On ‘Art and Craft’

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of going to a screening of Art and Craft at the Indie Memphis film festival. Art and Craft tells the story of art forger Mark Landis, who for at least two decades faked paintings and drawings and donated them to scores of museums and other collections. The film shows Landis at work: selecting frames, gathering pigments and brushes, aging canvases, and so forth. We also see Landis meeting with museum professionals, hear the yarns he spins about the origins of his fakes. His fraud having been slowly exposed over the course of the past seven years or so, Landis apparently no longer donates his works as originals, yet is still producing paintings and drawings. Although his dealings have been investigated by the FBI Art Crime unit, Landis has technically not broken any laws. (More on this below.)

I didn’t take any notes during the film and I have only seen it once. So while I have read a bit on Landis, what I write here is mostly an immediate impression of what I saw in Art and Craft. There are other threads in this story I will follow at a later date.

Art and CraftDirector Sam Cullman (center) and Mark Landis (right) at the November 1 2014 screening of Art and Craft in Memphis, TN

Landis’ story is particularly compelling for me because it differs from the familiar narrative of other art forgers: the disgruntled artist who can’t achieve success on the merits of his/her own original work turns to forgery to exact revenge on a corrupt and ignorant art market. The benefit of forgery is therefore at least twofold: there are the financial gains to be had, as well as a satisfaction in showing up the art professionals whose lack of connoisseurial eye and taste are demonstrated by the ease with which they are duped by the forger. There are many variations on this theme, but it is compelling how often the story of “failed artist turns to forgery” repeats itself.

Yet Landis apparently never attempted a career as an artist in his own right. He seems to have taken to copying early on, as a teenager, as just an exercise in hand-eye coordination, with no intent to deceive or to benefit financially through his skill in reproduction. Throughout the film, Landis refers to himself as a philanthropist; his gifts of paintings and drawings are his way of sharing beauty and art with a wider community and therefore any deception is for a greater good. While one could argue he could just as easily give away these works to friends and neighbors, it seems important to Landis that there be a public audience for his gestures of philanthropy and his skill as a painter and draftsman.

So why has Landis aspired so emphatically toward philanthropy? This brings me to some discomfort I felt during the screening of Art and Craft. Mark Landis suffers from a number of mental illnesses. Several scenes show him visiting a mental health clinic where a staff member (somewhat dispassionately) asks him about feelings of self-harm, of harm toward others, about hearing voices, about taking his medications as directed. Another scene shows Landis paging through a clinical report from the Menninger Clinic, where he was admitted at age 17. The report notes he has schizophrenia and suffered from catatonia and other issues during his stay at the clinic. As Landis reads through the report, he mutters with bemused self-deprecation about the various diagnoses. The movie audience chuckled along with him as he marveled at how he manages to function day-to-day, in spite of these rather concerning issues. At this point, I felt the film was somewhat exploitative, showing the forger’s fragile and tormented side as an explanation for his grimy living conditions, his monotone and mumbling affect, his uncomfortable devotion to his deceased mother, and so forth, without telling the audience how to resolve our feelings of pity for the man with our fascination with his artistic skill and his amusement at his methods of ‘philanthropy.’ One scene shows Landis gulping wine, hidden in a bottle of milk of magnesia, as a bit of ‘liquid courage’ before negotiating a donation. Other scenes show him smoking awkwardly to calm his nerves. The drinking and smoking might be more amusing were we not concerned about how alcohol might interact with his prescription medication and how Landis has chosen cigarettes over Xanax for anxiety because he has seen people in old movies smoking to ease nervousness.

Landis’ ‘philanthropy’ is not entirely a factor of his mental illnesses, of course. He notes at several points in the film that he donates these forged works so his mother would be proud of him, that this career began during her lifetime, and it pleased her to see him be recognized for his skill while at the same time making a beneficent gesture to a museum or other collection. That no money exchanged hands for his work made the forgery and deception more palatable, even admirable. Landis points out that after the passing of some years, his mother seemed to be less and less comfortable with the chicanery necessary for these philanthropic gestures (this included false names and even assuming the identity of a priest). He notes that as a child it was often observed he was ‘inclined to mischief.’ With the death of his mother in 2010, Landis seems to have entered into a profound depression, with a concomitant increase in the production of forgeries and donations. Again, watching the ways in which Landis struggles with the memories of both his parents, but particularly his mother, made me feel uncomfortably voyeuristic and concerned for his psychological state. It was something of a freak show.

