BMCR 2019.07.45

Katalog der Skulpturen IV: Historische Reliefs. Monumenta Artis Romanae, 40

, , , , Katalog der Skulpturen IV: Historische Reliefs. Monumenta Artis Romanae, 40. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2018. 288. ISBN 9783954903078 €125,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review is an exemplary publication of the historical reliefs housed in the Vatican museums and makes a useful contribution to our understanding of several important monuments. Historical narrative imagery pervaded Roman public monuments, and the 20 reliefs published in this catalogue constitute a varied body of material from within this genre, ranging from unpublished fragments to iconic, well-discussed imperial artworks, such as the Cancelleria Reliefs and the Belvedere Altar.

A useful foreword, by series editor Dietrich Boschung, discusses the genesis of the volume and gives an outline of the material (pp. 7-8). The book is an addition to earlier publications of the Vatican’s funerary and ornamental-decorative reliefs.1

Overall, the entries are excellent: each gives a comprehensive account of the relevant provenance, museum history, and earlier literature, followed by a full description, interpretation, and assessment of the likely date. These written sections are supported by 96 black-and-white plates, as well as 67 figures, plans, and reconstructions. This visual documentation is of the best modern standard, providing multiple views and details of each monument, and, in the case of the figures and reconstructions, presenting the key reliefs with a level of detail not often matched.

In the first entry, Liverani rejects the idea that the two sections of relief from the so-called Altar of the Vicomagistri are contiguous (as recently asserted, for instance, by John Pollini)2 on the grounds that the tool marks and iconography on either side of the break do not align. The proposed date of the reliefs is Tiberian, and Liverani uses the technical characteristics to propose a secondary re-use before their Hadrianic deposition. The subject is connected with the imperial cult, thus not, for instance, with the Vicomagistri or Penates. Because of their otherwise excessive length, the relief sections are attributed to different sides of the original monument, itself postulated as something similar to the inner altar of the Ara Pacis.

Langer and Pfanner’s entry on the Cancelleria Reliefs (pp. 18-90) deserves to become the standard work of reference for this important monument. According to the authors (p. 30), the architectural characteristics of the Reliefs have not received sufficient attention — their discussion considers in detail the design, lifting, execution, and construction, and the Reliefs are interrogated down to the microscopic level. The result is a compelling history, from quarried blocks, through finished sculptures, to deposited objects, that has several implications for our assessment of the monument. For example, unused clamp holes on the back of some of the stones suggest that they were originally intended for a different architectural context, and the unusual number of errors (elongated limbs, back-to-front feet) evokes an almost frenetic construction process, which the authors attribute to the high rate of building activity under Domitian. The re-use of the existing, weakened, lifting holes for the dismantling — which resulted in damage to the Reliefs and required the demolition of an adjoining wall — indicates the slabs were not intended to be re-used, and their apparently rapid removal from public view may have resulted in the destruction of the entire building to which they were once attached (pp. 80-84). Details also help to clarify the re-working of the Reliefs following the death of Domitian: for instance, the current Adam’s apple of the emperor in Frieze B is shown to cut into a pre-existing neck fold, proving the validity of the long-suspected re-working (p. 72). These technical aspects illuminate the dynamic intersection of public monuments and imperial politics.

Langer and Pfanner propose that the original monument was not exclusively associated with Domitian, since the re-cutting of the portraits was felt at least initially to extinguish any connection with the disgraced emperor. If true, this leaves unexplained the later violent removal of the Reliefs and possible destruction of the monument. In my view, it is conceivable that the monument was purely Domitianic, and that the re-cutting of the portraits represents a first attempt to rehabilitate the Reliefs, before the overall association of the monument with the bad emperor was realised to render the structure and its images unacceptable, hence the quickly executed removal of the Reliefs and destruction of the adjoining wall.

The reading of the individual figures and subjects is cogent. Frieze A is interpreted as a profectio, and the militaristic female deity to the right of the emperor is taken as Virtus, not Roma. The restoration of the missing section at the left end of the Frieze (god? horse? city gate?) is left open. On Frieze B, which the authors regard as a civic adventus, the seated female god is read as Roma, and the youth interacting with the emperor as an ‘ideal’ figure — his face is not that of any portrait, and the figure was evidently felt to be a suitable partner for both Domitian (the likely original protagonist) and Vespasian (into whom the imperial figure was re-cut). The Genius of the Senate and of the Roman People are identified in both Friezes. Vespasian’s presence in Frieze B is interpreted in line with Nerva’s dynastic aspirations, and the Reliefs emerge as a unique source for the ideology of this period.

In the conclusion of the section, the authors offer stimulating comments on the nature of historical reliefs. For example, the fact that Nerva, whose portrait appears in Frieze A, was depicted taking part in a profectio despite having no campaigns to his name, suggests that the symbolic potential of imperial monuments was privileged over precise historical reference. That on both Friezes only the heads were re- worked is taken to indicate that historical reliefs were governed by an interchangeable visual language: the surrounding gods, insignia, institutions, values, and events stay the same, and only the identity of the protagonist need be altered. The regularity of historical reliefs is indeed a striking feature of the archaeological record, but it is important not to overstate the flexibility of the imperial “Bildsprache”. The close association of the emperor with Minerva in Frieze A, for example, is particular to Domitian, and other historical reliefs, such as the friezes of the Ara Pacis, are conceived in even more specific terms. Re-working such as occurred on the Cancelleria Reliefs was also, as the authors note, a rare phenomenon, and their interchangeability might be better placed at one end of a spectrum of possibilities for historical reliefs, rather than viewed simply as paradigmatic (pp. 84-85).

