Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.32

Anna Anguissola, Supports in Roman Marble Sculpture: Workshop Practice and Modes of Viewing.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxii, 276.  ISBN 9781108418430.  £75.00​.  

Reviewed by Simona Perna, Birkbeck University of London (


The book under review focuses on non-figural structural supports, or struts, in Roman marble statuary. In Classical sculpture these have been mostly overlooked and regarded as secondary to figural supports, which instead have received much scholarly attention because they are considered integral features of the composition. Classical art purists, influenced by modern aesthetic interpretations, have long disdained struts for being disfiguring and unpleasant or have treated them superficially. Two explanations have been put forward to account for their existence: cues for Roman copies of Greek (bronze) models and appendages for transport. Nevertheless, the ubiquity, diversity and apparent redundancy of struts in Roman statuary suggest that these hypotheses are exclusive and no longer satisfactory. Anna Anguissola’s reappraisal of the question is thus worthwhile as non-figural supports do require a study in their own right.

The aim of this monograph is to overturn past scholarship’s interpretations and to offer new strategies. Anguissola’s criticism of the conventional readings builds upon a series of methodological considerations which she outlines in the Preface. The visual impact of many struts rules out an exclusive functional role. Their careful surface treatment suggests that they were not meant to be hidden. Other examples are oversized and awkward to chisel out, thus not exactly practical for transport or static purposes. Likewise, the diversity of struts on well-known replica series seems to contradict the over-simplistic explanations offered by traditional copy criticism and exclude mere balance concerns. Some replicas have no struts at all, others have too many supports. Struts, she thus argues, ‘might have tied copies to a system of mutual references’ and acted as ‘distinctive quality markers’ of Roman marble carving tradition (p. xvi). Beside testifying to the carvers’ ability, they may signal conspicuous marble consumption and display. Anguissola also proposes that struts may have contributed to the expression of standard poses as viewing guides and aided the translation of visual formulae from Greek art into Roman visual semantics. Therefore, both figural and non-figural supports need reassessment through comprehensive analysis of Roman sculpture, carving techniques and ancient views about art from the first to the third centuries AD.

Anguissola’s examination unfolds in eight chapters with an introduction and a conclusion. The chapters are distributed between two main parts that correspond to the two broader frameworks: ancient Roman marble sculpture technologies, and contexts and modes of viewing sculpture respectively, each discussing individual case studies.

The Introduction contextualises the topic within the broader scholarly debate and tackles it from a comparative perspective that includes later periods of Western Art and criticism. In reviewing the main literature on the subject and terminology used in English, German and Italian studies, Anguissola notes that these have failed in addressing the visual and communicative dimensions of struts. She then discusses the nineteenth-century scholars’ negative responses to supports, the depreciative adjectives to address them, and the preposterous attempts to conceal them because they were deemed unsightly. Such modern misconceptions, she concludes, have led us to assume that the ancient Romans themselves disliked struts. The interpretations put forward by past scholarship to account for non-figural supports in Roman statuary, from cues for derivation and unfinished work to security measures for transport and redundant accessories to be removed, are equally unsatisfactory and in contrast with archaeological evidence. Drawing on Kant’s concept of parerga (external addenda to the work) and Derrida’s idea of the structural reciprocity and mutual reliance of ergon (inside) and parergon (outside, subsidiary), she applies these to struts and the works they belong to: their parergality is a physical attribute of the artwork (p. 19). As evidence also seems to show, struts were essential parerga not to be hidden. Rather, she argues, their visibility and prominence responded each time to diverse, often conflicting criteria. Focusing on artworks, technology and modes of viewing of Roman sculpture from the Late Republican period to the second century AD, when supports became ubiquitous, she builds on the most recent interpretations of struts on marble copies, particularly Geominy 1 and Hollinshead,[2]] as visual cues to some sort of derivation/deviation from either a bronze or 2-D prototype and to the carver’s ability in translating it into stone. On this basis Anguissola proposes to reverse the functional discourse: struts are highly informative technical measures of Roman marble carving (p. 24).

