CJ Online Review: Trimble, Women and Visual Replication

posted with permission:

Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. By Jennifer Trimble. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xi + 486. Hardcover, £79.00/$125.00. ISBN 978-0-521-82515-3.

Reviewed by Antony Augoustakis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jennifer Trimble has produced a compelling study of the Roman portrait statue of the second century ce known as the “Large Herculaneum Woman” and its variations, of which she surveys 202 examples. The statues “represented individual women but replicated the same body from the neck down, recreating the same stance, the same gesture, the same elaborate drapery folds” (1). Trimble suggests that this book is about visual representation, sameness and otherness, social relations, the Roman empire and imperial practices, and, of course, Roman women. But then again with certain limitations: only adult women are represented; these statues are common in some regions of the vast empire, and ultimately they do a poor job of replicating women. The study aims to explain such paradoxes, often despite the limitative nature of the evidence (most of the statues are fragmentary), and I believe it does a good job.

After an Introduction, the first chapter looks at the origins of these statues, three of which were discovered in a well near Portici in 1711: the Large type and two Small Herculaneum Woman type statues (all dated to before 79 ce). Trimble rightly interrogates previous assumptions by pointing to some intriguing facts: the Large type was spread in the second century ce in the eastern Empire and Italy, it was used for display in public, urban spaces, and it was employed to honor the woman, not the sculptor or the Greek prototype. How do we explain then the replication and continuity of a type of statue in shifting historical and social circumstances from one century to the next?

Chapter 2 directs our attention to the questions of production. These statues were made in bronze and marble (the former do not survive). Where? Trimble delves into quarrying practices in the Imperial period: for instance, emphasis was laid on efficiency and speed, and there was also a wealth of prefabricated forms, which were then finished according to need. No Large Herculaneum Woman statues have been found in quarries though: as Trimble concludes, the semantics of “finished” vary according to perspective: for the quarries, the statues were finished when stockpiled as unshaped blocks (perhaps half-finished); for the cities, the statues were “finished” locally when they were ready to be installed in public spaces.

In the third chapter, Trimble investigates questions of distribution and looks at the finishing workshops involved. The period witnessed the expansion of marble trade, and here one can locate certain practices regarding local tastes and consumption, destination markets and shipping. Since the Large type left the quarries usually roughed out, Trimble examines the finishing workshops that undertook the next phase of the project. By observing similarities and differences among these statues, what can we gather regarding local demands and taste: different tunics, varying details of the mantle, different folds, or even same fronts but different backs.

The reader will surely find Chapters 4 and 5 to be the most rewarding in the book. The first one is dedicated to issues of portraiture: head, body, and inscription on the base. As expected, bodies are not individualized but rather idealized, formulaic, as opposed to the facial features and the hairstyle which vary. There are those statues, however, where the head is generic or replicated, with classicizing hairstyles and faces. As Trimble suggests, this flexibility in assemblage between head and body can be explained only by looking at the whole final product, including the inscriptional base (seven of which survive). Among the inscriptions some common themes emerge as topoi: the city’s patronage, the immediate family members, Greek ethnicity and/or Roman citizenship, stereotypical (female) virtues (arete, sophrosune, eusebeia). Visual representations help build or reinforce social identity, and Trimble persuasively points to the networks of social relationships constructed and extended by means of these (replicated) statues.

The use of space to display the sculpture is addressed in the fifth chapter, where Trimble takes into account the physical settings as well as the relationship formed among groups of statues meant to be viewed and received in specific contexts. The Large type is used for public, civic display with honorific purposes, namely in recognition of civic euergetism. Moreover, the sculptures becomes part of a koine of forms: they affirm membership “in a wider world of instantly recognizable visual forms, types of urban space, and kinds of social relationships” (257). In the same vein, in the penultimate Chapter 6, Trimble turns to those statues found far outside the canonical areas, away from the centers (Italy, Greece, Asia Minor), especially in the Danube region (Sarmizegetusa). Trimble interprets the statues as part of the koine which was spread by Imperial culture in the second century through the mechanisms of Romanization.

In Chapter 7, Trimble concludes with a survey of the possible reasons why the Large statue type stopped being made in the early third century: loss of demand is explained as the result of the statue’s inability to bestow special meaning and rank any longer.

The volume’s 95-page catalogue (360–456) is highly informative. To be sure, Trimble’s book is to be recommended for its thorough treatment of the subject and for its insightful and challenging views on a very interesting type of female statues.

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