Roman Bronze Portrait of Emperor Vespasian - X.0147
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 69 AD to 79 AD
Dimensions: 10.75" (27.3cm) high
Collection: Classical Antiquities
Style: Roman Imperial
Medium: Bronze


With its exceptional condition and excellent quality, this rare bronze work is an outstanding example of Roman portraiture from the early Imperial period. The deep, slightly mottled patina adds richness and depth to the figure, while it also draws attention to the highly skilled modeling of its surface. Each part of the piece is approached with sensitivity and sculpted with a gentle touch. The work is not only a record of appearance. The artist has portrayed a sense of the figure's character as well. Here, the serious, yet open, face conveys a sense of old fashioned values and commanding presence of portraits of the Emperor Vespasian.

This handsome bronze sculpture portrays a mature man with a full face and close cropped hair. The face is subtly modeled, with the manipulation of the surface most apparent at the cheeks and along the jaw. The head is slightly wedge-shaped. The broadening at the forehead is made more pronounced by the shape of the hairline. Certain indications of age have been placed over the finely modeled structure of the head. Here, deep, horizontal lines are incised into the forehead. However, the brow is modeled to indicate a slight protrusion and a vertical line is indicated between them through modeling as well.

Likewise, the large and strongly lidded eyes are naturally integrated into the face. The build-up of flesh above them is answered by the slight puffiness of the skin below. The artist makes the transition from brow to eye to flesh by considering the different properties of cartilage, bone, and muscle. The incised lines at the comers of the eyes, which fan out toward the temples, are configured much like those of the forehead. They also run quite low, just skirting the figure's high cheekbones.

The cheekbones and the generalized, wedge-shaped head give the figure a somewhat gaunt appearance, even though the cheeks and chin are actually quite fleshy. Subtle undulations of the surface collect toward the lower part of the face, particularly where the cheeks begin the merge with the jaw line. Deep lines run from the figure's nose to the comers of his mouth, providing yet another sign of a mature individual. Portraiture is considered one of ancient Rome's most celebrated contributions to the history of art. Roman artists of the Republican period are best know for representing individuals with sometime shockingly brutal honesty. These are the so-called veristic, or realistic portraits, which can be contrasted with likenesses influenced by Greek idealization. Although fully familiar with veristic portraiture, the Emperor Augustus saw the political potential of the idealized style and adopted it for his own portraits. Thus, artists working at the beginning of the imperial period created another version of the traditional Roman portrait, one that is still associated with imperial dignity and nobility to this day.

If imperial portraits were seen as a powerful political tool, it was also acknowledged that the style in which those portraits appeared also conveyed part of their propagandistic message. Throughout the empire, imperial portraiture could refer to the idealized classicism of the Augustan era, look back to the Republican veristic forms, or combine certain aspects of the two styles. Given the importance of portraiture, each type of representation was a conscious choice. Emperors could align themselves with or divorce themselves from previous rulers by casting portraits in a predecessor's style or in an alternative, unrelated form. If times were good it might be best to emphasize continuity, if bad, to break with the past.

The promise of the Augustan era was, unfortunately, unfulfilled by his immediate successors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nevertheless, each successive Julio-Claudian emperor had had his portrait depicted with a distinctively classical gloss. At that time Augustus was still the exemplum for all. By the end of the Julio-Claudian reign, brought about by Nero's suicide in 68 AD, the situation was very different. Perhaps in an effort to break with the less dignified members of the Julio-Claudian line, such as Caligula and Nero, or to offer a fresh start after the brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in 68-69 AD, or to emphasize that his rule marked a new, Flavian, dynasty in Rome, the Emperor Vespasian rejected the strictly classical form of representation in his portraits.

Instead, he was portrayed with a combination of classical and veristic traits, the latter of which could be found in the old Republican portraiture. The deep wrinkles above the root of the nose, around the mouth, and in the hollowed cheeks may be specific traits of Vespasian's appearance, but the fact that they are indicated and even emphasized in his images, as they are in ours, signifies a change of approach and sensibility. Certain lingering traits from what might be called the "classical side" still remain in portraits of Vespasian, as they do in ours. The formation of the wide-open eyes, which nevertheless have wrinkles that would be more rationally placed if the subject were squinting, is a case in point. The classical gloss in Vespasianic portraits (and these include representations of Vespasian himself as well as those of other individuals that were influenced or inspired by the style he set) is consistently countered by veristic details. - (X.0147)



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