Name: Zoltán Pallag
Thesis Title: The Roman Picnic in Late Antiquity
My PhD project will be the first comprehensive study of the Roman picnic in Late Antiquity, which was a significant theme in the shared visual vocabulary of Mediterranean elites; it was designed to display status and communal culture from the third to the fifth century AD. These images occur over a wide geographical area, in many different media, and so provide an excellent opportunity to explore issues such as artistic production, the transmission of ideas, and the expression of individual, local and regional identities.
The widespread iconography of the Roman picnic, with three to seven diners reclining around a curved bolster under an awning spread between two trees with servants often present, is found in various media in the later Roman Empire in domestic and funerary contexts. Except for some shorter papers with a socio-historical and archaeological focus, there is no comprehensive art historical study of the Roman picnic, although the imagery is an easy to define genre of Roman art. The study of this iconography should give us a deeper understanding of Roman art and society.
Besides iconological analysis, which focuses on the picture and its elements, I will employ a modified version of Kopytoff's object biographical approach, in order to answer the questions above by shifting the focus to the objects that carry these pictures. This method makes it possible to see how the different contexts of the Roman picnic varied across time and space, due to the limited amount of representations, and offers a pathway through all the shifts and fluctuations that characterise the objects’ use and re-use right from the time of manufacture to their deposition or afterlives.
My project will offer a fresh perspective on this iconography by drawing on the agenda of three academic disciplines: archaeological theory, classical art history, and social history. Focusing on the late Roman world, but keeping in mind the earlier history of this imagery, I aim to answer the following questions: Where is this iconography found and how is it used? Why was it so popular? Why were clients with craftspeople, working in different media, making similar choices in different places? What made it such a good image to use and why did it reflect social practices so well? What kind of connotations did these images have? How did the meaning of the Roman picnic change over time? And what do these images tell us about a ‘globalised’ visual and social culture in Late Antiquity?
My research will make significant methodological, comparative and interpretative contributions to the discipline. Methodologically, it will demonstrate the value of a biographical approach – from production, through distribution and use, to discard – when approaching different objects carrying a similar iconography. It will be the first time that the complete range of formulations and contexts of the Roman picnic have been brought together and analysed in terms of function and meaning. The project, therefore, will contribute to the current archaeological and art-historical literature on Roman art as a pervasive material and visual culture. Through its contextual approach to objects and images, its position is at the important intersection between archaeology, art history and social history.
Supervisors and Institution(s):
Ass. Prof. Sarah Scott (University of Leicester)
Prof. Neil Christie (University of Leicester)
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