The Learned Collector: Mythological Statuettes and Classical Taste in Late Antique Gaul

The Learned Collector: Mythological Statuettes and Classical Taste in Late Antique Gaul

by Lea Stirling

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Inspired by a classical education, wealthy Romans populated the glittering interiors of their villas and homes with marble statuettes of ancestors, emperors, gods, and mythological figures. In The Learned Collector, Lea M. Stirling shows how the literary education received by all aristocrats, pagan and Christian alike, was fundamental in shaping their artistic taste while demonstrating how that taste was considered an important marker of status. Surveying collections across the empire, Stirling examines different ways that sculptural collections expressed not only the wealth but the identity of their aristocratic owners.

The majority of statues in late antique homes were heirlooms and antiques. Mythological statuary, which would be interpreted in varying degrees of complexity, favored themes reflecting aristocratic pastimes such as dining and hunting. The Learned Collector investigates the manufacture of these distinctive statuettes in the later fourth century, the reasons for their popularity, and their modes of display in Gaul and the empire.

Although the destruction of ancient artwork looms large in the common view of late antiquity, statuary of mythological figures continued to be displayed and manufactured into the early fifth century. Stirling surveys the sculptural decor of late antique villas across the empire to reveal the universal and regional trends in the late antique confluence of literary education, mythological references, aristocratic mores, and classicizing taste. Deftly combining art historical, archaeological, and literary evidence, this book will be important to classicists and art historians alike. Stirling's accessible writing style makes this an important work for scholars, students, and anyone with an interest in Roman statues of this era.

Lea M. Stirling is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba and holds a Canada Research Council Chair in Roman Archaeology. She co-directs excavations at the ancient city of Leptiminus, Tunisia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472025343
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/11/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Learned Collector

By Lea M. Stirling
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11433-7

Chapter One Introduction

Vivid descriptions of two diametrically opposed responses to mythological statuary in Gaul from the later decades of the fourth century have come down to us through accounts of Ausonius of Bordeaux and St. Martin of Tours. Though contemporaries, the two men had different educational backgrounds and personify contrasting outlooks to the value of images. Both acknowledged the power of art, but their moral opinion of its value and its power for good and evil differed. The rhetor Ausonius, consul in 379, recorded his deep appreciation of statuary and mythological imagery in poetry. His younger, unlettered contemporary St. Martin of Tours, appointed bishop of Tours in 371, led his followers in attacks on pagan sanctuaries and statues. How are we to understand these antithetical, yet contemporary, outlooks? Two observations may be made: statuary served many roles in late antique Gaul, and reactions to it varied considerably. This book explores the role of statuary in the villas of late antique Gaul, the market that supplied it, the intellectual climate that demanded it, and the international environment of similar collections.

The image of the fanatical St. Martin and his like elsewhere in the Roman Empire has come to dominate the popular and, in many cases, the scholarly impression of people's response to mythological statuary in the post-Constantinian "Christianized" empire. So pervasive is this impression that many have found it difficult to imagine that sculpture could have been appreciated, let alone manufactured and transported over great distances. A reluctance to recognize late antique mythological sculpture has remained long after the important role of mythological imagery in other aristocratic arts, such as mosaics and silverware, has been accepted and absorbed into the conventional view of late antique art. Individual late antique sculptures or even assemblages have been identified, and a few, such as the Ganymede from Carthage and the Diana and Venus of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne (figs. 2, 4, 7), have even become canonical in this ongoing reevaluation.

However, as yet there has been no comprehensive study of the use of late antique mythological sculpture over a region, nor has there been consideration of the factors in society that made it normal for Ausonius and others of his class, pagan and Christian alike, to admire mythological statuary. It is increasingly clear that the corpus of late antique statuary of mythological figures is large, and it is necessary to examine the genre in its full context. This study investigates mythological statuary in Gaul in the late empire and evaluates the system of classical education that made appreciation of such statuary both normal and expected among the higher classes of society. International currents in society and the fact that the mythological statuettes of late fourth-century Gaul were imported from the eastern Mediterranean mean that Gaul provides a valid case study of trends in taste and decor in the late empire.