Another troubling aspect of Art and Craft is not a fault of the film, but a distressing truth of the art world. In addition to following Landis’ methods and life, the film informs us of the cracking of the forgery case by former museum registrar Matt Leininger. Leininger’s blog posts and other resources reveal how he uncovered Landis’ deceptions, so I won’t outline that story here. What is most compelling to me about Leninger’s part in Art and Craft is where his passionate pursuit of Landis has ended (for the moment): with the loss of his position at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and as a pariah in the art world. During a Q&A after the screening of the film here in Memphis, director Sam Cullman noted Leninger has been effectively blackballed by museums and now works for Amazon.com. Leninger’s intellectual integrity motivated him to follow the path of Landis and his Johnny-Appleseed-like trail of forgeries throughout 60-some museums in the United States. But as more collections learned they had been duped, the more vehemently they covered up their failings, swept their Landis paintings under the rug, and urged Leninger to keep quiet. The complex, ardent marriage of art and money means museums often lose sight of their educational charge to inform their audiences of all aspects of the economics and varied values of art, not just the ones that put them in the most favorable or ‘interesting’ light. Leninger is collateral damage in this tension of art, value, and expertise.

I saw the film with an attorney friend of mine and benefited from a short chat we had after the film, regarding the legal ramifications of Mark Landis’ forgeries and donations. Why Landis has not been charged with a crime is only briefly explored in the film, and I am sure others in the audience have been turning over this question in their minds since the screening. It is apparently simple how Landis has avoided legal action: no money is being exchanged for his artworks. Financial gain is at the heart of the definition of fraud, generally speaking, as there must be some ‘harm’ dealt to the victim. Since museums are not paying Landis for his pieces, they suffer no financial loss when the forgeries are revealed. Were Landis to take tax deductions for his charitable donations to museums and collections, there could be grounds for legal action. Yet as my attorney friend pointed out, it’s unlikely Landis even has enough income to have to pay taxes and to benefit from such deductions. I suppose that if Landis’ paintings ended up in commercial galleries there could be additional legal angles to pursue. When forgers like Landis flood the market with their work, it drives down the price of all related work. This could possibly be an avenue for prosecution, if the estate of one of the artists whose work is being faked wanted to press charges, or a gallery owner felt he/she had suffered financial loss because the value of his/her holdings had decreased as a result of ‘competition’ from Landis or other forgers.

It surprises me how few art historians are interested in art forgery as an academic topic, generally speaking. When I saw Art and Craft last weekend, I didn’t recognize any other art faculty or local museum professionals in the audience. Sure, it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I feel if one values art as a historical document, one should also be concerned with the economics of art, today and in the past. Forgery (as well as theft, of course) has a real effect on the art market and art history, even if we cannot calculate that effect until after the forgery has been detected.

I had the pleasure last week of hearing Robert Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation speak last week in Winston-Salem, NC. It was a packed house at the Stevens Center, despite the rather high ticket price. I was pleased to see so many people turn out for an event about art and history, even if the crowd was less than diverse (mostly 60+, almost entirely Caucasian). I was also pleased that Mr. Edsel asked all WWII vets stand and be recognized for their service; a heartwarming moment.

Having read The Rape of Europa, seen the documentary, seen the somewhat fictionalized and Hollywood-ized version of the Monuments Men, and read other sources on what I call broadly the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (the systematic looting of private and public collections of art by the Nazis during WWII and the subsequent attempts to return those pieces), I did not expect to learn many new facts and figures from Mr. Edsel’s presentation. But I looked forward to an engaging evening and was not disappointed. I did learn some new things–including that an acquaintance of my mother’s, Mr. Frank Albright, was a Monuments Man.

