The Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin holds approximately 2,600 sculptures in stone in its collection, including Greek, Cypriot, Etruscan, and Roman works as well as some large bronzes. 1 This remarkable number encompasses items both extant and lost, with traces of the latter preserved in the archival records. Between 2009 and 2012, scholars in “Das Berliner Skulpturennetzwerk” thoroughly examined all of these works. The fruits of their research are updated catalogue entries (with new archival information about original contexts of display and post-antique reception, where available) as well as new color photographs (including of objects never previously visually documented). This research was first made available online in August 2013 as the “Gesamtkatalog der Skulpturen in der Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin” via the Arachne Database, which has long been a vital resource for all those interested in Greco-Roman sculpture.2 The volume under review here, a lavishly produced catalogue of the Greek and Roman portraits, fulfills the museum’s intention to make these results available in book form.
Like the online catalogue that preceded it, this is the product of many years of research and collaboration between scholars at the Antikensammlung and elsewhere in Germany (especially the archaeological institutes at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Universität zu Köln). Thirty-two authors produced entries, including ancient art authorities (e.g., Marianne Bergmann, Hans Rupprecht Goette, Gertrud Platz-Horster, and Ralf von den Hoff) as well as younger scholars. The dense and often insightful entries, anchored within comprehensive documentation, and the multiple views in color of the majority of the objects represent the collection to its best possible advantage for a scholarly audience. Indeed, the book sets an impeccable standard for the publication of ancient sculptures in museum collections.3
Andreas Scholl, the volume’s editor and the director of the Antikensammlung, is the author of the two prefatory sections: a brief explanation of the catalogue’s ambitious scope thanking its many contributors, and a short history of the collection sketching the organizational format of the present volume. In the latter, Scholl explains that the department of Greek portraits contains both originals and Roman copies but that, where possible, it categorizes both according to the creation date of the work. Roman portraits are arranged chronologically according to dynasty and organized into two parallel closed groups, with emperors appearing first and private sculptures after. In addition, Scholl makes clear that “portrait” here is to be understood as singular freestanding work; portrait heads that were part of monumental groups, grave reliefs, and sarcophagi will be treated in a future volume (p. XII).
The text is thereafter divided into five sections: (1) “Greek portraits: Hellenistic originals and Roman copies”; (2) “Roman portraits”; (3) “Post-antique images”; (4) “Transfers, sales, and losses of portraits,” encompassing works which were moved to other collections, sold, evacuated in war, lost in war, or have unknown whereabouts (as of 2016); and (5) a technical appendix, including a bibliography (current to 2015), concordance (with the well-known catalogues of Gerhard, Conze, and others), and index of object provenances.
Each entry includes the following essential information: title, inventory number, find context (where known) and provenance, material, dimensions, and current condition; a description of the object followed by discussion, which varies across entries but may include observations on carving technique, comparanda (literary and iconographic), social/cultural/historical significance, function, collecting history; dating; bibliography. As the history of ancient sculpture is a veritable history of fragments, the authors are careful to distinguish the relationship between the various pieces and parts that have sometimes ended up wrongly joined together —and not all of which are always ancient. So where an ancient portrait head is connected to the wrong ancient body (for instance, nr. 122: the portrait head of Antinoos on the body of Dionysos) each object helpfully receives its own entry. In addition, many entries include information about the work’s collection history won through the careful scrutiny of the archival records, attesting to the colorful afterlives and varied fortunes of many antiquities. In this way, the volume will be of great value to historians of collections.
It will be of primary interest, however, to historians of ancient sculpture, especially those researching specific works. Thankfully, all the stars of Berlin’s collection are here, freshly conserved, exactingly scrutinized, and expertly photographed (often from four sides): e.g., Perikles (nr. 3), Sokrates and Seneca in a double herm (nr. 19), Attalos I (or Eumenes II?; nr. 36), Kleopatra VII (nr. 45), Gaius Iulius Caesar in basanite (nr. 59), “Memnon” (nr. 136), a young girl playing with knucklebones (nr. 201), and of course the various emperors and empresses, as well as the lesser-born who circled, at various removes, in their orbit.
