Departure of the emperor from Rome for a military campain (profectio). Relief A from Palazzo Cancelleria in Rome.
Luna marble. 81—96 CE.
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.

Luna marble. 81—96 CE.
H. 206 cm.

Rome, Vatican Museums, Gregorian Profane Museum
(Roma, Musei Vaticani, Museo gregoriano profano).

Renovation works in Palazzo Cancelleria (Cortile delle Corazze), 1937—1939.

The Cancelleria Reliefs

Two well-preserved marble reliefs (figs. 158—159) were discovered in 1937 and 1939 under the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. The two panels, called the Cancelleria Reliefs because of their findspot, were found leaning against the walls of the republican Tomb of Aulus Hirtius. Their position suggests that they were deliberately discarded in what had become a dump by the late first century. The first major publication of the Cancelleria Reliefs was in 1945, and controversy still surrounds them. The date of their manufacture, the identity of their main protagonists, and the appearance of the building for which they were fashioned, continue to be debated. It seems best to present the traditional view and then dissenting opinions since there is little about the Cancelleria Reliefs that is incontrovertible.

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—69. Domitian is there to greet him as is Roma, the Genius Senatus, and the Genius Populi Romani. Roma (some scholars identify her as Virtus) is at the far left of the panel. She is seated on a throne further raised on a pedestal, perhaps intended as one of Rome’s seven hills. She is dressed in the short tunic of an Amazon with one breast bare. She wears a helmet and holds a spear in her right hand. Below and behind her is the apparitor or Vestal’s attendant dressed in a tunic and toga. In front of Roma are at least five Vestal Virgins; the head of only one of them is preserved. The Vestals are followed by two lictors in short tunics and mantles and with axes attached to their rods. The one farthest left has his back to the spectator; the one on the right faces front and, along with another lictor on the far right of the relief panel, flanks the central group of Domitian and Vespasian. Domitian, identifiable by his youthfulness, his slightly protruding upper lip, and especially by his hairstyle, which is full, plastically rendered, and arranged in a tiaralike configuration across his forehead, wears a tunic and toga, the folds of which he grasps with both hands. He has a slight beard on his cheeks and chin, which was probably worn by young men before the traditional first shave at age twenty. Even though Domitian’s body is depicted in an almost frontal position, his head is turned far to his left to face his approaching father. Vespasian, also in tunic and toga and also frontally positioned, turns his head sharply to his right toward his younger son and greets him by placing his right hand on Domitian’s shoulder. Vespasian’s portrait shows him with his characteristic short coiffure receding at the temples, lined forehead, cheeks and chin, crow’s-feet, arched brows, thin lips, and a tightly controlled expression. Behind Domitian is the mature, bearded, and togate Genius Senatus, and between father and son the youthful, clean-shaven, and seminude Genius Populi Romani. He cradles a cornucopia in his left arm and with his bare feet steps on a raised base. Some scholars identify him as Honos because he carries a lance; otherwise he is almost indistinguishable from the Genius Populi Romani. Above the head of Vespasian are the remains of a laurel wreath, undoubtedly raised above his head by a flying personification of Victory.

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—93. Domitian’s Sarmatian War gives a terminus post quem of 93 for the reliefs. They were probably completed by about 95, although at least one scholar connects this panel with Domitian’s triumph over the Chatti in 83, and on stylistic and iconographic grounds others date both panels to the Hadrianic period. One of the most recent studies of the reliefs confirms the late Domitianic date, and the portrait of Domitian p.192 in frieze A is identified as an example of his last portrait type. In frieze A, Domitian is led by Victory (only her left wing still survives), by a lictor with a fasces with an ax, by Mars, the god of war, dressed in cuirass and with helmet and shield, and Minerva, goddess of war, clad in aegis and helmet. Minerva was Domitian’s divine patroness, and panel A depicts visually their special bond. They gaze at one another intently, and Domitian’s right arm projects forward and seems to become one with the upper part of Minerva’s right arm; the lower part of her arm bends back toward the emperor. Domitian’s relationship with the goddess Roma is also a close one. The emperor, dressed in a short tunic covered by a mantle (his traveling costume), is propelled forward by Roma (or possibly Virtus), identified by her short Amazonian costume, with one breast bare, and her helmet. She places her right hand under the emperor’s left elbow and urges him on his way. She is followed by the Genius Senatus, with beard, toga, and scepter, and the Genius Populi Romani, with bare chest and cornucopia, who wave good-bye to Domitian. They are both accompanied and followed by Roman soldiers traveling with the emperor.

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.

(сс) 2008. Photo: Sergey Sosnovskiy (CC BY-SA 4.0).
© 1992. Description: Diana E. E. Kleiner. Roman sculpture. Yale University Press New Haven & London. P. 191—192.
Keywords: γλυπτική sculptura sculpture sculptural scultura skulptur ρωμαϊκό roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines ανακούφιση relief rilievo αυτοκρατορικό imperial imperiale kaiserliches impérial ρωμαϊκή μυθολογία mythologia mythology mitologia mythologie γκένιους genius genio μινέρβα minerva goddess dea divinità göttin déesse minerve ρωμαίος αυτοκράτορας δομιτιανός imperator domitianus emperor domitian imperatore domiziano kaiser empereur domitien μάρκος κοκκήιος νέρβας marcus cocceius nerva marco cocceio ῥώμη roma gottheit θεός μαρς deus mars god dio marte gott dieu απεικόνιση portrait portraiture ritratto ritrattistica porträtmalerei porträt of a man male maschile uomo männliches mann masculin un homme antonine dynasty adoptive emperors dinastia degli antonini imperatori adottivi d’adozione antoninische dynastie adoptivkaiser antonins gens flavia flavii the flavian flavier famille flaviens reliefs sollievo porträtrelief luna marble luni marmo lunense palazzo cancelleria departure from rome for military campain profectio damnatio memoriae reworking rilavorazione inv no 13389 13390 13391