BMCR 2012.02.14

From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-antique Portrait Arts. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 18

, From Face to Face: Recarving of Roman Portraits and the Late-antique Portrait Arts. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 18. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. xvii, 202; 155 p. of plates. ISBN 9789004182714. $226.00.

Table of Contents

Recarved marble portraits of emperors and private citizens were common in the Roman empire, though recent scholarship has focused, perhaps overly so, on imperial portraits reused after the condemnation of the original subject’s memory, or damnatio memoriae.1 Prusac’s work notably diverges from this tendency to explore reuse in both imperial and private portraits through late antiquity, when recarving became a standard working practice among Roman sculptors. Prusac posits that by the third century CE, economic concerns had replaced memory sanctions as the primary motivation for reuse, and by the fourth century, recarved images were more common than new ones for both imperial and private portraits. No longer driven primarily by ideology, reuse emerged as a dominant practice in late antiquity due to practical concerns. Its ascendance had a direct impact on the appearance of portraits and Prusac argues that the techniques used to refashion a portrait produced characteristics typically associated with ‘late-antique style’ such as large eyes and uplifted gazes. Prusac’s work has significant repercussions for our understanding of both late-antique portraiture and the broader issue of Roman attitudes towards reuse in antiquity.

The foundation for Prusac’s work is her intensive study of several hundred recarved portraits and her close observation of the recarving methods employed. From this formalist core she draws conclusions concerning the nature of Roman attitudes towards portraiture and sculptural reuse. It should be noted at the outset that Prusac focuses on portrait heads in isolation. The study does not address the bodies, presumably also reused, that once completed many of the statues, and portraiture in relief, such as imperial portraits on public monuments and private portraits on funerary reliefs and sarcophagi, is treated only in passing.

The concept of ‘reused’ sculpture is a rather broad one, and in Chapter One Prusac articulates many of the varieties that fall under its scope and lays out general criteria by which recarved images can be recognized. Much of the information in this chapter will already be familiar to specialists in the field. Prusac presents it in order to sketch the context in which recarved portraits are found, but it is not strictly necessary for the arguments developed in subsequent chapters and inaccuracies mar its utility.2

Chapter Two concisely presents statistical analyses of the distribution of recarved portraits by chronology and geography. The chronological data is derived from four major portrait collections and Prusac rightly cautions readers that the analysis can only represent “significant trends and tendencies” (29). Yet the data do reflect a dramatic increase in the number of recarved portraits after the mid-third century CE, which in turn supports a central tenet of Prusac’s study: that in late antiquity the normative practice was to commission a recarved portrait rather than a new image.

Chapter Three initiates a sequence of chapters devoted to the chronological exposition of recarved portraiture with an account of recarved imperial portraits from the first and second centuries CE. At that time few private portraits were recarved, and most recarved imperial images were altered after the invocation of memory sanctions. Following Eric Varner, Prusac traces the shift from recarving images of condemned emperors in the first and second centuries CE to the mutilation and destruction of their portraits under the Severan dynasty.3 The first and second centuries CE are presented in this chapter as a foil to late antiquity, when Prusac argues that portraiture operated under a different set of beliefs about reuse.

The era of the soldier emperors (235-284 CE), detailed in Chapter Four, saw an increasing number of recarved portraits, especially private portraits. Prusac contends that difficulties procuring fresh marble in a war-torn empire pushed sculptors to recarve existing images, and that the growth of this practice occasioned a change in attitudes towards portraiture. In sum, economic factors led to a diminished reverence for a portrait’s ‘archetype’ and a greater willingness to recarve images, even imperial portraits of ‘good emperors.’ Under Gallienus (r.253-268 CE), “an important intellectual barrier” (56) was crossed and portraits of earlier, well-respected emperors began to be refashioned. These portraits represent the “first known to have been recarved from an earlier emperor without recourse to damnatio memoriae ” (52). Gallienus’ decision to recarve portraits of Hadrian and the Julio- Claudian emperors may have led to the stylistic qualities lauded as ‘Gallienian classicism.’ Prusac tends to view this style as an unintended consequence of the recarving process, but given Gallienus’ careful cultivation of links to Augustus and Alexander the Great, original images of Hadrian and the Julio-Claudian emperors might have been chosen intentionally in order to allude to earlier ‘good emperors,’ and thus represent an early example of positive association by appropriation as often proposed for the Arch of Constantine.

The chronological account of recarved portraiture concludes in Chapter Five which spans the Tetrarchy through Justinian I with an emphasis on the Constantinian period as the “apex of sculptural reuse” (64). From the fourth to sixth centuries CE, Prusac argues that portraits were almost exclusively recarved, and that recarving techniques influenced the style of late-antique portraiture, creating features that are often attributed to religious or ideological choices such as large eyes, an uplifted gaze, and a stylized appearance. While Prusac never excludes ideological motivations for reuse, her focus on technique as a generator of style opens an important new avenue of consideration for late-antique imagery. Receiving special attention is the Colossus of Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, arguably the most famous and frequently published late-antique portrait included in her study.4 Like Cécile Evers, Prusac believes that a portrait of Hadrian preceded the current image of Constantine. She adds, however, that the Hadrianic original may have been recarved into an image of Maxentius before being refashioned with Constantine’s features.

