Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ancient Roman Perspectives

Art is meant to be seen. If you go to any art museum, you will see throngs of people examining all types of art, often contorting themselves to get the right perspective or to see certain details. I'm guilty of this; I can only image what the museum guards think of me as I twist my body and practically do handstands to get a certain exact view of some Roman statue or Greek coin. How people interact with art is a big part of my interest in ancient art. In particular, I am interested how ancient people viewed their art, why they created it and what it meant to them. Today, we view ancient artifacts in a museum setting, thinking of them as relics from a lost world. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, thought, their art was contemporary and alive, created for their every day use. How ancient people viewed their art can tell us a lot about their perspectives, but unfortunately literary evidence on such perspectives is scarce. We must instead look at the archaeological record and disseminate what information we can.

So, how did the ancient audience view their art? That's a question not easy to answers, but Martin Beckmann from the University of Western Ontario is on the case. To better understand how the Romans viewed their art, he examined the Alexander Mosaic, one of the most famous objet d'art of the Roman world. The mosaic, from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, was repaired many times in antiquity, and based on those repairs, Beckmann established the zones worn the most by feet. These zones indicate where the most foot traffic was and hence tells us were people stood to view the mosaic. I think his theory is sound and by examining art in this way, we can learn how such works were viewed and what aspects appealed to contemporary audiences. The zones that have the most foot traffic are interesting for several reasons. First, zones 1 and 2 would have given the viewer a panorama of the scene, but it would appear up-side-down. I find this very strange and wonder what Beckmann thinks about this. The other zones are obvious for their placement; they are located near scenes of intense emotion and it is clear that such scenes would have appealed to the Romans viewing the work. What isn't addressed in this article, but which would be of much interest to myself, is the pattern of foot traffic throughout this room and the entire house. Are some of the repair zones merely the result of being passively walked over, not a result of people 'touring' the mosaic? We must always keep an open mind and continually ask such questions to keep scholarship on its toes and to uncover the answers that the archaeological record holds. I think Beckmann's work in wonderful and feel that such research is key to our better understanding ancient art and what it meant to ancient society.