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Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca Bust), part 1 of 2

Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca Bust), from Rome, c. 100 C.E., marble, 63 cm (Capitoline Museums), part 1 of 2. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris For more art history, visit smarthistory.org. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Capitoline Museum in Rome looking at this beautiful delicate portrait bust known as Portrait of a Flavian Woman. - [Voiceover] And the word Flavian refers to the Flavion dynasty. Sometimes when we look back at the ancient Roman Empire, we think about this line of Emperors. But in fact they came from distinct families. So for example, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome came from the Julio-Claudian dynasty. And in the late first century A.D. there was a dynasty called the Flavian dynasty. And those emperors were Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. - [Voiceover] And that was a short dynasty. But it was an important one. Because Rome had just gone through the abusive reign of the emperor Nero. And Nero had taken an enormous amount of the center of the city for his own palace. And had been imperious in rule. And so Vespasian spent a good deal of his rule actually giving back to the city. And the premier example of that is the building of the Colosseum. - [Voiceover] Right, a place where the public could go and enjoy themselves. And in fact the original name of the Colosseum was the Flavian Amphitheater. - [Voiceover] One note about this sculpture. For many years, we thought that this was a Flavian woman. Now some art historians suspect that it may actually be a woman who's sculpted in the Flavian style. That is her hairstyle. Most specifically, is Flavian. - [Voiceover] Right, but that she was sculpted in the early second century. So about 40 or 50 years later. - [Voiceover] And that is quite a hairstyle. - [Voiceover] It's fabulous. It's a hairstyle where the front part of her hair has been pulled forward and up and set in these ringlets that frame her face beautifully. - [Voiceover] And this very ornate braiding and coiling of the hair on the back of her head. - [Voiceover] And what that does is expose this lovely neck. Which is really one of the most beautiful parts of the sculpture. - [Voiceover] Although her eyes have not been painted or drilled, or the paint doesn't survive, she seems to be looking up and off. Which tilts her head in a very delicate matter and exposes that neck. - [Voiceover] And it's curved with real subtlety so that we can see the slight bulge of her cheek bones and the impression around her lips and below her nose. - [Voiceover] Now the hairstyle that we were talking about was very fashionable during the Flavian era. And we suspect that it came from a style that had been initiated or at least popularized by one of the women of the emperor's court. Even in the modern world we often follow the style set by important men and women. I'm thinking recently of Michelle Obama. And I remember when she got her hair cut into bangs. Bangs became a craze. - [Voiceover] I think that's an important thing to remember because we look at this and her hairstyle just looks wildly outrageous. And almost ridiculous I think to our eyes. But in the second or first century, this likely looked like the height of fashion. - [Voiceover] And it's interesting to think that this might actually be archaizing. That is that this was a slightly more modern woman. Who was having herself portrayed as a woman in a style of the previous century. And if that's true, it suggests that even the ancient Romans that the early years of the empire were thinking historically. - [Voiceover] And she's carved out of this lustrous marble. But the opportunity provided by this hairstyle to create deep shadows in those ringlets is something that's really been exploited by the sculpture. - [Voiceover] And he's done that by not only using a chisel but also by using a drill. Which is allowing him to get very fine, very deep holes. And of course, this wouldn't have been a power drill. This would have been have been turned by hand or perhaps with the aid of a bow. - [Voiceover] And so it's important to remember all of the skill that went into carving this by the sculptor. - [Voiceover] Well, if a piece broke off, you'd start again. (piano music)