It is necessary at this juncture to define more closely the specific genre of sculpture under investigation. Mythological sculpture from late antiquity exists in a variety of scales, materials, styles, and dates, as a few examples will illustrate. The balustrade surrounding a pool in the imperial villa at Welschbillig near Trier had busts of gods and mythological figures alongside busts of emperors, philosophers, and barbarians, for a total of some seventy sculptures. The herms were carved in limestone, probably by several teams of local artists. Marble statuettes of Athena and Asklepios found at Epidauros were dedicated in A.D. 304 and 308, respectively, to judge from the inscriptions on their bases. Life-size marble statues of a Muse in a house at Aphrodisias and another in Florence are dated to the fourth century. Some silver statuettes of divinities or heroes are known, such as a Venus with a mirror from Kaiseraugst and a Venus Genetrix from Daphne. Mythological figures occasionally appear carved on ivory diptychs.

The present study, however, focuses specifically on small-scale, classicizing statuary of mythological figures carved from marble during the late fourth or early fifth centuries. In German scholarship, the term Idealplastik denotes sculptures of gods and mythological figures. English scholarship uses the expression ideal sculpture, as an equivalent, but this term is highly specialized and is at times confusing. I therefore propose the term mythological sculpture instead to describe statuary of divinities and mythological figures. In the present study, I concentrate on a genre of mythological sculptures ca. 50-100 cm tall that have stylistic and compositional similarities to the Carthage Ganymede and the Venus and Diana of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne (figs. 2, 4-7) and were manufactured in the same time period. For the sake of brevity, I refer to this genre of statuary more concisely as late mythological statuettes. When other types of mythological sculpture from late antiquity, such as Welschbillig herms, are discussed, they will be clearly distinguished from the late mythological statuettes that are the focus of this study.

I use the term late antiquity loosely to refer to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. It includes, but is not limited to, the period of manufacture of late mythological statuettes-the later part of the fourth century and part of the fifth. Unless otherwise designated, all dates in this book are A.D.

The late mythological statuettes are classicizing in that they emulate the style of statuary of the classical Greek and Hellenistic periods (approximately the fifth through second centuries B.C.) through interest in displaying anatomy through drapery-sculpted in delicately rippling folds-and in the contrast between drapery and flesh. Several pieces, such as the Diana of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne (fig. 4), have remote, serene facial expressions evocative of the artwork of the fifth century B.C. Many of the late mythological statuettes are inspired from Hellenistic (or, less often, classical) prototypes and echo their poses, hairstyles, or drapery configuration, albeit with deliberate modifications that reflect late antique concerns and tastes. Of course, many different stylistic trends are subsumed under the broad designations of the classical and Hellenistic periods, and the late mythological statuettes show an equivalent diversity within their genre. It is important to remember that the classicism of these statuettes is not an academic revival of an antique style but a natural outgrowth of a continuous tradition. Thus, simultaneously with classicizing aspects, the statuettes exhibit many noticeable contemporary traits, such as stocky proportions and drilled details.


Before examining individual Gallic sites and their associated sculpture, it is necessary to consider some of the methodological issues concerning the identification and interpretation of findspots for statuary. Chapter 2 discusses the range of evidence that people have used, with varying degrees of certainty, to attribute statuary to a particular building or to a specific room within that building. Post-antique activity at a site can severely limit the usefulness of information about findspots. Chapter 2 also examines a common tenet in the study of ancient statuary, particularly domestic statuary: that all statues of gods and mythological figures were used in worship. For late antique collections in particular, it is assumed that mythological statuary could not play a merely decorative role; it is usually heralded as evidence of pagan worship. Further interpretations about a site may then be influenced by the presupposition of pagan practices. I propose a list of characteristics that could positively identify pagan worship and a much shorter list that could identify decorative use. Unlike most other scholars researching mythological statuary in late antiquity, I make the assumption that mythological statuary is decorative unless further evidence of pagan worship exists. Decorative use need not exclude allegorical interpretations and uses of statuary.

