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One of the more momentous happenings in the history of art--on par with the birth of naturalism in Classical1 Greek art--was the development of Roman Republican portraiture. The Romans took the classicizing tendencies of the Greeks and developed a unique Roman style known as “verism.” Loosely defined, verism was the emphasis on hyper-realism which was inclined to reject the proclivity of the the Hellenistic Greeks towards idealization, emphasizing instead the specificity of details such as moles, creases, and wrinkles. One of the questions that has plagued scholars is establishing a chronology to explain this seemingly spontaneous leap in portraiture, a leap that would have a lasting impact on almost all subsequent Western art. Because the Roman Republic was a “melting pot” society, the veristic tradition has defied easy attribution since it began to be studied, being attributed to Etruscan, Egyptian, Hellenistic, or even death-mask portraiture that developed relatively early in the post-Etruscan, Roman society.2 By examining the many different influences regarding the antecedent of Roman portraiture, we can begin to understand the complexity of the question of attribution and clarify our understanding of the origin of Roman art.
Generally, it is an accepted problem that the stylistic ancestry of verism is complicated. Because of its inherently fragile nature, the most popular art form of the period, painting, rarely survived. Similarly, bronze--despite its durability--was often melted and reused in a variety of projects. However, we must begin somewhere, and the best place is probably the direct predecessors of
Throughout this paper, the term “Classical” in regard to sculpture is employed to refer to the category of idealizing sculpture typified--but not exclusive--to the Greeks, and not to a chronological period. Mary Sturgeon, “The Corinth Amazon: Formation of a Roman Classical Sculpture,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 99, No. 3 (July, 1995) 487.
David Jackson, “Verism and the Ancestral Portrait,” Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Apr., 1987) 32.
the Romans--the Etruscans. Etruscan work is characterized by great technical facility in the rendering of detail, but a curious deficit in rendering the object’s total structure. Among thencontemporary art forms, Etruscan sculpture was heavily influenced by Hellenistic artworks (which will be discussed in detail later), but there are interesting parallels between uniquely Etruscan ancestral portraits and later Roman veristic portraits. Both are intensely expressive and both disregard the concept of the head as a singular object, instead approaching its construction as a series of individual features which are pieced together to constitute a portrait. The Etruscan work may be termed veristic because it aims to reproduce the original by literal attention to detail, by objectively recording each outer facet or peculiarity of the model and translating them part-by-part into the language of art.3 Despite these formal similarities, we might expect a higher degree of realism in Etruscan works.
The Etruscan ancestral portrait is therefore incredibly important in helping to establish this veristic chronology, but its form and functions are heartily disputed, and the lack of surviving bronze or marble works (both materials favored by the Romans), further complicates the issue. While Etruscan artists are known to have cast bronze from nature, the results were treated as maquettes, studies used as a reference and employed independently of the finished portrait. And because of its versatility, bronze, was continually melted down to be re-used, so Etruscan artworks made from this period in bronze rarely survive. Many scholars believe that a number of second century bronze heads that do survive from this period, which show a surprising degree of realism, are Etruscan forerunners of the Republican portraits. Occasionally, the heads of these figures show so dry a realism that it could really be called verism.
Gisela Richter, “An Archaic Etruscan Statuette,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 16, No 3 (Jul. Sep., 1912) 348.
However, for a number of reasons, the Etruscan influence on Roman Republican art must not be exaggerated. First, it must be considered that the art of Etruria in the third and second centuries B.C. was heavily influenced by the international Hellenistic Greek trend that permeated the whole of Italy. Furthermore, the Etruscans rarely worked in marble, the material of most of the extant Roman portraits.4
The second artistic style that likely played a decisive role in the development of Roman verism was the late Egyptian portraits.5 There is no doubt that in Egypt portraiture was practiced much earlier and much longer than at any other period in recorded history. Looking at Egyptian portraiture created during a period of over 2,000 years, it is clear that there was no gradual, systematic development. Furthermore, in all these centuries in which the Egyptians worked with so much ability, they always adhered to an archaic, conventionalized rendering of the human figure and observed frontality. This frontal system of representation was not unique to the Egyptians, but was common among all ancient peoples.