A two-part addendum (pp. 90-97) by Wolf (the first section) and Freyberger (the second) considers the architectural fragments found with the Cancelleria Reliefs. Wolf suggests an arch-like monument as the most likely display context; and Freyberger dates the Reliefs and fragments to a Palatine workshop of ca.90 AD.

Fless’ analysis of the possible interpretations of the Belvedere Altar (Cat. No. 7) is judicious.3 She prefers to see Romulus in the apotheosis scene, and notes that the damaged heads are more likely the work of early modern restorers than of ancient iconoclasts (the damaged sections are too deep and numerous for a damnatio memoriae). The variations in style and layout between the sides of the Altar suggest that the designers combined a number of pre-existing prototypes: Fless argues that the apotheosis scene is derived from a pediment, for example (pp. 116-20). It may be noted that this conception of the monument potentially undermines Fless’ reading of the apotheosis, because if the Altar is comprised of diachronic prototypes, her close dating of the monument to the years 7-2 BC on the basis of the shield inscription does not necessarily apply to the subjects of the other sides. This would give for the apotheosis scene a larger time frame and greater number of candidates than she allows (Augustus, for instance, is excluded, p. 119).

For the ‘Altar of Manlius’ (Cat. No. 9) Fless provides a convincing explanation for the apparently contradictory combination of the monument’s form, an altar, and inscription, which is honorific (pp. 131-33). A well-known relief depicting a ten-columned temple (Cat. No. 12) is dated by Langer and Pfanner to the Claudian period: they compare the Villa Medici reliefs, which they suggest come from the same workshop. The piece is notable for being part of the largest known monumental relief — its restored height (c.3.30m) surpasses the Great Trajanic Frieze and the gigantomachy from the Altar at Pergamon. Cat. No. 13 is an unusual depiction of (perhaps) Mercury; Cat. No. 18 a personification from the Hadrianeum; and the final entry an unpublished third-century AD fragment of a bull’s head.

The whole is an impressive, high-quality catalogue that demonstrates the value of careful observation and description, and a restrained, minimalist interpretive approach.

Table of Contents

Vorwort 7
Abkürzungen 9
Katalog 13
1 Due lastre del rilievo minore della Cancelleria, detto „dei Vicomagistri“ (P. Liverani)
2 Cancelleriarelief A und B (S. Langer und M. Pfanner) 18
a) Weitere Architekturstücke und Vermutungen zum Baukontext (M. Wolf) 90
b) Zur Datierung der Bauglieder vom Palazzo della Cancelleria (K. S. Freyberger) 97
3 Relief von einem Grabbau mit der Darstellung eines Wagenrennens (F. Fless) 97
4 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung eines unter einem Tropaeum sitzenden, gefangenen Barbaren (F. Fless) 102
5 Darstellung einer Opferhandlung aus der römischen Frühzeit (F. Fless) 103
6 Fragmente eines Reliefs mit der Darstellung eines Beamtenaufzuges (F. Fless) 108
7 Larenaltar (Altar vom Belvedere) (F. Fless) 110
8 Friesfragment vom Bauschmuck der Basilica Aemilia (F. Fless) 124
9 ‚Manlius Ara‘ (F. Fless) 129
10 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung zweier Larenstatuettenträger (F. Fless) 136
11 Relievo con personificazioni dei Popoli Etruschi (P. Liverani) 138
12 Relieffragment mit zehnsäuligem Tempel (S. Langer und M. Pfanner) 142
13 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung des Merkur (?) (F. Fless) 157
14 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung eines signifer (F. Fless) 159
15 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung eines signum (F. Fless) 160
16 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung einer corona muralis (F. Fless) 162
17 Relieffragment mit victimarius und langhaarigem Opferdiener (F. Fless) 163
18 Relief mit der Darstellung einer Provinzpersonifikation vom Hadrianeum in Rom (F. Fless) 165
19 Relieffragmente mit Togati und einem hockendem Mann (S. Langer und M. Pfanner) 166
20 Relieffragment mit der Darstellung des Kopfes eines Opferrindes (F. Fless) 178
Konkordanzen 181
Nachweis der Bildvorlagen 183
Register 187
Tafeln 1–96 193


1. Funerary: F. Sinn. 1991: Katalog der Skulpturen I. Die Grabdenkmäler I. Reliefs, Altäre, Urnen (Mainz); F. Sinn and K. Freyberger. 1996: Katalog der Skulpturen I. Die Grabdenkmäler II. Die Ausstattung des Hateriergrabes (Mainz). Ornamental-decorative: F. Sinn. 2006: Katalog der Skulpturen III. Reliefgeschmückte Gattungen römischer Lebenskultur. Griechische Originalskulptur. Monumente orientalischer Kulte (Wiesbaden).

2. J. Pollini. 2012: From Republic to Empire: Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome (Norman), 309-353.

3. Although Fless does not cite: B. Buxton. 2014: ‘A New Reading of the Belvedere Altar’, American Journal of Archaeology 118, 91-111. ​