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Portrait of Scipio Africanus

roman school

The head of this bust, completely bald, is turned to the right. The face has a regular oval shape with a straight nose and deep nasolabial folds. This physiognomy allows us to identify the portrait as that of Scipio Africanus, whose image here – which actually derives from ancient prototypes depicting priests of Isis – was frequently reproduced in modern busts depicting the Roman consul and general. To exalt the characteristics of the subject, the sculptor chose to use bigio morato marble for the head and statuary marble for the bust, in a chromatic inversion of traditional busts that must have been especially appreciated in the 17th century, the period to which scholars date the work. The identity of the sculptor is not known. It is believed that the work in question is the same bust of Scipio Africanus described in Villa Pinciana in 1796.

Object details

17th century
statuary and bigio morato marble
height 64 cm

First documented at Villa Pinciana in 1796 (L. Lamberti, E.Q. Visconti, Sculture del palazzo della Villa Borghese detta Pinciana, Rome 1796, I, p. 11?); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 44, no. 50; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996/ 1997 Consorzio Capitolino


The subject of this bust is portrayed with his face turned slightly to the right. The bald head, full oval-shaped face, straight nose and deep nasolabial folds all form part of the traditional iconography associated with Scipio Africanus. The identification of this physiognomy – which in fact derives from ancient prototypes that depict priests of Isis (Faldi 1954, p. 15; Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 76) – with the Roman consul and general is based above all on his baldness: Scipio shaved his head daily, a fashion which he in fact introduced to Rome (Palma Venetucci 1993, pp. 53-4). The marble bust shows the toga contabulata, which was worn with the front edge wrapped around the chest rather than let fall toward the ground.

The name of the sculptor is unknown. Critics date it to the 17th century, given the evident bichrome scheme of the design. In this regard, we note that the use of bigio morato marble for the face endeavours to create an association between the subject’s name and the colour of his skin. In addition, the work draws on the repertory of Roman statuary, without, however, regard for philological accuracy: the toga contabulata was in fact a typical garment of the late imperial era.

Faldi (1954, pp. 14-15) identified the work with the bust of Scipio Africanus described by Visconti in 1796 (Lamberti, Visconti, I, p. 11), whose illustration shows the same iconography. The 1833 Inventario fidecommissario lists the sculpture as occupying a recess in a wall in Room 1.  

Sonja Felici