The time in history covered in this lesson ranges from first century BC to the second century AD. The geographical location covered in this lesson is the Italian peninsula, around the city of Rome.
The timeline below highlights the period covered in this lesson. Notice 0 AD is in the middle of the timeline. This has changed from previous lessons.
The Roman portrait is an important type of Roman sculpture. The bust, which is the sculpture of just the shoulders and head, didn’t exist in Greece. It was, however, common in the Etruscan art that preceded ancient Rome. The busts themselves became important memory objects among the Romans, and were considered an important part of ancestral connection among families. These portrait busts were very important to the people, and they were kept at home in shrines and pulled out from time to time for the ancestors.
Veristic and idealistic are the two types of portraiture. The forms are still individualized in both of these types, unlike what we saw in many examples of Greek sculpture where the idealized forms tended to border on the generic. This individualization was important because these busts were made as a form of physical memory. Ancestral lineage was important for the Romans, and being able to trace individual characteristics that were passed down through generations could be reflected in a portrait.
Below is a great example of a monumental portrait that combines idealization with individualism.
EXAMPLEThis is a portrait of the first emperor, Augustus Caesar, called the “Portrait of Augustus at Primaporta”.
The “Portrait of Augustus at Primaporta” was a commemorative sculpture of Augustus addressing his troops. Interestingly, it draws formal posing similarities to Polykleitos's “Doryphoros, The Spear Bearer.”
This portrait is idealistic in its youthful depiction of the emperor, yet it still retains the physical idiosyncrasies that allowed one to identify it as Augustus. Augustus, even in his old age, always was portrayed as youthful in his portraits. Portraiture as propaganda is also used in this piece of art. Notice that the inclusion of the tiny deity as well as the relief upon his armor add an element of divine authority to his rule.
This idea of idealized individualism, if you can call it that, is also apparent in this image of the emperor Hadrian, from the second century AD:
Hadrian ruled many years after Augustus. Notice that it is youthfully rendered but still distinguishable.
Portraiture was not just limited to men, however.
EXAMPLETake, for example, this bust of the third wife of Augustus, Livia Drusilla:
This bust is another example of an idealized youthful form with enough distinguishing characteristics that you can still tell who it’s representing. In terms of idealization, the influence of Greek conventions is very apparent.
The Flavian dynasty of emperors began with the emperor Vespasian.
EXAMPLEVespasian is pictured below.
You can see a sharp departure from the idealized form of Augustus. This is an example of veristic portraiture where the intent is to show a very realistic representation of the subject.
Age was associated with wisdom and experience. These are admirable qualities in an individual. It’s easy to see the passage of time rendered in Vespasian’s image. The artist didn’t hold back at all. Notice the following attributes of age in the image above:
During this time, the aristocratic and very elaborate women's hairstyles reached their peak. Attention to detail and dedication in portraying the subject as an individual were essential. This is very different from the generalizing of individual traits that we see in Greek portraiture that preceded it.
EXAMPLEBelow is an example of a young Flavian woman called, appropriately enough, “The Young Flavian Woman.” It dates from about 90 AD.
Two things stand out in this image. First, the individual characteristics of this woman are apparent in features such as the nose, which has a slight bump in the middle. This is something that you wouldn’t see in ancient Greek sculpture. Another thing that stands out is the hair. Notice the impressive height and imagine the time it must have taken to sculpt the individual curls in high relief. It must have been exhausting.
Source: THIS WORK IS ADAPTED FROM SOPHIA AUTHOR IAN MCCONNELL.