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


Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca bust), early 2nd century C.E., marble, 63 inches high (Capitoline Museum, Rome). Part 1 can be watched here.


Additional resources:

Elizabeth Marlowe, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”fonseca,”]



[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] 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.

[0:24] If you’re interested in the traditional reading of this sculpture, watch the first Smarthistory video, but we’re going to look at this from a different viewpoint.

Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe: [0:32] The reason this 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.

Dr. Harris: [0:44] This is a sculpture that’s in amazingly good condition.

Dr. Marlowe: [0:47] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:01] One of the important foundations of ancient Roman art history is to look at comparables, what art historians call comparanda.

Dr. Marlowe: [1:08] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] But in those cases, the hair doesn’t fall forward in the way that it does here.

Dr. Marlowe: [1:23] 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.

[1:37] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:59] It’s that interest in the contrasting light and dark that has led art historians to re-date this from the late 1st century to the early 2nd 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.

Dr. Marlowe: [2:20] 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.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] We know that ancient Roman sculpture was often put in a context that lent meaning. Works of art were very rarely seen in isolation.

Dr. Marlowe: [2:45] Perhaps she was originally set up with her husband represented next to her.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] For that, we would need a findspot, which we don’t have here.

Dr. Marlowe: [2:53] Works that are found in archaeological excavations come out of the ground with all kinds of information that archaeologists are trained to extract. They will be able to identify the other objects that this was set up 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.

Dr. Harris: [3:16] What we’re left with here is a focus on the aesthetics.

Dr. Marlowe: [3:19] Scholars have often turned to literary sources to provide additional cultural information. This sculpture is often brought in dialogue with passages from two 1st century Roman authors named Martial and Juvenal, who wrote witty poems about the vanity of aristocratic women that are also quite misogynistic.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] 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 2nd century, which is a dangerous thing to do.

[3:55] A lot of attention recently has been paid to objects that have been looted: taken from archaeological sites without a careful archaeological method. There’s an awareness now among the public that when we do that we lose all of this contextual historical knowledge.

Dr. Marlowe: [4:12] The question is, what do we do with objects that have been part of the canon for centuries, that have been in major museum collections, about which we also have no information about their archaeological context?

Dr. Harris: [4:25] 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.

[4:37] 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.

Dr. Marlowe: [4:48] Often, the works that are 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 archaeological context.

Dr. Harris: [5:07] 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 archaeological record.

Dr. Marlowe: [5:19] I use the terms “grounded” and “ungrounded” to think about this problem. Things that come from archaeological 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.

[5:37] The quality of the information can vary. Some sites are really well excavated by archaeologists, 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.

Dr. Harris: [5:57] So the Flavian woman, the Fonseca bust, is ungrounded.

Dr. Marlowe: [6:01] That’s right.

Dr. Harris: [6:01] What we might end up studying, though, if we studied grounded objects, is works that are not quite as pristine as this.

Dr. Marlowe: [6:09] The objects that surface on the art market have very often been cleaned up in some way by dealers who will restore them, re-polish the surface. 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.

Dr. Harris: [6:25] But when we see the effects of time, that can have a different kind of beauty and maybe we can grow to appreciate that, too.

[6:33] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Steven Zucker, "When there is no archaeological record: Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca bust)," in Smarthistory, September 1, 2017, accessed March 3, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ungrounded-portrait-bust-of-a-flavian-woman-fonseca-bust/.