Artists, artists’ workshops and customers of art in Roman Society

The artist as a social image is difficult to define. The Roman context inherits many of the issues that were already present in the Greek one. There is no Greek word to indicate the specific artist: the words βάναυσος (banausos) and τεχνίτης (technites) are broadly used to refer to any kind of craftsman, with no apparent distinction. The Latin also does not offer a solution to the problem because artifex and opifex seem to indicate the maker or user of the artistic object. So, based only on the ancient definition, we could say that the ancient artists presented themselves as an indistinct whole, without any specialisation. By doing so, however, we fall into a major error of assessment. The same ancient sources, in fact, show a rare artistic acumen and a strong specialisation in the categorisation of artists. So it was Phidias, thanks to his skills (his famous maiestas and auctoritas) as the sculptor of the gods, Polykleitos for the human beings, and Callimachus for the figures full of grace and elegance.

Rome knows no great artistic personalities, or at least we do not know of them directly. The great Greek names are totally lacking in Roman literary and epigraphic culture. Cicero in the Tusculanae Disputationes complains about the lack of attention that the Roman society shows towards the arts. He wonders whether Rome could provide the necessary conditions for the developing of personalities such as Polykleitos or Parrhasius1. While Cicero has proved very reliable on other occasions, we cannot truly believe that there were no great artists in Rome.

Even Pliny, speaking of the famous work of the Laocoon, does not gives the three masters of Rhodes the attention they deserve. The three sculptures are in fact quickly quoted2 with no anecdote. Of the 350 artists mentioned by Pliny, only nine are definetely of Roman or3, the others are all clearly Greek.

We can only trust the literary sources. The absence of archaeological evidence is problematic: the phenomenon of the recognition of signatures that Greece has helped to identify, for both the artists and their workshops (and in some cases some fake vintage), never happened in Rome. The only signatures which are recognisable in Rome belong in fact to Greek artist, which confirms the version of Pliny. Only starting from the second century A. D. do a few Latin names begin to appear. However, very often, these signatures reveal a Greek origin of the artist (mostly freedmen). For example4, the names of M. Plautius Menecrates and M. Epidius Eros can probably be linked to the Greek names of Menecrates and Eros, very popular among the slaves.

In any case, it seems that the artists of Rome, except in exceptional circumstances5, did not have great prestige in the Roman society, in contrast to what happened in Greece6. The intrinsic reason why Roman art was thus underestimated by his contemporaries is clear in the view of Pliny. According to him, Roman art was, in fact, regarded as a sterile imitation of the Greek one, which had reached its highest artistic quality (ακμή). The Roman conception of art (in the opinion that was commonly accepted until the twentieth century), resulted from authors as Xenocrates of Athens and Antigonus of Carystus (III B.C.). For this reason, then, the Roman artist was considered to have a minor role.

Some important clues on the consideration given to the artists in society can be traced in the analysis of their homes. Unfortunately, not much can be said on the subject, due to insufficient evidence. Diodorus Siculus7 tells us that the painter Demetrius of Alexandria, who moved to Rome in II B.C., could only afford a small attic.

Understanding the work is also a highly problematic task. As for the thorny Renaissance attributions (and after) it is difficult to clarify the true meaning of the term “workshop”. In fact, when the influence of the teacher over his students is strong, the attribution of the work is often unconvincing. Both for Greek and Roman work, something like this often happens; an obvious example would be the many works of the school of Euphronios). The artistic demand was so high that a single artist could not fulfill it8. Students often imitated their teacher’s technique and work so well that it is incredibly hard to distinguish them.

The division and rationalisation of the ancient work of art (from classical Athens) is surprisingly modern. For example, it was quite common to have a division of labour within the same workshop (officina): the figure-painters (pictores imaginarii) must be distinguished from the more affluent fresco-painters9.

We do not know what kind of policy was implemented in hiring new workers. It is possible that, just like in the Renaissance, the shops were prone to “adopt” a child at a young age and educate him professionally. Roman papyri in Egypt10 show that there were contracts that governed the relationship between the student and the teacher, with particular reference to:

– The time of apprenticeship
– The aim of the apprenticeship
– Remuneration
– Feeding and clothing
– Ipotetical penalties

These workshops are difficult to reconstruct on the basis of the archaeological finds. Tangible signs of the presence of an artistic workshop are the piles of waste products (where the kilns for ceramics can easily be found), the specialised tools and the proximity to sources of raw material.

