Balsamarium in the Form of the Bust of Antinous - LA.571
Origin: Italy
Circa: 100 AD to 150 AD
Dimensions: 9" (22.9cm) high
Collection: Classical Antiquities
Style: Roman
Medium: bronze


This beautiful balsamarium, with its rich even olive green patina and delightful attention to details, takes the form of a handsome youth. Although a number of balsamaria or bronze oil vessels in the form of busts survive, few among these small portable objects bear portraits that can still be recognised today. Our work testifies to the power of imperial imagery and its dissemination as the vessel portrays Antinous, the youthful companion of the Emperor Hadrian. Cast in a sure and straightforward manner, the youth with long shaggy hair and full features became the official representation of Antinous. This work can be read on many levels as it masterfully blends the vessel’s utility with its subject’s sensuality.

The balsamarium is cast in the shape of the upper body of a young man. He has a softly defined torso that stops above the waist. The sharply truncated arms recall the fashion in the portrait busts of the 2nd century AD. The bust sits atop a tall, elegantly proportioned foot that gives added weight to the work. The wonderfully curved arc of the handle is made in two parts and enhanced with leaf-like appendages. It is attached to the head by means of two small loops that project above the ears. These loops are secured by grape clusters, indicating a Dionysian association. When fully extended, the handle balances the height of the foot and frames the bust with an almost halo-like shape.

The face of our figure is consistent with the features of Late Antique portraits and the characteristics of Antinous. Here, slightly upturned, incised pupils are set in large almond-shaped eyes. A small mouth is pushed up against the nose and breaks the expanse of full, fleshy cheeks. However, although the young man’s features are rather stylised in form, they are easily recognizable. This is a moving and sensitive depiction of Antinous, the beautiful young favourite of Emperor Hadrian. The hairstyle, fleshy face with soft traits, dreamy expression, and the structure of the physiognomy leave no doubt as to the figure’s identification. The top of the figure’s head is slightly flattened to accommodate the vessel’s functioning lid.

Balsamaria, or ointment jars, were carried to the baths filled with precious unguents for use there. They have been found with strigils, or scrapers, further supporting their function as containers for oil. Applying oil and then scraping it off with a slightly curved blade-like strigil was a common part of the bathing process. Balsamaria were produced in the first three centuries of the Roman Empire in a variety of forms, including busts and animal shapes. While the former were popular, very few bear recognizable portraits such as our fine example.

Antinous was so beloved that he was deified after his untimely death drowning in the Nile. This led to a proliferation of Antinous portraits, often in the guise of youthful deities, rendered with a particularly languorous beauty. Thus his depiction is not only recognizable as a portrait, but is linked with gods such as Dyonisos.

Slight variations of the type occur as seen in the example in the Rheinisches Landes Museum in Bonn. Antinous is depicted wearing a nebris, or animal skin tied to the shoulder, another kind of draped garment, or as in our case, nude. Ivy or grapes may trail through his hair, yet he is above all depicted with a superior and striking beauty.

For further references see: Menzel, H. Die Romischen Bronzen aus Deutschland, III, Bonn, 1968. - (LA.571)



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