I came to the event armed with my own questions about the Rape of Europa Phenomenon and the contemporary problems in Iraq, Syria, and other sites of Arab Spring revolutions. How would Mr. Edsel explain our terribly short memory regarding the vulnerability of art and other genres of cultural heritage? Is that lesson just one of the many we as a species refuse to learn from each terrible war?

Indeed even before I had the chance to ask my question regarding connections between WWII and today’s destruction and looting of art, Mr. Edsel brought up Iraq and Syria in his presentation. As did George Clooney, star of the Monuments Men movie, in a video clip from an interview. Clooney denounces the fact that it only took us 60 years to forget that art as a valuable commodity–valuable with respect to ideology, economics, and emotions–is vulnerable in war and should be protected. So while the lessons of that past seem to have been somewhat lost in today’s armed conflicts, at least among looters and some fighters, the intellectual community is still engaged with this problem and outraged at the violence against art we continue to see in places like Syria.

But after Mr. Edsel’s presentation, I still had a question about preventing further violence against art and cultural heritage during wartime. We in the archaeological community, seeing sabers rattling in 2002 and 2003 over possible armed conflict in Iraq, sent emails to members of Congress, made phone calls, signed petitions. These pleas for protection of museums, monuments, and archaeological sites, largely fell on deaf ears. The rest is history. The museum was looted, archaeological sites were ignored or actively damaged by members of coalition forces, historical evidence was lost forever. I asked Mr. Edsel: What more could we have done? What can we do now to protect these monuments today? How can we get the general public involved in a fight that has been largely in the hands of academics? Mr. Edsel reminded me (and the rest of the audience) there are now members of the US armed forces trained to protect cultural heritage. He also urged academics to not simply talk to one another, using our highbrow jargon, but to reach out to the public in an accessible way. Our phone calls and petitions could then be signed by more than a handful of professors; we would be joined by average citizens who also think art and architecture and archaeology are worth saving.

As I continue to think on these issues, however, I wonder if it was a fair question to ask, or rather if it is fair to compare the Rape of Europa Phenomenon with Iraq and Syria. The former was a systematic, well-organized operation with military and political support. The orders to loot museums and private collections came from the very top of Nazi hierarchy. Current destruction of sites in Syria seems sometimes accidental as collateral damage, sometimes ideologically motivated. The looting of the Baghdad Museum, however, was at the hands of opportunistic individuals motivated by financial gain or perhaps anger at the falling Saddam regime, which had so frequently propagandized ties to the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia. The Coalition’s colossal failure to protect the museum notwithstanding, the vandalism and thefts there were not carried out under local military orders.

This is a question that has troubled me for now over a decade: Why would the Iraqis themselves destroy their own history? It’s a question even good scholars like Lawrence Rothfield, with all due respect, have failed to sufficiently address. Again, Coalition forces ignored or were ignorant of the lessons of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon. Yet the Iraqi looters themselves seemed to not understand the consequences of their violence against their own history, early human history. Some of my favorite images of the happier phases of the Arab Spring revolutions are that of Egyptians forming a human chain around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (even if questions about it have been raised) and the modern Library of Alexandria, testament to the understanding of the vulnerability of art and culture during conflict. The civilian safeguarding of Egyptian monuments (even if other Egyptians have been engaged in illegal excavation and theft) is also symbolic of an indigenous sense of protection and ownership of their history, especially poignant as that history had been in the hands of others for so many years. If the Egyptians had learned the lessons of the Baghdad Museum, why had the Iraqis not learned from the depredations of WWII? If these concepts were not appreciated through direct study of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (which would be understandable), then why not through a broader understanding of the vulnerability of cultural heritage during wartime, because of art and artifacts’ combined ideological and commercial values?

I am without the resources to answer these last questions. I hope some commenters can offer their suggestions.

So my mother is very ill. I’ve taken the summer off from my usual research writing schedule to spend time with her and help take care of her. When she is feeling well she can be like a fire-hose of stories and family history; the gravity of her illness means she feels some urgency to relate these stories to others. As a woman who has lived abroad, who has traveled to all seven continents, she has a lot of things to say. I am an only child and the sole receptacle for these stories for the most part.

