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Conclusion: The Boscoreale Cups and Roman Art

Added by Joe Geranio

English: Emperor Tiberius's triumph. Silver skyphos with repoussé decoration, late 1st century BC–early 1st century AD. From the villa della Pisanella at Boscoreale, 1895.
Français : Triomphe de l'empereur Tibère. Skyphos en argent repoussé, fin du Ier siècle av. J.-C.-début du Ier siècle ap. J.-C. Provenance : villa della Pisanella à Boscoreale, 1895.
Dimensions H. 9.2 cm (3 ½ in.), W. 21 cm (8 ¼ in.)
Credit line Dation in payment, 1990
Accession number Bj 2367
Location Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, Sully, first floor, room 33, case 8
Source/Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2009
Preferred Citation: Kuttner, Ann L. Dynasty and Empire in the Age of Augustus: The Case of the Boscoreale Cups. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1995 1995.
http://ark.lib.org/ark:/13030/ft309nb1mw/

Conclusion: The Boscoreale Cups and Roman Art

I should like to do two things here. One is to sum up the major art-historical findings of this study, as the last chapter commented on its historical findings. The other is to speak directly about my own methodology as a Roman art historian; this might seem to be more appropriate in an introduction to a study of this kind, but I feel that only the reader who has absorbed at least some of this work will be critically equipped to judge the efficacy and clarity of my approach. Its first principle is simply to ask of any period, What works of art existed, and what did they look like? So much has been lost, and lost permanently beyond all hope of retrieval; thus all fragments, hints, and indications become, like the BR cups, extremely valuable. Although it is difficult to keep always in mind an imaginative construct to supplement the poor reality of the tangible remains, the rewards of such effort are considerable. For instance, Eck stresses how the arrangement of inscriptions, often all we have left of ancient dedications, can indicate the basic structure of the lost statuary above; his point seems simple, but he was the first to consider in this light inscriptions known for over fifty years and to reconstruct from its base an actual monument of the kind long postulated as prototype for the famous Puteoli base of Tiberius (figs. 47, 62)[1]

The reader will have noted throughout a concern with the relationship of spectator to object, in terms of the intent of the original designer(s) and patron(s) who engendered Roman images, with regard to the audiences whom they wished to comprehend these images' didactic content and to appreciate their esthetic structures. In visual, as in verbal, communication, true comprehension depends on a shared language of forms and symbols; an iconographer must, like a historian, strive to the best of her necessarily limited powers to reconstruct the relevant prior experience and assumptions of the persons whose perceptions she investigates. This truism is very seldom made explicit. I stand here behind T. Hölscher's unparalleled 1984 essay on the question of the Publikum for the state monuments we seek to interpret today, though I am more optimistic that one can know something of audiences besides those of the elite "senatorial" level. This optimism—though austere and limited—is founded on the principle of the lowest common denominator, the value of badly made and/or mass-produced, relatively cheap artifacts. I believe that the basic symbolic language available to classes other than the elite can be discerned in the often drastically simplified elements of "high" ideology and iconography that make it onto the crude glass pastes that crowd the back pages of gem catalogues, onto matrix-stamped military armament decoration, onto Arretine ware pottery molds, and so forth. Obviously, I also believe that numismatic designs were very often intended to disseminate legible imagery for political purposes, that the state coinage did indeed function as a vehicle for political propaganda directed toward the uneducated, as well as educated, classes; I also think these messages were usually obvious and simple.

I have been speaking of audiences and messages in the plural. A natural consequence of the multiple stratifications of society in the Roman Empire was a differentiation of culture and a variation in cultural sophistication among different classes, peoples, and regions in the Empire. It is also plain that the most capable Roman patrons were (like Greeks before them) interested in creating monuments and images that spoke to more than one segment of society and that had more than one symbolic message. To describe this quality in a work of art, multi- or polyvalency is a common image usefully borrowed from the vocabulary of atomic structure. I find useful the notion of resonance, transferred from the realm of musical effects to the world of artifacts. As the striking of a piano key produces a sound with multiple tones, so the impact of the Gemma Augustea (fig. 16) or Arch of Constantine on thoughtful vision sets off not a unitary impression but a series of related multiple impressions; the proximity and/or prior existence of related monuments known to the spectator weaves a kind of web of associations comparable to the resonant effects produced by the proximity of other strings to the piano key actually struck.

