Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present by Caroline Vout - review by Tom Stammers

Tom Stammers

Not Set in Stone

Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present


Princeton University Press 259pp £30 order from our bookshop

This remarkably ambitious book traces the history over three millennia of those freighted terms ‘classical’ and ‘art’. Its principal subject is less the beguiling statues of gods and heroes themselves than the impact they have had on the European societies that have variously revered and restored them, devised magnificent new spaces to house them and lusted after their possession. In an incisive introduction, Caroline Vout points out how many misconceptions and uncertainties lurk behind conventional museum labels. Hailed as a defining symbol of Athenian freedom, the sculptural group known as the Tyrannicides (now housed in Naples Archaeological Museum) has been named as such, Vout shows, only as a result of a complex sequence of mistaken identifications and botched restorations. In this ‘patchwork of old, new and plaster pieces’, Vout finds the perfect symbol for our improvised, messy and unfinished relationship with antiquity.

In contrast to those scholars in search of some ‘pristine’ Greek civilisation, Vout is far more attracted to the way that the arts of Greece were displaced and often distorted by subsequent appropriations. These misreadings of classical art (what she calls ‘warpings’) were nonetheless intrinsic to its survival as a heritage. The story of how classics has moved through European cultures is a necessarily impure one, in which the ancient originals have been subsumed and transformed by both physical alterations and, no less drastically, normative judgements. This process was already underway in antiquity. Consider the recycling of Greek motifs and fragments in the spectacular monuments erected by the Attalids at Pergamon. The Greekness of Greek culture emerged slowly through comparison and conjunction. There was nothing derivative about the Roman engagement with Greek culture, as testified by the copies of Greek statues installed in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, where Athens was paired with Egypt in an eclectic conversation between civilisations. Hadrian’s example gave sanction to innumerable later acts of translation, in which classical art was modified, commodified or re-created afresh.

Vout admits that a full synthesis of the topic would be almost impossible. Her book is modestly described as a personal ‘travelogue’ through classical tradition, which allows her to linger on some subjects (especially Renaissance princely cabinets or the spoils of British grand tourists) and pass over others, for example

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