In particular, the marble-working shops, for obvious reasons, were in the vicinity of the quarries to start the work, and another team were concerned with the architectural finishes at the installation site.

The production of ceramics should be, for convenience, close to the clay pits as well. The demand for ceramics (obviously including shingles and tiles for the roofs) was likely to create an entire residential area developed around the industrial area11. These are cases of Corinth and Lacco Ameno (Ischia), where four types of kiln were found along with a continuous phase of work carried out throughout many centuries.

On the contrary, the workshops needed to work the bronze with huge fires (hence constant supply of firewood) and casting pits.

The Roman artist or their workshop usually worked on public and private commission, and in the former case well-paid contractors were used12. The client (redemptor) entered into a regular contract (locatio) where one party was offering the service. One of these contracts was preserved in the form of Lex Puteolana (105 BC) inscribed on marble, and the committee was called for the construction of walls and of a sanctuary of Serapis in Puteoli (Pozzuoli). The redemptor was regularly concerned with the progress of the work and the contract could only be considered fulfilled with the probatio, i.e. the approval of the final customer. It is also possible, however not supported by archaeological evidence, that the patron often personally intervened in deciding the iconography.

Through Petronius13, the famous freedman Trimalchio describes in detail what he wanted his hypothetical tomb to be like. We cannot assume that any commission could be custom. We have evidence of an impressive first mass production with the wreck of St. Peter (Manduria, Italy) carrying a cargo of coffins encased one inside the other, ready to be inscribed and used. The same applies to the shipwreck of Mahdia (Tunisia), with 70 marble pillars probably for the art market.

Finally, we must not overlook a good section of the art market from Greece. The rich wealthy Romans took advantage of skilled mediators (the most famous is certainly Pomponius Atticus, Cicero’s friend and agent) to import the most beautiful sculptures and works of art from Greece and thus to satisfy the collecting-mania of the Romans.

In this way, and for the aforementioned reason of the prestige of Greece, the Roman porticus was filled with Greek works and, more commonly, with Roman copies of Greek originals, starting from the second century BC. The phenomenon grew out of proportion, and ended up in creating true centres of production and especially trade (the famous Agora des Italiens in Delos14 could be considered a massive market of art). This not only had enormous repercussions on the history of Roman art (for example the birth of the realistic portrait), but also the social role that art had in Roman development.

1 Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes,I. 2. 4

2 Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XXXVI,37

3 In particular: Arellius (XXXV. 119), Coponius (XXXVI. 41), Fabius Pictor (XXXV. 19), Famulus, Pinus, Priscus e Titedius Labeones (XXXV. 120), Studius (XXXV. 116) e Turpilius (XXXV. 20)

4Stewart P., 2008, The Social History of Roman Art, Cambridge, p. 17

5Op.Cit., p.20

6Significant is the story of Apelles who could afford to criticize Alexander, or the example of Phidias, who went to occupy prestigious institutions.

7 Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica,XXXI.

8 As many as 180 workers employed all’ergasterion of Phidias, the laboratory with the same size as planimetric and elevation of the cell of the temple of Zeus, to work on his statue.

9 According to the Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium of Diocletianus (301 A.D.)

10Stewart P., 2008, The Social History of Roman Art, p.31

11See the Potters’ Quarter of Corinth located close to the local clay bed

12See The tomb of the Haterii in Rome

13Petronius, Satyricon LXXI

14Mastino A., 2008, Il Dibattito sull’agorà degli Italici a Delo: un bilancio retrospettivo fra ideologia ed urbanistica. In: Le perle e il filo: a Mario Torelli per i suoi settanta anni. Venosa, Osanna Edizioni. p. 233-241


2 pensieri su “Artists, artists’ workshops and customers of art in Roman Society

  1. Hello i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace, when i
    read this post i thought i could also create comment due to this sensible article.

    Mi piace


Inserisci i tuoi dati qui sotto o clicca su un'icona per effettuare l'accesso:


Stai commentando usando il tuo account Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Foto Twitter

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Twitter. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Foto di Facebook

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Facebook. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Google+ photo

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Google+. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Connessione a %s...