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Portrait of a Man on a Modern Bust

Roman art


The head of this sculpture bears the features of a mature man and is placed atop a modern bust. The forehead is framed by a triangle of long hair parted down the middle to form two symmetrical waves gathered in a bun on top of the head. The beard covering the lower portion of the cheeks is rendered in short curls in a strong relief. The interpretation of this figure was object of debate for a long time, especially because of the hairstyle, quite unusual in Roman iconography and considered closer to the Celtic or the Indian worlds, yet reproduced in a number of analogous works. It is seemingly identifiable with a head of ‘Hannibal’ listed among the items acquired by the Borghese family when they purchased the Della Porta collection in 1609, later mentioned in the first enclosure of the gardens of Villa Borghese on the Viali di Mezzogiorno. The linearity of the hair at the top of the forehead and the marked curls of the beard carved with a drill seem to suggest this work may be dated to the second century CE. 


Object details

Inventory
LXVII
Location
Date
II secolo d.C.
Classification
Medium
bigio morato marble
Dimensions
altezza con busto cm 73; altezza della testa cm 73
Provenance

Borghese Collection, possibly from the Della Porta Collection (de Lachenal, p. 90); in the Park of the Villa, likely identifiable with a piece mentioned in 1650 in the first enclosure, on the Viali di Mezzogiorno (Manilli, p. 10), and in 1893 in the Villa in Room 1 (Venturi, p. 20). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 46, no. 79. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996- 97 - Consorzio Capitolino di Elisabetta Zatti ed Elibetta Caracciolo

Commentary

This sculpture may be the ‘very large antique head that can be identified as being of Greek manufacture from the hair tied in the middle’, mentioned in the Viali di Mezzogiorno in the first enclosure of the gardens of Villa Borghese in 1650 and in 1700 (Manilli 1650, p. 10; Montelatici 1700, p. 19). The work is also akin to one purchased by the Borghese family from Giovanni Paolo Della Porta in 1609. In fact, the list that accompanied the sale included: ‘One black marble head of Hannibal Carthaginian with modern white chest h. p. 4½’ (AB 456, tomo 59, mazzo F, no. 303: de Lachenal 1982, p. 90). The head depicts a mature man, his hair arranged in tidy strands parted above the forehead and elegantly gathered in a bun at the back. The head is partially bent and turned to the left; the mournful, thoughtful expression of the face is underlined by the furrowed brow, with a long horizontal line and knit eyebrows. The eyes are almond-shaped and surmounted by heavy lids. The beard is made up of very tight curls deeply carved with a drill; the cheekbones and upper cheeks are bare. The identification of this figure appears to have been vastly debated. Venturi, who was the first to mention it inside the Palazzina in Room 1, defined it ‘the head of a barbarian’, while Calza thought it must be a Celtic figure, set on a modern bust (1893, p. 20; 1957, p. 14, no. 138). In 1928, Bienkowski studied a series of portraits with a ‘cirrus on the top of the head’. He believed the Borghese specimen to be the portrait of an Indian official and related Cassius Dio’s report of an Indian embassy in Rome in Trajan’s time (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXVIII, 15,1). This scholar refutes Arndt’s opinion that the figure represented a eunuch priest of Cybele and included it in the so-called Aphroditos type, typical of the followers of an oriental divinity who offered sacrifices clad in women’s clothes. Bienkowski further identified a connection with the figure of Buddha, who had a similar bun that was considered the repository of his wisdom by his followers. (Bienkowski 1928, p. 228; Arndt 1894, cc. 2794–2795). Taddei did not embrace the Oriental origin of this iconography and instead referred it to models imported into India from classical Greece (1962, pp. 288–310).  

Lastly, Moreno at first deemed it a second century production based on the comparison with a similar portrait preserved at the Museo Nazionale Romano and considered by Bracco a replica of a Hellenistic original of Alexandrine influence. Later, however, the author questions its antiquity and advances the hypothesis that it might be a modern piece, datable to the sixteenth century (Moreno 2000, p. 73, no. 13; 2003, pp. 155–156, no. 122).

As observed by Bienkowski, the Borghese portrait seems to resemble a series of analogous portraits that present strong similarities, albeit with some variations, such as in the hair raised on the temples, in the almond shape of the eyes and the troubled expression. Among these, a particular similarity may be observed in a head preserved at the Prado Museum in Madrid, in one belonging to the Albani collection, in another held in Palazzo Corsini in Rome and one at the Museo Nazionale Romano (Schröder 2004, pp. 451–454; Schneider 1998, pp. 542–543, no. 1000; Matz, Duhn 1881, p. 351, no. 1198; Bracco 1966, pp. 73–74, no. 1000).

The linearity of the hair and the strong relief of the curls of the beard suggest that the work might be dated to the second century CE, though it has undergone significant restorations.

Giulia Ciccarello




Bibliography
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  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 19.
  • F. Matz, F. K. von Duhn, Antike Bildwerke in Rom: mit Ausschluss der grösseren Sammlungen, Leipzig 1881, p. 351, n. 1198.
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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/0147851, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.