BMCR 2012.08.07

Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. Greek culture in the Roman world

, Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xi, 486. ISBN 9780521825153 $125.00.


Nothing, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, is just one thing. According to Jennifer Trimble, the Large Herculaneum Woman is, at last count, actually 202 discrete things—202 individual statues and statuettes that attempt to reproduce the same general schema. In an academic field often marked by scarcity of evidence, this is surfeit.

Still, it takes a genuine talent—an attention to detail and the ability to ask big questions—to make something important and interesting of this sort of surfeit. It can be terribly tempting to treat 202 replicas of a type as ‘just one thing’, as repetitions of a single, original model. That, however, is an approach that would rob the type of almost all its interest. Trimble has both a mastery of the details and an ability to capture the big picture. For her, getting the most out of the Large Herculaneum type means not reducing it to one putative original, whatever form that may have taken, but following the many individual narratives that can be constructed with different degrees of certainty for different instantiations of the type. It means shifting the study of sculptural types from an interest in form alone to an interest in all of the factors that affect the production and reception of art. It means understanding the sameness of the type as the result of both patterns of production and habits of reception; and recognizing that such sameness can be employed masterfully to any number of individualized ends, while continuing to participate in a collectively determined semantic system. Finally, it means attention to the effects of the various differences that were practiced within that sameness.

According to Trimble, most of the Large Herculaneum Women served as honorific portraits and date to the second century CE, when a thriving culture of civic euergetism called for various ways of honoring wealthy families whose benefactions improved public life generally and urban infrastructure in particular. The figures were likely roughed out at the quarry, and may have been finished to different degrees at one or more locations before they reached their final display contexts. The heads were often individualized portraits but were sometimes idealized. (Interestingly, the portraits idealize in different ways; and when associated inscriptions are available, it becomes clear that even these idealized figures were portraits of mortal women.) These statues tended to be installed in prominent, architecturally lavish public spaces like theaters, nymphaea and city gateways, often as part of a larger group of statues, themselves also replica types.

Yet, as important as these general tendencies are for understanding the overall messages of the type, each statue has its own story. Many readers will know or can easily guess that the statue after which the type was named does not date to the second century CE. It was pulled from an Italian well in the early 18th century, along with two other marble statues, both of which replicated the so-called Small Herculaneum Woman type. These three statues apparently belonged to the scaenae frons of the Theater at Herculaneum. Historical events, therefore, prevent a dating later than 79 CE for the namesake statue , whichmostly likely dates to the Julio-Claudian period. So this particular sculpture was typical in that it belonged to a monumental architectural context which it shared with other typed statuary; but it was a statistical outlier with regard to its date of manufacture.

Trimble reminds us that the discovery of these three statues along with their seeming idealism led the Large and Small Herculaneum types to be treated in the scholarship as a pair, as linked to each other; but, she asserts, “There is no ancient evidence for this—not even at Herculaneum.” (p.23) The three statues from Herculaneum were made in different workshops at different times and were part of a larger sculptural assemblage. When our view expands to include all of the currently known display contexts of the Large Herculaneum type, it becomes clear that the Large and Small Herculaneum Women do not belong together any more than any two of the most frequently employed honorific statue types.

By maintaining a sort of bifocal vision, by accounting both for general trends and for the particular circumstances of individual statues, Trimble adroitly extracts the maximum amount of information from her subject matter. In this way, too, her thinking reflects her subject matter, since she argues that the various component parts of these statues —body, hairstyle, facial features and even inscriptions and settings— “oscillated between poles of specific and generic” (p. 153, inter alia). This is itself an interesting step away from a general tendency to think of Roman portrait statuary as consisting of so many individualized heads attached to so many replicated body types. Honorific inscriptions, for example, were formulaic, but they were also stamped with the individual identities of dedicator and honorand; hairstyles, too, could be part of an overall syntax that established both group identity and the individuality of the honorand.

Trimble suggests several cooperating reasons for the sudden, dramatic increase of Large Herculaneum Woman replicas in the second century CE. One of these was the increased importance of civic euergetism already mentioned. Related to this was the development, starting in the Flavian Period, of an extensive, non-imperial market for marble. Still another reason for the dramatic increase in replicas of this type (and many others) appears to have been the reorganization of the quarry system that is generally associated with the so-called ‘marble style’ in second-century architecture.1 The extraction of stone became faster and more efficient; and, crucially, the practice of stockpiling became widespread. This, in turn, meant significant chronological separations between the different stages of marble production: The practice of stockpiling “…suggests that a roughed out statue might lie around for years before being finished, or that a finished statue could be available for years before being purchased” (p. 114). The roughing out of many typed statues, and perhaps even the finishing of some of them, may therefore have happened well in advance of any individual commission. The widespread replication of types was made possible, even necessary, by such patterns of production.

