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“Quae facies, qui vultus viro?”
“What sort’s the man’s face, and what his coun-tenance?”
-Lucilius, Fragment 36
These disembodied heads come to us from different contexts, times, and locales but in their fragmented forms, they all beg the same question: what happened to their vanished bodies, or perhaps, as Lucillius’ asked, what was the person’s overall countenance?
The rich details ascribed to a face inspire the modern viewer to construct a narrative, perhaps in ways inappropriate to its original conception. The rendering of a wreath, a veil, or a comedic grimace begins to imply the absent context that an intact figure would supply, while at the same time denying specificity. Simultaneously divorced from and connected to their historical contexts, these fragments remind us of the ever-present lacunae in our knowledge of the ancient world, and inspire infinite possibilities of narrative and identity to be generated.
Bodies in Relief
The objects in this section exist somewhere in between two- and three-dimensional. They are bodies in relief, half bodies reliant on their ground, be it architecture, pottery, or ivory. The two Roman Arretine Terra Sigillata fragments are decorated with two female figures, one winged. Emerging from the smooth surface of these vessels, these fragmented bodies begin to assert themselves into the three-dimensional world, but ultimately remained tied to their material background.
The intriguing Etruscan Terracotta Female Veiled Half Head is a rare example of a body made in relief, but dislocated from its ground. Given her size, the Female Veiled Half Head (and the rest of her body) would most likely have been attached to an architectural structure, or at least placed against a wall, never meant to be viewed from the round. Extracted from her context, she is doubly fragmented - she has lost her body, and the truth of her half-body is voyeuristically exposed.
These three plaster casts depicting Christ’s Ascension, an Ottonian court, and the Romance of the Roses, represent a scant fraction of the over six hundred fictile ivories held in Special Collections at Bryn Mawr College. Made of the finest Paris plaster and painted by hand, these nineteenth-century casts capture intricate medieval bodies in a new medium. Such objects were originally created as reproductions of medieval carved ivories to aid scholars in the study of the originals, but they now act as artifacts in their own right. Representing both medieval artistic intention and nineteenth-century antiquarian interests, the represented bodies are doubly removed from their original state. At once fragmentary and whole, how can we understand such bodies divorced from their narrative contexts?