Professor Bert Smith is the Stanley Kelley, Jr. Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Department of Art & Archaeology and Classics for the 2022-23 academic year. His extensive contributions this year have included a weekly meeting with graduate students in Fall 2022, a Spring 2023 course on Hellenistic Art, an Index of Medieval Art workshop, and the two-day colloquium “News from Aphrodisias: Greek urban culture under the Roman Empire.”
Smith was Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford from 1995 to 2022. He was also Curator of the Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum.
"Everyone in the field is familiar with Bert's scholarship. His name might be the most frequent one that appears in our graduate student General Exams reading list," said A&A graduate student William Pedrick. "Naturally, I was very excited when I found out last year that he would be a visiting professor at Princeton."
Smith brought together 11 scholars from a range of European and U.S. institutions for the conference on Aphrodisias, the excavation project Smith has directed since 1991.
“It was great to have so many of the Aphrodisias team together and to hear them give full interpretative presentations of their projects for a wider audience,” said Smith. “I liked to hear that there were still important differences of interpretation of the same evidence between Aphrodisias team members.”
“I liked to hear that there were still important differences of interpretation of the same evidence between Aphrodisias team members.” – Professor Bert Smith
Smith singled out discoveries centered around the Place of Palms location as being particularly compelling. “It was a surprise not only in its outlandish conception and rich finds,” he said, “but also in the long, detailed history from Roman to Ottoman times that careful archaeological excavation and study can provide.”
The colloquium advanced scholarship for both participants and attendees; said Smith, “The perspectives, objections, and interrogations of the audience will undoubtedly sharpen the coming publications of the topics discussed."
Earlier in April, Smith led a workshop for the Index of Medieval Art titled “Diocletian, Constantine, and the Art of the Late Roman New Order, AD 284–337." According to Director of the Index Pamela Patton the workshop drew a standing-room-only audience of classicists and medievalists. "We were very happy to host his talk as well as his research visits to the Index this semester," said Patton.
In his course ART 414: “Hellenistic Art: Visual Cultures of the Greater Greek world, East and West, 330–30 BCE,” Smith focused on the evidence of Alexander the Great's conquest of Asia from Anatolia to Afghanistan, investigating the powerful visual styles and techniques that interacted with local ideas and visual cultures in complicated and unpredictable ways.
“For me, most exciting are the interactions of Hellenistic visual cultures we see in extraordinary recent finds from Macedonia and Afghanistan, at opposite ends of the Hellenistic world,” said Smith. Senior Classics major Grant Bruner remarked, "Our whirlwind tour through the Hellenistic world was incredible for its scope and depth,” noting that it “deepened my appreciation for both the complexity and spread of Hellenistic art.”
"Our whirlwind tour through the Hellenistic world was incredible for its scope and depth.” – Archaeology Program Senior Grant Bruner
The course examined cultural history through material and visual evidence, re-siting figured artifacts in the places they were found and within the experiences of those who made and used them. Smith focused on newly excavated sites and artifacts and, in turn, encouraged using these to explore new narratives.
“The descriptions of the artwork he asked us to do during the class were exhaustively detailed and I think I gained a lot from it!” said A&A graduate student Eirini Spyropoulou. “First of all, I have become more observant. In addition, I learned how to ask the right questions about an artwork. Finally, I understood that by studying a statue in detail we can interpret it differently,” she said.
“The descriptions of the artwork he asked us to do during the class were exhaustively detailed and I think I gained a lot from it!” – A&A Graduate Student Eirini Spyropoulou
Spyropoulou pointed to the class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example of Smith’s meticulous method. ”We saw in the MET the statue of an old woman who is supposed to go to the market to sell goods,” said Spyropoulou. “Professor Smith analyzed the statue thoroughly and concluded that the woman is going to participate in a Dionysian feast. Her dress is too formal for her to go to the market as a saleswoman.” Smith also enjoyed visiting the Met and investigating objects, or, in his words, “diagnosing all their aspects by dialectic.”
For Bruner, the highlight of the semester was examining the Great Altar of Pergamon with Smith. “Professor Smith quizzed us on the minute features - the folds in a certain chlamys, for example, or the shape of a goddess' raiment. Professor Smith's analysis always homed in small details that I had overlooked or made connections that I had never thought of before. This lesson really solidified my understanding of visual culture as more than just a typology of different poses, articles of clothing, or symbols, but rather an overarching language of communication through physical objects,” he said.
Smith particularly enjoyed the opportunity to visit the numismatics department with the class. “The visit to look at silver coins of the period from Macedonia to India in the depths of Firestone was made a highlight by Alan Stahl’s generosity with his time and with the coins.”
Curator Alan Stahl was likewise impressed: “With most of the classes that use the collection, I'm the one who pulls the coins, composes the presentation, and answers the students' questions,” he said. “For the class that Bert Smith taught on Hellenistic Art, he selected the coins from our collection, presented them, and answered questions – in the course of which I learned more about portraiture on Hellenistic coins than I have in my decades teaching numismatics.”
"I learned more about portraiture on Hellenistic coins than I have in my decades teaching numismatics.” – Curator of Numismatics Alan Stahl
Along with his formal teaching responsibility, Smith also offered an informal weekly graduate student meeting in the fall. “My weekly meetings with a highly intelligent group of graduate students for informal discussion of recently discovered Greek and Roman monuments were hugely enjoyable,” said Smith. “The grad students made great contributions on all the things we looked at – from the earliest Greek marble statue (on Thera), to the unbelievable opus sectile Medusa floor of the Odeion at Kibyra.”
"In addition to his research, I learned this year that Bert is an exceptional teacher," said Pedrick. "Each Wednesday evening, he met with a handful of graduate students to discuss recent discoveries in Greek and Roman art and archaeology. In these sessions, Bert taught a careful, systematic method for looking closely at ancient art. Class with Bert was always the highlight of my week."
"Bert taught a careful, systematic method for looking closely at ancient art. Class with Bert was always the highlight of my week." – A&A Graduate Student William Pedrick
Smith leaves Princeton much richer in its understanding of Hellenistic art. He hopes the lesson will linger that “The varieties of Hellenism across Asia from Pergamon to Kandahar are many. Interpreting ancient figured artifacts without some kind of context for them usually leads to trouble.” Mark his words, “None of what happened or was produced in the ancient world was predictable.”