Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.33
Mette Moltesen, Anne Marie Nielsen, Agrippina Minor. Life and Afterlife - Liv og eftermaele. Meddelelser fra Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 9. Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 2007. Pp. 248; ills. and figs. passim. ISBN 978-87-7452-296-6. DKK 150.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Lien Foubert, Radboud University Nijmegen (L.Foubert@let.ru.nl)
Word count: 1509 words
The present volume in the new series of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek yearbook is the first to appear after the grand reopening of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in 2006. By focusing on individual pieces of art and presenting these in their context, the museum wants to celebrate the history of its collections and the uniqueness of its objects. This volume evolves around one of the museum's first acquisitions: a portrait head of Agrippina Minor in green greywacke, obtained through the German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig who firmly believed that "it would not find its equal". About ten years ago, it was established that the head fitted a statue in the Musei Capitolini. After much effort both parts were reunited, albeit in copy. On this occasion, various scholars shed their light on the historical, archaeological and literary context of Agrippina Minor and her statue, which resulted in this beautifully illustrated book with remarkable photographs of the statue and other works of art relating to Agrippina.
The book contains twelve contributions, differing in both nature and length, in English, German and Italian. The whole concludes with Danish translations or abstracts of the articles. The editors have chosen to print the texts in the original language of the contributors, keeping the notes and bibliographical references in accordance with each tradition, with the consequent risk of loosing coherency. The eye-catching graphic design of the volume, however, makes you oversee this minor neglect.
The contributions cover three main themes: the historical (or literary) figure of Agrippina, the greywacke statue and its iconographic context, and the afterlife of Agrippina. The book opens with the first theme. Gradel (Agrippina: Life and Legend, pp. 13-25) treats Agrippina's course of life, focusing on the power of the image of the Julio-Claudians as mad emperors with equally mad relatives. Stating that the real Agrippina still escapes us, Gradel proposes not to attempt to chase her, but instead to concentrate on what we do in fact possess: her images (p. 25). In a second contribution, Gradel (Agrippina, flaminica of Divus Claudius, pp. 67-70) focuses in detail on Agrippina's role as priestess of the deified Claudius. Since the greywacke statue represents Agrippina as flaminica and due to its hypothetical location within the temple complex dedicated to Divus Claudius, it was thought necessary to gather all information on the status of a flaminica of the imperial cult, which turns out to be relatively little. A third contribution by Kragelund (Agrippina's revenge, pp. 27-43) treats the figure of Agrippina as a persisting memory. From a fresh point of view, he draws attention to the ghost stories that circulated after Agrippina's death. Nero's display of impietas towards his mother is highlighted by his fear for Agrippina as a revengeful fury. Kragelund additionally discusses the function of Agrippina as a ghost in the dramatic play Octavia.
A second theme covers the iconographic characteristics of the greywacke statue of Agrippina and its archaeological context. Trillmich (Typologie der Bildnisse der Iulia Agrippina, pp. 45-65) concentrates on the different portrait types of Agrippina. The less specialized reader will find his introduction to the importance of portrait typology and 'Formgeschichte' very useful. After referring to a couple of new discoveries relating to Agrippina's typology (including a portrait head found on the Forum of Trajan and a new gemstone from Xanten), Trillmich discusses five different portrait types. Ostergaard (Verae imagines? Portraits of the Family of Agrippina Minor in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, pp. 73-92) pays attention to the characteristics of Julio-Claudian portrait types and the difficulties encountered when attempting to identify portraits. By presenting an overview of portraits of Agrippina's relatives in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the author tries to clarify concepts such as portrait assimilation and individuality.
