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Portrait of Vespasian

Della Porta Giovanni Battista

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

The facial features reproduce the facial features of the Emperor Vespasian, with greater attention paid to the upper part of the face, where the bald head, the characteristic wrinkles on the forehead and the eyebrow arches are found, while the lower part has features that are almost the same throughout the series.

The bust is part of the series of the Twelve Caesars belonging to the sculptor Giovan Battista della Porta, whose collection, purchased by Pope Paul V, was displayed in the Villa Pinciana from 1615, first on wooden stools, then from the end of the 18th century in niches in the walls. Della Porta himself is also credited with executing the series, in the last quarter of the 16th century.

Object details

last quarter of the 16th century
statuary marble and breccia dorata 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 emperor Vespasian is portrayed in a frontal position, with rather large eyes. His gaze, emphasised by the irises and pupils, looks straight ahead, suggesting a proud attitude. The head, characterised by incipient baldness, has two tufts of hair at the level of the temples and one at the top of the forehead, with the locks well defined and shaded with drill holes. The forehead is creased with wide horizontal wrinkles and the eyebrows are highlighted by a wide indentation above them, which seems to reproduce the crease - almost a doubling - present in ancient prototypes.

The rest of the face, reproduced in almost the same form as the other busts in the series, adds no other identifying features to the portrait. In the antique prototypes, he instead had a wide jaw, small eyes and cheeks furrowed with numerous wrinkles (E. Rosso 2009, pp. 403 cat. 1, 495 cat. 97). The bust, in breccia dorata marble, has a paludamentum stretched across to cover the left shoulder and fastened on the right with a pointed circular fibula, beneath which the tunic and cuirass can be glimpsed.

Together 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 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 (conserved in the Galleria di Palazzo Farnese in Rome), they were considered by Faldi to be the work of Giovanni Battista. This was based not only 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).

Stylistic differences can be observed among the heads: 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 Portas works. In another group, consisting of portraits with large eyes lacking irises and pupils and different hair styles, it is more likely that the Lombard sculptor reworked and adapted reused parts.

Sonja Felici