Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.11

Marina Prusac, From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-Antique Portrait Arts. Second, revised edition (first published 2011). Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 18.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xxii, 362.  ISBN 9789004321847.  $168.00.  

Reviewed by Rune Frederiksen, The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (


The publication of Dr Marina Prusac’s dissertation from 2007 has now been issued in a second edition (first edition reviewed e.g. by E. Dumser, BMCR 2012.02.14 and D. Kleiner, AJA 116.1, 2012). The book consists of an introduction followed by eight chapters and a summary (pp. 1-125), a map of the Roman World with indications of the important provenances mentioned in the book (pp. 126-7), a list of Roman emperors until Justinian I (pp. 129-130), a catalogue of recarved portraits (pp. 131-158), a bibliography of ancient and modern sources (pp. 159-176), an index of museums and collections (pp. 177-185), concordances to the most central among the previous publications on the topic (pp. 187-194), a general index (pp. 195-202) and finally 155 plates with black and white photographs.

Prusac sets out the scope of the book in the introduction and declares its position in relation to previous research. Her aims are primarily two: to explore the recarved portraits within their historical context in order to understand the change of portrait function which evolved in the 3rd century CE, and to discover if these developments influenced late-antique portrait art. The reasons for recarving changed over time, as the 1st-2nd century examples are dominated by public memory sanctions, whereas Late Antiquity is characterized by a more complex set of reuse actions, including recarving for reasons other than the censure of the original subject, relocation of statues, or changes only to the inscription identifying the portrayed. The basis of the discussion throughout the book is the catalogue of 508 recarved portraits. The individual entries are as brief as they can get, with title, provenance, brief description, the identity of the head or statue prior to re-carving, present whereabouts and literature. The catalogue is a very useful tool, and constitutes “…a representative selection of recarved portraits from the late-Republican period to the 6th century CE” (p. 5). We are told that the totality of known recarved portraits is much greater than what is collected here, but we are not presented with an estimate as to roughly how much of this totality is presented in Prusac’s book. Such an estimate is important in order to gauge whether the statistical significance of the works included is high enough to support the conclusions of the work. This reviewer does not at all doubt that it is, but he would have liked to be able to judge that for himself and not just rely on an (in all probability correct) estimate by the author. It would also have been useful to know whether there has been an update of the catalogue in relation to the 2011 edition (the bibliography has not been updated, which is unfortunate).

The book still does what the first edition did, which is to expand on the important observation that there are significant changes in the practice of recarving, from the 1st to the 6th century CE: in the first two centuries CE, recarving was only done in connection with damnatio memoriae (a modern term for an ancient practice), in the 3rd century recarving tends to be done more as a function of proper reuse whereas in the 4th century recarving replaces carving from fresh marble entirely, primarily because of shortage of stone—it is claimed. 1 In addition to these basic observations, Prusac presents numerous important discussions of other reasons for recarving, and she advances the very important theory that there may in fact be technical reasons behind at least part of the stylistic trends of late Antique sculpture.

Prusac presents a great deal of significant statistics to substantiate a number of important observations (p. 29ff.) often originating with others, to which she refers, for example concerning the number of portraits of Augustus once in existence compared to the preserved ones. Sometimes, however, she puts forward some very basic questions or observations without really addressing or attempting to answer them properly. For example, why is it a moot point (p. 40) whether it was quicker to recarve an old portrait than to carve a portrait from a fresh block of marble? The answer to this question may neither be easy nor simple, but if Prusac cannot provide her answer, who can? The topic is so fundamentally connected to other essential questions surrounding recarving, that one really needs to have an expert’s opinion. My answer—not being an expert—would be: for the trained recarver much less time was needed to recarve a portrait than for a trained sculptor to make a portrait from a block coming directly out of the quarry. The question is extremely important, since we later learn (p. 49) that at least 90% of the price of a statue was the workmanship, and the rest the price of the material. If reuse was indeed faster, the reduced man-hours are likely to have constituted the main explanation behind reuse, not the claimed shortage of fresh marble (prices were in fact not increasing in the same period, which would have been a most likely sign of shortage).

