Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 3, 2019
Steven L. Tuck A History of Roman Art Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 408 pp.; 375 color ills. Paperback $64.95 (9781444330267)

There are numerous textbooks on Roman art, but certain features ensure that A History of Roman Art stands out. This book is organized chronologically from the Etruscans to the reign of Constantine, and all the chapters (except for chapter 1) begin with a timeline showing major events and a brief historical overview, which helps students to understand the eras’ background. Throughout the book, Steven L. Tuck demonstrates how Roman art developed and discusses its influence. By examining the styles and techniques employed and developed in Roman art, Tuck tries to show how “the changes that occur in the art of a particular period represent the response of the visual world to the needs of its makers” (xxi). He not only discusses artists and patrons but also refers to historical texts, so that readers are able to understand how audiences in antiquity received messages from art and architecture. This book includes many illustrations accompanied by detailed descriptions, which are essential for students of art history, who will also find this useful in learning the ways in which sculptures, wall paintings, and architecture can be described.

In chapter 1, “Introduction to Roman Art History,” Tuck discusses several themes and issues associated with research on Roman art. He covers subjects such as styles and forms in Roman art and architecture, elite and non-elite production, gender, and the dating and restoration of objects. These topics reflect current academic trends and discussions, providing helpful reminders for readers before they approach the chronological narrative of Roman art. Chapter 2 deals with the Etruscans (“Regal Period, 753–509 BCE”) and chapter 3 is on “The Early Republic, 509–211 BCE.” Tuck’s detailed investigations of individual pieces allow students to follow the gradual shifting and intermixing of styles in these periods of Roman architecture and art. Since Tuck’s book was published in 2015, a few significant recent publications on Etruscan studies are not included. It would be worth adding the following volumes to the bibliography if a second edition is planned: Sinclair Bell and Alexandra A. Carpino’s A Companion to the Etruscans (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016) and Alessandro Naso’s Etruscology (De Gruyter, 2017).

Chapter 3 includes a section on Roman architecture and urban planning, and Tuck concentrates in particular on Ostia, Cosa, and Paestum. In chapter 4, “The Later Republic, 211–31 BCE,” Tuck resumes this discussion in order to demonstrate how architecture and urban planning developed with the integration of Hellenistic elements, focusing on Rome, Pompeii, Pergamon, Terracina, and Praeneste. The latter half of this chapter concentrates mainly on Roman wall painting; due to the chronological organization of the book, the First and Second Styles are addressed here, while the two other Pompeian styles are discussed in chapters 5 and 6 (“The Age of Augustus” and “The Julio-Claudians”).

From chapter 5 onward, each chapter begins with a biography of emperors, followed by sections devoted to typologies such as portraiture, dynastic monuments and architectural programs, and historical reliefs. Since emperors and the works they commissioned are these chatpers’ topics, the majority of examples inevitably come from Rome. Nevertheless, Tuck incorporates instances from other cities, including Baiae, Saepinum, Sperlonga, Beneventum, Fayum, Augusta Emerita, Leptis Magna, Thessalonica, Piazza Armerina, Antioch on the Orontes, Dura-Europos, Trier, and Lullingstone. Some of the monuments and works discussed in Tuck’s volume are not widely featured in other textbooks of this kind, making A History of Roman Art unique. Detailed study of the sculptures from Sperlonga, a comparative analysis of Trajanic relief panels, and observations about sarcophagi certainly constitute intriguing features of this work.

The cities from diverse parts of the Roman world that are discussed in this volume appear set off from the main text in large beige boxes with the title “A View from the Provinces.” This coverage of Roman cities in Tuck’s work is admirable, especially considering the length of this volume. Other such boxes are devoted to topics like “Scholarly Perspective,” which offers up-to-date academic discussions on certain objects, as well as “Tools & Techniques,” “Historical Context,” “Art and Literature,” “Ancients on Art,” and “More on Myth.” These boxes contain stimulating information, encouraging students to analyze Roman art from different perspectives and with a view to other disciplines.

Tuck’s approach to his subject, based on tight chronological organization, makes it easy for readers to follow the development of Roman art and architecture and how they contributed to the dissemination of imperial ideology and propaganda. At the same time, his reference to non-elite (or private) artifacts is somewhat limited. For example, domestic architecture and its decor in Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Oplontis are discussed in great detail, while examples from Ostia receive little attention. Since Tuck discusses Roman houses in one of the sections of chapter 1, it would have been useful to include a discussion of how the typologies of Roman dwellings changed in later periods by using examples from Ostia and the Forma Urbis Romae (he mentions the famous fragment showing three atrium houses). On the other hand, I understand the difficulty in balancing elite and non-elite perspectives, especially going forward in the history of Roman civilization and leaving behind the exceptional examples from the Vesuvian region.  

The book is well produced and attractive; it includes many useful illustrations and plans in color. Most of the pictures were either taken by the author and his colleagues or obtained through open-resource websites such as Wikipedia Commons. Although occasionally the quality of the images is substandard (e.g., taken from eye level, with some modern features in the background; some maps and plans do not have a compass and a scale), Tuck’s effort deserves praise as the choice to use his own photographs likely allowed him to keep the price of producing the book down. A select bibliography (journal articles and books written in English) is provided at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book. The following few examples could have benefited from more careful editing or more detailed explanations: “The earliest discovered historic Roman wall painting” lacks location and an image, although the painting is described in detail (63–64; probably the so-called Arieti Tomb), and “Porta di Capua” should not be named on the map on page 89 (excavation revealed that there was no gate). Finally, Tuck mentions that the Aula Palatina’s “plain roof consisting of timber framing and a wooden coffered ceiling was a traditional type as seen in the basilica” on pages 338–39, but the roof and ceiling had been reconstructed after World War II.

In sum, however, this is a clear and informative book that will be a helpful guide for anyone starting to learn about Roman art. Tuck’s lively narratives, accompanying color illustrations, and reader-friendly features (such as the glossary and number of sidebars and boxes) are valuable elements of this volume, and readers will feel as if they are attending Tuck’s class on Roman art. Thanks to the decision to cover the material in chronological order, as well as to cover a broad range of topics, Tuck succeeds in integrating the arts “into a discussion of the broader cultural context in which they are created” (xxi), as he announces in the preface. 

Yukiko Kawamoto
Designated Assistant Professor, Department of Occidental History and the Institute for Advanced Research, Nagoya University, Japan