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Portrait of Vitellius

Fancelli Cosimo

(Rome 1618 - 1688)

Executed by Cosimo Fancelli in 1676 as an addition to a series of portraits of Roman emperors that he had included in the decoration of the Galleria degli Specchi in the Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio, the bust reproduces the features that were for a long time erroneously attributed to Aulus Vitellius Germanicus. The face with the drooping cheeks and double chin, the tight lips and furrowed eyebrows are a direct quotation from the ancient model, whose extraordinary success with artists and patrons was determined by the fact that a Vitellius was already present in the series.



Object details

porphyry and oriental alabaster
altezza 88 cm

Created for the Borghese in 1676 (H. Hibbard, Palazzo Borghese Studies. II, the Galleria, in “The Burlington magazine”, 104, 1962, doc. I, p. 20). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 49, no. 111. Purchased by the State, 1902.


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


Emperor Vitellius has his head turned to the left, the direction of his gaze emphasised by the presence of the incised irises. His face has drooping cheeks and a double chin. Tight lips and slightly frowning eyebrows convey his strong-willed and determined nature. He wears the lorica, the short cuirass that covered only his chest and abdomen, decorated in the centre of the bust with the face of a monster with small wings at the temples and an open mouth to show his tongue, reminiscent of the depictions of Medusa widespread in the Greek and Etruscan cultures. A robe with short frayed sleeves is visible under the armour.

The bust reproduces the features of the so-called “Vitellius” from the Archaeological Museum in Venice, found in Rome in the early 16th century and long mistakenly believed to be the portrait of Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, who reigned for a few months in 69. It was erroneous due to a certain resemblance to the emperor's likeness on coinsand his plumpness, which corresponded well with the portrait of a man devoted to the pleasures of life, left by Suetonius.

This is most probably the second bust of Vitellius, sculpted by Cosimo Fancelli in 1676 to be included in the decoration of the Galleria degli Specchi in the Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio. From a reading of the payment document (Hibbard 1962, doc. I, p. 20), the artist's intervention would seem to have been limited to remaking the bust, but the executional characteristics of the head and presence of the iris - a unique case in the series - would seem to confirm that Fancelli executed the entire group, as already suggested by Hibbard.

The work is part of a series of sixteen porphyry and alabaster busts from the Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio: reproducing the Twelve Caesars described by Suetonius with the addition of Nerva and Trajan, a second Vitellius (executed by Cosimo Fancelli) and another Titus, they were placed within the niches of the gallery and surrounded by a decoration with stucco reliefs depicting outstanding episodes from the life of each and personifications of their respective virtues, executed by Cosimo Fancelli between 1674 and 1676 (Hibbard 1962). In this location, the series is documented until 1830 (Nibby, p. 360), before appearing among the works exhibited in Room 4 of the Villa Pinciana in 1832 (Nibby 1832, p. 96), with a different composition and the addition of another Vespasian, executed by Tommaso Fedeli in 1619, from the Gladiator Room.

According to the documents in the Borghese Archive the series consisted, as mentioned, of the Twelve Caesars with the addition of Nerva and Trajan, a second Vitellius and another Titus (ASV, AB, b. 5688, no. 15, published in Hibbard 1962, appendix, doc. I, pp. 19-20). In 1830 Nibby identifies them - still in Campo Marzio - as 16 busts with porphyry heads, representing the 12 Caesars and 4 consuls, and two years later, when they were displayed along the walls of Room 4, he lists them as Trajan, Galba, Claudius, Otho, Vespasian (2 examples), Scipio Africanus, Agrippa, Augustus, Vitellius (2 examples), Titus, Nero, Cicero, Domitian, Vespasian, Caligula and Tiberius. If the last quotation - including a second Vespasian, executed by Tommaso Fedeli in 1619, from the Gladiator Room - is the one that corresponds to the current state of the series (and is confirmed in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833), it remains difficult to understand what happened to the portraits of Caesar, Titus and Nerva, present in 1674-76 and no longer traceable in the current series, who the fourth consul indicated by Nibby in 1830 was, since today there are only three (Agrippa, Cicero and Scipio Africanus) and what the provenance of the latter is. It therefore seems conceivable that the busts used in the gallery - which were already present in Palazzo Borghese - did not correspond to the figures envisaged in the iconographic programme of the vault and that this discrepancy later complicated the identification of the portraits. Supporting this hypothesis is also the dating of the group, which critics agree was executed at the same time, in 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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