Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200 B.C.E by Marian H. Feldman


Chicago : University of Chicago Press , 2006 . 278 pp.

While individual studies on aspects of stylistic interchange in the Bronze Age Mediterranean routinely appear in discussions of archaeological material from the Near East, Egypt, and the Aegean World, there has not really been a synthetic compendium of this material since the pioneering work of Helene Kantor and William Stevenson Smith.1

A vast amount of new information has been recovered since Kantor and Smith's day and this volume makes an impressive first step in addressing this important, but long neglected, field of study. Kantor's study was exhaustive but narrowly focused on a few motifs, while Smith's was broader but quite idiosyncratic and scattershot. Smith was the first, however, to coin the term “International Style” in reference to the material culture of the Late Bronze Age. Marian H. Feldman defines this term as the “use of shared visual forms across multiple cultural regions” (p. 1). She goes on to cite some analogs such as Gothic design in Medieval Europe or the “International Style” of mid-century modern architecture. However, the “International Style” (or koiné, as she prefers) of the Bronze Age Mediterranean was less concerned with the architectural unit than were these examples and was instead focused on individual motifs most often found on decorative objects, often goods designed as diplomatic gifts.

In this and an earlier study, the author notes that there are two basic subsets of the “International Koiné,” an indigenous Levantine one and a hybrid pan-Mediterranean (eastern Mediterranean, anyway) school.2 Because the Levantine coast, and the port of Ugarit in particular, was the principal conduit for trade goods flowing from east and west, it was a perfect crucible for the amalgamation of polyglot artistic traditions.

Feldman not only brings a theoretical framework and a rigorous definition of terms to this discussion, but also adds textual evidence, often overlooked in earlier studies (see especially pp. 105–127, 161–175).

Most of the objects that she discusses are small, portable, and precious objects that were diplomatic gifts similar to the exchange of presents among the royal houses of early modern Europe. The author examines in depth important aspects of these cosmopolitan products in chapters that define the style and motifs used. Two basic categories of style prevail: a dynamic style often focused on animal combat, usually associated with the Aegean; and a symmetrical style of passive images found frequently in the art of the ancient Near East.

Following her examination of the two most common styles, Feldman discusses a “hybrid” style that she ascribes to the Levant that adopts and reinterprets motifs from Egypt, the Aegean, and Mesopotamia. In later chapters she tries to localize not only regionally specialized styles but also production centers. Chapters 7 and 8 address the regional sources of these objects and the mechanics of the exchange systems that spread them around the eastern Mediterranean.

The author dates the end of this system of luxury exchange with the disruptions (invasion, warfare, population shift) of the “Sea Peoples,” beginning in the 13th century B.C.E. This period marks not only an end to many of the great empires of the Bronze Age, but also to the rudimentary trade patterns that were soon replaced by the large-scale export of profitable merchandise and the beginnings of modern commerce.

This volume has a useful index and exhaustive bibliography and is copiously illustrated with line drawings and photographs, both black and white and color.


  1. 1. Helene Kantor, The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium B.C. (Menasha, WI: Archaeological Institute of America, 1947); William Stevenson Smith, Interconnections in the Ancient Near East (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965).

  2. 2. Mirian Feldman, Luxurious Forms: Redefining a Mediterranean ‘International Style,’ 1400–1200. B.C.E., The Art Bulletin 84(1):6–29, 2002.

Peter Lacovara is the Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. He has curated numerous special exhibitions and is the author of a range of works, including (with Betsy Teasley Trope and Stephen Quirke) Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London (Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2005) and The Collector's Eye: Masterpieces of Egyptian Art from the Thalassic Collection (Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, 2001)..