Michael Koortbojian


Michael Koortbojian, the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Art and Archaeology, transferred to emeritus status on July 1, 2024. His impact on the Department of Art and Archaeology has been indelible, as both a scholar and an administrator.

Michael specializes in various aspects of Roman art, as well as its study by Renaissance antiquarians. Arriving at Princeton in 2009 as a full professor, he entered Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology at a period of transition, as three faculty were retiring. Michael rebuilt the ancient field at Princeton and strengthened teaching and scholarship across the department, serving as chair from 2014 until 2020. He was named the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Art and Archaeology in 2014. His tenure witnessed a significant expansion in the scope of the department, with hires strengthening existing areas and moving the department into new areas chronologically, geographically, and thematically. His institutional impact can be felt in the reorganization of the Index of Medieval Art and Visual Resources, and in the development of close collaborations between the department, the museum, and Marquand Library.

Prior to his work at Princeton, Michael held positions at several institutions distinguished for scholarship in the history of art: the Warburg Institute in London; King’s College, Cambridge; and the University of Toronto, where he received tenure in 1998. In 2005, he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he was the Nancy H. and Robert E. Hall Professor in the Humanities. 

Michael earned an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, and a B.A. from Bennington College. Among his many publications are investigations of Roman sarcophagi, the relationships between texts and images, the role of historical imagery as an aspect of ideology, as well as the rise of the systematic study of the Classical past, and, in particular, the early collecting of ancient inscriptions as an aspect of a new Renaissance conception of historical method.

Michael authored four books that tackle some of the most significant problems in the field, devoting close attention to physical evidence and evincing an open approach to methodology. His first book, Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi (1995), used an innovative approach to language to offer an unprecedented interpretation of the meaning of Roman funeral monuments, and it continues to be widely cited. Refusing to be merely a sarcophagus man and resisting the typical specialization in the ancient field, Michael turned to new questions and new media in his subsequent research. His next two books, The Divinization of Caesar and Augustus: Precedents, Consequences, Implications (2013) and Crossing the Pomerium: The Boundaries of Political, Religious and Military Institutions from Caesar to Constantine (2020), examined the representations, manifestations, and implications of Roman imperial power. His fourth book, published in his last academic year at Princeton, The Representation of Space in Graeco-Roman Art (2023), considered the medium of relief sculpture and moved back in time, to Greek contexts. It continued his deep and long-standing interest in questions of historiography, informed by considerable expertise in Renaissance art history.

Michael was a visiting associate member of the Institute for Advanced Study from 2017 to 2018. He is a corresponding member of the Deutsches Archäoligisches Institut. Among the organizations that have recognized his work through research grants are the Kress Foundation, the British Academy, the Mellon Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. A member of the executive committees of several Princeton academic programs, his service to the University and other academic and cultural institutions has been exemplary. He is a past member of the editorial board of Art Bulletin. Additionally, Michael has worked as a consultant for the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, the Kress Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council of Canada, among many others.

Dedicated to his students, Michael cares deeply about the quality of graduate work. At all levels, the courses he has offered at Princeton have been intimate, characterized by close looking, thoughtful conversation, and one-on-one guidance. At the undergraduate level, his courses have explored the full array of Roman art—sculpture, architecture, and painting. He also has offered a seminar on portraits and a lecture course on Hellenistic art. Michael’s graduate seminars have spanned the same subjects, although they often were directed toward themes including historical relief, the problem of copies, provincial monuments, late Roman sculpture, and funerary art. Throughout his career at Princeton, Michael has modeled the rigor of careful research and disciplined scholarship that he hoped his students would acquire, all the while inviting and welcoming different opinions and ideas grounded in knowledge of Roman society and its art.

Written by members of the Department of Art and Archaeology faculty and the Office of the Dean of the Faculty.