Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Week 2: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Today was our second meeting for the course "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen." I mentioned earlier that one participant had enrolled as of last week, which had cast doubt on the future of the course, but another non-credit participant has signed up and it appears that two more students may begin attending as soon as we can arrange an alternative time slot (apparently Tuesday mornings are very popular for courses here in the Institute for Archaeological Sciences). This is good news and means that the course can carry on. I have decided, however, that the course blog will not be updated regularly since it will be easy enough to distribute course materials directly to such a small number of participants and we can easily discuss and review themes each week amongst ourselves.

For interested readers who wish to follow along, I will continue updating this blog weekly with reports on our activities and will upload English versions of our reading lists for each week. After our introductory discussion last week, we turned our attention today towards the theme of "The Relationship between Art and Coin Images" (download handout, Deutsch - English). Our first few meetings will be dealing with the historiography of the study of coin images and so I intentionally assigned some dated readings to give us a sense of 19th and early 20th century thoughts about the relationship between art and ancient coins and to provoke discussion.

We began by discussing Poole's article from 1869. Poole characterized Greek coins as important works of art in their own right, particularly related to relief sculpture, and argued that they represented local Greek styles. He further defined the stylistic characteristics of several different artistic "schools" in the Greek world, working in the antiquarian tradition of classifying and defining. By modern standards, the argumentation is weak on several points and the text contains several value judgments on artistic execution (common in literature of the period), but Poole's contribution lay in the recognition that Greek coins and other artistic media share common features. Although this may seem obvious to us today, before the mid 19th century, few critical studies sought to explore coin images in the same way that other artistic media was studied. Numismatic inquiry, as it sometimes is today, was often isolated from interdisciplinary studies. Poole, and other contemporaries, contributed to bridging that gap and placing coinage within the broader context of the study of ancient art.

Next we briefly discussed Bernard Ashmole's article from 1938. This rather short contribution examined "the community of style between coins and sculpture." Among other things, he discussed examples where coins might be used as stylistic indicators whereby we, in turn, could date sculptures.

The third article that we talked about, and in my view the most interesting, was Sutherland's "What is Meant by 'Style' in Coinage?" (1950). Here Sutherland was particularly concerned with highlighting the inventiveness and independence of the die-engraver and argued that periods do not have artistic styles, but rather that artistic styles come from artists. We had a long discussion over his arguments and these two points. Whether or not it was a conscious move, Sutherland's view that periods do not dictate styles somewhat contradicts the arguments put forth in Alois Riegl's Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901, reprinted and revised in 1927), in which it was argued that art of a given period will exhibit demonstrable features that reflect underlying cultural, social, and intellectual trends, which he termed Kunstwollen. Certainly, many readers will recognize that Alois Riegl is a very important art historian who influenced the whole of the discipline since this was essentially one of the first works where art was viewed as a tool for understanding the societies that created it, moving art history into the historical sciences and away from just aestheticism or connoisseurship. Back to Sutherland. His point that artists ultimately dictate a style was taken, but then we asked the question how far can we really say that die-cutter was a creative artisan. In this contribution, the fact that coins were utilitarian objects, mass produced for daily transactions, which necessitates that they be regular, consistent, and often relatively simplistic, remains far in the background. Certainly an average die-engraver could not be all that inventive in the style or choice of designs and must have been constrained by the rigid parameters of the medium (size of flan), tradition, and any stipulations set forth by the minting authority. Naturally, there may have been exceptions. The signed dekadrachms from Syracuse or Roman medallions represent instances where die-engravers might have enjoyed the freedom for more creativity and an ability to express "style" in different ways. We may also presume that a "master die-engraver" worked at mints and that other engraver's essentially copied his work, though the master engraver himself would have been subject to the same constraints listed above. Martin Beckmann presented a paper at the AIA meeting in 2008 in which he discussed Trajanic coin types that appear to have been produced early in a series by a "master engraver," which then served as prototypes for subsequent die-cutters. A similar phenomenon is observed by the identification of a master die-cutter dubbed the "Alphaeus Master" by C.T. Seltman ("Greek Sculpture and Some Festival Coins," Hesperia 17 (1948), 71-85. [JSTOR]). Sutherland discussed John Beazley and was undoubtedly influenced by his pioneering the use of Morellian analysis on Greek painted vases, but the ability to attribute dies to individual engravers is limited. Only in a few instances can we distinguish the work of different die-cutters, namely "master engravers."

We turned for a few moments to discuss Kurt Regling's Die antike Münze als Kunstwerk (1924), which is similar to Sutherland's contribution in several respects, such as addressing the inventiveness of engravers, though Regling often stuck to more specific examples such as Syracuse. A discussion followed on the hazards of narrowly viewing coins as artworks and, consequently, dangerously aggrandizing the creative role a die-engraver had. In all aspects of numismatic research, we must constantly remain cognizant of the multivalent roles that coins played in the ancient world. With a few exceptions, coins were mass produced currency and other functions would have been secondary.

Finally, we discussed Martin Price's article about paintings serving as prototypes for coin designs. While it is clear that sculpture and architecture influenced coin designs, far fewer paintings survive today and it is thus difficult to ascertain what coin depictions may have been based on famous paintings. He did offer us with some examples where it is probable that designs were based on painting and pointed to the conventions which allowed this to be realized, as in the labeling of figures. Much of the article was necessarily speculative, but provided much to consider. All the four readings for today showed how coin designs, and the die-engravers who produced them, could be dependent on wider artistic trends or specific prototypes and, at other times, more independent and creative. Although many of today's readings may not be so important in the modern discourse regarding images on coins, I think the first three articles provided a sense as to the state of these questions regarding art's relationship with coins in the 19th and early- to mid 20th centuries.

This course is devoted to images on Roman coins, but I thought it necessary to give participants a taste of the nature of images on Greek coins and the current understanding and analysis of Greek coin images in terms of Bildsprache. Therefore, for next week, we will be discussing "Greek Art and the Nature of Images on Greek Coins" (download handout, Deutsch - English). The first two articles are from the 19th century and are assigned to provide a glimpse into the conception of Greek coin images at this time. The final two assigned readings come from Stefan Ritter's Bildkontakte. Götter und Heroen in der Bildsprache griechischer Münzen des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (2002), which is one of the few extended studies which applies the concept of Bildsprache to Greek coin images in a consistent and critical fashion. By contrast, much more has traditionally been done in the study of images on Roman coins. I also provide a list of further readings to get anyone started who may wish to pursue questions relating to images on Greek coins. The section I list in Barclay Head's book contradicts the articles of Burgon and Curtius, which I assigned. In some respects, Head's short section summarizes, even if in a simplistic fashion, the way that images on Greek coins have traditionally been understood and approached by many modern scholars. After next week, we will stick strictly with Roman coins for the remainder of the course.

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