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Bust of Vitellius

Della Porta Giovanni Battista

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

The bust reproduces the features of the so-called Vitellius, a portrait of an unknown person dating back to the early 2nd century. Since the 16th century, it has been mistakenly identified with the emperor who reigned for less than a year in 69 AD. The face, turned to the left, has full cheeks and a double chin, facial features that were seen by Renaissance scholars and artists as the consequences of a life devoted to the pleasures of table and wine that ancient biographies attributed to Vitellius.


The work is part of a series known as the Twelve Caesars from the sculpture collection of Giovan Battista della Porta, purchased in 1609 by Paul V on behalf of Giovanni Battista Borghese and placed in the niches of the walls of the entrance hall at the Villa Pinciana from the end of the 18th century. The stylistic characteristics of the busts have led critics to attribute the creation of the series to Giovan Battista della Porta himself, dating it to the last quarter of the 16th century.


Object details

16th century
statuary marble and bigio morato marble
height 78 cm

Giovan Battista della Porta collection, purchased by Paolo V Borghese, 1609 (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, 24, no. 37, pp. 13 ss. and 456). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 43, no. 33. Purchased by the State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996 Sandra Anahi Varca
  • 1997 CBC Coop. a r.l.


The figure is facing left, the face characterised by full shapes, drooping cheeks and abull-like neck. The eyes have incised irises; he wears a paludamentum fastened on the left shoulder by a fibula, beneath which the tunic can be glimpsed. The drapery reproduces the linear and flattened folds found on other busts in the series.

The work derives from the so-called Vitellius in the Archaeological Museum in Venice, a portrait of an unknown man from the Hadrianic period, and since the 16th century, mistakenly identified as the emperor who reigned in 69 AD, by virtue of a certain resemblance to the profile on his coins and Suetonius description of a man devoted to the pleasures of the table and wine (erat enim in eo enormis proceritas, facies rubidaplerumque ex vinulentia, venter obesus, alterum ferum sub debile impulsu olim quadrigae, cum auriganti Gaio ministratore exhiberet, Vit., VII, 17). The sculptural prototype, found by Cardinal Grimani in Rome near the Quirinal Hill and donated to the Serenissima in 1523, was immediately greatly admired by artists, as confirmed by the numerous copies made of it in bronze, marble, terracotta and paintings over the following centuries (J.R. Gaborit 2000, p. 298). The face shows some rigidity in the features, a rather conventional rendering of the hair and eyes, incised and lacking depth, and in the mouth. In the Venetian prototype and its best replicas, the hair has movement, the brow arch casts a shadow over the eyes, giving character to the gaze, and the lips are voluntarily tightened, giving a vivid image of the person portrayed.

Together with eleven other examples, the portrait is part of the series known as the Twelve Caesars, comprising the characters described by Suetonius and belonging to Giovan Battista della Portas collection of sculptures, which the artist bequeathed to his brothers Tommaso and Giovan Paolo. The latter, in October 1609, sold them - together with the entire collection - to Paul V, who purchased them on behalf of Giovanni Battista Borghese. The busts were first moved to the Palazzo Borghese (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, 7923, f. 121v-122r, in Faldi 1954, p. 51, doc. II) and, from 1615, placed in the entrance hall of the Villa Pinciana on walnut stools carved by Giovanni Battista Soria (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, 4173, 12 August 1615, Conto di lavori di legno fatti da G.B. Soria per la villa di Porta Pinciana, in Faldi 1954, p. 51, doc. III).

Faldi writes that two other busts were added, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal the Carthaginian, not included in the initial collection and dispersed after the reorganisation of the collection in the last quarter of the 18th century, when the 12 busts were moved to niches in the walls of the same entrance hall (1954, p. 50).

Confused by Baglione (The Lives, 1642, p. 74) with the series sold in 1562 by Tommaso della Porta il Vecchio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (conserved in the Galleria di Palazzo Farnese in Rome), they were considered by Faldi to be the work of Giovanni Battista. This was based not only on documentary evidence, but also by comparison with certain works by the artist, whose cold and archaeologising approach is applied here to a generic imitation of ancient models (Faldi 1954, p. 50).

Stylistic differences can be observed among the heads: for some of them, whose incised eyes have irises and pupils in the shape of an arch and the surface of the face well-polished and smooth, the autography appears consistent with the rest of Giovanni Battista Della Portas works. In another group, consisting of portraits with large eyes lacking irises and pupils and different hair styles, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts. The repetition of facial features and drapery in several busts in the collection also suggests a serial production method in the Della Porta workshop.

Sonja Felici