Monday, March 12, 2012

Identifying Ancient Art - A game of smoke and mirrors?

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2012

Today, I watched a fascinating lecture "Mistaken Identities: How to identify a Roman emperor" by Mary Beard recently delivered at Stanford University.  As a "fan" of Julius Caesar, I thought her critique of a number of heads identified as Caesar over the years was very enlightening.

I also found her overall discussion of the rather tenuous nature of sculpture identification particularly interesting because lately, I have been re-editing a number of images I shot of Roman sculpture at the Capitoline and National Museums in Rome back in 2005.  I had just started my crusade to photograph historical art and make my images freely available to teachers, researchers and students and had not yet developed my current practice of photographing the identification placards in a sequence with the sculpture to enable me to properly identify the artwork once I returned home to my office.  So, on that first trip to Rome, I ended up with dozens of photographs that all I could say for sure were portraits of Roman men or women until I had a chance to research them further to label them properly.

With the internet and our current technology, I naively believed that proper identification would be a relatively straightforward process.  I have since learned that not only is it not straightforward, even what is thought to be accurate identification at the time changes as different scholars apply different interpretations or museums reliant on governmental support become subject to various political agendas seeking some kind of historical confirmation through a culture's art legacy.

It gets even more confusing when identification displayed at a museum differs from the museum's own collections catalog. I recently received a request from a publisher in Denmark for an image I took back in 2007 of a fresco at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples that, at the time, was labeled "Cleopatra greets the god of the Underworld'.  But, when I looked the image up in the collections book that I purchased at the museum, I noticed that it said it was Io being welcomed upon her arrival to Egypt by the goddess Isis to her sanctuary of Canopos.  The fresco was unearthed in 1764 in the Temple of Isis in Pompeii in a room dubbed the Ekklesiasterion.

The satyr-looking creature bearing up Io looks like it could be Hades but the catalog says it is a river god.  Io is identified by the vestiges of horns she still retains from her time as a heifer.  Isis appears to be dressed in the Greek fashion and holds a cobra coiled around her arm.  The catalog tells us that the painting originated from the court of the Ptolemies in Alexandria "in order to legitimize their dynasty by rooting it in ancient Heraclean and Argive origins which embraced the dual ethnic components of the new kingdom, the Egyptian and the Macedonian".  The fresco is thus dated to the the early Ptolemaic dynasty after a 3rd century BCE prototype .  This all sounds quite carefully researched and definitive.  However, there is no mention of technical dating examinations so I must assume this is educated conjecture.  The only thing that nags at me is the prominent display of the cobra and the knowledge that the fresco was apparently once thought to represent Cleopatra VII in the role of Isis.

In the historical record, Cleopatra VII represented herself as the living embodiment of Isis and the cobra was known to be not only a sacred creature but a pharaonic symbol.  When I check the "king's list" of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, I find a few females mentioned as co-rulers, usually regents for under-age male inheritors, beginning with Cleopatra II Philometora Soteira in 131 BCE, but you really don't find a woman ruling with the trappings of pharaoh until you reach Cleopatra VII in 51 BCE.  So the possibility that Cleopatra VII as Isis is the welcoming figure in the fresco cannot be totally dismissed.  I also can't help but think the widespread publicity surrounding Cleopatra and her death by the bite of a cobra in the 1st century BCE could easily have influenced a Roman artist charged with decorating the walls of a temple to Isis in Pompeii during that period.

Another confusing identification I encountered recently was a picture of a sculpture said to be Apollo of the Anzio type at the Capitoline Museum:

Call me crazy but it looks like remnants of grapes and grape leaves in the hair which would make me think it was Dionysos.  Many sculptures of Apollo also have an iconic knot in the hair on top of the head so I am baffled by the identification associated with this piece.

Reviewing my images from the Hall of Emperors in the Capitoline Museum, I came across the following bust:

After reviewing hundreds of images of Roman emperors (or said to be Roman emperors), I cannot find a single one that looks like him.  He appears to be wearing a laurel crown and in 2005 was positioned close to the busts of  Vespasian, Domitian and Titus (based on the photo time stamp).  This would make me think he may have been one of the emperors in the Year of the Four Emperors after the assassination of Nero but I checked images of Otho, Galba and Vitellius and he doesn't resemble any images identified as them.  Although I thought the museum positioned busts in relationship to the sequence of their reigns, this may not be the case either.  So, I would appreciate any information anyone could offer that would help identify this Roman.  

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Geoff Carter said...

Great article, I think it illustrates well how scholarship has its own momentum, there is a tendency to suspend disbelief too easily in the face a reference or in peer reviewed context.
This is perhaps worse in classical archaeology because it has been studied for so long, compared with subjects like prehistory. Anyone who studies material in detail will soon find some set of myths that have grown up around a topic.

Zsuzsi said...

Hi,i found this article really entertaining-mainly because i encounter so many mistakes in museum that is just ridiculous. It perhaps doesn't matter for the laymen but those with a bit of knowledge and ibterest might find it rather annoying and confusing. ! I keep leaving notes at museums,i must be a real pain as a visitor.

And as always-Mary Beard is a legend-BBC should really give her a series or something.she is entertaining and very scholarly at the same time,she has a gift.she could get a frog interested in Romans!:)

I shall be back in Rome in a few weeks and i was planning to go to the caputoline museum-if u don't get your answer before then,i will loOk it up for you.i guesd no luck with the catalogue,right? Taking pictures of the descriprions is essential-i learnt it the hard way as welll.:) i will let you know if ifind out anything about your mistery man:)

Eric said...

Stylistic elements of this work (uplifted eyes, gimlet drilled, naturalistic hairstyles) make me think of the Antoninous Pius era works. In fact, it kind of looks like an older version of the emperor, but most likely a wealthy citizen / solder emulating the emporer's style. It would have probably been created around AD 150. (Refer to book 'Looking at Greek and Roman Sculpture in Stone' by Janet Grossman pg. 20)

Has it been TL tested?


Mary Harrsch said...

Eric, thank you for your observations. I am puzzled, though, why the museum would display the bust in such close proximity to the Flavians when the Antonines were farther away (based on my time stamps). I have had other scholars also suggest he is a private citizen but then I wonder why a private citizen would be displayed in the Hall of the Emperors? Perhaps he was a tutor to Titus or Domititian???

Unknown said...

That's Decius!The hair is a little curly, but the facial features, the heavy lined forehead, the eyes, and the throat says it's Decius.