Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 13, 2011
Jane Fejfer Roman Portraits in Context Image and Context, vol. 2.. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. 596 pp.; 40 color ills. Cloth $157.00 (9783110186642)

Portraits were ubiquitous in the cities, towns, and sanctuaries of the Roman empire, as public honors for the living and memorials to the dead. Indeed, as Jane Fejfer’s Roman Portraits in Context shows, portrait statues and busts were arguably one of the most important and prominent forms of Roman public art and played a crucial role in constructing and communicating Roman social and political identity. Fejfer’s aim is to focus on the reconstruction of the socio-historical and physical contexts of portraits, rather than on more traditional scholarly concerns of portrait typology, chronology, and stylistic development, although these topics are dealt with as well. Indeed, the “context” of the book’s title is very broadly construed, as Fejfer deals with nearly every aspect of Roman portraiture, including honorific practices, inscriptions and bases, locations of display, materials, production, formats, costumes, workshops, hairstyles and their meaning, reuse, replication—and this is not an exhaustive list of all the topics covered. The geographic and chronological range of the study is also vast, with evidence drawn from across the empire and spanning the Republican period to the fourth century AD. The copious illustrations in both color and black and white are of very high quality, and include many details and unusual views, such as the backs of busts, or the cuttings on the tops of bases and on the bottom of tenons, that help the reader to understand how statues and heads were attached to their supports. The illustrations have been thoughtfully organized; for example, the double-page spread that juxtaposes the images of four late Hellenistic portraits from Delos with four late Republican portraits from Rome clearly shows how different these two groups of portraits are in style and appearance. There are also a good number of plans, views of display contexts and statue bases, as well as reconstruction drawings, all of which aid in visualizing Roman portraits in context. Fejfer has assimilated and summarizes a tremendous amount of secondary literature; while this avalanche of data can sometimes overwhelm the reader, there is a great deal here that is new and interesting. Even those whose research specialization is Roman portraiture will learn a lot from Fejfer’s book.

The book is divided into four parts: “Public Honours and Private Expectations,” “Modes of Representation,” “The Empress and her Fellow Elite Women,” and “The Emperor.” An epilogue briefly summarizes the study’s main findings; an appendix discusses the important inscription honoring Lucius Volusius Saturninus and the many and different types of portrait statues he received. The foregrounding of the portraits of non-imperial subjects is a welcome departure from the more typical approach that privileges the imperial image. Part 1 deals with such fundamental aspects of Roman portraiture as definitions, inscriptions, subjects, patrons, occasions, and locations, and thus lays the groundwork for the rest of the study. Literary and epigraphic evidence plays a very important role here, and includes such gems as the specs for the tomb of Sextus Julius Aquilia (CIL XIII 5708), in which the patron specifies the material, size, and placement of his portrait statue, and provides rugs, cushions, and clothing for visitors. The wealth of written evidence gathered by Fejfer in this chapter and throughout the book makes the lack of an index locorum for the literary texts and inscriptions particularly lamentable.

Part 2, “Modes of Representation,” is by far the longest section of the book. Here Fejfer deals first with the materiality of Roman portraiture, surveying the wide range of media (painting, bronze, marble, limestone, colored stones, precious metals, wood, terracotta, etc.) in which portraits were made. Readers are then introduced to the full range of formats and portrait supports, first the full-length statues and then the various abbreviated formats, such as herms and busts. Male self-presentation is the focus, as women are treated in a separate chapter. Here as elsewhere, the careful analysis of portraits from known contexts forms the basis of interpretation; Fejfer is also good at pointing out the chronological and evidentiary difficulties in some of the knottiest problems in Roman portraiture, such as the adoption of nudity as a portrait costume and the origins of the “veristic” style. Her more complex reading of the so-called period face concept (Zeitgesicht), which allows for a multitude of concurrent portrait styles, I found very convincing, particularly when demonstrated through the detailed examination of the fabulous group of portraits from the “Room of Fundilia” at Nemi. Here in particular one can see how the detailed illustrations, unusual views, and reconstruction drawings help make her argument clearer and more compelling. Fejfer’s discussion of workshops, and the difficulties in identifying their practices and products, is an important reminder of just how little is known about the organizational details of sculptural production for both Greece and Rome.

Part 3, “The Empress and her Fellow Elite Women,” considers the images of empresses and non-imperial women together because of the close visual relationship between the two groups. Indeed, as Fejfer shows, the two groups are so similarly styled in terms of physiognomy and hairstyle that it is sometimes quite difficult now to tell them apart based on appearance alone. In contrast to Roman male portraiture, where the statues of the emperors tended to be carefully differentiated from those of non-imperial subjects, there does not seem to have been statue formats that were reserved exclusively for female members of the imperial family. Fejfer also argues that most statuary representations of women were clearly meant to look quite different from the appearance of real Roman women. That is, whereas men might look much like their portrait statues, wearing the same costumes in art as in life, the statue bodies of women were artificially styled so as to maintain a discrete gap between the image and the person. In this way, even though women may have been prominent in the statuary landscape of a given city, “the artificial representation of Roman women served to maintain their absence” from the public stage (345). Female hairstyles are a different matter, and may be the one place where the real woman and her image most closely intersect.

In the final section of the book, Fejfer presents a very straightforward and clear analysis of the importance, meaning, and limits of replication and typology in the portraits of the Roman emperors. She provides a clearheaded review of what is known—and not known—about the imperial portrait “system,” and argues against the idea that it was a tightly controlled, top-down scheme. While Fejfer concedes that imperial portrait models were probably centrally designed and then made available for replication, and agrees that the image of the emperor was of central concern to the imperial court, she constructs a much more flexible and dynamic system of imperial portrait production in which a variety of factors were at work, in particular workshop competition, which spurred refinement and innovation inspired in part by new trends in private portraiture. This is much more interesting than the traditional hierarchical, court-controlled model that closely ties new portrait types to imperial initiative, coin issues, and significant official events. It also provides an interpretive framework that helps better explain why some portrait types are so similar, with only slight adjustments, and survive in only a few examples from a small number of contexts, and why others are so successful, survive in large numbers, and are found throughout the empire. The influence of private portraiture on imperial imagery (according to Fejfer, both categories of portrait would have been made by the same workshops) might also help explain the many hairstyles of Faustina Minor. Rather than being tied to the birth of new offspring (which in any case does not really work), perhaps Faustina’s nine different hairstyles were a response to rapidly changing female hair fashions, an attempt to keep her image current and fresh, to renew the empress’ visual link to her fellow elite women, which, as Fejfer shows, was an important function of her image.

Roman Portraits in Context provides a vivid account of the important role that portraits played in the daily life of the Roman empire; portrait statues were the focus of public rituals, places where people gathered and did things, where they remembered and celebrated the portrait subject and the reasons why she or he was honored, and where they aspired to such honors themselves. The material is endlessly fascinating and visually engaging, and the many new and provocative observations and interpretations contained in this study should provide fruitful avenues for research in Roman—and Greek—portraiture for many years to come.

Sheila Dillon
Professor, Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University