Recutting Portraits of Roman Emperors

Problems in Interpretation and the
Use of New Technology in Finding Possible Solutions

Professor John Pollini
Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology
University of Southern California

As an expression of memoria damnata, sculptural portraits of disgraced past leaders of Rome and of their family members were recut into images of other individuals, usually imperial successors or other prominent personages. Such recutting was a practical way of conserving sculptural works in marble, an expensive commodity in the ancient world. In the last thirty years or so, scholars have become more cognizant of the fact that a number of portraits, not previously recognized as recut, were indeed reworked in some way. But even when there is general agreement that a sculpture has been refashioned, debate has continued not only as to whose portrait was recut but also which portrait types of that person had served for the original image.

This lecture examines some of the problems in detecting recutting and how the new digital technology might be used to help us understand better the process of recutting marble portraits. For example, a three-dimensional image of a portrait suspected to have been recut can be projected inside another three-dimensional image of an unrecut portrait in order to determine how an image might have been refashioned. Also discussed are some of the limitations in the application of three-dimensional digital technology.