One project Mom has set up for the two of us is for her to tell me about the furniture, souvenirs, and other objects in her house. In some cases she tells me what family member bought what specific piece of furniture when: my great-grandfather the country doctor whose drop-leaf table is stained with what my mother (as a child) was sure was blood; my great-grandmother who gave away furniture after a family down the road lost their house in a fire, and then had to refurnish her own house. Other stories are of the typical souvenir type: a huge wooden rice bowl purchased in Bhutan; an inlaid stone tabletop from Agra, India, whose package was stamped ‘MARBLE WITH CARE.’ There is also the giant, hexadecagonal painting over the fireplace, painted by Mom’s college art professor, the man who introduced my parents to one another while on a study abroad program in Italy. There are bronzed shoes and a bronzed toy lamb, whose jingle-bell in the tail now just goes THUNK. Framed 19th-century maps of Mom’s native North Carolina. The 1973 puffin decoy awarded to Mom by Project Puffin leader Steve Kress because she was the only volunteer who didn’t throw up on the research boat. And so on.

My mother has really only one serial collection of objects among her souvenirs of life and travel: nativity scenes (some might call them crèches). This is a little odd to me since we are not an overly religious family; our Christmas celebrations are secular. Yet these sets of figurines are what Mom has collected over the course of at least 40 years. She has a knack for finding such scenes in (largely) non-Christian countries: to have scrounged nativity scenes in Burma, Nepal, Turkey, and Egypt (fine, it’s a plastic Coptic icon) is a great part of the fun.

Mom keeps most of these nativity scenes in a corner cupboard (purchased from my second grade teacher’s parents in Pilot Mountain, NC), closed for at least 335 days a year, but open at the holiday season for what she calls ‘instant Christmas.’

Mom's 'instant Christmas' display of nativity scenes from South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Mom’s ‘instant Christmas’ display of nativity scenes from South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. This is just part of the display; there are more nativity scenes in the lower part of the cabinet.

As someone who researches ancient houses, their architecture, and their decoration, this project of listening to and recording Mom’s stories about her ‘domestic collection’ is as fascinating for intellectual reasons as it is for personal ones. I have been working (for too long, actually) on a book about Roman residences as symbols of autobiography and this experience with Mom is a vibrant test-case for some of my theories put forth in the book. That becomes especially apparent when looking at the ‘instant Christmas’ collection. The imagery in the nativity scenes is familiar and legible to just about anyone who has been exposed to the Western version of Christmas. So when Mom talks about her pieces, she naturally doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth, quoting from the gospels of Matthew or Luke. (She would maybe only do that with a child, or with someone clearly unfamiliar with the Christian tradition.)

When Mom shows off her nativity scenes, they are a map and a calendar. They are indexical of her own life, not the life of Christ. Sometimes the materials become part of the narrative–the olive-wood figures from Italy, the hand-made terracottas from Mexico–but these formal qualities of the figurines relate to the map function of the collection. The stories she tells about this collection relate, as Susan Stewart notes in her work on souvenirs, to the circumstances of acquisition, to the exotic, a means of collapsing time and space. Mom’s souvenirs have lost their original didactic value (to tell the story of the birth of Jesus), replaced by Mom’s autobiographical narrative of travel and personal history. (This is to say nothing of the cultural imperialism of tourist art. But that’s another blog post.)

This relates to my own research on Roman domestic decoration by coming around to understanding how people in antiquity might have dealt with the banality of repetitive imagery. Paintings of Narcissus, for example, appear in over 40 wall paintings at Pompeii, entirely in residential settings. Certainly the owners of these houses did not tell Ovid’s story every time some new visitor came to call. Even if frescoes do not lend themselves to narratives on the circumstances of acquisition because of their ‘built-in’ materiality, I think subjective and personalized stories along the lines of Stewart’s souvenir model could have been told. The wall paintings of poor Actaeon were commissioned, then, not only for the ‘moral of the story’ or reference to literature, but for the patron’s love of hunting or dogs. Maybe domestic sculpture would have been better points of departure for ‘souvenir stories’– pieces acquired at specific places and times and brought back home. Gifts are even better ‘souvenirs’ as they symbolize not only time and space, are indexical of the owner, but are also tangible evidence for specific personal relationships.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (in both 1994 and 2008) discussed the banality brought about by social diffusion of typical features in Roman domestic decoration, noting that everyone pretty much had the same kind of stuff, from Cicero on down, but quality and quantity varied according to financial means. Yet–with all due respect!–Wallace-Hadrill doesn’t indicate how the Romans might have gotten over an important problem: How can a residence be symbolic of an owner’s cultural, economic, and social status if it pretty much looks like everyone else’s? I guess a Roman house is both self-portrait and mirror.