The danger in reconstructing the original resonances of an extant monument is that one will read into the work messages not intended for the original Roman audience. One can so easily become oversubtle, assert too much rather than too little. There are two brakes on exegetical speed-ng; first, to be explicit and knowledgeable about the historical audience postulated for an artifact; second, always to look for parallels to show that the reading one proposes was at least possible in a given context. Truisms again, but not always appreciated or observed. Only multiple occurrences of a given symbol or form justify the assertion of a pattern of action, whether formal (style) or symbolic (iconography). One needs also a plausible hypothesis to account for such patterns: one must try to document the means by which an artist or his audience could have seen the images by which they are held to have been influenced, and this takes one back to the question of a given audience and the imagery accessible to it. To cite a classic instance, it is often asserted that the architectural form of the Ara Pacis deliberately echoes that of the Athenian Altar of Pity. If true, the quote can have been expected to be legible only to the elite, who would have traveled to Athens, not to the Roman plebs; on the other hand all segments of the urban population can be expected to have recognized the parallel with the Januum, one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most central of all sanctuaries in the capital.

I have acknowledged my debt to the investigative approach formulated by Hölscher. I have gained much from the implicit and explicit definitions developed by many others of what evidence is relevant to interpreting Roman political art. It should be clear by now that often I find myself in the company of the contemporary German art historians Zanker, Simon, Fittschen, et al., asking similar questions of similar material; asked to assign myself to a "school" I should name also the Italians, F. Coarelli and M. Torelli. My real debt to Coarelli's efforts to understand artistic production in terms of patronage and the politically charged architectural geography of Rome is obscured here by the fact that this work explores mainly imperial, rather than Republican, art. Even where I disagree with Torelli's conclusions, I have tried to keep in mind the imperative heading his essays on Roman historical relief: Roman narrative and commemorative art can be illuminated by Roman texts, but they must be texts with a cognate function. Finally, in all projects I have ever undertaken with regard to Roman art, I am in debt to Otto Brendel's Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art (New Haven, 1979): his definitions of the essential questions asked (and not asked) of Roman art and his vision of multiple lines of development separated by medium and genre have irrevocably marked my own perceptions of Roman images.

The consequences of holding to these tenets are evident in my readings of the Boscoreale Cups and of many other monuments besides. The Boscoreale Cups, and the monument from which they were copied, have been demonstrated primarily on political grounds to be works of Augustus' reign, specifically of the period between Tiberius' triumph in 8/7 B.C. and his exile in 6 B.C. Now firmly dated, these panels are important to the stylistic history of Roman relief; they illuminate the early occurrence not only of stock figures common in the later canon but of experiments with complex figure groupings and the depiction of "space" that are not usually associated with Augustan art. No aspect of compositional structure in these panels is discordant with the date reached on iconographic grounds; the three-beat structure of the allegory BR I:1, for instance, is typical of classicizing Augustan work in many media. Indeed, if it were absolutely necessary, the pieces could be plausibly dated between the Ara Pacis (13-9 B.C.) and the Gemma Augustea (A.D. 10–14) purely by stylistic analysis. I have discussed at many points the formal congruence of the cups with the Ara Pacis; the Gemma Augustea's upper register has compositional structures very similar to the BR audience scenes and displays a different, but no less complex, exploration of the alignment of figures in space (fig. 16). The "dating" value of the Ara Pacis is as a public sculptural monument exemplifying the best work of the court ateliers; the Gemma Augustea indicates a familiarity on its artist's part with monuments on a similar scale, for radical stylistic (as opposed to iconographic) experimentation is not to be expected of any gem cutter's workshop.

