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Portrait of Domitian

Della Porta Giovanni Battista and workshop

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

One of a series depicting the “Twelve Caesars”, the bust, which reproduces the features of the Emperor Domitian, comes from the sculpture collection of Giovan Battista della Porta, purchased in 1609 by Paul V and placed in the Entrance Hall of the Villa Pinciana.

Depicted with considerable respect for the facial features known from ancient portraits - the face framed by a fringe of small locks across the forehead, the accentuated eyebrows - the bust reproduces it in a rather stereotypical manner.

Critics are unanimous in attributing its execution to Giovanni Battista della Porta himself, dating it to the last quarter of the 16th century.


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 bust reproduces the features of Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus (81-96), the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. His face is framed by a fringe of small locks spread across the forehead: the locks are visible in ancient portraits and here are compact and end in a uniformly rounded profile. The eyebrows too, although accentuated, do not reproduce the almost horizontal line seen in the known portraits of antiquity. The eyes have no irises. According to ancient iconographic evidence, the emperor’s mouth had wide and very thin lips, but is reproduced here in a conventional way, according to a scheme in which it is the same width as the nose and chin, and returns again in other portraits in the series. The earlobe is pierced. He wears a paludamentum draped over his left shoulder and fastened on the right with a round fibula. Under the cloak, the neckline of the tunic and a small section of the cuirass can be glimpsed.

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 Porta's 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, 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).

Within the series, there are stylistic differences between the heads of the figures: 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 Porta's production, while in another group, consisting of portraits with large eyes without irises or pupils and differing in the rendering of the hair, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts. The repetition of facial features and draped busts in several examples of the series also suggests a serial production method in the Della Porta workshop.

Sonja Felici