Prodigious portraits exist from the third millennium B.C. until Ptolemaic times, and the terrific examples of Roman portraits in porphyry--a material previously unknown to artists outside of Egypt--clearly demonstrate that Egyptian art influenced Roman artists to at least a small degree.6 However, when compared to Roman portraits, Egyptian artists attempted to arrest and preserve
Richter, Gisela, “The Origin of Verism in Roman Portraits,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 45, Parts 1 and 2 (1955) 40.
Ibid., 43. E. Robinson, “Two Roman Heads,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Mar. 1913)
life rather than to imitate it. The individualism of Egyptian portraiture--rather than being a psychological study of an individual--is almost always of a generic type: the head always represents the racial type with a few individual features applied.7 The Egyptian disdain for individualization in portraiture is further shown by the numerous instances in which a portrait of a preceding period was altered by a person of a later time. In most cases only the inscription was changed.8
Roman portraitists were constantly experimenting with new forms and frequently re-examining the works of the older Egyptian and Greek styles for fresh forms. In particular, during the Hellenistic period, when the Ptolemies were the masters of Egypt, artists of the period frequently developed regional styles that reflected the taste of the locals and need not necessarily show up back home.9 Nevertheless, Egyptian sculpture even then remained frontal, with individual parts generalized. The bodies and heads remain cubic, with only four principal sides observed. Rarely are the portraits individualized, but they sometimes show a surprising degree of naturalism. But this naturalism is limited to the face; the form of the head and of the figure retain the old frontality and conventionalized renderings.
Riggs has suggested that Egyptian portrait workshops actually had generic heads roughed in by assistants or slaves that could easily be “detailed” to reveal the features of a man or woman, of a pharaoh or less important political figure. Christina Riggs, “Facing the Dead: Recent Research on the Funerary Art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Jan. 2002) 93.
The one exception to this uniformity in the history of Egyptian art, was during the philosophy and religion of Akhenaten. Only at that one time were the rigid laws of Egyptian thought broken and new ideas introduced, including the visual arts. Less than twenty years later, under the reign of Tuthankhamen, there was a return to multiple gods, and portraiture again became generic. Catharine H. Roehrig and Marsha Hill, “Ancient Art: Gifts from the Norbert Schimmel Collection,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Spring, 1992) 25.
The nomadic lifestyle of artists who frequently moved around the Mediterranean and changed styles to appeal to local tastes during this period has complicated our understanding of the development of portraiture during this period. Cornelius C. Vermeule III, “A Graeco-Roman Portrait of the Third Century AD and the Graeco-Asiatic Tradition in Imperial Portraiture from Gallienus to Diocletian,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 15 (1961) 4.
Occasionally, however, among these Egyptian portraits appear some that are more or less rounded and have realistically modelled features, like the contemporary Greek heads. They present a great contrast to the Egyptian products. This fundamental difference throws doubt on the theory that the verism of the late Egyptian portraits initiated Roman Republican portraiture. It does not seem possible that these Egyptian artists, who in their own country still worked in the old system of frontality and conventionalized renderings, should have created heads and statues of an entirely different system elsewhere. It is possible that the Romans, with their taste for reality, liked these Egyptian portraits and demanded similar veristic portraits of themselves.
While there is no positive agreement about these possible influences, critics are united in acknowledging the enormous debt owed to Greece by all branches of art. It has long ago been assumed that late Hellenistic art was the foundation of Roman Republican portraiture. The classicizing10 style evolved by the Greeks was continued by the same types of artists that had created the late Hellenistic portraits. The Greeks introduced a new concept which became dominant throughout their vast empire. By changing the ancient renderings of human anatomy-that were most often frontal and rigid--to a style that was more naturalistic and threedimensional--Greeks artists effected a momentous change, and opened the way for a new art. While a minority of scholars see no continuity between Greek and Roman portrait styles, others regard the Greek influence as merely the most pervasive, its effect clearly seen in the increased naturalism of Etruscan works--already mentioned--during the second and first centuries B.C.11
This tendency toward idealizing form was certainly more pronounced during the period of Classical Greek art, but the Hellenistic artist worked towards the effect of representation by analogy to produce a work that retains an unmistakable degree of subjectivity on the part of the artist (Sturgeon, Corinth Amazon, 487).
Jackson, Ancestral Portrait, 43.