This book has tried to explain, as completely as possible, the imagery of the Boscoreale Cups. The listing of parallels as a mode of scholarship is mere antiquarianism if it is seen as an end and not as a means; inevitably, some of my "lists" have remained at this level, but these investigations have always tried to ask the primary questions What does image X signify, why is it used, and what is it doing on the Boscoreale Cups? In the search for a compelling argument I have tried to cast my net as wide as possible, to bring forward all relevant available evidence from textual and visual sources; my lapses will, I hope, be corrected by others in the same benevolent spirit of argument in which I have critiqued the interpretations of the scholars whose work fed mine.

The effort to explain generated many tangents and thematic excursuses. The process of explanation works both ways: images adduced to explain the BR cups are themselves illuminated by the process of explanatory ordering. Thus the cups prove to be valuable points of comparison for understanding many other works, under two main headings: the modes of policy and propaganda that much Roman art was intended to serve, and the complex patterns of form, temporality, and causation with which Roman narrative and commemorative arts concerned themselves as primary objects of artistic endeavor. The purview of the book ranges from the earliest to the latest products of the Roman city-state, from terracotta pediments erected by nameless Republican nobiles to the monuments of the generals contesting and defending the late Empire; it takes in the Anaglypha Traiani and the Hadrianeum, the Ludovisi sarcophagus and the arches of Galerius and Constantine, the Beneventum Arch of Trajan, the Throne of Claudius and the Puteoli base, cuirass statues famous (Primaporta, Cherchel) and obscure (Castello d'Aglie, Amphipolis), famous and not-so-famous cameos, Arretine ware, military decoration, the imperial fora and the Aphrodisias Sebasteion, the cenotaph of Gaius at Limyra and of Drusus at Mainz . . .

The central contribution of this book to Roman art history is, I hope, a better understanding of Augustan artistic production, reached in the process of embedding the BR cup panels firmly in the high road of the Augustan monumental tradition. This enlarged understanding has two aspects. First, these investigations have radically enlarged and deepened our knowledge and comprehension of many individual works of art and coin images. The monument most significantly illuminated in this way is that marble microcosmos the Ara Pacis Augustae, especially in regard to its celebration of the worldwide Roman imperium and the imperial nature of Augustus' pax; for it is now clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that children of foreign rulers march in the processions of the Ara Pacis, and I have tried to stress the importance of others' findings that the peoples of empire were personified on the inner altar. Hardly another aspect of the Ara Pacis, whether of iconography, temporal or conceptual structure, landscape or relief style, cannot benefit from comparative analysis of the BR cups.[2]

Second, these investigations have significantly expanded our knowledge of specific Augustan artistic genres and themes. One can now be much more specific about that acknowledged phenomenon, the paradigmatic influence of Augustan monuments and imagery on later imperial artistic production. No longer will it be possible to contemplate Hadrianic ethnic personification groups in ignorance of the many Augustan examples, their Republican roots, and their Julio-Claudian "offspring"; the seated togate statue will not be a mysterious, ill-considered figure type; no longer will the great Flavian and second-century achievements in historical relief seem to have arisen from a near vacuum. At the same time, the book has tried to show how the Augustan production was itself grounded in Republican political and creative culture, even as Augustus' artists draw on all the resources of their Classical and Hellenistic heritage to put an Augustan stamp on this latest phase of Republican culture.

This widened perspective strengthens the appreciation of certain themes as peculiarly Augustan. For instance, the observable Augustan interest in images of children, especially very little children, is exemplified by BR I; this theme seems to be consciously evoked only and to a limited extent in Trajanic art, although the institution (alimenta ) with which it is there associated was important politically both under Trajan's predecessor Domitian and his successor Hadrian. Under both headings, individual monuments and genres, our understanding of the self-images that Augustus sought to promulgate has been enhanced. The parameters often ascribed to the terms of his self-glorification have been permanently broadened: the public Augustus must now include the Jupiter-consul of BR I:1, who joins the naked, heroized Augustus of (lost) commemorative statuary whom Zanker, Coarelli, and others have stubbornly brought to our attention in recent years.

