Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description

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Although scholars have emphasized the importance of isolating the objective evaluation of evidence from interpretation, in practice, it has proved difficult to determine the distinction. This study examines the scholarship on description for a select number of well-known Greek statues from the eighteenth-century through the present. The impact of the historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts of this specialized scholarship is demonstrated through considerations of issues such as ethnicity, psychology, theories about artistic form, and evolving conceptions of nude and clothed figures.

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From the Publisher
"This study should lead us to think much harder about the assumption of a genuinely empirical basis to our study of Greek sculpture, and particularly archaic material...This book is a valuable and nuanced encouragement to recognize some of our baggage and move beyond it; it will be interesting to see whether we have done so a few years down the line." - Elizabeth Moignard, University of Glasgow, Classical Bulletin
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521840842
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2005
  • Pages: 278
  • Product dimensions: 6.85 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

A. A. Donohue is Rhys Carpenter Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College.

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Greek sculpture and the problem of description
Cambridge University Press
0521840848 - Greek sculpture and the problem of description - by A. A. Donohue


The historian of classical art faces substantial difficulties. The immediate problems of dealing with a body of material that is fragmented in every sense of the word and that lacks a documentary base are compounded by major gaps in the transmission of the cultural context as a whole. Considerable analysis is thus required simply to establish a corpus that is reasonably secure with respect to provenance, chronology, and authorship. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff in 1921 used a striking mathematical metaphor to characterize the situation of archaeological research: “It is simply the case that archaeology has a mass of works of art without named creators, and accounts of artists without their works, and it cannot give up seeking connections, even if, taken altogether, asymptotes will remain.”1 These conditions are so obvious that they have been taken not only to determine the way that ancient art is studied, but even to define entire disciplines.


We may introduce the problem of archaeological description by considering a passage in Meyer Schapiro’s influential article of 1953 on “Style,” which begins by setting out a contrast:

For the archaeologist, style is exemplified in a motive or pattern, or in some directly grasped quality of the work of art, which helps him to localize and date the work and to establish connections between groups of works or between cultures. Style here is a symptomatic trait, like the nonaesthetic features of an artifact. It is studied more often as a diagnostic means than for its own sake as an important constituent of culture. For dealing with style, the archaeologist has relatively few aesthetic and physiognomic terms.

      To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works may be measured. By considering the succession of works in time and space and by matching the variations of style with historical events and with the varying features of other fields of culture, the historian of art attempts, with the help of common-sense psychology and social theory, to account for the changes of style or specific traits. The historical study of individual and group styles also discloses typical stages and processes in the development of forms.2

   By acknowledging that the art historian at times acts like an archaeologist, Schapiro himself signals a significant misapprehension within his formulation. The difficulties presented by the study of ancient art differ in degree but not, ultimately, in nature from those encountered in other fields of art. The qualitative distinction between an “archaeological” process of identification and “art-historical” interpretation disguises the fact that diagnosis does not and cannot exist without (in both senses) an interpretive framework.

   The posited contrast also reflects something of the rhetoric of valorization and denigration that accompanied the contentious emergence of these academic disciplines during the nineteenth century and has continued even into present-day efforts to define and prescribe disciplinary missions. Schapiro’s “archaeology” seems a prosaic, constricted, and superficial creature in contrast to his “art history,” which aims at nothing less than the illumination of cultural meaning and expression. Conversely, a concern with “art” has in turn been cause for criticism, particularly on the grounds of perceived methodological weakness, even by advocates of an interdisciplinary rather than exclusively text-focussed approach to the study of antiquity.3


The lingering effects on archaeological scholarship of the heritage of dilettantism can be detected in Wilamowitz’s remarks on the practices of his teacher, Otto Jahn (1813–1869).4 In discussing Jahn’s work on classical texts, Wilamowitz draws attention to his urgent sense of mission: “He had to elucidate” (erklären mußte er), and it is that process – here linked to the “philological” aspect of Philologie (classical studies) – that Jahn carried over from texts and applied to objects: “Elucidation is also what he is exercising on the monuments, especially sarcophagi and vase-paintings, but also on unprepossessing fragments of every kind, and he is doing it with Zoëga’s method. It is not aesthetics, but a philology of monuments (sondern monumentale Philologie). While the former may be more distinguished, for it, too, the understanding of what the artist or craftsman wanted to make or represent is indispensable.”5

