Summary and Info
"The glory that was Rome" has become proverbial. But John R. Clarke, a professor of the history of art, argues that the monuments of that glory, like the Arch of Constantine and the portraits of emperors, are not the full story. There was other Roman art, like wall paintings and mosaics, which, especially if they were decorations in ordinary houses in Pompeii, were not previously regarded as art within art history. When Clarke first began studying Roman art, these were objects of study in the everyday life of Romans. This has changed, and "everyday" art of the Romans has become a respected target for academic study, not only for itself but for what it can tell us about the majority of Romans. In _Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C. - A.D. 315_ (University of California Press), Clarke lays out the importance of art made or commissioned by such lowly ones as slaves, former slaves, and freeborn workers. Emperors and the wealthy represented themselves in artwork carrying out official and prestigious practices that would demonstrate their importance. Non-elites tended more to want to depict ordinary acts, working, drinking, even brawling. It isn't surprising that the "unofficial" art could tell us more about daily Roman life.Clarke does begin by discussing how non-elites viewed the official art of the emperors, and then proceeds to the art that non-elites produced. There are many examples here of art in domestic shrines, business-advertising, status boasting, and humor-provoking. Clarke speculates, for example, that a painting from Pompeii previously thought to depict a man selling bread is actually a man giving out a bread dole. There is no evidence of commerce; the receivers of the bread are exultant and do not themselves give up money. The painting comes from a small house, not that of an elite citizen. Clarke says that most likely this is the house of a baker who was prosperous, decided that at some point he would give bread away, and wanted to be depicted in his act of charity. Viewers of his painting would have been reminded of the event, and the baker's prestige would have risen. A completely different commemoration of a particular event is the painting from another house of a riot in the Pompeian amphitheater. This depicted a real event arising somehow from hooliganism during games between the home and visiting teams, an event that caused Rome to forbid all gladiatorial shows in Pompeii for ten years. The owner of the house went to the trouble of having an event that might be thought of as shameful commemorated on his walls. Clarke gives evidence, from the placement of the picture and the subject, that the owner was a gladiatorial fan, who honored the gladiators by putting on display a commemoration of a riot held in their honor, perhaps a riot in which he himself took a glorious part. Unlike the citizen who wanted people to remember the honorable act of giving out bread, the fan (and his buddies) liked remembering how the Roman social order could be disrupted.Clarke's book is a serious academic tome, complete with scads of footnotes and a huge bibliography. It is, however, written in an engaging style. Clarke is careful to state when he is speculating from incomplete evidence, but even when he does speculate, the evidence is good, and his argument is convincing that art commissioned by these commoners is not a trickled-down version of the works of their betters, but something vibrant and significant to be appreciated on its own. The book is beautifully produced, on glossy paper with, as is fitting, many illustrations. The wealth of the patron, and the skill of the artist, may have put limits upon these works, but they show enormous creative breadth and, in Clarke's interpretations, surprising utility.