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Portrait of Galba

roman school

This bust is cited for the first time in the Entrance Hall in 1893 and depicts and old, heavy-set man. The balding head, the hooked nose and the bull neck evoke a common representation of the emperor Galba who ruled between 68 and 69 CE. Many studies agree that the work was produced in the nineteenth century, inspired by the Monetalis III type and skillfully crafted so that it would seem authentic. Recent studies of technique and style have observed interventions that used both chisel and cement, confirming this hypothesis.

Object details

c. 1830-1832
white marble with grey veins (head); Portasanta marble (bust)
height 57 cm; head height 27 cm

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time in the Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 46, no. 79 in Room 2 and later identified in the Entrance Hall by Venturi (1893, p. 15). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902. 

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996-97 - Liana Persichelli


This portrait depicts an elderly man, the thick, square head set upon a modern Portasanta marble bust wearing a cuirass. The head is bald, the forehead broad and deeply furrowed with sunken temples; two of the furrows are horizontal, while the other two mark the spot where the nose is attached. The eyes are sunken and surmounted by deep arches, with heavy bags underneath. The nose is hooked; underneath it, the mouth is marked by deep expression lines, its lips drawn. The chin is jutting out and the cheeks gaunt and sagging. 

The portrait has been identified with the emperor Galba, who rose to the throne in June of 68 CE at the age of seventy and was assassinated in January of 69 CE.  

Venturi was the first to describe the work in his guidebook in 1893 as an ‘unidentified Parian marble male head on a Portasanta bust’ exhibited in the Entrance Hall of the Palazzina Borghese (p. 15). Not many years later, Giusti confirmed this placement and defined the sculpture a ‘Greek marble male head’ (1903, p. 18). In 1942, it was described by Borda in a vast treatise in which he identified it for the first time as a portrait of Galba by ‘comparing it with some sestertius coins bearing the emperor’s effigy’. The features are aligned with the official iconography related in ancient sources, particularly by Suetonius: ‘Of proper stature, evidently balding, with blue eyes and a hooked nose’ (Svet. Galba 21). According to this scholar, the most relevant portrait was a silver-plated bronze bust preserved in the National Museum of Naples (1942 pp. 87–97). A later study by Jucker considered the marble surface to be an antique but found the presence of a hole in the ear unusual (1963–1964, p. 296). Conversely, Von Heintze raised some doubts as to the authenticity of this sculpture and dated it to the Renaissance based on the form of the head and the treatment of the marble (1968, p. 150). Fabbricotti carried out an in-depth study on the work in collaboration with the archaeologist Amanda Claridge, who established that the marble was a type of transparent alabaster that wasn’t very commonly employed in antiquity, especially in portraiture. She also observed traces of a thin layer of cement that reached as far as the modern bust, quite likely to imitate natural concretions accumulated through time. Furthermore, the noticeable difference between the soft contours of the neck and cheeks and the harshness of the lines marking the mouth and the eyes led this scholar to attribute the work to a nineteenth century artist with certainty. However, she also believed that this artist had used a specific model, the Monetale III type (pp. 61–63 no. II).   

These technical and stylistic observations are confirmed by the recent conservational evaluations carried out by Maria Grazia Chilosi in 2021 and published in a comprehensive study by Ciofetta the following year. In it, the various interventions carried out on the sculpture are related with extreme precision, including the signs of a ‘false erosion’ produced with a chisel on the surface of the nose, quite likely to feign the antiquity of the work. Furthermore, by consulting the available documents, this scholar was able to ascertain the presence of the bust in 1833, recorded in the Inventario Fidecommissario inside of a niche in Room 2, from which it was transferred to the Entrance Hall around 1891, where it was described by Venturi (1893, p. 15). The position of the majority of critics, who consider this a modern work, has been confirmed for historical as well as stylistic and conservational reasons. Its execution is presumably ascribable to the period when the new collection of ancient sculpture, including heavily restored pieces and ones produced after the manner of antiques, replaced the collection that had been lost during the famous sale to France in 1807 in view of the reopening of the museum, celebrated in Nibby’s acclaimed publication of 1832, Monumenti scelti. Thus it would appear to be a nineteenth century work produced in the 1830s by combining a head carved out of a virgin block or out of an ancient piece that was completely reworked, and a modern Portasanta bust (Ciofetta 2022, pp. 315–316).  

Giulia Ciccarello

  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 15.
  • G. Giusti, La Galleria Borghese e la Villa di Umberto Primo a Roma, Roma 1903, p. 18.
  • M. Borda, Ritratto di Galba nel R. Museo Borghese di Roma, in “Rivista del Reale Istituto d'Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte”, IX 1942, pp. 87-97.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p. 7.
  • H. Jucker, Ein Aureus und der Kopf des Kaisers Galba, in “Jahrbuch des Bernischen Historischen Museums in Bern“ 43, 1963-64, pp. 261-302.
  • H. v. Heintze, Galba, in “Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Römische Abteilung“, 75, 1968, pp. 149-153.
  • E. Fabbricotti, Galba, in “Studia Archaeologica”, 16, Roma 1976, pp. 1-63, tav. una nicchia della sala II
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 59, n. 21.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 132, n. 97.
  • S. Ciofetta, A.5, Busto di Galba, in Galleria Borghese. Catalogo generale, I, Scultura moderna, a cura di A. Coliva con la coll. di V. Brunetti, Roma 2022, pp. 315-316.
  • Schede di catalogo 12/01008362, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.