Some scholars maintain that the Greek influence upon late Republican portraiture is so strong that there is no difference between the styles, but rather a natural development from one to the other. Verism is regarded as a direct descendant of the late Hellenistic school of portraiture, that was carried forward in the work of the Etruscans, who passed it on to the Romans. Here the modulations in surface and facial detail, as well as in emotional content, are at their most intense. That Greek artists were producing 'veristic' portraits prior to, and contemporaneously with, the late Republican period, has been suggested by examples of coinage in addition to sculpture from the second an first centuries B.C., respectively.
A recent variation upon the theme of Hellenistic chronology hypothesizes that the difference in styles resides in the psychological attitude of the artist himself, rather than in subject matter or stylistic influence. Our evidence indicates that the sculptors of that time who worked for Roman patrons were chiefly foreigners, especially Greeks. As is well known, the Romans, after their conquests of Greece became enamoured of Greek art. Many Greek sculptures were brought to Italy as loot from foreign wars, and when this importation of originals ceased, there began an era of copying. It is also known that during this era Greek artists, indeed artists from all over the Mediterranean, came to Italy. This new hypothesis suggests that the veristic work created by these Greek artists is a is regarded as a reaction towards a new and increasingly unlikable group of foreigners. The Romans conquered Greece, looted its art works, and socially demoted the artist to the rank of slaves. Consequently, the Greeks viewed the Romans as overbearing and pompous; they had every reason to portray their clients in an unflattering light.12 This begs the question: was it really these nomadic artists, many of whom were recently conquered Greeks,
Richter, Origin of Verism, 40.
who created the verism of Roman art? It has seemed difficult to many to accept this, believing instead in the purity of Classicism and that the realism of the Greeks was always idealizing.
This seems highly unlikely as the notion that the artist, whatever his misgivings towards his subject, could regard the finished piece as suitable for presentation to his client. But if the patron's desire for veristic realism, for an image which coincided with his idea of what he should look like, was the stimulus for the great epoch of Republican portraiture, then we may conclude that the psychological state of the artist it remained subordinate to the demands of the patron who is the true originator of the style.
If this evidence is accepted, one must conclude that Greek artists made Roman portraits before the late Republican period and that they were capable of creating verism. There is also the evidence of the portraits on the Hellenistic coins that can be dated by the names inscribed on them to the late third and the second century B.C. The portraits on coins bring before us personages who had not the familiar Greek physiognomies. They show the beginnings of a veristic style, introduced by Greek artists when faced with the novel task of portraying Roman officials living in Greece.
There are also marble portraits that demonstrate this transition from Classicism to verism. In Greece and in Asia Minor there have been found Roman portraits of the Republican era which show the same style as those found in Italy. All these heads show the verism in resolute Roman faces familiar from their Italian counterparts. It seems probable that the sculptors of those heads
were indigenous, as indeed the many signatures on the statue bases indicate. This would again show that Greek artists were able to introduce verism into their portraits.13
When one examines the portrait heads that appear for the first time on Roman coins shortly before the middle of the first century B.C., one sees that in those representing the great Romans of the past-whose likenesses had, of course, to be imaginary-the style is idealizing, whereas in those of more or less contemporary personages the style is veristic. The artists who made these portraits on Roman coins were immigrant Greeks. It was natural that when these men were called upon to portray Roman heroes of bygone days they used their familiar idealizing Greek style; but when they were confronted with the task of portraying actual personages they made real portraits.14 The result was verism.
A fourth probable influence on the development of Roman verism is a relatively new theory, but one that has a substantial amount of literary evidence in the writings of Pliny and Polybius, and it has gained increasing momentum among art historians; the importance of wax death-masks in Roman funerary processions, and the fact that the process of creating a death mask--with its high level of cast detail--was a tremendous influence on the Roman veristic tradition.15
It has been suggested that racial differences, or even racial hatred, stimulated the Greek sculptors to create a new style of portraiture. This theory seems at odds with the evidence of similar veristic work from Ptolemaic Egypt, and from earlier Greek depictions of foreigners, which makes no attempt to individualize character. Vemuele, Graco-Roman Portrait, 4.
Richter, Origin of Verism, 46.
It is important to note that many art historians tend to reject a classification of “Roman artists” as so many arts from this period were Hellenistic, or even recent transplants from Asia Minor, artists who had immigrated as either slaves or seeking greater financial success in Rome. Ibid., 40.