But if we allow subjective personal narratives to enter the toolbox of the art historian or archaeologist dealing with ancient interpretations of domestic decoration, then we may find new readings which are appropriate for the ancient climate, enliven repetitive imagery, are accessible to viewers who may not have had an elite literary education, and recognize an abundantly human tendency to talk about oneself. Suites of statuettes or wall paintings in a Roman house then become autobiography, mirror, map, calendar. We don’t have surviving written commentary on how and why archaeologically-known residences were designed the way they were. But we can speculate that an ancient homeowner, like my mother, might tell a personal story about a familiar image type, rather than resorting to overly-complicated literary criticism or intertextual dissections or even just plain old didactic readings.

With apologies to Linda Nochlin.

Since taking a seminar in graduate school on forgeries, reproductions, and copy/model issues, I’ve been fascinated with forgery (and other forms of art crime). I have even presented my own research on what I believe to be an 18th-century forgery of an ancient Roman portrait. (While I’ve been invited a number of times to present this project as a lecture, journals thus far have been resistant to publish such an article that does not have a black-and-white, slam-dunk answer to the ‘Is it fake?’ question.)

And since teaching a course on art crime for the adult education program at Rhodes College, I’ve been reading more about forgery, both fiction and nonfiction. Watching movies too. (I admire the idea around F for Fake, but don’t enjoy it as a film, sadly. How to Steal a Million is corny and sweet.) My Amazon wish list is full of art crime books (among the dog treats and bike accessories).

The stories of many (discovered) forgers are strikingly similar: a frustrated artist, his work not appreciated in terms of critical or financial success, starts fudging paintings (more rarely sculpture) in order to exact revenge on what he perceives of as a corrupt and clueless industry. Details vary: some artists recreate existing works, some create pastiches; some forgers turn themselves in, some are discovered by professionals in art or conservation.

See the fairly recent case of Wolfgang Beltracchi:

During the trial, Beltracchi described his early beginnings when he forged a Picasso in two hours as a 14-year-old boy, his faltering career as an artist and the “fun” he experienced in deceiving the art world, finally delivering a scathing attack on the art market: “You have to know where the greed is greatest.”

(When it comes to alternative career paths for frustrated artists, I guess forgery is better than world domination and genocide. Ahem.)

I don’t choose the masculine pronoun carelessly, as the best-known art forgers have all been men.

The female forger seems to be possible, however, in the world of fiction: Paula in Gaslight fakes jewelry; B. A. Shapiro‘s Claire both legally reproduces paintings and fakes one. (Aviva Briefel carefully notes the difference between female copyists and female forgers.)

Yet I guess to ask why there have been no famous female forgers can be answered in part by looking at the artists whose works are most frequently forged: Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Gaugin, Van Gogh… The gender imbalance in forgery is perhaps mirrored in the gender imbalance in art history, explored by Nochlin so famously first in 1971. Can we chalk up the lack of famous female forgers to women’s historical lack of access to the institutional and educational systems of the art world?

When considering the trope of ‘frustrated artist turns to forgery to exact revenge on the art world,’ one would imagine that the gender bias in art institutions would create a perfect laboratory for cultivating female forgers. Yet this seems not to be the case. (The fictional example of Shapiro’s Forger is an outlier.)

It seems more fun, however, to propose that there are no great women art forgers because none of their fakes have been detected. Women are simply better at forgery than men. This explanation underscores Nochlin’s point regarding the fallacy that women are incapable at genius.

What are your thoughts? Am I missing some great famous case of a female forger?

