Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.- A.D. 250 / Edition 1

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In this fresh, accessible, and beautifully illustrated book, his third to examine an aspect of Roman visual culture, John R. Clarke explores the question, "What made Romans laugh?" Looking at Laughter examines a heterogeneous corpus of visual material, from the crudely obscene to the exquisitely sophisticated and from the playful to the deadly serious—everything from street theater to erudite paintings parodying the emperor. Nine chapters, organized under the rubrics of Visual Humor, Social Humor, and Sexual Humor, analyze a wide range of visual art, including wall painting, sculpture, mosaics, and ceramics. Archaeological sites, as well as a range of ancient texts, inscriptions, and graffiti, provide the background for understanding the how and why of humorous imagery. This entertaining study offers fascinating insights into the mentality of Roman patrons and viewers who enjoyed laughing at the gods, the powers-that-be, and themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review Of Books
“Brave and sometimes brilliant. . . . Clarke has a wonderful eye for the byways of Roman art and a passionate determination. . . . Presents an extremely powerful case. . . . A wonderful book.”
Journal Of Interdisciplinary History - Christopher H. Hallett
“No one is doing more to enrich our pictures of Roman visual culture, or to encourage a more imaginative and open-minded approach to it. . . . For this contribution alone, the author and his book are to be greatly recommended.”
The Historian - Eve D'ambra
“Clearly written and carefully explicated, the book is suitable for students and nonspecialists . . . art historians and classicists.”
Art Bulletin (CAA)
“Clarke has accomplished a pioneering study. . . . The book is beautifully executed.”
The Historian - Eve D’ambra
“Clearly written and carefully explicated, the book is suitable for students and nonspecialists . . . art historians and classicists.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520237339
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/17/2007
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

John R. Clarke is Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor of History of Art at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans (UC Press, 2003), Roman Sex (2003), Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art,100 B.C.– A.D. 250 (UC Press, 1998), and The Houses of Roman Italy: 100 B.C.– A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration (UC Press, 1991).

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Table of Contents



1. Words or Images? Degrees of Visuality in Roman Humor
2. Funny Faces—Onstage and Off
3. Double Takes
4. Apotropaic Laughter

5. Power over the Other—or the Other’s Power? Laughing at the Pygmy and the Aethiops
6. Who’s Laughing? Modern Scholars and Ancient Viewers in Class Conflict
7. Parody in Elite Visual Culture at Pompeii: Heroes, Gods, and Foundation Myths

8. Sexual Humor and the Gods
9. Laughing at Human Sexual Folly

List of Illustrations


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