- The Boundaries of Art and Social Space in Rome: The Caged Bird and Other Art Formsby Frederick Jones
This is a short book with grand designs. Frederick Jones explores how "boundaries" were delineated in Roman culture, literature and art—in his words, "the way certain cultural artefacts imply a pattern of concentric circles dividing insides and outsides, but dividing in such a way as to allow the boundary to be crossed and recrossed" (115). However "peripheral" the subject, though, the book also stakes a central question about the "limits" of art in the late Roman Republic and early Empire: "the uncertainty of the boundary," Jones nicely puts it, "says something about what art is and how we decide what is art" (vii).
Rather than offering a theoretical introduction or historiographical overview, the book is structured around four particular case studies, topped and tailed with an introductory chapter ("Art") and conclusion ("Self-projecting inside and outside"). Jones explains the thinking at the outset: "this book is about four elements of Roman visual culture that have special connections with the domusand manifold connections with the cultural and cognitive contexts of the Roman citizen" (1). The chapters that follow explore artistic "boundaries" through the respective lenses of gardens, garden-paintings, tapestries and the "caged bird" motif.
What we have here, in effect, are four self-contained studies (three of them adapted, in fact, from published journal articles). The introduction tries to [End Page 161]explain the interconnections, homing in on the limits of art, and asking whether or not we can talk about Roman "art" as meaningful hermeneutic category. Jones makes no mention here of the Kantian parergon—or indeed its Derridean deconstructions: some readers will no doubt be grateful. Instead, there are some timely comments concerning the "literary learnedness and intertextuality of Roman painting and statuary" (13), for example, and the status of artists (10–11). Yet the precise argument—about Roman aesthetics, or about the relationships between pre- and post-Enlightenment traditions—is unclear. Generalizations abound ("Art is mimetic, not primarily in the sense that it imitates its subjects, but in the sense that the incipient artist has a subjective experience of art and thinks 'I can do that,'" 2). But the comparison with art in the "nineteenth and sixteenth-seventeenth centuries" (3) yields little, and ancient sound-bites are introduced without adequate contextual or interpretative focus. Jones seeks to introduce the "problematic" question "of what art is" (1), but relies heavily on the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; the references to "Bordieu" ( sic) are especially unfortunate (132, n. 10; 172).
The author is on a firmer footing in the second chapter, which turns to "The Roman garden." Here Jones revisits some of the themes from his eloquent 2011 book, Virgil's Garden: The Nature of Bucolic Space: approaching the Roman garden "as cultural phenomenon," and introducing a host of ancient authors (among them, Cicero, Varro, Horace, Ovid, Pliny and Seneca), the chapter demonstrates how "'the garden' becomes a place for mental play and for thinking about literature, history, identity, gender, and pleasure" (25; John Henderson's pioneering 2004 book, Hortus: The Roman Book of Gardening, might have been helpful here). Less successful, in my view, are the long digressions about "cognitive processes," "concept formation" and the "cognitive development of the Roman child" (44–5). The argument seems to be about "mental modelling" (48)—that is, about concepts of "inside" and "outside" which structure Roman horticultural attitudes. But the precise relevance of such excursions, at least for this reader, is indecipherable ("The domus-garden pattern, as a model of a whole set of inners and outers, influences the way the subject's thinking about the world develops, but in addition, as observed above, the element of imagination in child-play prepares for the adult flights of the imagination we considered earlier," 48).
The third chapter, dedicated to "The garden room at Prima Porta," at once extends and narrows...