Comprehensive stylistic comparison with the extant canon of Republican and Julio-Claudian art has not been my aim. Now that the BR cups are more firmly dated, such comparison becomes possible; one can hope to see them enter broader discussions of Roman relief style. In closing I would like to comment on an artistic aspect of BR I:1 not previously discussed that may illustrate the inherent possibilities of such comparative analysis for enlarging our appreciation of Augustan art in general.

On BR I:1 in the allegory of Augustus' world rule Venus is about to "make" the Curia Actium Victory group (cf. fig. 20). Mars too is about to "make" a sculpture group, of a type well documented in the Augustan and Julio-Claudian periods (see pp. 41f); a class of honorific monuments in Rome showed a Roman magistrate standing or seated in the midst of a group of personifications of peoples or communities whom he had benefited. In the implied narrative here, once Mars brings up his group and they range themselves before the emperor, such a grouping will come to pass. The viewer's full appreciation of the narrative is conditional upon his knowledge of such public monuments. It was by now commonplace in Greco-Roman art to show the performance of simple acts of construction such as the decking of a trophy or the inscribing of an honorific shield by a goddess. It seems, however, to be a mark of Augustan political art that narrative at all levels, physical and symbolic, should so often be structured by such visual puns.

This characteristic indicates a high level of sophistication on the part of the artist and the audience expected to appreciate and relish such an aspect; it also assumes a high degree of familiarity with prominent individual examples of official monuments. This kind of narrative-visual structure can be observed on the Augustan Arcus Novus panel (fig. 12), where Amor floats through the air toward Venus' shoulder, intending to land there, as on the Ravenna relief (fig. 8), where his legs still kick in the air. It is also evident on the Belvedere altar's main panel (fig. 11); between the two laurel trees of Augustus' Palatine abode Victory floats to earth to place Augustus' clipeus virtutis on its pillar, as it appeared in the Curia.[3] And it structures the literal narrative of the bottom half of the Gemma Augustea (fig. 16), as well as the symbolic narrative of the entire cameo. In the lower exergue a trophy group is being put together—soldiers haul up the central wooden post, a captive barbarian couple are already positioned at its foot on the left, as another pair of soldiers haul over a man and woman meant to flank the post on the right, to build a Roman trophy group of classic type known from countless representations in art and probably enacted in actual triumphal parades. The soldiers at left heave the main tree toward Augustus as Tiberius overhead moves down toward him in the upper panel along a converging path; the strong sense of two dynamic lines of motion converging simultaneously on Augustus, in the two fields/worlds on the cameo, is conceptually very like the BR panel, where the two surges of motion occur within a single panel. (The lower exergue as an isolated unit has a structure parallel to the cup panel: motion from the sides toward the center.) This parallelism already sets up a symbolic narrative that is given more definite shape in the implied "future" when the trophy will be exactly between Augustus (note the position of its foot) and Tiberius, who will be immediately before him—emperor and heir aligned on a "real" historical axis of victory.

Presented with such compositions, the viewer gets double for his money: he gets the composition as it exists, a glimpse of figures in action aligned in a meaningful pattern, and he is also given an evocation of an alignment that is about to evolve out of the one that he sees. This implicit second alignment not only extends the symbolic message he can read but also anchors the artistic construct he sees to other artistic constructs he already knows; because the mind is tugged toward the familiar composition just over the temporal horizon, these tableaux are given a real temporal dynamism.

Self-conscious artistic reference to other works of art is a well-known hallmark of Hellenistic and Roman literary art. In the visual arts it operates at a basic level in all iconographic correspondence, as in the individual figures and pairings of the BR allegory. It has not, however, been noted before as operating at the narrative level and in a temporal dimension, as here in these Augustan pieces.[4] The Boscoreale Cups testify that even if written discourse on art was mainly limited (as in Pliny) to "Old Masters" at least some Romans some of the time noticed and enjoyed the contemporary products of Augustus' sculptors. And the kind of visual game just outlined is further proof that we are not different from the Romans of 7 B.C. in giving serious attention to and finding pleasure in the world of Augustan art.