Friday 5 June 2009

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at LACMA

Pompeianists know well Wallace-Hadrill's award-winning 1996 book Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum* as well as we know he has worked on a variety of topics related to the social and cultural history of ancient Rome. In light of his extensive record of publications, his significant role in the Herculaneum Conservation Project, his directorship of the British School at Rome, and his reputation as an engaging public speaker, Wallace-Hadrill was an obvious choice as the keynote speaker for the Greek Art/Roman Eyes symposium, being held over the next two days at the Getty Villa. (Last night's talk actually took place at LACMA as the symposium is being held in conjunction with the Pompeii and the Roman Villa exhibition there.)

Last night's talk was meant for a general audience (in contrast with the scholarly level of the symposium papers) and Wallace-Hadrill was indeed charming, a little off-the-cuff, and made the kind of connections between antiquity and today's society that popular audiences enjoy. The overall themes of his talk were Greek luxury, its importation into Roman Italy as war booty, conflicting Roman reactions to sumptuous foreign art, and the eventual Roman capitulation to the wiles of Greek visual culture. Wallace-Hadrill used primarily the houses of Pompeii and material from the Mahdia shipwreck as archaeological evidence for these phenomena and also cited familiar passages of Pliny the Elder, Sallust, and Livy to further flesh out his argument. His thesis was conventionalto most art historians and archaeologists, but he delivered it in a lively way.

Wallace-Hadrill indeed dropped some more controversial ideas into his talk, perhaps placed there to keep the academics in the audience on our toes. He mentioned, for example, "the positive side of Roman greed"--an artistic boom for Greece, whose artisans had not seen such a tremendous number of commissions for centuries.

What was new in his presentation was some recent work on the Villa dei Misteri and the geometric arrangement of its plan. Wallace-Hadrill has apparently been working on this issue for a while, but cited a new plan of the Villa given to him by the Superintendent of Pompeii (presumably P. G. Guzzo) just this week as the source of a breakthrough. He has discovered that the plan was laid out in Oscan feet and that bisected squares divide the villa into suites of rooms and emphasize the break between the spaces for production and the more luxurious areas of the residence. Wallace-Hadrill created an elegant distinction between the pars urbana and the pars rustica as "creating a balance between the production of wine and the drinking of it."

In the interest of time & the kind of audience he was addressing, Wallace-Hadrill could not go into great detail with this latest work, but no doubt he will be pursuing it further and in print.

*NB: This book won the Wiseman Book Award in spite of not having a colon or other punctuation mark in the title!

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