And yet it is that last category of largely anonymous individuals which is perhaps the most fascinating, as they remind us of the dynamism that lies at the heart of Roman art, especially its stylistic eclecticism and its expansive social compass. The numerous works depicting children and teenagers (nrs. 182-201), for instance, never fail to impress because of their sensitive evocation of the various life stages and social settings of their young subjects – from the well-heeled young man swathed in all his togate finery, ready for his triumphant premiere onto the urban stage (nrs. 186, 187), to the pouty, pensive expression of a little boy dressed up in an adult’s paludamentum, his costume elevated to grant him the veneer of virtus he never achieved (nr. 189). These boys’ images, set cheek by jowl with the other Romans here, from bull-necked bruisers (nrs. 146-147) to a dour Frau (nr. 180), remind us of the sheer diversity of peoples, occupations, and age groups that were immortalized by the chisels of Roman sculptors, and the ability of those sculptors to capture their stories in stone, often movingly.
If these Roman subjects’ lives were fragile, so too were their portrayals. The reworking of some portraits ironically underscores the instability of the medium itself and the confusion that this can generate for later observers. Such alterations (e.g., nr. 121: a colossal male portrait, reworked from an ideal head) are now a well-studied phenomenon, and their frequency and variety — if not always their motive –—are increasingly coming into focus. In other cases, modern expectations have led to false interpretations of portraits as recarved. Note, for instance, an early second-century C.E. portrait (nr. 115) that was described as a “Frauenkopf aus Ägypten” when it was originally procured in 1933. The work depicts a mature man whose square-jawed cranial structure and expression of snide indifference (think Nerva) are offset by an elaborate, delicate toupee (hence the original buyer’s confusion about its sex). In fact, as we learn, parallels to the man’s highly-stylized locks are to be found in iconographic and literary sources concerning “Luxusfrisuren” from the late first and early second centuries C.E.4 Thus, for all its stony suggestion of permanence, Roman portrait sculpture was—in subject, style, and display—a medium in flux, and the careful reader of this catalogue will arrive at a better understanding of that larger truth, piece by piece.
In some sense, the idea of portraits as objects in motion is also the subject of the final two sections of the volume, on post-antique works and objects that have been transferred or are now lost. The fourth section in particular is a sober reminder of the collection’s modern history, as it chronicles (indirectly) the chaos and loss caused by war. Not surprisingly, the documentation there is less comprehensive, and very few pieces are represented by new color images (most are black-and-white historical photographs from the archives or drawings from Conze’s 1891 catalogue).
In summary: only a small circle of scholars—art historians, curators, and historians of collections—will likely scour this volume from first entry to last (nr. 312). (Though caveat lector : this is a very heavy book.) And yet for those who do, the catalogue can be a highly rewarding pleasure. For just as walking through a gallery in a museum can reacquaint us with old sculptural “friends” and serendipitously introduce us to new acquaintances, so too does perusing this volume. The fact that those faces, both familiar and foreign, are now so thoroughly analyzed and their nacreous surfaces so carefully captured only brings them further to life. Andreas Scholl and his collaborators are thus to be warmly congratulated for their highly valuable scientific efforts collected here (as well as on the ARACHNE website). For good reason, their next volume within this series is highly anticipated.
3. In this context, it is worth noting that other important collections of Greek and Roman sculpture have seen publication in the last year, including those at Liverpool (E. Bartman, The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture. Volume 3: The Ideal Sculpture. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017); The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (P. Zanker, Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze in the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016); and the Art Institute of Chicago ( Roman Art at the Art Insititute of Chicago).
4. See also now E. D’Ambra. (2013) “Mode and Model in the Flavian Female Portrait.” American Journal of Archaeology 117.4: 511–525.