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Bust of Minerva

roman school

This bust depicts the goddess Minerva. She wears a helmet which shows a face with closed eyes. A pair of small wings protrude from her thick hair, whose long locks fall over her shoulders. The goddess’s gaze is directed in front of her, although eyes lack irises. Her facial features are regular, albeit somewhat heavy, as are her neck and shoulders. On her left shoulder rests the aegis, her traditional attribute of defence, which is decorated with a snake, while on her right a fibula with a protome of a lion holds her peplos.

The name of the sculptor of this original bust is still unknown. It was mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection as early as Manilli’s description of the Villa, published in 1650. The artist presumably formed part of the Roman school and was certainly well acquainted with ancient culture, as is evident in this absorbed, sentimental image of the goddess. The face carved on the helmet is a motif of particular interest.

Object details

First half of 17th century
height 82 cm

Borghese Collection (first documented in Manilli 1650, p. 74). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p.  54, no. 187; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996 L. Persichelli


The goddess Minerva is represented here with her head leaning slightly to her left. Although they lack irises, her eyes are well defined, while the rounded arches of her eyebrows are only hinted at. Her fixed gaze is directed in front of her; her nose is straight and her slightly parted lips provide a glimpse of her teeth. The helmet on her head depicts a winged face with closed eyes. Several of its curls fall over the goddess’s temples, blending into her own hair, which reaches her shoulders in long locks. Like her neck, her shoulders are robust. Minerva wears a light peplos with flattened folds; the garment is clasped on her right shoulder by a fibula with a lion’s head. On her left shoulder, meanwhile, rests the aegis with its large scales, well defined seams and a headless snake at the level of her collarbone.

The helmet with a human representation is an unusual motif. It is similar in shape to a mask, while its physiognomy and small wings allude to the famous Medusa Rondanini, which is believed to be an early imperial Roman copy of the Gorgoneion, the image that embellished the shield of Phidias’s Athena Parthenos (Buschor 1958). In 1580, the Medusa was held in Palazzo Soderini and then in Palazzo Rondinini from 1662; today it is conserved at the Glyptothek in Munich.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the hair coming from the back portion of the helmet continues into that of the goddess, as if there was just one head of hair shared by the two beings: this motif highlights the ambiguity of the sculpture, which suggests a double identity of the portrayed subject.

On the basis of stylistic considerations, scholars date the work to shortly before 1650, the year of its first mention in Manilli’s guidebook (p. 74). The rendering of the face and anatomical details of the neck reveals a certain lack of precision. The blending of the precepts of ancient sculpture with a solidity and ornamentation that are still Baroque makes it difficult to place the work in a particular artistic context.

Venturi mentioned the work as a ‘bust of Minerva, with the helmet made of the head of Medusa’ (1893, p. 48). Faldi detected the influence of Scopas in the swollen plastic volumes and pathetic facial expression (1954, p. 15), without, however, suggesting an attribution. Critics before him were likewise reluctant to propose a name, only noting the presence of the work in the Collection.

The work was originally displayed in the gallery on the ground floor (Manilli, Montelatici). Nibby (1838) and Venturi (1893) both saw the work in Room 8; later it was moved to Room 5.

Sonja Felici