Related to interpretations concerning use of statuary is the question of deliberate damage to sculpture. I discuss possibilities for distinguishing mutilation from mere damage. Broken statuary or statuary discarded in pits or cisterns may have resulted from efforts to create building materials or to tidy a site in later times rather than from ideological actions. Close examination of individual cases and specific features allows us to differentiate desecration or hiding from more innocuous activities of clean up, at least in some cases.


After evaluating the methodological questions, I turn in chapter 3 to a tour of the most important Gallic sites and statuary (fig. 1). The purpose of the tour is twofold. First, it provides an introduction to the late antique mythological statuettes that form the core of discussion of the rest of the book. Second, it provides a window into the physical surroundings of such sculpture in the context of late antique Gaul. Chapter 3 examines other sculptures, such as portraits and heirloom pieces, within particular assemblages; layouts of villas and findspots (where known) of statuary; other forms of villa decoration; and possibilities for display. Understanding the physical setting of artwork is essential when evaluating its impact. Catherine Balmelle's new and thorough study of aristocratic residences of southwest Gaul provides important global and synthetic information on these sites but does not focus on statuary per se.

Some of these sites are familiar but will be seen through new eyes. The three sites of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne, Montmaurin, and Chiragan form the core of the present study because of the uniquely valuable information each one provides. The site of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne is famous for its well-preserved sculptures of Venus and Diana, which are now widely accepted as late antique mythological statuettes and have become canonical in any attempts to study the genre. Less well known is the fact that heads and other fragments from at least four other late mythological statuettes, admittedly in less pristine condition, were found at the site, along with numerous heirloom sculptures. The additional statues make this site even more important. Archival sources reveal some information about the villa, never mapped and now reburied. The villa of Montmaurin is prominent in studies of villas and rural life, but its statuary collection is less noticed. In fact, the statuary remains attest to a comparatively large collection, and valuable information about findspots is recorded in the detailed site publication. The enormous assemblage of statuary discovered at Chiragan has intrigued many who are interested in Roman domestic statuary and patterns of collection, but the villa itself is less studied, despite a site report that is remarkably thorough for its day. I do not profess to study in detail the whole assemblage of sculpture, which totals well over a hundred pieces; rather, I will closely examine only the late antique statuary, and I will also consider the layout and other decoration of the villa that apparently held this unique collection.

Other less familiar sites add valuable information for the study of late antique mythological statuary. As in Gaul, the information at each site is variable, but taken together, the sites provide a composite picture of the late antique Gallic aristocrat's taste for sculpture, architecture, and other forms of decoration. A late antique villa at La-Garenne-de-Nérac is perhaps best known for its mosaics and an academic scandal of the 1830s, but it housed a considerable sculptural collection, including a female torso and head dating to the late fourth century. Some very fragmentary sculptural finds, one of which may belong to a late mythological statuette, were found at the villa of Séviac, which provides data about villa layouts and other aspects of sculptural collection and display. Castelculier is interesting for both its architecture and its sculpture. Other villa finds come from Til-Châtel near Dijon and Wellen near Trier. Finally, individual finds from Bordeaux, Arles, and Trier allow a glimpse at urban contexts, private and public, for late antique mythological statuary.


