain the social stratification; nevertheless – and here Greek vase painting is an eminent, but by far not the only, example – these practices and related values are transported in a much more consequential way by cheaper products which, due to their greater spreading, become the cornerstones of the very luxury culture – and in this sense veritable luxury goods in their own right.4 For whoever tries to understand the dynamics of a certain ancient society, the distinction between high-priced luxurious products and cheaper ware is of low value because the ideals of the well-to-do are equally alive in both of them – in painted pots as well as in silver vessels, or, to give another example which Lapatin also refers to (p. 121), in jeweled marble columns like those painted on the wall of the Villa of Oplontis as well as in their counterparts in "flesh and blood" found on the Esquiline Hill. Lapatin's emphasis on the material value as the crucial criterion does of course not come from afar: an expert on the Athena Parthenos, he closes his introduction by underscoring the fact that this most precious work of art carried the treasure of the Athenian state in form of its golden sheets around its ivory core.

Shortly before (p. 15) he states that the “chapters which follow attempt to move beyond anachronistic and reductive art histories and to return the sumptuous arts of ancient Greece and Rome to their rightful place”, by which he means the place they had in the 18th and 19th centuries, before Vasari’s heritage eventually led to the predilection of the three supreme disciplines of today’s style-devoted archaeology. I doubt whether this ambitious goal can be reached by insisting primarily on the extraordinary quality of the pieces and their market value. Yet, the chapters on the different materials, their sources, techniques, historical impact etc. provide a useful and interesting compilation, in which Lapatin shows once more that he is an authority in the field of ancient luxurious artifacts.5 This, together with the ambitious and challenging introduction, is why this volume is not just a "coffee-table book"6, but of interest for anyone who researches into a certain material class as well as to who has more general questions about ancient (luxury) culture: Lapatin combines the study of substantially different genres of ancient handicrafts such as metals, hardstones, ivory and textiles with an analysis of the historical backgrounds and semantics of these objects and materials.

However, these fascinating objects surely have still more to reveal. Actually, in the epilogue (p. 221, compare p. 12) Lapatin hints at what might have become a more interesting theme for his book: “They [the sumptuous arts] operated in a system, constituted what we might call the iconography of the precious, bestowing status, prestige, and cultural as well as economic capital on those who possessed and appreciated them.“ In fact, as I tried to suggest above, this system consisted not only of precious items but also of their derivatives in lesser material and in “mere” images. Another brick in the system of antique indulgence – luxury slaves: butlers, dancers, singers, prostitutes etc. – can naturally not be shown alongside the sumptuous artifacts as it was the case in their original context; nonetheless the prices of these slaves depended at least partly on the same as their counterparts from the world of things: their superficial refinements. Luxury – in any epoch – means the conspicuous consumption of human labor, of time and of material wealth. A study that inquires only into the material aspects of luxus won't grasp this system which was well understood by the ancients themselves. This is why the utmost expression of hellenistic luxury (to which also Lapatin refers several times), the parades of Ptolemaios II and other super rich sovereigns, were of a highly ephemeral character and could not be comprehensively illustrated but only described. Lapatin, however, concludes (p. 222) by praising the shining qualities of the precious things that “far surpass most works in better-surviving bronze, marble, and ceramic“ and repeating his hope of a re-establishment of the sumptuous arts.

1 Kenneth Lapatin, Luxus, in: Carol C. Mattusch (ed.), Pompeii and the Roman Villa. Art and culture around the Bay of Naples. National Art Gallery, Washington, October 19, 2008 – March 22, 2009; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 3 – October 4, 2009 (2008), pp. 31–52.
2 Elena Fontanella (ed.), Luxus: il piacere della vita nella Roma imperiale. Torino, Museo di Antichita, 26 settembre 2009 – 31 gennaio 2010, (2009); Rudolf Aßkamp (ed.), Luxus und Dekadenz: Römisches Leben am Golf von Neapel; Archäologische Staatssammlung, München, 7. Februar – 30. August 2009 (2007). Both catalogues deal with a broader range of luxus, for example luxus of water and gardens, public splendor etc.
3 As it is the case in Karl-Wilhelm Weeber, Luxus im Alten Rom, Darmstadt 2003.
4 Hoffmann and Miller tried to open this discourse by applying Thorstein Veblen's theory of economic emulation to archaeology. Herbert Hoffmann, Rhyta and Kantharoi in greek ritual, in: Greek vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 4 (1989), pp. 163–165; Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the fifth century BC, a study in cultural receptivity, Cambridge 1997.
5 For example: Kenneth Lapatin, Chryselephantine statuary in the ancient Mediterranean world, Oxford 2001. Kenneth Lapatin / Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet (eds.), The Berthouville silver treasure and Roman luxury: J. Paul Getty Museum November 19, 2014 – August 17, 2015; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, September 19, 2015 – January 10, 2016; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, June 25, 2016 – October 2, 2016 (2014).
6 Julia C. Fischer for Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.10, (27.05.2016)

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