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Portrait of Nero

Della Porta Giovanni Battista and workshop

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

Emperor Nero is depicted with a youthful face, thick hair covering his forehead, eyes without pupils and linear arched eyebrows. His nose and mouth are even and his chin protrudes. The person portrayed is mainly identified by the distinctive beard below the jaw, a feature found in ancient portraits. In the bust is a lorica, decorated in the centre of the chest with a head of Medusa. The portrait is part of a series of twelve busts from the Della Porta collection, purchased in 1609 by Pope Paul V. First placed in the Palazzo di Campo Marzio, the busts were exhibited from 1615 in the Villa Pinciana. In the late 18th century, they were moved to oval niches in the walls of the entrance hall.


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.


Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus reigned in his youth from 54 to 68. In this portrait, the face is framed by hair in overlapping locks, spread evenly across the forehead and emphasised by a slight undercutting, and by a beard worn beneath the jaw in line with the figure’s known iconography. It was probably originally intended to disguise the emperors fat neck, which instead is lean here. The small, pupilless eyes are accentuated by linear eyebrows; the nose and mouth, separated by a light moustache, are regular and not distinctive, and the chin is prominent.

The bust, made of dark brown marble, reproduces an anatomical lorica with a Medusa head - the Gorgoneion - carved in the centre of the chest; fastened to the left shoulder with a pointed circular fibula is a paludamentum gathered in folds.

The portrait, along with eleven others, is one in the series known as the Twelve Caesars, comprising the figures 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, 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 (housed in the Galleria di Palazzo Farnese in Rome), they were considered by Faldi to be the work of Giovanni Battista. This was 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: some of them have incised eyes with the 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 of portraits with large eyes lacking irises and pupils, and a different rendering of the hair, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts. In this case, the portrait has a beard on the neck - typical of the emperors iconography - and a moustache - quite unusual in ancient portraits - rendered by thin, shallow incisions, suggesting a reworking of the face.

Sonja Felici