Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze in the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Edited by Paul Zanker
Metropolitan Museum/Yale University Press
296pp, 395 colour illustrations
Hardback, £45/$65

The Senate of Rome sentenced traitors, those who had disgraced the state and sometimes also those who had offended the emperor, to damnatio memoriae, ('condemnation of memory'), an official amnesia, in which the human image was scrubbed or hammered from the historical record. When Caracalla murdered his brother and co-emperor Geta in AD 211 – Geta was stabbed to death by centurions in his mother's arms – the damnatio erased Geta's image so successfully that only his coins show what he looked like during his year as emperor.

Since its founding in 1879, New York's Metropolitan Museum has collected more than 17,000 pieces of Greek and Roman sculpture. Roman Portraits, a lavish and beautifully illustrated guide to the collections is a preservatio memoriae. The Romans, by adopting the Greek style in sculpture in order to preserve the images of their gods, emperors and patrician families, preserved Greek techniques, images and faces. 

When Augustus restored the forms of the Republic in AD 27, he commissioned a portrait statue of himself as princeps. The statue, known as the Prima Porta type after its discovery there in 1863 and now in the Vatican Museums, reflects Augustus' metempsychosis from Octavian Caesar into emperor. In earlier portraits, Augustus' expression is emotional, the representation bears traces of the naturalism of the late Republican period. In the Prima Porta marble, Augustus' expression is neutral – like a fair judge, or an unchanged principle of rule. The features of his ageless face are based upon Greek sculptures from the 5th century AD. This is a portrait of a historical position – the imperial duty to be august, the need to marshal historical authority.

There is no surviving written account of the process by which an imperial image was commissioned and its 'prototype' disseminated. Zanker suggests that a 'court sculptor' made the prototype under close instruction from the sitter. The emperors, despite their incipient divinity, seem to have paid very human attention to their age and their 'new hairdo or type of beard'. Perhaps surprisingly, sculpture workshops made the replicas without close supervision from the imperial house. Though no prototypes have been identified, archaeologists can trace the reproduction process by mapping small deviations in the copies.

Political history sometimes caused larger deviations in the processes of production and memory. Three of the Met's portraits of Augustus are of the Prima Porta type. All three were created posthumously, early in the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54). These three heads began as portraits of Caligula, who deserved the dubious honour of being the first emperor to receive the sentence of damnation memoriae. Many of Caligula's heads were reworked into those of Augustus, now a state god, Divus Augustus, or Claudius. In the nose and left eye of the Met's bust of emperor Severus Alexander (AD 222–35), smashed with an axe after his assassination, we see the fall from power as the fall from memory. 

There are plenty of mortals among the emperors and generals. The unnamed speak for themselves, and often more clearly than the great. The sculptor of Bust of an Older Man (circa AD 100) nods to idealisation (there are hints of Nerva and Trajan in the physiognomy), but the signs of ageing are too explicit. There are deep circles under his eyes, and a hint of a stoop in his neck. His thinning hair is combed forward in the 'fork' and 'tongs' style, unlike Trajan who, blessed with more follicular coverage, attempted an imperial pudding basin look.

The balance of resolve and decay are all too human. In Roman Portraits, the human personality emerges from the stylised image, and the stroke of the sculptor and the axe contend for memory.
Dominic Green

 

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