REPUBLICAN PORTRAITURE IN THE ROMAN ART

Published: 08th February 2010
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If for Your holidays, You decide to rent an apartment in Rome, don't miss to visit the great museums of the capital such as the Capitoline Museum. You'll see there a lot of Roman artefacts and portaits: so it could be very interesting to learn something more about the Republic Portraiture.



The origins and originality of Roman portraiture have been the focus of serious debate among historians of ancient art. For a long time it was held that the realism which constitutes the essential characteristic of Roman portraiture of the Republic was derived from the death-mask practice, vivid accounts of which have been handed down to us by Polybius and Pliny the Elder (NH, xxxv. 6, 8). Death-masks were images "reproducing with remarkable fidelity both the features and the complexion of the deceased". These ancestral images were kept in special cupboards in the house, near the atrium, and were paraded in public on special occasions.

It is now generally believed that the late Republican portrait was produced by the convergence of a number o varied and sometimes unrelated currents firstly, the ideology behind the typical Roman portrait came from the ancestral cult of the Roman patrician class as expressed in the "ius imaginum" and in funerary portraiture. The stark realism of some of the most typical portraits of the period betrays the derivation from the ancestral wax-portraits. Secondly, Egyptian portrait, with its love of faithful physiognomic rendering, undoubtedly influenced the development of the Roman realistic portrait directly or indirectly. In the third place, the contribution of Hellenistic art in this sphere is mostly stylistic. While realism is formal modelling almost always raises it above a slavish adherence to reality. Finally, intensity of expression, when it occurs, is due to the influence of the Central-Italic milieu. This expressionism is a dominant feature in the "Brutus" and in the bronze head of a young man in the Cabinet des M├ędailles in Paris. The typical honorific portrait (as opposed lo the purely funerary one) of the Republic developed between 90 BC (the patrician return to power) and the last triumvirate (43-32 BC). Several examples of it have been identified with historical persons. Some identifications, such as the portrait of "Sulla", are tentative, but others are firm through comparisons with inscribed coin portraits, for example Pompey and Caesar. Of these, the beautifully modelled head of Pompey with its accentuated plasticity has all the qualities of the work of a Hellenistic artist, probably Greek. The portraits of "Sulla" and Caesar are inspired by those of Hellenistic princes. The modelling of the facial features is drier- and is more concerned with expressing the ethos, the personality of the statesman, than with the merciless reproduction of skin defects.

The extant portraits of unknown private individuals in the same period constitute a class of portraiture quite distinct from those of politicians. Compared with the latter, this type of portrait presents itself as the closest heir of the wax-portrait tradition. Verism (that is, exaggerated realism) is the dominating trait in these portraits. It is hard to identify Hellenistic influence on them, but some early specimens discovered in the Greek East suggest that even this class of portrait could very well have been the work of Hellenistic sculptors. Two representative specimens are the veiled head in the Vatican and the head in the Albertinum at Dresden, with its lined, emaciated face. Both illustrate magnificently the typical gnarled features of the countryman: there was a strong peasant strain in the middle-class, which formed the backbone of Roman society. The rendering of the wrinkled skin in the latter is exceptionally fine, but the realism of the head does not stop there. It penetrates beyond the skin into the bone-structure, which is accentuated by the thin layer of flesh clinging to it. The expression is grim and hauntingly death-like.

In the portrait of the old, boorish, leather-faced patrician in the Museo Torlonia, on the other hand, no effort is spared in the reproduction of every wrinkle of the face. In the forehead the wrinkles are rendered by deep line-drawing whereas a little more plasticity is moulded into the cheeks and mouth. This outstanding Portrait seems to capture the essential character of a late Republican bourgeois.

Two different generations are represented by the portrait busts held in the arms of a togate statue now in the Conservatori Museum. They are both in the naturalistic tradition, of Hellenistic derivation, assimilated by the artists of central Italy. One is a reproduction of a portrait created around 50-40 BC; the other is a generation younger. The statue itself is dated to the earliest years of the first century AD, though the head is not original.



Rent one of our Rome apartments, and don't forget to visit the Museums of the Eternal City.



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