But what is possible and what is desirable are two different things. One of the more surprising conclusions of Trimble’s study is that, in the case of the Large Herculaneum Woman type, and presumably in the case of other typed honorific statues, replication served as a marker of high status. Since this might seem counterintuitive, I suggest that a contemporary analogy might help. The Academy Award statuette, the Oscar, was first designed by Cedric Gibbons in 1929, and since that time the type has not been redesigned in any substantial sense of the word. The materials have changed, from gilded bronze in the earliest years to gilded britannium and, for a few years during World War II, to plaster; and the base has, on occasion, been redesigned, but the statuette still retains the basic schema as it was first conceived. A moment’s reflection will make it clear why this should be so. A redesign of the statuette’s general schema, if significant, would rob both earlier and later designs of their authoritative status—what Trimble might call the ‘authoritative cliché’. Viewers who were used to the old design might not recognize the new one. Over time, viewers who became accustomed to the new design would cease to recognize the older one, so that the value of displaying one’s grandmother’s Oscar on the shelf in the living room would be significantly diminished. When it comes to honorific statuary, in other words, replication is useful because what one wants is for viewers to think or say, “Oh, look: She received one of those,” and, ideally, even be moved to ask who exactly she is and why she received ‘one of those’.

At the risk of lingering too long on this modern analogy, I would like to use it to make one more point. The ‘original’ of the Academy Award statuette, that is to say the model, was Mexican actor-director Emilio Fernández, perhaps best known to American audiences for his role decades later as the self-important general Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s epic western, The Wild Bunch. Fernández, then in his 20s, posed nude for the design. But who thinks of Emilio Fernández when the Academy Awards are handed out each year? The lesson is clear: Honorific statue replicas are valued not as copies of a valued original, but because they are widely (but not too widely) replicated and widely (but not too widely) distributed. Conversely, their widespread replication confers recognizablity on the type, and that recognizability signifies and confers status—that is to say, membership in an elite group. In a prestige economy that follows such rules, the original scarcely matters.

Naturally the power of replication to confer status varied depending on a number of factors, particularly the visibility of the type. By Trimble’s count, the city of Perge has produced nine examples of the Large Herculaneum Woman portraits, and the type generally appears to have been a favorite in the Greek East. In addition, 15 replicas were found in Rome and eight in Sarmizegetusa. It is in locations like this that the desire to ‘have one of those’ must have been particularly acute. To her great credit, though, Trimble does not neglect the outliers but confronts head-on the question of how a replica constructs meaning when it is displayed many miles away from other, similar replicas. A portrait from Carmo, Spain, for example, is one of only three Large Herculaneum Women found in all of Iberia, but its context is informative. The associated inscription names the honorand as one Servilia, and the statue was found in a tomb, one of only a few statues of this type from such a context, and perhaps an indication that the usual display syntax received weak recognition in this corner of the Empire. The tomb itself was Romanizing in its architecture and in its other decorations, but it was surrounded by neo-Punic tombs. Thus, Servilia’s portrait appears to have served as part of a larger project that differentiated her family from other local families, and connected them particularly closely to the larger Empire. In another case, Trimble argues plausibly that an example of the Large Herculaneum type found inside the legionary castrum at Singidunum may have represented Faustina Minor or some later empress in the guise of mater castrorum, ‘mother of the camps’. In each case, the display deviated from the typical circumstances outlined above, but the statues still served to link specific places to the larger Empire.

The very appearance of the Large Herculaneum Woman statues seems to be a happy confluence of production requirements and elite self-construction. Trimble argues that the Large Herculaneum type, and indeed most of the popular portrait types from this period, are “self-sufficient, enclosed, standing forms, essentially masses of stone with details carved into the surface” and that they do “not reach out beyond themselves” (p.76). Visual interest—and it is an attractive type—is generally confined to the drapery and to certain highly reserved gestures that engage that drapery. This self-containment was an economical use of marble, since an extended limb required more stone and a degree of risk; but such spatial self-containment also conveniently spoke to contemporary elite beliefs about the appropriateness of gestural restraint (p. 159). This gestural restraint, Trimble argues, was not primarily a gendered phenomenon. It was expected both of elite women and of elite men, who would have appreciated the class connotations of the type’s bodily self-control. Once again, we observe patterns of production and habits of reception working together, and it becomes clear that the Large Herculaneum Woman was more than one thing.

The type disappears abruptly early in the 3rd century CE. Trimble again looks for the beginnings of an explanation simultaneously in changes to patterns of production and in changes to practices of civic benefaction. She also traces a sort of snowball effect: If, at the height of its prestige, this type was replicated because it was replicated, once the systems were disrupted that made it widely recognizable in particular geographic regions, the type quickly lost the ability to confer status. All of a sudden, there was no longer much reason for a member of the civic elite to want ‘one of those’.


1. The study is, necessarily, confined to stone—usually marble—versions of the type. To date, no bronze versions have been found: “A bronze statue found in the sea off Kalymnos in 1995, now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Athens as the ‘Lady of Kalymnos,’ was identified in early newspaper reports as a Large Herculaneum Woman but belongs to a different statue type.” (p.65)