The variety to be found in both the form and the function of Roman portraiture
The Roman Empire produced great confidence, wealth and luxury in its culture which it then exported to the rest of the empire. Roman portraiture is therefore very diverse, but on the whole it exhibits an eclectic mix of naturalism from the Etruscans and idealisation from the Greeks varied according to taste and use, called ‘decorum’. Naturalistic likenesses grew out of family values of Rome’s Republican roots leading to a style of ‘dignified restraint and disciplined order’ (Honor and Fleming). Images of citizens were placed on sarcophagi and in household niches to act as memorials.
Idealisation also became important in the Imperial period, as Roman’s believed themselves to be related to the Gods via the Trojan Aeneas (Virgil’s Aeneid). Images of Emperors were placed on reliefs, busts, equestrian portraits, coins and life size sculptures. These not only glorified the Emperor and celebrated their ideals and achievements, but also became synonymous with Rome itself. Man with Imagines (C1AD) memorialises a man who is himself holding two portrait busts, or ‘imagos’ of his ancestors. These were kept in the house and used at procession sand funerals.
The naturalism of the contemporary dress and wrinkled, un-proportioned face, (derived from the Etruscan tradition, eg Brutus) stresses family similarities. The piece is not idealised, although there is gravitas and sense of honesty. This can also be seen in fresco paintings such as The Baker and his Wife. Female portraits tended to be a little less unforgiving, for example Bust of a Flavian Woman, but still exhibit a high degree of naturalism, such as her carefully carved and drilled contemporary hairstyle.
The Roman portrait also became increasingly used to serve as propaganda for the Roman Emperors, starting with first Emperor Augustus (Octavio). The Prima Porta Augustus (c30 AD) is a synthesis of Polykleitos’ canon, (eg The Spearbearer c420, much copied by the Romans) and a likeness of Augustus. This mixture creates a demi-God. The idealisation of the Spearbearer is evident in the contraposto pose (weight on the right leg), proportion, and musculature implied by the breast plate; this is done in order to give Augustus a divine quality.
However, like Man with Imagines there is naturalistic detail: the hair is cropped, the ears stick out and the eyes are too close together. This stresses family uniqueness to serve the function of the cult of personality around Augustus. Neither is Augustus nude, his clothes are again contemporary, expressing his actual achievements. The armour is a reference to war and military greatness, while on the breast plate there is a relief of his diplomacy: bringing peace between Rome and the Parthians.
Augustus’ arm is also raised, a gesture that links him to this world rather than the next. This format came to embody Imperial qualities and was imitated by later Emperors, such as Titus. It is also varied, however. Marcellus (Louvre), for example, is nude and more idealised like a Greek god (after Polykleitos’ Fillet-binder), perhaps because he was a golden boy who died at 21. His face, however exhibits the un-proportioned features of Augustus to stress his lineage.
Antinous’ likeness was even more idealised, having a Greek profile as well, befitting his role as love object of the graecophile Hadrian. The Romans also introduced the Equestrian portrait (a feat of casting in bronze). In Rome alone there were over 20 at the end of the Imperial period. Marcus Aurelius (150AD) like Hadrian, was interested in Greek culture and stoic philosophy, this is reflected in his curly hair and beard. His expression and pose (arm outstretched again) is composed, commanding and merciful. A victim once cowered under the horses raised hoof.
The horse is very naturalistic to stress its animal wildness, very different to the idealised Greek horses in the Parthenon. This potential movement enhances the sense of Marcus Aurelius’s command of it, but the horse is reduced in scale in order to enhance his grandeur. The Romans developed the portrait bust because they include dress and bearing and thus manifest a more social message than masks or imagos, for example Vespasian’s turn of the head and polychrome robe represent his position as Emperor. A bust of Augustus with a covered head suggests piety.
Hadrian is portrayed with the Greek beard and hair to express his interest in the Greek world. Busts of emperors were often set up in public places and citizens were expected to pay tribute like they would the Gods (eg. burn incense). They were also used for propaganda in order to circulate their own personal likeness which became a kind of logo for the power of Rome. The Romans used portraiture in relief sculpture. In the Ara Pacis Altar, built to commemorate Augustus’s return (C1 AD) the reliefs depict senators and Augustus’s family, such as Agrippa.
Augustus leads his family and by implication the Roman Empire expressing the transition between Imperial and Republican times. Pater Familias becomes Imperator commander, Pontifex Maximus and chief priest. The reliefs are a combination of idealised procession (eg Parthenon) and turning heads, children grasping robes and real features that stress family. The Ara Pacis also exhibits a fusion of portraiture and mythological subjects which is typically Roman, such as the inclusion of Aeneas, Augustus’s supposed ancestor.
This fusion is also seen on the reliefs on the later Arch of Titus (C2AD) in the Apotheosis (Titus on an Eagle) and the Titus Victorious (Nike accompanying Titus on a chariot as he returns from vanquishing the Jews). The triumphal arch and column became a common motif of power. Trajan’s Column, which originally featured a bronze figure of Trajan at its summit commemorates his rebuilding of the forum and also acts as a burial place for him and his wife. Portraiture was perhaps at its most widespread and effective, however, on coins.
The profile was used because it was thought to be the most distinctive pose. Extreme naturalism was used, in coins of Vespasian: the nose is hooked, the chin is pointed and there is fat under the neck. It acted as a kind of authentification of value and was the most effective method of all of circulating the emperor’s likeness. Roman portraiture was harnessed to preserve the likeness of the family. As Imperial Rome progressed from the reign of Augustus, personal propaganda and cultural imperialism became an added function.
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