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Portrait of Vitellius

roman school

This bust reproduces the features of an ancient head which came to light in Rome in the 1500s and which for centuries was believed to be the portrait of Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, who was emperor for several months in 69. Although lacking the markedly realistic connotations of the original, this Vitellius stands out in the series of busts of eminent Romans for its manifest individuality. The set of 16 sculptures, each with the head made in marble and the bust in porphyry, was executed in the 17th century. They were later incorporated into the decorative programme conceived by Cosimo Fancelli for the Gallery of Mirrors in Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio. On that occasion, Fancelli sculpted a second portrait of Vitellius.

Object details

17th century
porphyry and oriental alabaster
height 88 cm

Included in decoration of the Gallery of Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio between 1674 and 1676 (H. Hibbard, ‘Palazzo Borghese Studies. II, the Galleria’, The Burlington Magazine, 104 (1962), pp. 9-20); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 49, no. 111; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1995/1996 C.B.C. Coop. a.r.l


The emperor is portrayed with his head turned to his left and his bust wrapped in a voluminous paludamentum, the mantle worn by the commander of the Roman army. It is clasped by a round fibula on his right shoulder, leaving visible the left shoulder strap of a cuirass and a portion of an undergarment. The bust rests on a moulded foot and a square plinth. Vitellius’s face shows full cheeks and a double chin over a short neck. His smooth forehead is framed by hair combed back at the temples, with a small tuft in the centre.

The features reproduce those of the so-called Vitellius in the National Archaeological Museum in Venice, which came to light in Rome in the early 16th century. For years it was believed to represent the emperor who reigned in 69, given its approximate resemblance to the his effigy on coins, as well as to the stout appearance of the subject, which corresponds closely to Suetonius’s description of a man devoted to the pleasures of the table. The Venetian bust – which is actually the representation of an anonymous figure from the Hadrian era – enjoyed great and lasting popularity among artists, as is proved by the numerous copies made of it in bronze, marble, terracotta and painting over the following centuries (Gaborit 2000, p. 298). Compared to the prototype, the work in question portrays a face with fewer wrinkles and an expression more absorbed than determined: the hardness of the porphyry in which the bust was realised may account for these differences.

The work forms part of a series of 16 busts in porphyry from Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio: they reproduce the Twelve Caesars narrated by Suetonius, with the addition of Nerva and Trajan and second versions of Vitellius and Titus. They were formerly placed in recesses in the gallery and framed by an arrangement of plaster reliefs depicting key episodes in the life of each and personifications of their respective virtues; this decoration was executed by Cosimo Fancelli between 1674 and 1676 (Hibbard 1962). The busts remained here until roughly 1830 (Nibby, p. 360): two years later, they are documented as forming part of the display of Room 4 of Villa Pinciana (Nibby 1832, p. 96). To the series was now added a second bust of Vespasian, sculpted by Tommaso Fedeli in 1619, which had been in the Gladiator Room.

According to documents from the Borghese Archive, the series was composed, as we have seen, of the ‘Twelve Caesars’, with the addition of Nerva and Trajan as well as second versions of Vitellius and Titus (Vatican Secret Archive, AB, b. 5688, no. 15, published in Hibbard 1962, appendix, doc. I, pp. 19-20). In 1830 Nibby saw the series when it was still in Campo Marzio, describing the works as ‘16 busts with heads in porphyry, representing the 12 Caesars and 4 consuls’. Two years later, when they had been moved to Villa Pinciana and displayed along the wall of Room 4, he listed them as Trajan, Galba, Claudius, Otho, Vespasian (two exemplars) Scipio Africanus, Agrippa, Augustus, Vitellius (two exemplars), Titus, Nero, Cicero, Domitian, Vespasian, Caligula and Tiberius; this catalogue was confirmed by the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario.

Yet if this description (which includes a second Vespasian, executed by Tommaso Fedeli in 1619 and transferred from the Gladiator Room) corresponds to the current state of the series, we are left with several uncertainties: to begin with, we must ask what happened to the busts of Caesar, Titus and Nerva, which were present in 1674-76 but do not form part of the series today; secondly, we must wonder who the fourth consul referred to by Nibby in 1830 could be, given that currently only three are represented (Agrippa, Cicero and Scipio Africanus); and finally, we must inquire where the busts of the consuls came from. It is therefore possible that the sculptures displayed in the gallery, which were already present in Palazzo Borghese, did not correspond to those envisioned for the iconographic programme of the vault: this discrepancy may have indeed complicated the identification of the portraits. This theory is supported by the common date of execution of the busts, which critics believe were all sculpted in the same period during the 17th century (Faldi 1954, pp. 16-17; Della Pergola, 1974; Moreno, C. Stefani, 2000, p. 129; Del Bufalo 2018, p. 116).

Sonja Felici

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