AP®︎/College Art History
- Visualizing Imperial Rome
- Digging through time
- Pompeii: House of the Vettii
- Veristic Male Portrait
- Head of a Roman Patrician
- Augustus of Primaporta
- Augustus of Primaporta
- Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater)
- Imperial fora
- Forum and Markets of Trajan
- The Forum of Trajan
- Markets of Trajan
- Column of Trajan
- The Pantheon
- The Pantheon
- Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker
Seemingly wrinkled and toothless, with sagging jowls, the face of a Roman aristocrat stares at us across the ages. In the aesthetic parlance of the Late Roman Republic, the physical traits of this portrait image are meant to convey seriousness of mind (gravitas) and the virtue (virtus) of a public career by demonstrating the way in which the subject literally wears the marks of his endeavors. While this representational strategy might seem unusual in the post-modern world, in the waning days of the Roman Republic it was an effective means of competing in an ever more complex socio-political arena.
This portrait head, now housed in the Palazzo Torlonia in Rome, Italy, comes from Otricoli (ancient Ocriculum) and dates to the middle of the first century B.C.E. The name of the individual depicted is now unknown, but the portrait is a powerful representation of a male aristocrat with a hooked nose and strong cheekbones. The figure is frontal without any hint of dynamism or emotion—this sets the portrait apart from some of its near contemporaries. The portrait head is characterized by deep wrinkles, a furrowed brow, and generally an appearance of sagging, sunken skin—all indicative of the veristic style of Roman portraiture.
Verism can be defined as a sort of hyperrealism in sculpture where the naturally occurring features of the subject are exaggerated, often to the point of absurdity. In the case of Roman Republican portraiture, middle age males adopt veristic tendencies in their portraiture to such an extent that they appear to be extremely aged and care worn. This stylistic tendency is influenced both by the tradition of ancestral imagines as well as a deep-seated respect for family, tradition, and ancestry. The imagines were essentially death masks of notable ancestors that were kept and displayed by the family. In the case of aristocratic families these wax masks were used at subsequent funerals so that an actor might portray the deceased ancestors in a sort of familial parade (Polybius History 6.53.54). The ancestor cult, in turn, influenced a deep connection to family. For Late Republican politicians without any famous ancestors (a group famously known as ‘new men’ or ‘homines novi’) the need was even more acute—and verism rode to the rescue. The adoption of such an austere and wizened visage was a tactic to lend familial gravitas to families who had none—and thus (hopefully) increase the chances of the aristocrat’s success in both politics and business. This jockeying for position very much characterized the scene at Rome in the waning days of the Roman Republic and the Otricoli head is a reminder that one’s public image played a major role in what was a turbulent time in Roman history.
K. Cokayne, Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 2003).
H. I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in the Roman Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
E. Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
D. Jackson, “Verism and the Ancestral Portrait,” Greece & Rome 34.1 (1987), pp. 32–47.
D. E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
M. Papini, Antichi volti della Repubblica: la ritrattistica in Italia centrale tra IV e II secolo a.C. 2 v. (Rome: “L'Erma” di Bretschneider, 2004).
G. M. A. Richter, “The Origin of Verism in Roman Portraits,” Journal of Roman Studies 45.1–2 (1955), pp. 39–46.
J. Tanner, “Portraits, Power, and Patronage in the Late Roman Republic,” Journal of Roman Studies 90 (2000), pp. 18–50.
Essay by Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker
Want to join the conversation?
- Would this bust have been painted at one point and thus have perhaps looked more lifelike?
I know we learned earlier that that was the case with Greek sculpture and I wondered if that carries over to Ancient Roman as well?(9 votes)
- IT is possible that it was painted ,I believe the only people who can answer that are probably
Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker or people who work in that area of expertize..
Sorry I couldn't help more :-((4 votes)
- Is hyperrealism a style so realistic that it is unrealistically realistic? I know this sounds kind of weird, but do you understand what I mean?(8 votes)
- That's an interesting thought. Hyperrealism is meant to capture exact life like detail, but it can be even sharper and crisper than real life, like watching a 4K tv.(4 votes)
- In the paragraphs, did it ever mention what materials were used in creating this sculpture of the face? And did it mention what tools they used to construct it?(1 vote)
- Could the sculptors use family death masks in order to create a more lifelike bust? If yes, is there any historycal record of this kind of use?(1 vote)
- I'm confused. Are you suggesting that a casting of a dead face could form the basis for a "lifelike" bust of someone? It would seem, to me, that it would help to produce a more "deadlike" bust.(2 votes)
- According to the Italian Wikipedia entry for this portrait, "Si tratta di una copia di epoca tiberiana (I secolo d.C.) di un originale databile al decennio 80-70 a.C." Do you know the basis for this redating and identification as a copy? How widely accepted is it?(1 vote)
- What were the functions of the Head of a Roman Patrician?(1 vote)
- the function is to show how the person is experienced in life which means that he was capable of being a government official/politician(1 vote)