- The Boundaries of Art and Social Space in Rome: The Caged Bird and Other Art Forms by Frederick Jones
In this book, Jones examines a series of Roman display objects that were often features of domestic décor: the formal garden, the garden painting, tapestry, and caged birds. Jones’s interest in these objects does not result in a catalog of examples; this would not be the book to turn to, for example, for a survey of garden types in ancient Italy and evidence thereof. Rather, Jones is interested in the idea of these objects: Why did they appeal to Romans? What did Romans think about when they encountered them? And can they all be classified as art (either by us or by Roman viewers)? The four items under consideration constitute an eclectic assortment, to be sure, but that eclecticism is itself revealing of the varied interests of Roman homeowners.
One thread that unites these four display objects, Jones argues, is the way that they all play with the idea of boundaries. The garden (chapter 2) marks itself as a distinct space by boundaries around and within it, and its allusive power also encourages visitors to transcend the space by thinking of other times and places. Garden paintings (chapter 3) raise the same questions as formal gardens, with the added dimension of exploring the boundaries between the fictive and the real; the chapter is principally about the garden frescos from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, and Jones well captures the dynamic play of borders in that painting and in the room. Tapestries (chapter 4) are strictly bounded by the fringe of the garment, but also typically boast a careful internal arrangement; they also serve to separate rooms in the house. And the birdcage (chapter 5) sets boundaries around an animal typically associated with freedom of movement; no wonder, then, that the caged bird as domestic décor seems to be a particularly Roman phenomenon in the ancient world, since it flaunts power over nature.
A second thread that runs through the book is the extent to which we may treat all of these objects as part of the same conceptual category; should we (and did the Romans) consider all of these to be works of art? The question requires some consideration of how we decide what constitutes art, and Jones’s first chapter takes us through some of what we know about how the Romans thought about aesthetics. Jones makes the apt point that the Romans seemed less interested in theorizing about art than the Greeks (excudent alii . . .), but it is nevertheless surprising not to see more consideration of ancient art theory in this chapter, and in the book as a whole. Instead, Jones mines literary works (Horace, Ovid, and Vergil, among others) to uncover what we might be able to reconstruct about the range of aesthetic principles that guided the experiences of ancient Roman viewers.
The book’s eclecticism will appeal to some readers and alienate others. It is certainly impressive how easily Jones integrates physical and literary evidence, providing a holistic picture of the Roman experience of aesthetic production. [End Page 267] The book follows recent trends in scholarship by treating the reception of artworks by putative viewers as more revealing than their formal characteristics; this focus mitigates somewhat the unfortunate dearth of images throughout (in chapter 3, for example, the only image of the garden fresco from the Villa of Livia is a nineteenth-century drawing of the entire room). And while the emphasis on viewer experience is in and of itself not groundbreaking, Jones does bring the discussion to some new and intriguing places: a recurrent theme, for example, is the effect of these display objects on the cognitive development of Roman children, which is a relatively novel approach to ancient art.
In the end, Jones performs an admirable service in this book by drawing our attention to artifacts...