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.

The sculpture market in late 18th-century Rome was a confluence of a high demand for antiquities (thanks to Grand Tour traffic), the nascent field of art history and connoisseurship within it, talented sculptors who could create works which appealed to both the taste for ancient art and complete, “perfect” statuary, and some techniques in restoration which in retrospect seem at best bizarre and at worst immoral and violent to the historical record.

A single sentence from my current research project, “Reexamining the Authenticity of a Portrait of Augustus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

Students in my intermediate-level course on the Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt have been giving short, in-class presentations on examples of “junk archaeology,” “bad Egyptology,” and “pseudo-science.” At first some of them seemed skeptical about their abilities to locate this kind of material, but I assured them it was lurking in the not-too-dark corners of the Internet.

The assignment has three goals: First, to get the students comfortable speaking in front of the class before they do a more formal presentation at the end of the semester. Second, to discuss–generally speaking–the nature of the Internet as a “democratic” medium for the dissemination of scholarship. And third, to question why ancient Egypt seems to draw out the wildest and most unfounded theories. As a specialist in Roman archaeology (and to a much lesser extent, Greek), I note that there is far, far less “pseudo-science” around classical cultures.

Perhaps it is what Ian Shaw notes about ancient Egypt that makes it susceptible to this type of intellectual reaction: “..the attraction of ancient Egyptian culture is its combination of exotica and familiarity…” (Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction 2004, 9).

For what they are worth, here are some of the sites and articles my students presented as examples of “bad Egyptology”:

Egyptian pyramids were power plants, generating electricity

Michael Jackson and the Myth of Osiris

Pharaoh as wizard in Ancient Egypt

Aliens in Ancient Egypt

Mars Traded with Ancient Egypt (autoplay video!)

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (movie from 1971)

Egyptian Colony in the Grand Canyon

Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt

New Pyramids found with Google Earth

Mystery of the Sphinx (assigns date to 10,000 BCE)

Star Wars Spacecraft in Ancient Egypt

The Saqqara Bird

I think this assignment was a tremendous success, if only because I became aware of this photo:

aliens in egypt