In her first contribution to this volume, Talamo (I ritrovamenti archeologici sul Celio e la scoperta della statua di Agrippina orante, pp. 95-111) treats the archaeological background of the Caelian Hill while paying special attention to the find spot of the greywacke statue. She describes the fragmentary nature of the statue of Agrippina along with that of the so-called 'Vittoria dei Simmaci', which was found in the same area. In addition, Talamo discusses the construction of the temple of Divus Claudius together with the presence of the sodales augustales claudiales in the area of the temple complex, and links the statue of Agrippina Minor with the cult of her deified husband. The article of Talamo is supplemented by an abstract of an article by Pavolini (The latest on the Caelian Hill, an abstract, pp. 113-114), published elsewhere, on the provenance of Agrippina Minor's statue suggesting that besides the temple of Claudius a connection with other sanctuaries on the Caelian Hill cannot be ruled out. Contributions of Talamo, Moltesen and Belli Pasqua elaborate upon the specifics of the greywacke statue. Talamo (Il restauro e la ricomposizione della statua di Agrippina orante, pp. 117-121) focuses on the different stages of restoration started in the late nineteenth century. Consisting of 41 fragments, the reconstruction of the statue turned out to be a difficult assignment, making earlier interpretations of the context of the statue often tentative or even wrong.
In her first contribution to this book, Moltesen (Agrippina Minor in the Montemartini: the statue type, pp. 123-136) discusses the body type of Agrippina Minor's statue. Based on an earlier but mistaken restoration, the type was traditionally identified as that of a woman in prayer with the palms of her hands outwards (the so-called orans type). Moltesen corrects this view and rather suggests a woman making an inviting or offering gesture. Combined with the veiled portrait head, the statue suggests an identification of Agrippina as priestess. In her second study (The portrait head and its reworking, pp. 139-148), Moltesen concentrates on the greywacke head itself and its different stages of reworking. She establishes that the first edition of the portrait was probably made shortly after Claudius' death, presenting his widow as a flaminica of the imperial cult, and remained as such for a period of time. During Nero's reign, although a precise date cannot be determined, the head was remodelled to rejuvenate Agrippina and make her look more like her son. In a third late antique stage, the portrait was reused to present an empress who followed the fashion of her day in wearing a jeweled diadem. Though Moltesen's arguments are very convincing, it is unfortunate that she did not support her hypothesis by showing illustrations of female empresses wearing jeweled diadems.
Belli Pasqua (La statua di Agrippina Minore e la ritrattistica di età Giulio-Claudia in grovacca della Uadi Hammamat, pp. 151-158) concentrates on the material of the statue: dark green greywacke from Wadi Hammamat in Egypt's eastern desert. Numerous inscriptions and graffiti permit the reconstruction of the Romans' presence and usage of the mining area. Belli Pasqua gives an overview of the different attested usages of the material in sculpture, focusing on Julio-Claudian portraits in particular.
The afterlife of Agrippina Minor is treated by Pucci (Agrippina sullo schermo, pp. 161-169). The author lists thirteen films and one trailer in which the figure of Agrippina Minor appears, without, however, working towards a general conclusion or trying to formulate general assumptions about the reception of Agrippina in modern times. Already in the early twentieth century, in silent movies, the dramatic story of Agrippina and Nero was considered worthy for commemoration, a feeling that continues until now.
The present volume is without a doubt an important contribution to the study of imperial women. Gathering various studies on one historical figure combined with one artistic object shows to be a perfect basis to reach a variety of new and surprising conclusions. The fact that the statue type of the offering (or 'praying') woman seems to have been created for and limited to imperial women in the context of imperial cult sheds new light on the importance of giving these women a visible and public status. Likewise, the exclusiveness of the green greywacke during the Julio-Claudian period for members of the imperial family contributes to this view. In addition, the established connection between the statue and its probable location within the temple complex of Divus Claudius requires a reconsideration of the imperial women as flaminica and the status that was attached to this function. Unfortunately, the opportunity to fully elaborate the theme of Agrippina's afterlife was not seized. A study of Agrippina's cinematographic image definitely provides a good starting point, but one could also wonder about her presence in literature or art. The articles on the reception of Cleopatra and Messalina in Maria Wyke's The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations (Oxford, 2002) could have provided good examples. On an editorial level, few remarks need to be made. The book is accessible to both students and experienced scholars as every contribution can be read on its own. Nevertheless, a more coherent structure within would have made reading more pleasant. The recurrent literary passages and repetitious desciptions of Agrippina's life and statue sometimes labour to the point of weariness. Even so, this volume of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek yearbook leaves you longing for more.