Though sound in its overall lineaments, Chapter Five is marred by some missed opportunities. For instance, Prusac’s discussion of tetrarchal sculpture begins with imperial portraits in porphyry, none of which were recarved. Left unrealized is the potential to contrast these portraits which were sculpted in extremely hard, ‘virgin’ stone with recarved images in marble, an omission that is especially regrettable given her emphasis on the stylistic impact of technique. Later in the chapter, Prusac’s lengthy treatment of the Arch of Constantine includes her take on some of the ongoing debates, but fails to capitalize on her unique position as a connoisseur of recarved images to develop new insights into the arch’s sculptural program.

Chapter Six details how recarved portraits can be recognized. Up until this point, the reader has been asked to accept Prusac’s determination that a portrait was recarved largely on faith; here the author at last demonstrates how she identifies recarved images. A recarved portrait is betrayed by lingering imperfections, and for each variety of revealing flaw – at the ear, eye, mouth, or hairline – Prusac presents multiple examples to help readers learn to spot the presence of recarving.

In Chapter Seven, Prusac revisits private portraits from the fourth to sixth centuries CE to place select examples into seven groups based upon their appearance. These groups are then used to explain the recarving techniques that produce their characteristic features. This chapter finally fully explains how the sculptor’s choice of technique results in features that have previously been considered part of ‘late-antique style’ and motivated by ideology, a point made repeatedly in earlier chapters and one likely to generate considerable debate in the coming years. As an example, to increase the volume of marble available to rework the upper facial features, a sculptor could position the recarved face at an angle to the original so that the chin was lifted and forehead tilted back. This procedure results in the thick set necks and uplifted gazes often seen in late-antique portraits. Chapter Seven is filled with thought-provoking observations like this, but understanding the author’s points can be slow going since the prose here is often awkward.

Chapter Eight explores some of the rules and norms that governed recarving. Prusac observes that it was atypical to see imperial images recarved as a private citizens and vice versa, whereas images of deities could be recarved into imperial portraits. Cross-gender recarving is rare due to proportional differences between the sexes. Different rules may have applied when recarving female rather than male portraits. From the first to the mid-third centuries CE, a time when male private portraits were seldom recarved, women’s private portraits were often refashioned: the hairstyle would be recut, but little alteration made to the face. While the recarved image could represent the same subject with an updated hairstyle, Prusac argues that the heavy idealization of female portraits meant that a new coiffure potentially recast the image as another woman. The divergent practices for recarving female and male private portraits led Prusac to conclude that Romans placed a “lower social value” on female portraits (116).

Following the last chapter comes a catalog of 508 recarved portraits, with concise entries that include the portrait’s subject, provenance, original subject if discernible, and bibliographic references. The volume is amply illustrated with 155 black-and-white plates though readers are referred to Eric Varner’s 2004 catalog (also published in the Monumenta Graeca et Romana series) for images of most portraits that predate late antiquity.5 Also included are an extensive bibliography, an index of museums and collections, concordances with major catalogues of portraits, and a general index.

While Prusac’s ideas are stimulating, the book is not perfect: much of the background in chapters one and three summarizes the work of others and could be condensed. Neither the introduction nor conclusion are necessary for Prusac’s arguments, and could be profitably shortened or even omitted. Presenting conclusions before clarifying the methodology is an unusual choice, and some readers may prefer to begin with chapters six and seven before delving into the chronological account in chapters three, four, and five. And crucially, the English translation is often cumbersome and unclear. It is inevitable that the peculiarities of the book will detract from the new ideas Prusac would like to advance, and that is indeed a shame.

Prusac’s research has the potential to move the studies of reuse and of Roman portraiture forward in vital new directions. She has put forward a thesis at odds with the art historical orthodoxy that style always carries meaning, and that will certainly attract critics. In an ideal world, her scholarship will spur a reassessment of some assumptions that underlie our practice, and inspire many fruitful discussions about the intent behind late-antique portraiture and its style.


1. Key works include: E. Varner, Mutilation and Transformation, Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, 10. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 2005.04.10 E. Varner, ed. From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture. Atlanta, GA: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2000. D. Kinney, “ Spolia. Damnatio and Renovatio MemoriaeMAAR 42 (1997) 117-48. Beginning to move the discussion of recarved images away from the focus on damnatio is K. Galinsky, “Recarved Imperial Portraits: Nuances and Wider Context,” MAAR 52 (2008) 1-25.

2. For example, Prusac’s accounts of sculpture from the villa at Chiragan (pgs. 4 and 19) inaccurately characterize material from the site, and the in-text citations direct readers to sources that contradict rather than support her points.

3. Varner 2004, 156 and 198-99, as cited in Prusac.

4. On the recarving of the Colossus of Constantine: E. Harrison, “The Constantinian Portrait.” DOP 21 (1967) 81-96. H. Jucker, “Von der Angemessenheit des Stils und einigen Bildnissen Konstantins des Grossen,” in Von Angesicht zu Angesicht, 40-70. Bern: Stämpfli & Cie, 1983. C. Evers, “Remarques sur l’iconographie de Constantin,” MEFRA 103 (1991) 785-803. E. Varner, “Tyranny and the Transformation of the Roman Visual Landscape,” in From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture, ed. E. Varner, 9-26. Atlanta, GA: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2001.

5. See note 1.