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From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-Antique Portrait Arts

From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-Antique Portrait Arts

By Marina Prusac (Monumenta Graeca et Romana 18). Pp. 202, pls. 155. Brill, Leiden 2011. $226. ISBN 978-90-04-18271-4 (cloth).

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The Romans were very good at making faces. Compelling bronze and marble portraits of their leaders, associates, and families fill the museums of Italy and major collections worldwide. While most of these faces have survived unchanged, some were intentionally transformed into the likenesses of other individuals. From Face to Face centers on that makeover. Although recarved Roman portraits from the Republican period through late antiquity are a familiar component of Roman art, the phenomenon nonetheless seems remarkable in a culture that deeply valued preserving an individual’s features and accomplishments for posterity. What political objectives or financial exigencies led to the momentous decision to replace one person’s face with that of another?

Prusac is the most recent in a succession of scholars to present the reuse and recarving of Roman portraiture in stone as the result of ideology and economic constraint. With regard to the latter, redeploying materials benefited the portrait budget’s bottom line. Yet Prusac goes one step further, suggesting that recarving was itself a determinant of style. In the 1930s, Magi and L’Orange (F. Magi, I rilievi flavi del Palazzo della Cancelleria [Rome 1945]; H.P. L’Orange and A. von Gerkan, Der spätantike Bildschmuck des Konstantinsbogens [Berlin 1939]) already observed that heads of emperors such as Domitian in the Cancelleria reliefs and Hadrian on the Arch of Constantine were remade into portraits of Nerva and Constantine. From the 1960s on, recarved portraits in the round were studied by Horst Blanck, Marianne Bergmann, Paul Zanker, and Eric Varner. Prusac sensibly focuses on the less-surveyed Late Antique examples and attempts to demonstrate that recarving Roman portraits was the norm in late antiquity and the result of diminished access to newly quarried stone. Her deduction is based on the investigation of 500 recarved Roman portraits, about 235 of which date to late antiquity. She has made an important contribution by collecting the Late Roman material in one place, and her work increases the likelihood that further light may be shed on a perennial question: Did Roman art “decline” in late antiquity, or was it deliberately reformulated to express a new message?

The first half of the volume is devoted to establishing a context for the Late Antique examples within the broader development of recarved Roman portraits. In the introduction, the author presents brief overviews of several general issues. She defines the Roman portrait and the concept of spolia and characterizes the difference between public and private, center and periphery, ideology and politics, as well as describes the development of style in Roman art. In this reviewer’s opinion, these cursory summaries add nothing new and undermine the impact of the book.

Chapters 1–4 concentrate more effectively on reused and recarved portraits from 100 B.C.E. through the third century C.E. Prusac contends that recarving during the first and second centuries C.E. was the result of memory sanctions in Rome and a lack of affordable quarried stone in the provinces. The author suggests that circumstances changed in the third century, when associative “power strategies” prevailed and economic instability diminished the marble trade (56–7). Chapters 5–8 focus on late antiquity and the emergence of “new visual expressions,” and contain valuable remarks on recarving methods and classifications. Prusac is most effective when she argues that the major shift came when portraits of the mid third-century emperor Gallienus were recarved from those of revered second-century emperors (52–4). This action caused the collapse of the prohibition against recarving portraits of “good” emperors. This imperial authorization for more comprehensive reuse allowed private individuals to follow the emperor’s lead. Prusac suggests that this trend continued into the fourth century and was especially apparent under Constantine. The multiple reinventions of the colossal marble seated statue of Constantine, now in the Capitoline Museums, are legend, and Prusac subscribes to the theory of Varner and others that the head was recarved from a portrait of Hadrian. Such a blatant and meticulously planned strategy of appropriation and association in Constantinian portraiture is paralleled on the contemporary Arch of Constantine, where reliefs taken from earlier monuments were displayed with Constantine as the new protagonist.

The text is followed by a catalogue of the 500 portraits, of which catalogue numbers 265–500 date to late antiquity (284–565 C.E.). The catalogue is minimalist, citing only the original and recreated identity of the subject, provenance, present location, and bibliography; high-quality illustrations are plentiful. This aggregated material allows Prusac to make some interesting observations, among them that portraits of elite Romans from the imperial circle were normally not reused for images of ordinary Romans and that the portraits of men and women were not recarved across gender lines.

But what is Prusac’s view on why Late Antique portraiture looks the way it does—blocklike and schematic but powerful and even spiritual in its simple abstraction? While she mentions well-known theories on the possible impact of imperial ideology and the advent of Christianity, Prusac concludes that it was, above all, recarving that reshaped the appearance of Tetrarchic portraiture. While intriguing, this speculation is not entirely convincing. Prusac, like others, attributes the stark geometry of the San Marco Tetrarchs in part to the group’s material—the hard, purplish-red porphyry quarried in Egypt—and compares the heads to marble portraits of the Tetrarchs from Asia Minor. She deems the latter a “watered down version” of the same style and proceeds to discuss the differences among portraits of the Tetrarch Constantius Chlorus, attributing their diversity to recarving by stating, “It might be that the undeniable great differences between the Tetrarchic portraits, behind the symmetrical frontality and exaggerated expressions they share, might be due to recarving” (62).

What seems overlooked, however, is that variation in imperial portaiture, even of the same subject is, of course, not new to the Tetrarchy. The iconic porphyry groups of the four Tetrarchs from Venice and also Rome may have been placed on column brackets well above the spectator and appear to have been designed to unite the foursome in a deliberate similitudo that required they look as much like one another as possible. A marble portrait of one of the four Tetrarchs, created for another context and intended as a solitary portrait or at least a separate entity within a larger group, would have had an entirely different function, irrespective of whether or not it was reused or recarved. Furthermore, the abstract style was already present in incipient form in the cubic portraiture of Gallienus, Probus, and others and deftly reflected the new stability brought to Rome and the empire by Diocletian. This is not to say that wholesale recarving might not have played a part in the schematization of Tetrarchic portraiture, but only that it was likely one piece of a much more complex political and cultural puzzle.

Face to Face could have been a better book in content and in its presentation, which is noticeably anomalous. All citations are in the text rather than footnotes, making the book read like a stack of note cards rather than a sustained and well-argued narrative. In addition, it is not well written or adequately edited.

Prusac clearly put time and effort into collecting and categorizing the Late Antique material, but she and her readership would have been better served by a more focused and readable book. “Irregularities regarding the style” were thought significant enough by the editor to provide an official disclaimer across from the book’s acknowledgments, which also warns, “Readers should be aware that this is an exceptional situation and does not constitute a precedent for any further volumes” (xii). Under the circumstances, the publisher’s price of $226 seems too high to pay.

Diana E.E. Kleiner
Department of the History of Art
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8272

Book Review of From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-Antique Portrait Arts, by Marina Prusac

Reviewed by Diana E.E. Kleiner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Kleiner

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