Part I “Material and History” lays the groundwork. Chapter 1 reconsiders the criticism of the role of figural supports before and after the “discovery” of Roman copies: are they mere stabilisers? Drawing on the concept of phasmata “divine epiphanies” (from Valerie Platt 2011), she proposes that figural supports are attributes that suggest, describe or situate a narrative whilst contributing to the aesthetic qualities (symmetry, balance and lines) of the statue. They also enhance the artist’s talent in recreating the model. Chapter 2 discusses the emergence of supports in Greek art from the sixth to first centuries BC. Anguissola argues, and I believe proves, that struts are not a Roman invention but that stone carvers had adopted the concept and practice of supports from the Greek marble carving tradition. Chapter 3 examines in detail the placement, form and size of struts from the first century BC to the third century AD in order to show their visual role and impact regardless of static constraints. Her evidence shows that struts occur on sculptures of all sizes and quality to highlight important parts (hair, digits, penis) and details of the composition. Some statues were even overpropped. Anguissola concludes: “clearly, both the carver and contemporary viewers were not puzzled by these “inartistic intrusions” (p. 74). Her idea that struts as creators of “visual rhythm” were essential elements that conveyed tension and movement is very persuasive. Chapter 4 discusses the surface finish, decorative carving and colour of non-figural supports as ways to enhance their visibility or harmonise with the adjoining surfaces. Conflicting explanations remain due to the lack of consistent patterns. Likewise, the scanty evidence of painted struts prevents conclusions on the use of paint to either highlight or downplay a statue’s strut.

Part II “The Limits of Stone” assesses the main functional arguments about struts and then explores their visual potential in conveying information about the work and its maker. Chapter 5 reviews traditional explanations for the uses of struts in Roman marble statuary in respect to copying, carving technology and transport. Without denying a utilitarian purpose Anguissola convincingly argues that the advantages of supports were limited in most of the anticipated cases and cannot be explained by practical considerations alone. Chapter 6 discusses the role of struts in the composition as “precious” complements to the body and framing devices. Drawing on the concepts of “statuesque” (Stewart 2003) and “frame” (Simmel 1902), Anguissola suggests that struts help establish the artificial nature of each composition and are complementary to its structure and dynamics. Struts, she proposes, emphasize and outline the figure’s movement. As ‘part of a visual code’ (146), they at once individualize, emphasize the artfulness of the art work and help create an impression of faithfulness. She shows how this intended effect is made apparent by conspicuous struts or by replica series: struts ‘encompass the Roman ethos of emulation’ (156). Chapter 7 aims to show that the use of large and apparently redundant struts advertised conspicuous marble consumption, in terms of both quantity and size of the block required and as opposed to joining. Furthermore, struts are conceived as visual tools that enabled a variety of expressive and emphatic poses comparable to those of bronze statues and of figures in paintings and reliefs. Using struts emphasized the sculptors’ ability to emulate designs in other media and to overcome the stone’s limits. Chapter 8 assesses the actual contribution of struts to the study of workshops traditions and practices from a regional and chronological perspective. Anguissola shows that some technical features, such as spiral struts, may confirm attributions based on style and treatment. Supports in small-size statues and miniatures, principally from the mid-third to the mid-fifth century AD, as well as their depiction on other media, such as on painted vases and lamps, are considered further proof of the importance of struts as visual attributes. These chapters show Anguissola at her strongest because her well-structured argument and careful (re-)examination of the evidence blend nicely with her use of visual culture theories and of Greek and Latin literary sources. Anguissola succeeds in going a step further to grasp the meaning of struts in Roman art.

