Theses Doctoral

Legacies of Matter: The Reception and Remediation of Material Traditions in Roman Sculpture

Cook, Emily Margaret

Roman sculpture of the late republic and empire is characterized by wide-ranging practices of formal imitation and replication of earlier figurative traditions, particularly those of the Hellenized Eastern Mediterranean. Works that exhibit this retrospective character may be replicas of famous statues, adaptations of familiar compositions, or inventive creations based on established styles and features. The links of subject and style that these works created in the Roman context engendered systems of mutual reference and evaluation that helped articulate the socio-political, ideological, religious, and other aims of the representations. As sculptural types or even loosely related images were produced in a rich variety of materials, their proliferation enmeshed bronze, marble, colored stones, terracotta, and plaster into formal, technical, visual, and historical relationships. This dissertation investigates the materials of Roman sculpture as both agents and products of a transformative reception of earlier local and foreign traditions.
The inquiry focuses on the nexus of Roman formal replication and material manipulation, investigating diverse choices of material and technique against the common background of a type’s subject, style, composition, and deployment in the Roman world. The project’s focus is circumscribed around sculptural types whose large-scale replicas are extant in more than one material; the survey in Chapter 2 is intentionally broad and includes replicas of famous Greek works, Idealplastik, and works related to Egyptian archetypes, as well as the large-scale, positive plaster casts from Baia. In this way, it sets out on a broad investigation of the nature of the reception of media practices in Roman sculpture, studying technical processes as much as formal connections and treating the reproductive interest in Greek, Egyptian, and even recently invented forms as complementary parts of a single retrospective approach to sculpture.
This project proposes a methodology for investigating historically contextualized materialities that marries the approaches of historical reception, reception aesthetics, and remediation. The case studies apply this methodology in a four-part examination of Roman contexts of material reception, including production, display, and recontextualization. These chapters articulate the impact of techniques of formal reproduction on material selection and manipulation, assess the relevance of the medium of the formal archetype, demonstrate the plurality of contextualized material relationships that constitute materiality, clarify the nature of material mimesis as a selective and partial illusion, account for changing tastes in material decorum, and highlight ongoing engagement with the materiality of physically present antiques.
The project illustrates that the Roman material context within which the selection, manipulation, and evaluation of sculptural materials must be situated is predicated upon both simple and sophisticated engagements with historical material traditions, both local and exotic. It shows that investigating the ways in which material traditions were available for reception in the Roman world – by the dissemination of plaster casts or by the importation of antiques, whose surfaces might be altered by age or later intervention – can reveal scholarly misconceptions and can realign modern interpretations with ancient practices. Engaging with the multiple, co-existing relationships that define a work’s materiality, this dissertation suggests that this plurality of references could be valued in much the same way that the recombination of distinct period styles could articulate new meanings in a Roman context. In the process of tracing these numerous material relationships, this dissertation’s analyses point to further avenues of research, indicating the relevance of Egyptian and North African material traditions for Roman uses of colored stones, calling attention to sophisticated engagements with issues of representation, and demonstrating that lack of coherence (in material references and in display) could be exploited as a means of enriching artworks that were conservative in their form and subject matter.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
de Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2018