Let no one say that Classics doesn’t get its fair share of TV documentaries! BBC4 is currently airing a three-parter written and presented by Alastair Sooke, who, in his day job, is an art critic for the Daily Telegraph. Episode one, which aired on Monday and is still on iplayer, opens with Sooke kayaking in front of the Pont du Gard. He’s on a mission, apparently: to debunk the idea that the Romans ‘didn’t “do” Art’.
It’s an odd way to begin. Within the fields of classics and art history, we’re all too familiar with the legacy of Winckelmann and the cult of the lost Greek original, and the fact that Roman art has historically been disparaged. But it’s hardly academic consensus that the Romans ‘didn’t “do” Art’, let alone a prejudice deeply ingrained in the popular consciousness! It was an inauspicious opening, but once Sooke had got past the artificial controversy in a tea cup (presumably created for the press pack?) it was never mentioned again. and the episode turned out to be good fun, discussing Roman art from the Republican period (with a brief 10 minute nod to Augustus).
A large part of the episode focused on the craftsmanship behind the artworks, and this generated the most interesting parts of the episode. OK, hands up, I admit I massively enjoyed those bits of Time Team where, as a break from all the archaeology, Tony Robinson would be set to building a wattle-and-daub wall or an impossibly bearded man would demonstrate flint knapping. And ToAR takes a similar approach, visiting the Carrara marble quarry and a bronze sculptor’s studio, talking to contemporary artists like Antony Gormley, seeing how a Roman fresco painter would have made his paint (from powdered pigment and egg yolk, if you want to try it at home). There are two beautiful time-capture sequences, where a bust of Cicero emerges from a block of Carrara marble, and the painted decoration on a head of Athena is recreated. We also get to see carbon-dating in action, at the lab where the Capitoline She-Wolf was shown to be younger by over a thousand years than its traditional dating.
Unfortunately ToAR suffers from coming quite closely on the heels of another series, Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans, and it’s not quite in its predecessor’s league. At times the director seems to be almost parodying the style of MtR: generic shots of modern Romans going about their day-to-day business as the voice-over discusses their ancient predecessors, and a travel gimmick! Instead of MB’s bike, eminently suitable for pedalling up and down the Appian Way and around Rome’s narrow alleys, Sooke drives a vintage white Fiat 500, for no discernible reason.* Where Beard took us down the Appian Way on her bike to show us the funerary monuments, Sooke uses it as a route to reach Pompeii(!), and as he jokes, his Fiat nearly gives up on the bumpy Roman paving. (He appears in Pompeii sans Fiat, though I half expected to see him rev his way through the Forum.)
Sooke is an enthusiastic and informed presenter, and the episode works best when it plays to his strengths as an art critic; but when it comes to the history stuff, he is just a little… shaky. A few minutes could have been saved from *yawn* Pompeii’s alleged 35 brothels (the figure unquestioned here) and given to Augustus, who was squeezed in the 8 minutes at the end, and cast as a bad guy ‘secretly killing off the Republic’; the iconography of the Ara Pacis was discussed but not its purpose. And now I’m really nit-picking – and it would have made no difference to the non-classicist viewer – but we got “L” Junius Brutus, as J. Edgar Hoover, rather than Lucius Junius Brutus. Sooke has a tendency to make grand statements, exclaiming as he walks through the ruins how overwhelmed he is at the amount of art in Pompeii. Now, actually I’m sure most people’s impression when they visit Pompeii is ‘where’s all the stuff?’, most of it having been taken to the Museo Nazionale in Naples.
So, will I be watching episodes 2 and 3? Very likely yes. By focussing on the objects themselves, by and large, ToAR manages to bounce along rather more lightly than the poor white Fiat. (And the soundtrack gets an honourable mention, with echoes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and less of the generic ethnic wailing women/flutes that have dogged TV and film about the ancient world since Gladiator). Perhaps in the later episodes I would like to hear a bit more about the market that generated the artworks, something Sooke mentions briefly in this episode: who commissioned them and how were they used? But seeing the art close up, or in the round, as the camera can do, is a real treat.
*OK, because it’s COOL. Honestly, I’m… not jealous… at all…