H. 206 cm. Rome, Vatican Museums, Gregorian Profane MuseumPhoto by Sergey Sosnovskiy
Departure of the emperor from Rome for a military campain (profectio). Relief A from Palazzo Cancelleria in Rome.
H. 206 cm.
Rome, Vatican Museums, Gregorian Profane Museum
(Roma, Musei Vaticani, Museo gregoriano profano)
The Cancelleria Reliefs
Two well-preserved marble reliefs (figs. 158—
The style of the Cancelleria Reliefs is classicizing. The figures are depicted in two relief planes: high relief in the foreground and relatively low relief in the background. The background is completely blank; there are no landscape or architectural elements. Although the bodies of the figures are often represented in frontal or three-quarter views, the heads are always in profile or three-quarter view. As in the two great panels from the Arch of Titus, the heads of the figures do not reach to the top of the frieze, although in the panel that is known as frieze B, the heads of the divinities and personifications in the lower relief tier are higher than those in the foreground.
The first panel, which is usually referred to as frieze B (see fig. 158), has traditionally been interpreted as Vespasian’s return to Rome (adventus) in 70 after his victory in the Civil War of 68—
Frieze A (see fig. 159) depicts an event that took place around twenty-three years later when Domitian was emperor of Rome — Domitian’s departure (profectio) for his Sarmatian War in 92—
Careful examination of the figure of Domitian reveals that although the hairstyle is clearly the Neronian coma in gradus formata that he favored, the head is too small for the body, and the facial characteristics — slanting forehead, thin lips, and hooked nose — are not those of Vespasian’s younger son. Comparison of the head with a portrait of Domitian’s successor, Nerva, from Tivoli (see fig. 170), indicates that the head was recarved with the later emperor’s features.
Both panels have dowel holes and must have originally been attached to a building in Rome. One scholar believes that the reliefs were recarved before their removal from the monument; another has convincingly refuted this theory. Suggested locations include the Temple of Fortuna Redux, the Porticus Divorum, and the Porta Triumphalis. In any case, what is of special interest is that subsequent to the assassination and damnatio memoriae of Domitian, Nerva decided to alter the reliefs for reuse in a monument commemorating his new regime. Frieze A was recut, and the imperial protagonist given the features of Rome’s new emperor, a man favored by the senate. Nerva was, in fact, one of the senate’s most respected and eldest members. He was also not in the best health, and it was, therefore, not surprising that he died sixteen months later. Frieze B had not yet been recarved; the emperor’s head in frieze A was too small to be recut again. Despite the high artistic quality of the Cancelleria Reliefs, the decision was made to discard them. There is no better example in Roman sculpture of the overriding political significance of an imperially sponsored state relief.
This standard interpretation of both friezes A and B has been increasingly challenged in recent years, with emphasis shifting from frieze A to frieze B. That Domitian’s head was recarved as Nerva has long been accepted, and dispute about frieze A has focused on whether the scene was a profectio or an adventus and whether it took place in the 80s or 90s. Frieze B, with what were identified as original portraits of Vespasian and Domitian, seemed less controversial until it was suggested that the head of Vespasian had been reworked, which seems to be confirmed by careful stylistic analysis of the head in question. This keen observation is of the greatest significance because, if correct, it means that the emperor crowned by Victory in frieze B — the most important figure in the frieze — was originally someone other than Vespasian. The recarving presumably also took place under Nerva, who chose to have the head of the emperor in frieze B replaced with Vespasian’s rather than his own. Scholars who believe that the head of the emperor was recarved as Vespasian under Nerva suggest that the original head depicted Domitian and that the youthful togatus is to be identified as someone else, possibly a young priest. Nerva’s decision to transform the head of Domitian into one of Vespasian was done in order to bind the new emperor to the founder of the Flavian dynasty rather than to his immediate predecessor — the despot Domitian — just as Vespasian bound himself in dynastic groups and other monuments to Augustus and Claudius rather than to Nero. One scholar, who also identifies frieze A as Domitian’s adventus into Rome after his Sarmatian victory rather than his profectio, believes that both friezes A and B originally depicted Domitian and extolled his imperial virtues. Frieze A honored the virtus of the imperator in battle, and frieze B the pietas of Domitian as pontifex maximus. The religious nature of the scene in frieze B is attested by the presence of the Vestals. The jury is still out, so to speak, on the Cancelleria Reliefs, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the careful study of the heads of the main protagonists on state reliefs for evidence of reworking will have as critical an effect on their interpretation as the study of reworked heads has already had on understanding the chronology and political iconography of imperial portraiture.