Conversely, Marina Prusac shows no fear not only in attempting to include quite pragmatic reasons behind recarving itself, but also in maintaining that technical factors—at least in part—influenced the stylistic characteristics of late Antique sculpture. I believe there is scope for even more pragmatism, when we consider how filled up with art and architecture the major Roman urban centres must have been already in the second century CE. All the advantageous spots in the public spaces were already taken up by triumphal arches, other monumental architecture and masses of individual statues and statue groups, so what options would the Roman emperors of the later second century CE and thereafter have had when they sought to realize their needs and desires to put their mark on posterity? They had to choose between demolition (to make space for new buildings and monuments), refurbishment and modification. Refurbishment would have kept visual domination of the predecessors intact, whereas the modification of a monument, including recarving, is the perfect compromise between respecting the preceding emperors and promoting oneself. I think this aspect could have been emphasized simultaneously with the main argument by Prusac, namely the usefulness of old monuments as mere providers of material. One could press the potential significance of wear and tear even further. Imagine the constant disappearance of colours alone, from statues and buildings (neither colour nor polychromy figure in the index of the book), which put a constant pressure on the individuals or institutions seen to be responsible for the beautification of public spaces. The responsible agents had to secure resources towards the maintenance of the polychromy, and if the later 2nd and 3rd-century emperors, and other responsible Roman politicians and administrators, did not do something with the buildings and monuments of the Republic and early-middle Imperial periods, they would not only look ruined, they would also deteriorate and fall apart. So, add public safety to beautification of the public space as a motivating factor behind active changes of and to monuments. Those responsible for public space (ultimately the various emperors) were often simply forced to act because of change and decay in older monuments. And when forced to act on a monument, why not shape it following one’s own preference? According to this way of thinking—to the extent that it paints a true relation between cause and effect—an alternative to recarving is to permit derelict and ruined buildings and statues to remain in public view. I believe that reuse and recarving was motivated primarily by factors other than a restriction in the access to fresh marble, which is also vaguely suggested by Prusac herself (p. 48); we cannot overestimate the constant need for refurbishment of architecture and all other monuments, including sculpture. As for changing marble prices, we should be open even to the idea that the cause and effect was the other way around: the rising reuse of marble led to a lower demand for freshly quarried marble, for which reason prices may have gone up, if quarries needed a certain output to be cost-efficient.

On p. 24, Prusac discusses topics mentioned by Aesopus and on p. 25 topics on Thasos and Herodes Atticus, but does so by reference to secondary literature only, without citing the ancient primary literature. This is methodologically superficial and also not reader-friendly. If we here wish to consult Aesopus, we are forced to do so by way of the modern colleague’s work which Prusac has decided to quote. This shortcut certainly has saved her time, and the encounter with the work of the colleague in question is probably worthwhile, but it is not good academic practice to complicate matters for all readers who actually would like to read the ancient text. It can even blur the message, which in fact is the case in one of the two examples: the Thasian story is about the whipping of a portrait-statue of an athlete from the 5th century BCE, which is quite remote from the Roman period with which the book is concerned. Prusac claims on p. 25 that “The validity of ancient sources is always problematic…”, which surely is a methodological error. The only potential problem with sources, archaeological as well as written, is the relation between a certain meaning or quality of information they contain, and the way this is used by scholars. The example Prusac gives, after the quote above, is that she doubts the truth in the claim of Seneca (De Ira iii.18.1) that Sulla had ripped out the tongues of portraits of M. Marius Gratidianus in anger. If this was to be taken to mean that late Republican portraits had tongues, the use of this source would indeed be problematic. But if the reading is that Sulla was so angry that he mutilated portraits in order to (symbolically) rip out the tongues of the subjects portrayed, then the source is used correctly. There are no sources whose validities “are always problematic”, there are only scholars who are causing problematic interpretations and readings of sources. Quotes of ancient sources in the original language are always welcome, and Prusac includes some important ones (Aelius Marcianus), but translations into the modern language of the publication in question should always be provided.1

It seems strange that a number of issues raised in the reviews of the first edition, among others, structure and language (Dumser) and bad editing (Kleiner), have not been rectified in this second edition. Add to this the issue raised here about the failure to update bibliography in relation to the first edition. The disclaimer put by the publisher in the first edition is even repeated in the second edition. Hopefully this is not a new direction in academic publishing: sell the product with your good name (for a good price), providing whatever exculpatory caveats are deemed necessary. One wonders what has been done with the original manuscript in order for the second edition to be marketed as a new edition, rather than a reprint. This criticism of course falls back on the publisher rather than the author.

It is impossible to write a monograph spanning so many centuries, containing so many hundreds of catalogued objects and such a great number of controversial observations and theories, without causing a certain amount of disagreement with other scholars. I would like to end this review with few words about the importance of this book. Perhaps the greatest significance of Prusac’s work—aside from the immense task of amassing the material and publishing it to the benefit of students and other scholars—is the observation that certain technical constraints involved in recarving seem to have determined—at least in part—a primary characteristic of late-antique style, namely the generally stylized features, large eyes and upward gaze. The factors behind the change from one style to the other constitute one of the major questions to be addressed again and again in art history and classical archaeology, and here, certainly, Prusac makes a brave attempt to say something new. This aspect alone is enough for the author to be proud of her work.


1.   Another issue with citations: on p. 7 (cf. 175) reference is made to Winckelmann 1934, which is a Viennese reprint of the original book which issued in 1764. It seems to be more and more usual to reference in this way in art historical literature, but I think it is an unnecessary development—it is fairly uninteresting and unimportant to be reminded of when a certain edition was published in central Europe in the 1930s, whereas it is completely essential to know, and be reminded of, the original publication date of the most fundamental publication in the history of art history and classical archaeology. If reference is made to a modern edition rather than the original the preferred one of our time is J. J. Winckelmann, edited and commented by A.H. Borbein and M. Kunze, Geschichte des Alterthums: Statuenbeschreibungen, Materialien , Rezensionen (Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Schriften und Nachlass), Mainz am Rhein 2012. On p. 52: De Blois 1974 (Lukas De Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Brill, Leiden) is 1976 (not 1974).

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