When there is no archaeological record: Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca bust), part 2 of 2


(piano music) – [Host] One of the most popular
sculptures that one studies when you study Ancient Roman Art, is this beautiful bust
of a woman that is known as the Head of a Flavian Woman but also known as the Fonseca bust. Fonseca being the person who
owned it in the 18th century and gave it to the Capitoline Museum, where it can be seen today. And if you’re interested in the traditional reading of this sculpture, watch the first Smarthistory video, but we’re gonna look at this
from a different viewpoint. – [Participant] The reason
the statue is so famous is because she is so
extraordinarily beautiful, the very high degree
of finish on her face, the lavish attention that this artist paid to the curls of her hair. – [Host] And this is a sculpture that’s in amazingly good condition. – [Participant] On the one hand, we are drawn to exceptional works of art because they are so beautiful and unusual. On the other hand, if we don’t have very much information about where it came from, that might also be reason for
some alarm bells to go off. – [Host] One of the important foundations of Ancient Rome in art history
is to look at comparables. What art historians call comparanda. – [Participant] And we
do have a lot of images that show women with
their hair pulled back in a large bundle of braids in the back with little curls in the front. – [Host] But in those cases, the hair doesn’t fall forward
in the way that it does here. – [Participant] If we look closely at the image of the wife of Domitian, you can see that what the
artist has done is used a drill with a short bit and punched holes into the surface of the stone, creating these little pin curls. If we look at the Fonseca bust, here we have long coils of hair that hang down over the forehead, that the artist has created
by using a long drill bit to punch deep up into
these cylinders of stone that create these very dramatic contrasts of light and shade and a whole
range of tones in between. – [Host] And it’s that interest
in the contrasting light and dark that has led art
historians to re-date this from the late first century
to the early second century. Now here we are doing close
looking and we’re comparing it to existing work but
what we’re not able to do, is to talk about why it was made. – [Participant] And
there’s some peculiarities of the sculpture that really do demand more of an explanation. For example, if you look at
the position of her head, she seems to be looking
over her left shoulder and to be cocking her
head slightly to one side. – [Host] And we know that
Ancient Roman sculpture was often put in a
context that lent meaning. Works of art were very
rarely seen in isolation. – [Participant] So perhaps she
was originally setup with her husband represented next to her. – [Host] And for that we need a findspot, which we don’t have here. – [Participant] Works that are found in archeological excavations, come out of the ground with
all kinds of information that archeologists are trained to extract. They will be able to identify
the other objects that this was setup with and what
kind of space it was. What could be seen from what angle and when the object dates to
based on the stratigraphy. – [Host] So what we’re left with here is a focus on the aesthetics. – [Participant] Scholars have often turned to literary sources to provide additional cultural information. This sculpture is often
brought in dialogue with passages from two first century Roman authors named Martial and Juvenal, who wrote witty poems about the vanity of aristocratic women that
are also quite misogynistic. – [Host] And so when
we look at this object and we understand it in
relationship to those texts as an example of female
aristocratic vanity, we might be perpetuating
stereotypical ideas about women from the second century, which is a dangerous thing to do. A lot of attention recently has been paid to objects that have been looted. Taken from archeological sites without a careful archeological method. There’s an awareness now among the public that when we do that we
lose all of this contextual, historical knowledge. – [Participant] The question is, what do we do with objects that have been part of the cannon for centuries, that have been in major
museum collections, about which we also have
no information about their archeological context. – [Host] One of the things
we could begin to do is be more transparent about the problem. We could look at a museum
label that made clear that the earliest records
we have on this date back only to the 18th century. The findspot that was recorded
doesn’t make a lot of sense. It was supposed to have been
embedded in a medieval wall. And the sculpture is in too good condition to make that seem truly plausible. – [Participant] Often the
works that are the most famous and that appear again and
again in the survey textbooks, like the Fonseca bust, are the ones that have been in the major museum collections the longest. Their arrival in those museum collections long pre-dates our attention
to archeological context. – [Host] We’re really
limited about what we can say about so many of the
objects that we study. Almost three quarters
of the works that are in the art history survey
textbook from Ancient Rome, don’t have a complete
archeological record. – [Participant] I use the
terms, grounded and ungrounded to think about this problem. Things that come from archeological sites whose place in the ground we know about, I refer to those objects as grounded because our interpretation
of them is tethered to something external
to the object itself. And the quality of the
information can vary. Some sites are really well
excavated by archeologists. At other times, sculptures are found
while someone is digging a road so it’s removed in haste. But at least we have that
position in the ground to assure us of the object’s authenticity to tie the object to a particular place. – [Host] So the Flavian woman, the Fonseca bust is ungrounded. – [Participant] That’s right. – [Host] What we might
end up studying though, if we studied grounded objects, is works that are not
quite as pristine as this. – [Participant] The objects
that surface on the art market have very often been cleaned up in someway by dealers
who will restore them, re-polish the surface, and one of the problems is that that’s the look we’ve gotten used to. We expect our classical sculpture
to be smooth and unbroken – [Host] But when we
see the affects of time, that can have a different kind of beauty and maybe we can grow
to appreciate that, too. (piano music)

11 Replies to “When there is no archaeological record: Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca bust), part 2 of 2

  1. mindboggling hair YIKES, seen that one before .. but what if an object or document is actually/really known by all to be totally fake, but there is a total hegemonic consensus on its utter authenticity ?

  2. That was terrific. I really enjoy the rare video we're Smarthistory takes on larger issues of understanding the discipline of art history. Thank you.

  3. Another great video. The other day I watched a lecture on YouTube by Mary Beard about the identification of roman portrait busts. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed this video. Why this channel does not have 20x the subs I have no idea.

  4. As an archaeologist: thank you for raising awareness about archaeological context. People tend to get mad at us because we frown on those who use metal detectors, telling us that "without them a lot of artifacts would remain unknown"… that would be true if there were nice objects like the Fonseca bust everywhere, but a simple coin or fibula is worthless without context, and the site on which it is found is deprived of a little more evidence. So yeah, thanks for explaining this clearly and concisely!

  5. Thanks for another great video, however i did find it hard to take in the commentary and read the text that was being presented at the same time.

  6. Yet another wonderfully enlightening video. I never thought of this topic, but it makes so much sense and is something to be kept in mind

  7. Thank you for this contextualized presentation and including the issues – gender; archaeological challenges – that surround these taken for granted works of art.

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