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Small Bust of Serapis

Roman art

This small bust in patinated bronze portrays the god Serapis in the typical iconographic formula, wearing a chiton and mantle, with thick locks of hair falling over his forehead and a beard divided into two parts on his chin.

The figurine was set in a circular niche in a gilt frame embellished with festoons by the goldsmith Luigi Valadier in the eighteenth century. The bronze is part of a group of similar figurines of varying subject kept in the storerooms of the Palazzina Borghese.

The refined piece was probably made as a decorative applique and is datable to the middle of the second century CE.

Object details

circa 150 d.C.
height with modern base cm 5,7

Borghese Collection, documented in 1773. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 2019 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1773 - Luigi Valadier


In this depiction, Serapis is shown without the modius, a tapered basket that he usually wears on his head. His thick hair is divided into locks that fall, parted in the middle, over his forehead, and there is an especially large lock on top of his head. His long hair blends with his luxurious beard, which is twisted into spirals and divided on his chin. The bust stops beneath the figure’s chest. The god is wearing a sleeved chiton and a mantle that is draped over his left shoulder. His head is turned to the right, and he has a broad forehead and clearly defined eyes, which are emphasised by deep incisions. He has a luxurious moustache and a partially open mouth.

The cult of the god Serapis, introduced into ancient Egypt by Ptolemy I Soter between the end of the fourth and beginning of the third century BCE, probably derived from that of a composite divinity, Osiris-Apis, venerated in the ancient city of Memphis (Arena 2001, pp. 297-313). The sovereign adopted it in his own reign as a tutelary deity, protector of Alexandria, which probably contributed to the spread of the god first in Greece and later throughout Rome. According to Malaise, contact with the Roman world came through the negotiatores living on Delos, a hub of eastern trade from 166 to 88 BCE, when the island was abandoned after it was sacked by Mithridates (1972, pp. 362–455). Whereas Coarelli argues that the first manifestations of the cult in Rome, datable to the second century BCE, were linked to the presence of Egyptians in the city (2019, pp. 105–128). During this period, a few of the wealthiest patrician families adopted Serapis as a tutelary deity, in some cases assimilating the figure of sun gods like Jupiter. The cult reached the apex of its popularity in the Imperial period, enjoying favour with the emperor between the first and second centuries CE, taking on the character of an Olympian.

The Borghese bust, which is iconographically very close to a similar one that was found in the Caseggiato dei Molini in Ostia Antica and is now in the Museo Ostiense, is a miniature votive representation of a divinity that was probably used as a decorative applique (Calza, Squarciapino 1962, p. 102). According to Moreno, the circular support added during its restoration is extraneous to the bronze and the sculpture was an ornamental protome for a piece of furniture, datable to the middle of the second century CE.

The small bust, which is kept in the storerooms of the Palazzina Borghese, is part of a group of miniature bronzes of various subject that is not mentioned in the inventories or bibliography relative to the archaeological collection. In 2019, Minozzi published a receipt, dated 1773 and discovered by Gonzàlez-Palacios, for work done by the goldsmith Luigi Valadier on various small bronzes described as ‘alcune figurine accomodate’ (‘a few repaired figurines’), among which she identified the present group (1993, pp. 37, 50). The receipt describes filling in missing parts and attaching the figurines to gilt wooden panels of various shape, which the author attributes to Valadier as well (2019, pp. 192–195). The small bust of Serapis is set in a circular niche in a frame decorated with festoons. EDXRF analysis of the figure for the exhibition Valadier. Splendore nella Roma del Settecento, held in 2019 at the Galleria Borghese, revealed that it is made of patinated quaternary bronze, suggesting an alternative date of the eighteenth century.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • R. Calza, M. Floriani Squarciapino, Museo Ostiense, Roma 1962.
  • M. Malaise, Les conditions de pénétration et de diffusion des cultes égyptiens en Italie, in “Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain”, Leiden 1972, pp. 362-455.
  • A. González-Palacios, Il gusto dei principi. Arte di corte del XVII e del XVIII secolo, Milano 1993.
  • A. Arena, Romanità e culto di Serapide, in “Latomus“, T. 60, Fasc. 2, 2001, pp. 297-313.
  • M. Minozzi, Cornici con applicazioni di bronzetti antichi e moderni, in Valadier. Splendore nella Roma del Settecento, catalogo della mostra (a cura di G. Leardi), Roma 2019, pp. 192-195.
  • F. Coarelli, L’introduzione del culto di Iside a Roma, in “Sacrum Facere. Atti del V Seminario di Archeologia del Sacro. Sacra peregrina. La gestione della pluralità religiosa nel mondo antico”, Trieste 2019, pp. 105-128.
  • Schede di catalogo 12/01008576, P. Moreno 1979; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.