   In using the term “monumentale Philologie,” Wilamowitz alludes to a methodological debate that originated in the late eighteenth century and crystallized in the mid-nineteenth. The phrase is associated with Friedrich Wilhelm Eduard Gerhard (1795–1867), a philologist by training, whose interest in art began with a trip to Italy in 1819–1820 and whose contributions to archaeology led to his appointment in 1844 as Ordinarius für Archäologie in Berlin.6 Albert Henrichs has found the term used as early as 1833 in Gerhard’s writing, but it did not seem to gain prominence until 1850, when it appeared in the sixteen “Archäologische Thesen” he delivered at a conference of philologists in Berlin. “By monumentale Philologie, Gerhard meant ‘research on monuments’ or rather the recording of the ‘totality of monumental material,’ and specifically ‘according to philological fundamentals,’ whereby he assigned to ‘art theory, art criticism, and the explanation of art’ a role that was equivalent to ‘grammar, together with literary criticism and hermeneutics, of philology in the narrower sense.’”7 That Gerhard shared the views of those who regretted the shift in classical studies toward an exclusive emphasis on texts and away from the equal consideration of monuments, as had been more often practiced in the time of Winckelmann, is clear in his “Thesen.”

   1. We designate as Archäologie that branch of classical philology that is founded on monumental works and remains of ancient technology, in contrast to literary sources and subjects; works of architecture and the fine arts, but also the science of places and inscriptions belong to it.

   2. The principal subjects of archaeological study are the science of monuments, art history, and art antiquities; art theory, art criticism, and the explanation of art are also organically associated with them in a similar way as grammar, together with literary criticism and hermeneutics, stand by the side of philology in the narrower sense.

   3. The task of archaeology is to deliver to the totality of all philological research and to the total view of ancient life not only a selection of artistic monuments, but the entirety of the monumental material, considered in itself and in its consequence for the antiquities of literature, religion, and private life.

   4. Research on the monuments of classical antiquity must proceed from the literary knowledge of that same classical antiquity, on which the so-called Philologie in its narrower sense is founded; the archaeologist fashions its monumental part on a philological foundation, to assist which, antiquarians of the most diverse kind discover material for him, which artists must pass judgement on and examine for him.

   10. In order to promote archaeology in that philological sense one must not simply adapt its methods to the needs of antiquarians or artists – although to extend them to these is worth recommending in itself – but base it in strong association with philological instruction as a whole.

   16. Previously archaeology, or monumental philology, was promoted by Germany almost only in numismatics and Greek epigraphy; its importance is more and more recognized, without, however, its being brought into the correct connection with philology as a whole; hence no appropriate means for this purpose should be neglected, and shortly, too, regular attention to archaeological study from the side of the Association of Philologists is to be desired.8

Significant in Gerhard’s proposals is not only the idea that monuments contribute to the general understanding of antiquity, but also his articulation of the archaeological subjects. This systematic division explicitly grants them a hierarchical structure comparable to that of philology and, implicitly, an equivalent intellectual rigor.

   The methodological disagreements of the nineteenth century have regularly been seen in terms of a competition between the models offered by the comprehensive “Altertumswissenschaft” (scientific study of antiquity) of Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) as systematized by August Boeckh (1785–1867) and the exclusive focus on language and literature advocated by Gottfried Hermann (1772–1848).9 Rudolf Pfeiffer expressed skepticism about the common view that classical scholarship was split by a profound divide between these rival schools, believing it preferable to approach the field in terms of more inclusive trends in intellectual history.10 In practice, the methodological frontier was often crossed, and the work of individuals can be variously construed.11 There is no doubt, however, that many at the time accepted the existence of such a split, and this perception furnishes the context for the principles of Gerhard and Jahn.

   In recalling Jahn’s lectures at Bonn, Wilamowitz, a proponent of inclusive Altertumswissenschaft, wrote appreciatively of his treatment of the history of philology: “That is what academic instruction is for, not to coach, or infuse dead knowledge. This is what was given by this history of a science: for it pointed the way to a philology, in which the contrasts between Hermann and Boeckh were smoothed away, and archaeology in its full extent included.”12 “Monumentale Philologie” thus came to have meaning in a situation of methodological self-consciousness so complex that the exact sense of the term remains subject to varied interpretations.13

