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Veristic Male Portrait

Roman Republic sculptures showcased veristic portraits, emphasizing age and experience. Derived from Latin "verus" meaning truth, these portraits displayed wisdom and authority. Later, emperors chose between idealizing themselves or portraying realism, reflecting either ancient Greek or Roman Republic virtues. This visual language evolved over time. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Before the emperor ruled Rome, Rome was ruled by a republic, by a senate. DR. BETH HARRIS: A kind of counsel of elders. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: These generally were older men, who had come from the elite families in Rome. And so when we think of the people accorded the most privilege, the most power in the Roman Republic, these were older men. And their age, their experience, is what counted. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so we find during this period of the Republic, especially the period of the late Republic, sculptures. This sculptor seems to have taken every pain to record a real sense of age and experience. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One example of a veristic portrait is in the Vatican, from the very late Republican period. This is just before Julius Caesar will begin the process of turning the Republic into an empire. We refer to these as veristic portraits. DR. BETH HARRIS: That comes from the Latin word "verus," for truth. And so there's this idea that they're very truthful, but maybe there's an exaggeration of that sense of experience and wisdom and age. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We see a head of a man that probably came from a much larger sculpture, ultimately. We see his head is covered with a toga, which suggests that he was involved in some sort of ritual. Concern is expressed through the eyes. Look at the way that the lips, which are quite thin, are pressed together. There is a solemnity, there is a seriousness. There is a kind of authority that is born of the qualities of the face that we're seeing. DR. BETH HARRIS: As we look at this shelf with six or eight busts along it, this face stands out. It's really different from the tradition that will develop during the Empire. Augustus becomes the first emperor of Rome and establishes a tradition that looks back to ancient Greece, and the tendency that we see there to idealize the human face and the human body. So this kind of veristic portrait will come to represent, later on, noble republican ideals. What's interesting is that we see, in the later images of emperors, that they choose to some degree, more or less, to idealize themselves. So that if they have themselves portrayed more realistically, they're recalling the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic. If they idealize themselves more, they're recalling an ancient Greek tradition. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in other words, this was a very conscious set of attributes. It was a very conscious set of symbols that you could draw on, more or less. DR. BETH HARRIS: It was a visual language. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's so interesting if you think about the way that we represent ourselves now. If you open up a magazine, you have young models that are ideal, that are perfect. And the older are not given primary status, in our visual culture. But the ancient Romans, at least for a moment, felt differently. [MUSIC PLAYING]