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Gender, Identity and the Body in Greek and Roman Sculpture

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Gender, Identity and the Body in Greek and Roman Sculpture

By R.J. Barrow, prepared for publication by Michael Silk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xvii + 225. $105. ISBN 978-1-107-03954-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

R.J. Barrow’s posthumously published volume is a welcome addition to a slowly expanding collection of scholarship on gender and the body in classical studies. Drawing on an admirably interdisciplinary range of theories—including feminism, gender theory, social constructionism, film studies, and classical reception studies—the volume explores a group of sculpted works from classical and Hellenistic Greece to imperial Rome. Most of the artworks are canonical and are selected to explore “the complexities of bodily representation” (1) in light of ways in which artists of the ancient Mediterranean conceptualized a variety of human forms. How a sculpture’s stylistic composition and representation of the body’s physiognomy reflect diverse cultural and political values is at the heart of Barrow’s investigation. The study starts from the familiar premise that bodies are sites of cultural construction, not biological givens, and proceeds to offer interpretations of each sculpture, guided largely by a commitment to contesting hegemonic readings by positing alternatives to the ancient male gaze. Conceiving diverse viewerships for ancient artworks is by now well-trodden terrain in classical studies. Yet, what Barrow brings to scholarly literature is an in-depth focus on one art form specifically (sculpture) with a particular interest in the body. For this reason, the study is a significant addition to a relatively impoverished art historical literature concerned with embodiment and with body studies as its framework.

After a short introduction in which Barrow offers useful explanations of the different analytic frameworks employed in the study, the work unfolds with 10 chapters in case-study format focused on each of the artworks under consideration. These are arranged chronologically from the earliest, Polykleitos’ Doryphoros (ca. 450 BCE), to the latest, a second-century CE relief depicting female gladiators. For Barrow, the chosen works exemplify a spectrum of gendered identities by which the ancients evaluated individuals according to their presentation of, for example, bodily integrity, dress, corporeal expression, or biology, and the extent to which such physiognomic characteristics adhered to or deviated from established norms or ideals.

The two opening chapters examine the nude male presented in the Doryphoros and the female ideal seen in Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite. Having unpacked these exemplars as a baseline metric, Barrow turns to human figures whose expressions diverge from an ideal. Sculpted images of women dominate the case studies and indicate Barrow’s commitment to teasing out potential reception by female viewers. Hence, chapter 3 concerns itself with the veiled female body depicted in small Hellenistic terracotta Tanagra figurines and the ways in which these images of elite women might have served as aspirational models for nonelite women; chapter 4 looks to the decrepit body of the aging woman found in the Hellenistic genre figure known as the Drunken Old Woman. Often compared unfavorably to contemporary Hellenistic works of aging fishermen and philosopher types, the drunk woman suggests to Barrow the potential for women viewers to find in her an image of female agency defying social expectations. Chapter 7, “The Incongruous Body,” takes up a limited corpus of funerary portraits exemplified by the image of a woman once held to be Marcia Furnilla. Her aged face, depicted in a veristic style more usually associated with male portraits, seems dissonant (to modern eyes) next to her soft, pudicitia-type Venusian torso, but she offers Barrow an opportunity to consider a sort of hybridity that indicates social prestige accorded to aging matrons. Other body types are enlisted to explore ways they might indicate resistance to traditional embodiment, as in the case of “The Indefinite Body” of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (ch. 5) as well as “The Other Body” seen in a marble relief celebrating two seminude female gladiators (ch. 9), whose provocative “desirability [is] based on strength and activity rather than passive objectification” (152). In chapter 10, a second-century CE Roman copy of a Hellenistic genre work, Pan and a She-Goat, occasions an exploration of nonhuman bodies. In this work, bodies are animal, in the case of the goat, or only partially animal, Pan. Their intimate bestiality is, however, fully anthropomorphic as they copulate, missionary style. Though a traditional gender dynamic plays out in the representation, Barrow’s reading is ultimately less concerned with gender and its operations than the meaning of zoophilia for the ancient viewer. Barrow’s reading comes down on the side of the comic and apotropaic.

Aside from the Doryphoros, the only representations of men are found in chapters 6 and 8. The former examines “The Political Body” of the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta with an eye to understanding how its iconography advanced Livia’s power after the emperor’s death, particularly since it stood in her villa outside Rome. Hadrian’s beloved Antinous, his divinity, and Hadrian’s desire for the androgynous body is the focus of chapter 8, wherein Barrow works out how these physiognomic characteristics aided the transformation of the youth into a divine figure. An epilogue rounds out the volume by considering classical reception in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque masterpiece “Neptune and Triton” and the reemergence of the nude (male) in Europe after the Medieval period.

One of this volume’s strengths is the comprehensive research contexts Barrow provides for each work. Her synthesis of scholarly debates and up-to-date literature provides excellent background for those new to the material. It is, however, also a weakness, as her own compelling interpretations tend at times to get lost or become indiscernible from the existing scholarship upon which she draws for context. Similarly, Barrow’s willingness to deploy diverse theoretical models in novel ways in order to challenge hegemonic readings is both creative and provocative. A case in point is her application of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque to the drunken woman, who, accordingly, subverts “the male gaze and the traditional power dynamics of representation” (68) with “bold disregard for social and sexual convention” (73). At times, however, the theoretical frameworks Barrow employs are oversimplified, as in her use of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity (82) in the study of the hermaphrodite. At other points, Barrow’s analyses lose sight of the main thesis of the book: to understand gender and identity as articulated in the body’s construction in sculpture. For example, the author’s exploration of Augustus’ body in the Prima Porta statue amounts to little more than iconographical analysis. Additionally, greater integration of work on women’s bodies in classical antiquity, recent studies of Roman masculinity, and a more nuanced application of gender and embodiment theory would benefit the study. Had this been present, Barrow might have explored in the conclusion an apparent dichotomy between artists’ studies of female and male bodies and why it is the female body that artists used to examine non-idealized body types, whereas the male body is adopted more frequently to explore diverse ways to exemplify physical ideals.

As is recounted in the acknowledgements written by Michael Silk—who brought the manuscript to publication with the assistance of Jas Elsner, Sebastian Matzner, and Michael Squire after Rosemary Barrow’s untimely death—had the author lived to revise and complete the book herself, it is likely that some of these minor imperfections would have been rectified. Nevertheless, its many creative contributions to scholarship on well-known works ensure Gender, Identity and the Body in Greek and Roman Sculpture a place in contemporary literature on the subject.

Margaret L. Woodhull
University of Colorado Denver

Book Review of Gender, Identity and the Body in Greek and Roman Sculpture
Reviewed by Margaret L. Woodhull
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Woodhull

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