The Conclusions summarize the main points of Anguissola’s argument. Whilst struts had a general, undeniable structural utility as proposed by traditional criticism, they allow for multiple degrees of understanding. She concludes that struts could function as both allusions to a model and a testament to the carver’s ability. Not only were struts accepted and acknowledged as their surface treatment shows, but their visibility was also a significant element in the composition. Evoking the example of Japanese Bunraku puppetry and its supporting puppeteers, she concludes that struts played a crucial performative role. This comparison is particularly enlightening: struts are to statues what puppeteers are to puppets, at once necessary and surpassed. It is this basic equation that makes Anguissola’s reading innovative and, to my mind, her most persuasive interpretation of struts. Non-figural supports can now be included among the relevant stylistic features upon which to rely when examining the production, choice, exhibition, and viewing of sculpture in the ancient Roman world.

A couple of points arise from my genuine appreciation of Anguissola’s work. First the issue of “appealing” struts. In Chapter 3, Anguissola’s concluding remark— ‘the presence of large struts appealed to the taste of certain sculptors and their public’ (p. 78)— to her discussion of the struts on replicas of the Diadoumenos is questionable. It is still so arbitrary to establish what was deemed appealing and what was not in ancient times that one is left wondering about making such a firm assumption. The author herself warns us that in the absence of a ‘model viewer’ and of further contextual information, our understanding of ancient visual practices remains severely limited (p. 204). Second, Anguissola critically dismisses past hypotheses, but some of her new ideas are no less exclusive and not always exhaustive. We are left to wonder, for instance, whether peculiar types of struts might represent a given artist’s signature or if struts on copies may be also read as signs of the artist’s pride in their work. Unfortunately, these are the limits of a study that deals with an extremely heterogenous phenomenon for which no one-size-fits-all explanation exists. Therefore, despite Anguissola’s admirable effort in leaving no stone unturned, many questions are destined to remain unanswered.

Moreover, this reviewer has some minor quibbles: not all cited examples of sculptures come with an image. This lack of illustrations may be justified in the case of renowned sculptural types (e.g. Augustus from Prima Porta, p. 28), but for less known statues it often creates the additional necessity of finding their images elsewhere. Likewise, the review of the diverse types of struts would have benefited from illustrative drawings. This is not a major problem since descriptions are extremely thorough and full references are provided in the footnotes. The bibliography includes the most up-to-date scholarship, while the text is free of typos and factual errors. Anguissola’s simple but elegant prose makes this book an extremely pleasant read for both experts and non-experts of Classical Art. Her monograph is also a welcome resource because it at once reviews and refreshes several fundamental aspects of Greek, Hellenistic and Roman statuary as well as of ancient marble trade and carving technologies.

All in all, Anguissola’s advanced reassessment of struts is to be applauded. Gathering an enormous body of evidence, her monograph is indeed a very detailed study of non-figural supports in Roman statuary. Not only does she offer a thought-provoking reading of struts but also overturns our understanding of Classical art. In addition to the contribution to the discourse of supports, the central value of this book is the reconsideration of modern ways of viewing ancient art. Drawing on the ‘pillars’ of traditional copy criticism, like Myron’s Discus Thrower, Anguissola eloquently shows that Classical sculpture, including its struts, is polysemantic and still has a lot to tell us about its making and modes of viewing it.


1.   Geominy, W. 1999a. ‘Zur Komposition der Gruppe Die Aufforderung zum Tanz’, in Hellenistische Gruppen. Gedenkschrift fürAndreas Linfert. Mainz am Rheim, 140-155; Id. 1999b. 'Zwischen Kennerschaft und Cliché: Römische Kopien und die Geschichte ihrer Bewertung', in G. Vogt-Spira and B. Rommel (eds) Rezeption und Identität: Die kulturelle Auseinandersetzung Roms mit Griechenland als europäisches Paradigma. Stuttgart, 38-58.
2.   Hollinshead, M. B. 1998. ‘Hair Struts in Late Roman Sculpture‘, in K. J. Hartswick and M. C. Sturgeon (eds), ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΣ. Studies in Honor of Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway. Philadelphia, 119-130; Ead. 2002. ‘Extending the Reach of Marble: Struts in Greek and Roman Sculpture’, in E. K. Gazda (ed.) The Ancient Art of Emulation: Studies in Artistic Originality and Tradition from the Present to Classical Antiquity. Ann Arbor, 117-152. ​

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