Roman portraiture

Roman portraiture is characterized by its "warts and all" realism; bust of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a cast in the Pushkin Museum; the original in bronze was found in Pompeii, and is now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Roman portraiture was one of the most significant periods in the development of portrait art. Originating from Ancient Rome, it continued for almost five centuries. Roman portraiture is characterised by unusual realism and the desire to convey images of nature in the high quality style often seen in Ancient Roman art. Some busts even seem to show clinical signs.[1] Several images and statues made in marble and bronze have survived in small numbers. Roman funerary art includes many portraits such as married couple funerary reliefs, which were most often made for wealthy freedmen rather than the patrician elite.

Portrait sculpture from the Republican era tends to be somewhat more modest, realistic, and natural compared to early Imperial works. A typical work might be one like the standing figure “A Roman Patrician with Busts of His Ancestors” (c. 30 B.C.) [2]

By the imperial age, though they were often realistic depictions of human anatomy, portrait sculpture of Roman emperors were often used for propaganda purposes and included ideological messages in the pose, accoutrements, or costume of the figure. Since most emperors from Augustus on were deified, some images are somewhat idealized. The Romans also depicted warriors and heroic adventures, in the spirit of the Greeks who came before them.


Religious functions and origins

Veristic portrait bust of an old man, head covered (capite velato), either a priest or paterfamilias (marble, mid-1st century BC)

The origin of the realism of Roman portraits may be, according to some scholars, because they evolved from wax death masks. These death masks were taken from bodies and kept in a home altar. Besides wax, masks were made from bronze, marble and terracotta. The molds for the masks were made directly from the deceased, giving historians an accurate representation of typically Roman features.


In the days of the Republic, full-size statues of political officials and military commanders were often erected in public places. Such an honor was provided by the decision of the Senate, usually in commemoration of victories, triumphs and political achievements. These portraits were usually accompanied by a dedicatory inscription. If the person who was commemorated with a portrait was found to have committed a crime, the portrait would be destroyed.

Social and Psychological aspect

Development of the Roman portrait was associated with increased interest in the individual, with the expansion of the social circle portrayed. At the heart of the artistic structure of many Roman portraits is the clear and rigorous transfer of unique features of the model, while still keeping the general style very similar. Unlike the ancient Greek portraits that strived for idealization (the Greeks believed that a good man must be beautiful), Roman portrait sculpture was far more natural and is still considered one of the most realistic samples of the genre in the history of art.

Historical development

Republican period

Imperial period

Roman portraiture of the Imperial period includes works created throughout the provinces, often combining Greek, Roman, and local traditions, as with the Fayum mummy portraits.

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ancient Roman portraits.
  1. Engmann B: Neurologic diseases in ancient Roman sculpture busts. Neurol Clin Pract December 2013 vol.3 no.6:539-541. doi: 10.1212/CPJ.0b013e3182a78f02
  2. Janson, p. 197
  3. Michael Grant (1994). The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition. London & New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10754-7, pp 27-28.
  4. Daniel Thomas Howells (2015). "A Catalogue of the Late Antique Gold Glass in the British Museum (PDF)." London: the British Museum (Arts and Humanities Research Council). Accessed 2 October 2016, p. 7.
  5. Jás Elsner (2007). "The Changing Nature of Roman Art and the Art Historical Problem of Style," in Eva R. Hoffman (ed), Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Medieval World, 11-18. Oxford, Malden & Carlton: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-2071-5, p. 17, Figure 1.3 on p. 18.


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