Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Roman Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. 304, incl. 31 colour plates, 310 black and white plates, 22 maps and plans, 9 figure drawings and 1 family tree. ISBN 0-521-40297-2. UK£19.95.
W. J. Dominik
University of Natal, Durban
Those who have attempted recently to teach an introductory course in Roman art have soon realised that there was a lack of an up-to-date, lucid, basic, wide-ranging and inexpensive introductory text that communicates the beauty, grandeur, exquisiteness and meaning of Roman art. The best (in my opinion) have been Martin Henig’s A Handbook of Roman Art (Ithaca 1983), Donald Strong’s Roman Art (New York 1976; repr. 1988) and Mortimer Wheeler’s Roman Art and Architecture (New York 1964). Despite their many excellent points, these introductory books labour under various disadvantages. Strong’s book is dense and devoted almost solely to sculpture; Henig focuses mainly on the decorative arts; and Wheeler’s text, long regarded as standard, is dated. After reading in the Ramages’ preface that their book `is intended first and foremost for students and readers who are launching into the study of Roman art perhaps for the first time’ (p. 9), I was encouraged to expect that this text would meet a critical need by fulfilling its stated purpose. I was not to be disappointed.
There is an introduction, followed by twelve chapters with broad coverage. Like most texts on Roman art, the Ramages take us chronologically through periods and genres. The authors present a selection of objects from all over the Empire and from the time of the Villanovans and Etruscans (1000-200 BC) to Constantine (AD 307-337) and beyond. The focus of this text is on the standard subjects of architecture, wall painting, and sculpture, but there is also treatment of such diverse topics as mosaics, stucco, pottery, the luxury arts, coins and even town planning. Included in the material that follows the text are lists of Roman emperors and ancient authors, a glossary and a select bibliography divided according to the book’s chapters.
The volume is most handsomely produced. The text, with its clear and concise expression, is very readable and therefore ideal for an introductory text. There is throughout a consistently high quality in the descriptions of individual genres and objects that makes the book worthwhile reading as an introduction to Roman art. There are few disappointments with this book. The numerous illustrations, broad categories treated and fundamental nature of the text mean that there is not much space to devote to a discussion of the intellectual achievements of Roman art (e.g., the complexities of narrative relief and concrete architecture), but given the intended audience, this is not necessarily a flaw and may even be a plus. Some supplementation of the text will inevitably be required, but the central monuments and artefacts are covered at least in their basic form. Although the book will not satisfy the serious scholar except as an introductory teaching text, this seems to be precisely its main aim.
As a textbook, the criticism certainly cannot be levelled that it lacks a sufficient number of illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated: packed into its 304 pages are 373 illustrations, many more than in Henig (246 illus. in 288 pp.), Strong (265 illus. in 197 pp.) and Wheeler (215 illus. in 250 pp.). The photographs, maps and drawings, ranging in size from the large to the very small, are uniformly of the highest quality. Many photographs are bright and large; the focus and contrast of even the smallest ones merit praise.
This is the best introductory work on Roman art on the market. As for text adoption, especially in North America, the United Kingdom and Australasia, this book should prove to be the standard for years to come. If monetary constraints are a problem and students can afford only one text, I recommend this one. The publishers should consider producing a soft cover version, which would bring it within reach of more students.