On Wednesday 13 March, Prof. Luca Guiliani (Humboldt University, Berlin) presented his theories that the British Museum’s Warren Cup is a forgery. These are not new theories to Prof. Giuliani, as he has apparently expressed them in Germany before bringing his thoughts to a public forum at King’s College, London. Frankly, these are not new theories at all, as many have whispered and even published their concerns about the Cup’s status as an ancient object for as long as it has been on view in the British Museum. See, for example, Maria Teresa Marabini’s examination in Bollettino d’Arte 2008.

When it comes to “fake-busting,” or questioning the authenticity of works of art, especially ancient ones, there are a few typical avenues to pursue, bases on which to judge authenticity:

  • iconography
  • form
  • style
  • provenance/provenience
  • state of preservation
  • material
  • technique

It appears that Prof. Giuliani is largely challenging the Cup on its iconography, specifically the explicit scenes of homosexual activity. These scenes are apparently unique on ancient silver cups, though there are some parallels in terracotta vessels. (See, for example, Clarke 2001, Looking at Lovemaking, figs. 24-27). Giuliani links the sex scenes to E. P. Warren’s well-known taste for such imagery which can be seen in many ancient objects purchased by the art patron and given or sold to other collections, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (like the Pan Painter’s name vase, to cite just one example). It seems Giuliani suspects one of two scenarios: that Warren commissioned the silver cup, requesting imagery which appealed to his personal taste for both ancient objects and homosexual imagery. Or a forger, perhaps working with an agent who knew Warren’s preferences, created the cup with the collector in mind.

In the Guardian article, Giuliani is noted as questioning the imagery on the grounds of its uniqueness for an ancient Roman silver vessel. Yet the iconography for this genre of household object is, in fact, quite varied and sometimes very surprising. No one to my knowledge has questioned the authenticity of the Tiberian Boscoreale cups with scenes of triumph. This imagery is, as far as I know, unique for silver tableware, yet very familiar for large-scale public monuments.

“Uniqueness” for me is always shaky ground on which to build an argument against authenticity of an ancient object. One must be aware of the many lacunae we have in the archaeological record–could another silver cup with explicit homosexual imagery be excavated in some field project this summer? Could such cups have been melted down en masse during times of economic crisis or early Christian prudery? And considering this is a silver cup, for private use in a private setting, could a wealthy Roman have commissioned this piece specifically for his own tastes? It need not have been one of a series of sexually-explicit vessels produced in large quantities for the general market.

One hopes that after Giuliani’s public speculation on the basis of iconography that he will follow up with examination of the materials and technique for the cup, although I know of no specific problems in attributing the repoussé work to an ancient craftsperson. The Guardian article notes that Prof. Dyfri Williams, who has long supported the case for authenticity, suggested the composition of the Warren Cup’s silver could be an important piece of evidence in putting the question to bed (as it were). Yet we art historians and archaeologists have frequently been stymied by the results of laboratory tests when requesting yes-or-no answers to our questions regarding forgery. See, for example, the Boston Snake Goddess or the Getty Kouros. In fact, the Museum has examined the silver composition and the corrosion layers on the cup, noting that both aspects are consistent with other authentic pieces. That the silver of the Warren Cup is similar to other Roman silver might still be an ambiguous result: a crafty forger might have melted down scraps of ancient silver cups to make this extraordinary one.

When it comes to the provenance and provenience of the Warren Cup, the story is, sadly, a familiar and unhelpful one. The British Museum’s database provides information only as good as what E. P. Warren was able to give: the cup was “said to be found at Bittir, near Jerusalem.” In other words, a completely useless findspot when it comes to determining authenticity. As for Giuliani’s charge that Warren collected other “counterfeit pieces,” that seems something of a red herring in the argument at hand. Had the British Museum purchased the cup directly from Warren in the early 20th century, at a time when studies on such cups was in something of an infancy, the Museum could be excused for falling for such a fantastic object. But the Museum bought this in 1999, with the benefit of, for example, Donald Strong’s 1979 study of Roman silver plate. Is not the onus on the buyer rather than the collector to be confident in authenticity when making such an extraordinary purchase? In other words, don’t blame poor E. P. Warren–having been duped by other fakes–for one museum having bought a forgery!