The historian Pliny is one of the first to suggest that the richness of Roman portraiture was the result of this funerary tradition. In his Natural History, Pliny praises the portraiture of the Romans, but unlike the Greeks who saw portraiture as an opportunity to idealize the human form, Pliny claims that that the Roman artists were more concerned with the preservation of memory:
Things were different in the atria of our ancestors. There it was portraits that were for looking at, not statues by foreign artists, or bronzes, or marbles. Faces modelled in way were arranged on separate chests, so that the likeness (imagines) might be carried in procession at a funeral of the gens, and whenever someone dies, all the members of his household that had ever existed were present.16
Similar to Pliny, Polybius recounts the funeral ceremonies amongst the Roman nobility, particularly those claiming office-holding ancestors. The deceased is brought into the forum where his worldly achievements are made the subject of an oration. On such occasions images of family ancestors, usually kept in small wooden shrines17 in the atrium, are brought out for display. These portraits, in the form of masks, are donned, together with appropriate dress and insignia, by one who most closely resembles the deceased and, in turn, by those who masquerade as the ancestors. reference to ancestral portraiture and Polybius seems to assume that the practice is a well established one.
John Bostock, The Natural History of Pliny, Vo. 6. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857) 225.
Polybius' wooden shrines might suggest a fragile material in need of protection: wax or terracotta perhaps. Pliny talks of wax expressi, a form most typical of a cast from a mould taken on the features - in this case of the deceased.
Taking the accounts of Pliny and Polybius, along with others,18 we can assume that in patrician families, after a family member had passed away, a crude wax cast was made of the deceased’s face.19 The social calendars of Republican Rome were overflowing with events, many of which were marked by parades that wound through the city. Interspersed among these were processions that carried the deceased from home to the Forum, and then to a final resting place outside the walls of the capital. While most in Rome cremated their dead, for members of the elite, the route and activities of the Roman funeral and subsequent internment offered a valuable opportunity to display and increase their symbolic importance. Undoubtedly, Rome's most illustrious and ambitious citizens choreographed their funerals with memorable activities in the Forum. Before being interned or burned, the body was taken to the Forum for display and ovation, and the mask was worn by an actor who followed the funeral procession, emulating the gestures and body language of the deceased. The procession stopped at the the forum where the body of the departed was displayed. At the forum, another mask was placed on a manikin, giving it a more life-like appearance. The jostling audience at ground level looked up to the famous ancestors represented by actors wearing death masks who were seated among the statues crowding the platform. After the body was burned or interned, the mas was placed back in the wooden house among the masks of other, previously deceased, ancestors.20
Such as accounts of the funeral processions of the Cornelli, and aristocratic family from the middle republic. Diane Favro and Christopher Johnson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 2010) 17.
Ibid. 2010, 24.
Emerson Smith, “Imagines in Imperial Portraiture,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July - Sep. 1923) 291.
If we take Pliny and Polybius at their words, it seems that we must ask ourselves a question: is there a definite purpose behind the use of such a fragile material as wax, and might not that purpose most likely be the facility of wax in the casting process? The process used to make the funeral mask is of crucial importance. A cast taken from the features of the deceased would promote a hyper-naturalistic style; modelling free-hand might result in very generalized works of an inconsistent nature, whilst an additional requirement for likeness could promote realistic results. Polybius speaks of the mask as being “fashioned with extraordinary fidelity both in modelling and in its complexion to represent the features of the dead man.” In the light of the available literary evidence it seems not inappropriate to conclude that the most likely form for the ancestral portrait is that of a cast taken directly from the face of the dead.
And indeed, to a greater or lesser degree this view tends to be confirmed by apparent death-mask characteristics in selected works from the late Republican period.21 The physical changes to the face of the deceased, occasioned by the loss of facial moisture and by muscular relaxation, are fixed by the rigor mortis with noticeable consequences, and this can be seen in select works from the 1st century B.C. The oldest work to exhibit these traits is a terracotta dated to the early part of the 1st century B.C. All of these features accord with the effects of death, with what we term death-mask characteristics, but in this respect the work is unusual. More frequently portraits can be observed which have been worked-up from this state into a more living form, but which nevertheless display one or more death-mask attributes.22
The opposition simply states that, since neither Polybius nor Pliny expressly say that the masks they describe were cast directly from the features of the deceased, in wax, that such was not their import. Jackson, Ancestral Portrait, 16.
