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Portrait of a Man of Letters

Roman art

This sculpture portrays a man of advanced age sitting on a chair decorated with winged animal protomes. He is wearing a mantle called a himation that reveals his chest and left arm. He is also wearing Greek sandals made of intertwining straps tied in a bow over the top of the foot. The attribute of the rotulo, which he holds in his left hand, and his seated position identify him as an ‘old man of letters’ inspired by models from the fourth century BCE. This interpretation is supported by the head which, although not original, is ancient and shares similarities with depictions of Greek philosophers from the same period.

In 1650, it was described as a ‘consul’ in the second enclosure, along the Viale dei Cipressi, and in 1832, when it was mentioned in the sixth room of the Villa, it was thought to be Periander, the terrible tyrant of Corinth we know of from Herodotus.

The precision of the details of the drapery and refined rendering of the decoration of the chair suggest a date for the sculpture in the early Imperial period. The head seems to date to a later period, in the Hadrianic age.

Object details

1st century A.D. (figure), 2nd century A.D. (head)
Pentelic marble (figure); white marble (head)
height without plinth 119 cm; height without plinth 144 cm; height with non-pertinent head and plinth 159 cm

Borghese Collection, reported in 1650 in the second enclosure on the Viale dei Cipressi (Manilli, p. 125) and, in 1832, in the sixth room of the Villa (Nibby, pp. 134–135). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 53, no. 179. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • Probably 19th century - Restoration in white marble of the outer part of the plinth, the front part of the paw supporting the left side of the chair, the front part of the left foot, the left knee, almost the entire mantle pooled on the chair near the left thigh, the left arm and the right arm (up to the hand). The component for attaching the head, which is not original, is visible. Face and nose.
  • 1996–97 - Liana Persichelli.


Manilli mentioned the statue in 1650 in the second enclosure, on the Viale dei Cipressi, next to one of Antoninus Pius, identifying it as ‘di persona consulare’ (‘of a consul’; p. 125). In 1700, Montelatici also identified it as portraying a consul and confirmed its location (p. 79). Nibby, who mentions it in the sixth room, instead saw the seated figure as Periander, one of the Seven Sages and tyrant of Corinth, who we know of from Herodotus (Histories 5. 94–95). He based this interpretation on the resemblance of the statue to the herm in the Sala delle Muse of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican, the name of which is incised on its chest (1832, pp. 134–135; 1841, p. 924, no. 15). Venturi cites the theory proposed by Helbig, according to whom it is a statue of the historian Thucydides or, possibly, one of the Diadochi in the guise of Jupiter (1893, p. 48). Discussing sculptures of Periander, Bernoulli saw in the Borghese statue no more than a ‘remota somiglianza, che non giustifica l'identificazione’ (‘remote resemblance that does not justify the identification’; 1901, p. 44).

The figure, of advanced age, is sitting on a chair with no back, the legs decorated on the front with winged panther protomes and animal feet. On the left, there is a figure of a griffin in bas-relief that was probably added at a later time. The man is wearing a mantle called a himation that reveals his chest and right shoulder. His left arm is held to his side, and he holds a rotulo in his left hand, which is resting on his legs. His right arm is raised, and he must have originally held an object in his right hand, perhaps a staff, now lost. His feet, resting on the ground, are clad in Greek sandals called pedilon, with strips of intertwined leather on the top of the foot and tied in a knot at the ankle.

The figure’s head, which is turned to the left, shows clear signs of age, balding at the temples, hollow cheeks and deep lines to the sides of the nose and mouth. His hair and beard are arranged in dense curls, the latter covering his cheeks.

Richter agrees with Nibby’s interpretation, identifying the sitter as Periander (1965, p. 86, no. 1) while Von Heintze sees an affinity with Greek portraits from the fourth century BCE, in particular the Aeschines type in the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican (1966, pp. 49–50, no. 62). The rotulo, beard and mature age seem to link the sculpture to the ‘old man of letters’ type inspired by models from the fourth century BCE.

The refined precision of the drapery folds and the decorative motif on the chair suggest a date for the sculpture in the Imperial period, specifically the first century CE. The head, which is ancient but not original, would instead seem to date to the Hadrianic period.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p. 125.
  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 79.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, pp. 134-135, n. 9.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese”, Roma 1840, p. 15, n. 16.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 924, n. 15.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 28, n. 14.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 48.
  • J. J. Bernoulli, Griechische Ikonographie mit Ausschluss Alexanders und der Diadochen, 1, München, 1901, p. 43-44.
  • G. Giusti, The Borghese Gallery and the Villa Umberto I in Rome, Città di Castello 1904, p. 33.
  • W. Helbig, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom (3a edizione), a cura di W. Amelung, II, Leipzig 1913, p. 250, n. 1562.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1935, p. 17.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 21.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 13, n. 103.
  • G. M. A. Richter, Portraits of the Greek, I, 1965, p. 86, n. 1.
  • W. Helbig, H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (4a edizione), a cura di H. Speier, II, Tübingen 1966, p. 745-746, n. 1996 (von Heintze).
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Museo e Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 20.
  • P. Moreno, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1981, p. 101, fig. a p. 89.
  • K. Kalveram, Die Antikensammlung des Kardinals Scipione Borghese, Worms am Rhein, 1995, p. 262, n. 231.
  • P. Moreno, Ch. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 195, n. 7 a-b.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 256-257, n. 249.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008546, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008547, P. Moreno 1979; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.