Having not seen the Warren Cup with my own eyes for some years, I have to say I don’t have my own firm opinion on its authenticity. I confess I’ve sometimes thought the homosexual imagery was too good to be true, or wishful thinking on the part of Warren or other scholars who work on queer theory or queer politics in antiquity. As noted above, I don’t always think uniqueness is the best foundation on which to build a case for forgery when it comes to ancient objects, yet the Warren Cup has troubled me in this regard. If Prof. Giuliani is to follow up on his line of questioning, I would hope he would look further into the purported provenance, study more images of explicit sex scenes in terracotta drinking vessels, and consider the possibility that this might have been an ancient, private commission.

On Graceland and Roman elite villas: My post at the Chronicle

This post on David Silbey’s history blog from the Chronicle of Higher Education lays out some of the arguments I’m making in a conference paper (coming up next weekend in ABQ!) and an article. The post also talks a bit about how I arrived at the idea for the research project, “showing my work,” as it were.

I’ll be presenting this as a paper next month at the Southwest Popular/American Culture conference, and I’m currently writing it up as an article, perhaps for the Classical Receptions journal (though other suggestions for an appropriate venue are appreciated!).

Here is the abstract for the conference paper:

Luxus on the Mississippi: Graceland Mansion as an Elite Roman Villa

Francesca C. Tronchin, Rhodes College

Varro’s criticism of luxury villas, Statius’ encomium through villa description, Pliny the Younger’s autobiography in villa letters, Philostratus’ description of a paintings gallery in a Neapolitan villa: myriad ancient texts describe ideal elite Roman residences. The archaeological record largely confirms the written evidence for the taste of the aristocracy for imported marbles, large-scale statuary, landscape and water features, and costly mosaics in their rural estates. Yet while there is some corroboration between these two primary sources of information from the ancient world, there are no examples of extant villas which are specifically described in the texts–no villa of Pliny’s has decisively been discovered and Cicero’s Tusculanum remains buried. Indeed no archaeologically-known villa from Roman Italy displays all the typical characteristics described in the texts about these sumptuous residences, although the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, among others, comes close.

If an ancient handbook of ideal features in luxury villas existed, it would certainly include the following: imported materials, classicising sculpture, exotica, water features (as evidence for the owner’s ability to “tame” nature), references to the owner’s ancestors, and settings for both otium and negotium. Ideal estates would be extra- or suburban and eventually would come to be monuments to the memory of the most prominent owner of the villa, perhaps even through the tomb itself. Whether written as praise for a villa patron or as criticism of private luxury, these components are included in a great number of ancient descriptions of opulent, rural estates.

As noted above, archaeologists have not found any villa on Roman soil which specifically confirms all the features of villa design mentioned in the written sources.

Perhaps they should have been looking for a quintessential example a luxury villa in Memphis, Tennessee, for Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion is indeed a “better” elite Roman villa than ones around the Mediterranean. Built in 1939, purchased by Elvis in 1957, and modified and redecorated over the last twenty years of his life, the mansion reflects the King’s personal taste, commemorates his personal achievements, and memorializes his loved ones. The residence features a recording studio and office, balanced by zones for otium like the swimming pool and racquetball courts. The Jungle Room, sheathed in green shag carpet, boasts an indoor waterfall akin to the Euripi described by Cicero in de Legibus II.2. Many other decorative features and direct classical references at Graceland evoke antiquity, but the Meditation Garden is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent aspect of the residence-turned-museum’s allusion to Roman villas. As the funerary monument to Elvis and a number of his family members, the Garden is visited by hundreds of thousands of international pilgrims, especially around the anniversary of Elvis’ death.

Graceland, therefore, is the eclectic and personalized architectural autobiography of the King, an enduring shrine to his memory, and a time capsule of (for better or for worse) contemporary taste.

Through this comparison of elite villas and Graceland, this paper interrogates, in part, the usefulness of ancient textual sources with respect to examining archaeological evidence for Roman domestic architecture.


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