   In November 1848, Jahn delivered a lecture, “On the Essence and Most Important Tasks of Archaeological Studies,” in which he maintained that “a science that sets itself to the goal of investigating ancient life in all its phenomena cannot refrain from treating ancient art.”14 He contrasted Winckelmann’s inclusion of art in the totality of ancient life with its subsequent reduction in classical studies to the status of an accessory.15 The question is precisely how Jahn envisioned the treatment of art within a frame of “monumentale Philologie.” Henrichs has summarized two major interpretations of the concept: one, combining monuments and written sources in order to shed light on each other; the other, an approach to art as a language with the goal of apprehending the rules of its grammar of forms.16 The first, as Henrichs notes, can in no way be seen as an innovation by Jahn, for it had long been practiced; as Wilamowitz remarked, it is the method of Zoëga.17 While observing that Jahn would have seen the two conceptions not as exclusive, but as complementary, Henrichs argues persuasively that Jahn’s approach rested on the analogy of art with language. It is a conception of art that makes possible the notion of a language of images (Bildersprache), however difficult it would prove to put into practice.18

   Yet another aspect of Jahn’s “monumentale Philologie” was equally decisive for the study of ancient art: the adoption of method as a goal in itself. As Suzanne Marchand has noted, one of the issues Jahn addressed in his lecture of 1848 was the need for a methodology for art equivalent in rigor to philological techniques, and he praised Zoëga and Gerhard for their contributions to this goal: “Here, too, Zoëga gave the example of completeness and precision, and above all Gerhard not only constantly emphasized the necessity for this research, but also promoted it through extensive publications designed for this purpose.”19 What gave point to Jahn’s insistence on rigorous method was the problematic origin of the study of ancient art in dilettantism. This factor finds explicit expression in Jahn’s letter to Privy Councillor Johannes Schulze in 1854. The context is Jahn’s move from his professorship at Leipzig to Bonn: “It was a special secret joy to me that I was called not as an archaeologist, but as a philologist and an archaeologist, for I am convinced and have always taught with great fervor, that there is no ‘solo archaeology,’ and whoever concerns himself exclusively with ancient art will go downhill into dilettantism.”20

   The study of ancient art has always been haunted by methodological insecurity, and the effects of the consequent quest for rigor and intellectual respectability have not been uniformly positive, sometimes resulting in the adoption of inappropriate interpretive paradigms. Methodological unease and self-consciousness are also factors in another issue signalled in Wilamowitz’s remarks on Jahn: the contrast between a focus on the correct understanding of individual works in context and an approach favoring syntheses – the catalogue of objects, for example, in contrast to the comprehensive history of art.21 Wilamowitz’s reference to Zoëga recalls that the concern with methodological rigor in relation to the forms of scholarship had already been expressed in the eighteenth century.

   Georg Zoëga (1755–1809) is perhaps most renowned as a pioneer in Egyptology, but his methodological contributions to classical archaeology have also begun to receive serious appreciation. A Danish pupil of Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729–1812), he spent most of his life in Rome.22 Zoëga’s work is characterized by his insistence that correct information is essential for the correct understanding of monuments. In a letter of 1791, he criticizes the way “students of antiquity” have failed in “sincerity and method”:

[T]hey have been content to discuss monuments, each according to his own taste and purpose, or rather, they have used them to demonstrate their own genius and wide reading instead of trying to set forth the monuments themselves and the specific subject they portray. This is why we still do not know which monuments and how many are still left from the ancient world. Accurate catalogues and descriptions do not exist, and almost all prints are incorrect and uninformative. Only when one has personally compared the prints with the originals, is it possible to believe that in the most famous books on ancient monuments (e.g. Winckelmann) even whole figures, and major ones at that, have been added in the prints, though there is no trace of them on the monument.23

Zoëga’s accusation is confirmed by comparing the renderings of the Albani Relief in Winckelmann’s Monumenti antichi inediti and Zoëga’s Li Bassi- rilievi antichi di Roma.24 Jørgen Mejer has emphasized the importance for archaeological practice of the qualities of Zoëga’s systematic presentation of monuments: precise description, comprehensive comparisons, and informed interpretation. Such order and rigor certainly stand in contrast to Winckelmann’s rather less constrained treatments, and Mejer draws attention to Zoëga’s role in establishing “the basic principles for archaeological scholarship.”25 It is tempting to go further and find in the pattern of description-comparison-interpretation the root of the distinction between information and interpretation that underlies Schapiro’s view of “archaeology” and “art history.” Such a conclusion, however, is not without difficulties.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. The problem of archeological description; 2. Nikandre's dedication and the description of early Greek statuary; 3. The analysis of the clothed female form.

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