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Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina: Le Sculpture

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina: Le Sculpture

By Nadia Agnoli (Xenia Antiqua Monografie 10). Pp. 291, figs. 251. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2002. €155. ISBN 88-8265-181-9 (paper).

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Agnoli has carefully crafted a masterful catalogue of the Roman sculpture housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale at Palestrina (ancient Praeneste). Indeed, this is one of the most coherent catalogues of Roman sculpture issued in recent years. Never repetitive, the introductory essays and individual entries are compatible and complementary.

The sculpture documents Praeneste’s importance as the seat of the cult of Fortuna Primagenia and as a center of sculptural production situated firmly within the artistic orbit of Rome well into the Late Imperial period. The catalogue covers pieces on display in the museum and cryptoporticus, as well as unpublished statuary from the storerooms. Much of the material was excavated during the 20th century, but other pieces lack precise archaeological information, having been acquired by the Barberini during their tenure at Palestrina.

Already flourishing in the early seventh century B.C.E., Praeneste was allied with Rome in 338 and was renowned for its production of incised bronze objects, including cistae and mirrors. Stone sculpture began to be created in significant quantities in the second century B.C.E. The use of primarily Parian marble in this period attests to the close ties between Latium and the Hellenistic east, particularly Delos, where inhabitants of Praeneste are documented epigraphically among the Roman negotiantes and where Parian was also the marble of choice. Agnoli concisely sets forth the historical context and stylistic development of Praenestine sculptural practice in two short initial essays (“La scultra in marmo a Praeneste” and “Sculture Prenestine e correnti artistiche tardo-ellenistiche dell’Egeo insulare”), while a third (“Fortuna. Aspetti del culto e iconografia della divinità”) explores the links between sculpted images and the worship of Fortuna Primagenia at the site.

The catalogue is divided into three sections. The first (“Le sculture ideali”) further examines Late Republican sculpture and its relationships to Aegean regional styles. Discussion of an over-life-sized statue of Fortuna-Isis (inv. 1491) in gray marble (bigio antico) raises important questions of chronolgy. The style of the statue clearly links it to Hellenistic works like the Nike of Samothrace, and Agnoli, prefering a late second-century B.C.E. date for the statue, sees strong influences of sculpture from Asia Minor and its islands, also the principal locations for quarries of bigio (e.g., Rhodes, Cos, Lesbos, Teos, and Miletus). Nevertheless, the widespread use of bigio is not attested in Rome prior to the Flavian period.

A marvelously well-preserved Antonine version of the Capitoline Triad (inv. 80546), recovered in 1994 by the Carabinieri after being clandestinely excavated from a villa near Guidonia and sold illegally in 1992, is the only surviving example of the three deities treated as a unitary piece of freestanding sculpture. Carved from a single block of Luna marble, the divinities are depicted seated on one extended throne, and each is flanked by their appropriate avian attribute: owl, eagle, and peacock. In addition, victories in smaller scale crown each from behind with laurel (Minerva), oak (Jupiter), and rose petals (Juno).

Portraits and related sculpture comprise the following section (“I ritratti e la statuaria iconica”). The earliest likeness (inv. 560), which might best be characterized as a proto-portrait, is dated by Agnoli to the second century B.C.E., and its simplified forms are hallmarks of mid-Italic style. A later portrait (90, inv. 579), likely produced in the middle years of the first century B.C.E., combines elements of verism with a more concentrated facial expression, and has clear formal affinities with the “Pseudo-Athlete” from the House of the Diadumenus on Delos. Although Agnoli interprets several of these early portraits in terms of lingering Hellenic sculptural modes, they are also emblematic of emerging pan-Mediterranean eclectic approaches.

In keeping with metropolitan Roman practice, most of the imperial portraits are sculpted of Luna marble. A magnificent bust of a Trajanic woman (193, inv. 601), however, employs Luna marble for the draped bust form and Parian for the portrait head. With its virtuoso handling of the complicated coiffure, combined with the subtle verism of the facial features, the portrait is a tour de force of Roman portrait carving. Its Parian marble confirms the continued use of this stone in private portrait sculpture beyond the Augustan and Julio-Claudian periods, as does a later Hadrianic male portrait (580, inv. 11889). Two colossal pendant portraits of Faustina Major (86, 35, 33; inv. 141) and Augustus (65, inv. 139) derive from acrolithic statues. The image of Faustina is a replica of her stirnband type (forehead band) as proposed by Fittschen, while that of Augustus follows his Primaporta type and is among the latest of his surviving portraits. The pairing of these two portraits and the creation of an image of Divus Augustus in the Antonine period strongly suggest that they were associated with emperor worship at Praeneste, and they emphasize the high dynastic visibility of Faustina Major after her divinization ca. A.D. 142. This section also includes fragments of headless portrait statues (heroic, cuirassed, and togate male bodies; draped female body), as well as bases whose inscriptions are informative, including one for an equestrian statue honoring Aulus Munius Evaristus (inv. 112).

The final section covers reliefs, altars, and sarcophagi. As with the statue bases featured in the portrait section, Agnoli is to be commended for not neglecting largely aniconic altars and their inscriptions. Well-known works such as the altar of Divus Augustus (inv. 23555) and the panel of a sow and piglets belonging with the Grimani reliefs are superbly illustrated and provide up-to-date overviews of scholarly debates on individual pieces.

The most groundbreaking and provocative entry in the catalogue, however, elucidates the lesser-known relief of Trajan’s posthumous triumph of A.D. 117 (inv. 6520), now recognized as part of the tomb of Quintus Fabius Postuminus, praefectus urbi of Rome in A.D. 112. This entry is a distillation of an article published earlier by Agnoli (Xenia Antiqua 9 [2000] 21–46). Discovered in 1967, the relief employs an emphatically non-classicizing style characterized by hierarchy of scale, exaggerated, non-naturalistic proportions, frontality, and differing, segmental ground lines. Technically, the sculpture is of high quality, as evidenced by details of the drapery, the horses’ anatomy, and Trajan’s portrait. The conscious choice of an artistic idiom defined as “popular” or “plebian” (by Rodenwaldt and Bianchi-Bandinelli, respectively) by a prominent member of the senatorial aristocracy strongly indicates that at least by the early Hadrianic period, when the relief was created, non-classicizing styles could no longer be categorized in terms of an elite/nonelite dialectic. Indeed, in the realm of official state monuments, the column base of Antoninus Pius would choose a similar stylistic vocabulary for the decursio reliefs approximately one generation later. This entry is emblematic of Agnoli’s impeccable scholarship and innovative interpretation, ensuring that her catalogue will be of enormous use to Romanists for the foreseeable future. It ranks as a model of its type to which subsequent endeavors should aspire.

Eric R. Varner
Departments of Art History and Classics
Emory University
Atlanta, GA 30322

Book Review of Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina: Le Sculpture, by Nadia Agnoli

Reviewed by Eric R. Varner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1104.Varner

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