Obviously alterations would need to be made to ensure that the portraits seemed life-like. At very least this would have meant opening the eyes. Additional changes were likely needed, and often the mouth and lips are worked-up into a more life-like state, but frequently the distance between the nose and upper-lip remains extended, the artist failing to make the correction. And, since the mask was the basic model, the rest of the head required invention, and this frequently results in a clumsy transition from face to head, or in the awkward handling of the ears. Chins often retained their sharp points and the corners of the mouth, drawn tightly down, ver often suggestsuggest the reclining position of the decreased. Such death-mask characteristics may be observed in varying degrees of perceptibility, often co-existent with other, more recognizable, artistic influences.
It has been noted that the effect of death upon the features is to smooth away wrinkles, lines, and all other facial blemishes. This tendency, which is reflected in the mask itself, is quite clearly in contrast to the exaggerated attention which verism lavishes upon physical detail and might suggest that the ancestral portrait is an unlikely contender as an influence on the veristic style of portraiture. The veristic style then is evidently not based upon the direct translation of a cast death-mask into three-dimensional stone. But nevertheless we may observe in what are best termed “death-mask portraits,” such as those already discussed, the use of casting directly from the features making an appreciable impact on veristic works.
Additionally, the death-mask emphasizes the construction of the face and skull, whereas Hellenistic art shows more concern for the plastic rendition of muscle and for surface detail generally. By focusing attention on the fixed points of the facial bones: forehead, nose, cheeks,
and jaw, the anatomical knowledge gleaned from the death-mask remained in use even when its more marked characteristics became indiscernible.
Ancestral masks appear to have been abandoned with the arrival of Greek artists and materials, a fact which has led many scholars to assert that the one superseded the other and the funeral mask became extinct. The introduction of marble certainly gave the Roman nobility a more durable form in which to preserve their ancestral images, but artistic precedent should suggest that this transition would more probably be achieved with reference to, or influence from, the previous form, not by abandoning it entirely. The civic and utilitarian nature of funerary customs described by Polybius confirms that the function of the mask had already ceased to be a religious one.23
In conclusion, if one takes all these arguments into account, it seems likely that the verism of Roman Republican portraits represents a true fusion of Etruscan, Hellenistic, and Egyptian sculptural traditions. Undoubtedly, Etruscan traditions played a small but important part, and it is possible that the late Egyptian veristic portraits exercised some influence. The Greek artists-with their long experience in naturalistic representation and in the carving of marble--after the conquests of their countries during the third and second centuries B.C., began to work for Roman clients, doubtlessly played a significant role. It was all of these influces, when combined with the realism that resulted from wax-cast death masks that were unique to Roman funerary practices, that together created the great epoch of Republican portraiture.
Bostock, John, The Natural History of Pliny, Vol. 6. (London: Henry G. Bohn), 1857. Favro, Diane and Johanson, Christopher, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 2010), 12-37. Jackson, David, “Verism and the Ancestral Portrait,” Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Apr., 1987) 32-47. Richter, Gisela, “An Archaic Etruscan Statuette,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 16, No 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1912), 343-349. Richter, Gisela, “The Origin of Verism in Roman Portraits,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 45, Parts 1 and 2 (1955) 39-46. Riggs, Christina, “Facing the Dead: Recent Research on the Funerary Art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 106, No. 1 (Jan. 2002). 85-101. Robinson, E., “Two Roman Heads,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Mar. 1913), 50-52. Roehrig, Catharine and Hill, Marsha, “Ancient Art: Gifts from the Norbert Schimmel Collection,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Spring, 1992), 22-36 + 57-59. Smith, Emerson, “Imagines in Imperial Portraiture,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July - Sep. 1923) 286-301. Sturgeon, Mary, “The Corinth Amazon: Formation of a Roman Classical Sculpture,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 99, No. 3 (July, 1995), 483-505. Vermuele III, Cornelius C., “A Graeco-Roman Portrait of the Third Century AD and the Graeco-Asiatic Tradition in Imperial Portraiture from Gallienus to Diocletian,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 15 (1961), 1 + 3-22.
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