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Portrait of Caligula

Della Porta Giovanni Battista and workshop

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

The handsome youthful face is that of Emperor Caligula, who is portrayed with finely detailed hair in overlapping locks spread across the forehead, large eyes without pupils and eyebrows furrowed to suggest the subjects cruel attitude, a nose that protrudes somewhat at the tip and a well-defined mouth with full lips. The bust has a paludamentum cloak fastened to the right shoulder and turned up on the left. There are clear signs on the face that the eyebrows, nose, mouth and chin have been reintegrated, suggesting a reworking or adaptation of reused parts.

The bust belongs to a series of twelve Caesars from the collection of Giovanni Battista della Porta, purchased by Paul V in 1609 and exhibited in the Villa Pinciana from 1615, the execution of which is attributed by critics to the same sculptor and dated to the last quarter of the 16th century.

Object details

last quarter of the 16th century
statuary marble and Breccia Medicea 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 head depicts Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman emperor, who went down in history with the nickname Caligula. He reigned from 37 to 41, the year in which he was killed. The typically youthful face is framed by hair with several overlapping rows of locks, which are flattened and, although spread across the forehead, do not reproduce the hairstyle typical of members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The face is characterised by furrowed eyebrows, a rather large nose and a mouth with full, perfectly defined lips. The mouth and lack of pronounced cheekbones are elements that depart from the traditional iconography of the figure. The bust, in Breccia Mediceamarble, depicts a paludamentum cloak fastened to the right shoulder by a fibula and turned up on the left shoulder in linear, flattened folds, which recur with the same pattern on several examples in the series.

Along 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 to the series, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal the Carthaginian. These were not included in the initial collection and were 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 (Lives, 1642, p. 74) with the series sold in 1562 by Tommaso della Porta il Vecchio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (preserved in the gallery of Palazzo Farnese in Rome), they were considered by Faldi to be an autograph work by Giovanni Battista. This is not only based 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).

The heads show stylistic differences: for some of them, which have incised eyes with 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, composed of portraits with large eyes without irises or pupils and different hair styles, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts. The latter seems to fully correspond to the bust of Caligula, whose head is separated from the neck. The nose and mouth are reintegrated, as are the eyebrow arches, which were replaced with more furrowed ones, with the intention of making the expression more in keeping with the personality of the emperor as passed down to us by ancient biographers. The repetition of the drapery in the bust, which recurs in several examples of the series, also suggests that a serial production method may have been used in the Della Porta workshop.

Sonja Felici