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Portrait of Claudius

Della Porta Giovanni Battista and workshop

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

Emperor Claudius is depicted according to the facial features known from ancient statuary and coinage. The surface of the face is animated, crossed by expressive wrinkles and folds. The protruding ears and furrow in the forehead are unmistakable features of this person, whose appearance - especially his flaws have also been handed down to us by ancient biographers, first and foremost Suetonius. He wears a paludamentum, above the lorica and tunic, carved from African marble.


It was purchased by Paul V Borghese in 1609 and came from the collection of Giovanni Battista Della Porta, together with the other eleven portraits that made up the series of the Twelve Caesars; it has been on display in the Villa Pinciana since 1615. The execution of the busts can be dated to the last quarter of the 16th century and can be attributed to Della Porta himself, due to stylistic similarities with his contemporary works.

Object details

last quarter of the 16th century
statuary and African 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 of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (41-54) has a furrowed forehead with horizontal wrinkles and a vertical line above the nose. The eyes - in which the irises and pupils are defined - are sunken and the ears protrude. The hair on the head is voluminous, ending in comma-shaped locks on the forehead, where the central pincer motif is just hinted at. The surface of the cheeks is moved by folds starting from the root of the nose, and by the nasolabial grooves. The mouth, with its accentuated prolabium, is tightened by contracted muscles. The portrait presents emperors characteristic facial features as confirmed by ancient portraiture.

The African marble bust reproduces the paludamentum, folded over the left shoulder and fastened on the right with a circular fibula, under which Claudius wears the barely visible lorica (short cuirass), and the tunic with short sleeves. The folds of the cloak, linear and flattened, recur with the same pattern on several works in the series.

Along with eleven others, the portrait is part of the series called the Twelve Caesars, comprising the characters narrated by Suetonius and belonging to Giovan Battista della Portas collection of sculptures. The artist bequeathed these 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, 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, not only on the basis of 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 are stylistically different from each other: for some of them, which have incised eyes with irises and pupils in the shape of arches and the surface of the face, well-polished and smooth, the autography appears consistent with the rest of Giovanni Battista Della Portas production, while in another group, composed of portraits with large eyes without irises and pupils and different hair styles, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts. The repetition of facial featuresand draped busts in several examples of the series also suggests a serial production method in the Della Porta workshop.

Sonja Felici