Once the pieces and their contexts have been introduced, it is necessary to examine the stylistic traits, origins, and manufacture of the genre of late mythological statuettes (chap. 4). Only relatively recently, since the discovery of a statuette of Ganymede and the eagle in Carthage in 1977 (fig. 2), have scholars begun to recognize the widespread existence of late mythological statuettes. In the 1981 publication of the Ganymede, Elaine Gazda assigned it a date in the late fourth or early fifth century on the basis of stylistic comparisons to securely dated sculptures. She included two Gallic finds, the Venus and Diana of Saint-Georges-de-Montagne (figs. 4, 7), as analogous pieces, and she convincingly argued for late fourth century dates for them as well as the Ganymede, based on stylistic analysis. The figures from Saint-Georges-de-Montagne were shown to be part of an empire-wide body of sculpture, but many issues concerning manufacture, transport, iconography, and use remained to be further investigated. Subsequent studies added new pieces to the ever growing corpus of recognized late mythological statuettes, citing Gazda's article and its core pieces-the Ganymede, Diana, and Venus-as their major points of reference. Generally these studies do not reevaluate the stylistic parameters of the genre as proposed by Gazda or consider iconography or social context.

Another important publication for the understanding of mythological statuary in late antiquity appeared the year after Gazda's publication. In 1982 Kenan Erim and Charlotte Roueché restudied the signatures on a group of life-size statues found on the Esquiline Hill in Rome and concluded from titulature that they had been made by Aphrodisian sculptors working in Rome in the second quarter of the fourth century. As the Esquiline group had previously been dated to the second century, the dating of many stylistically related pieces was open to question. These pieces remain hotly controversial, as another epigraphic opinion argues from brick stamps that a building in which another base signed by one of the Aphrodisian sculptors was found was built in the early fourth century.

Finally, a series of publications of material from Aphrodisias confirmed fourth-century sculptural activity that included mythological sculpture. A fourth-century sculptor's workshop containing life-size mythological sculpture has aroused much interest. This workshop and its finds are the subject of a 1999 doctoral thesis by Julie Van Voorhis.

As a result of these studies of the Carthage Ganymede, the Esquiline group, and the Aphrodisias finds, the manufacture of mythological statuary (particularly life-size mythological statuary) in late antiquity has received much attention in recent research. Many sculptures, such as the statuary from a nymphaeum at Silahtaraga near Constantinople and the panels of Hercules from Chiragan, have been moved to the fourth century from the second. These findings have not been without controversy. Two important studies, by Niels Hannestad and Marianne Bergmann, have appeared in the time since my 1994 doctoral dissertation, of which the present book is a revised and expanded version. Neither study focuses exclusively, or even principally, on statuettes, as the present volume does. They both analyze material from Gaul, particularly from the villa of Chiragan, but Gaul is not the major regional focus for either one. They do not examine the intellectual and physical context of sculptural collections at any length.

Niels Hannestad's 1994 book, Tradition in Late-Antique Sculpture: Conservation, Modernization, Production, investigates several issues concerning mythological statuary, both contemporary and reused, in late antiquity. In terms of contemporary statuary, he is more interested in life-size statuary (admittedly a more contentious topic) than in statuettes. Late antique domestic collecting appears as one of several topics in his book. Other sections of the book cover phenomena, such as recarving, that are not addressed here. Finally, he does not focus at length on specific statuary within particular assemblages but, rather, provides a survey of many assemblages. Thus, the present book differs from Hannestad's study in the concentration on late mythological statuettes, the detailed analysis of domestic assemblages, and investigation of the intellectual environment created by the classical education system.


Excerpted from The Learned Collector by Lea M. Stirling
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

\rrhp\ \lrrh: Contents\ \1h\ Contents \xt\ \comp: set page number on page proof\ List of Figures Chapter 1. Introduction Chapter 2. Findspots, Functions, and the Burden of Proof: Some Questions of Methodology Chapter 3. Late Antique Villas in Southwest Gaul and Their Sculptural Collections Chapter 4. Issues of Style, Chronology, and Origins Chapter 5. Paideia and the World of Ausonius of Bordeaux: The Social Environment of Late Mythological Statuary Chapter 6. Learned Collectors across the Empire Chapter 7. Statuary, Paideia, and Collecting: Conclusions Notes Bibliography Index \to come\

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