Veristic Roman Portraits
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Published: Fri, 19 May 2017
Roman works of art, from both Republic and Empire, are deeply influenced by traditions and aesthetic elements of other cultures. Many art historians have interpreted that much of visual arts produced in ancient Rome are derivative of Classical and Hellenistic Greek styles. Other interpretations have shown that Roman art also draws on Etruscan and even Egyptian visual cultures. While such analyses are valid, it should be noted that Roman artists did not merely emulate the styles of earlier cultures, but they synthesized the diverse elements and manipulated them to create a uniquely Roman style. This distinctive and syncretic Roman attitude led to the emergence of verism in Roman Republican portraitures in the beginning of first century B.C.E. Veristic portaitures had striking individualistic features that showed human interiority. They demanded intellectual engagement of the viewers because Roman portraitures were a complex system of conventions that sought to convey a message. This paper analyzes verism in Roman portraitures and discusses how a set of formal elements are dictated to serve a communicative purpose.
Before embarking on our discussion of veristic Roman portraitures, we should first question what the definition of ‘verism’ is. It is a term that describes hyperrealism that departs from idealizing tendencies. Veristic portraitures were popular during the Republican period, and they served to commemorate civil virtue. Veristic portraits emphasize individualistic and often unattractive features of the subject. They portray mature men, and marks of age were acutely depicted, such as wrinkles, moles, scars and other imperfections. The emphasis on seniority was highly placed because old men who have dedicated their lives to the civic good attained noble positions in public office. It is also because signs of aging skin, such as furrows and creases, were loyal souvenirs of having tolerated the psychological strains of a society at times of chaos and civil war. These were desirable characteristics of a civic ruler because they were associated with wisdom, responsibility, and loyalty to the state. Perhaps, the best way to define verism is by contrasting it with idealism, a style that is primarily associated with Hellenistic Greek period. Idealism is the opposite of verism, and it tends to idealize the subject by exaggerating the characteristics as it seeks to relate the subject to a divine figure. Although Romans borrowed the concept of portraiture from Greek Hellenistic art, Roman portraitures per se are visibly different from Greek portaits.
In contrast to Roman tradition of depicting men in their later life, Hellenistic tradition leaned toward representing rulers as being youthful. This is primarily because youthful if not god-like images of kings free of any imperfections were the sources of admiration and adoration to the populace. A famous example is the marble portraiture of Alexander the Great (fig. 1). Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 B.C.E.) wanted to immortalize his power by making a permanent visual image of himself. He commissioned artists, especially Lysippos, to sculpt his portraits out of marble, a medium probably chosen for its durability. The Marble Portrait of Alexander the Great is about 37 cm in height. It was created between 2nd-1st century B.C.E. during the Hellenistic period. It was believed to be found in Alexandria, the capital city of the Hellenistic dynasty. The portrait head has a curly hair that falls on both sides of the face. Its surface is very smooth and the softness of the skin is almost tangible. It has a slight hint of eyebrows, and its eyes are directed upwards and are intently gazing at something. It has a relatively sharp nose and its lips are depicted with precision. The curved lines of both the upper and lower lips are acutely portrayed. It has a smooth jaw line that makes an elegant U shape that is offset by a solid neck. Its head is slightly tilted upwards. Overall, the sculptor depicted Alexander the Great as a youthful king without any physical blemishes. Unlike Roman Republican sculptors who were veristic in style and were humble in depicting the subject, the Hellenistic sculptor glorified and idealized the subject in an attempt to liken the subject to a god.
Arguably, one of the most noticeable differences between veristic works and works of other styles are their treatment of the subject. Artists from different cultures employed different styles to communicate a distinct set of messages. The portraiture of Vespasian is a good example of a veristic style portraiture that conveyed a political message (fig. 2). It is a marble head of Vespasian, the Roman Emperor who ruled from 69 C.E to 78 C.E., who was also the founder of the Flavian dynasty. It was created between 69-79 C.E. during the Imperial Roman period, and came from Ostia, Italy. The sculptor clearly depicted Vespasian as an old man, with palpable signs of aging. The portrait head has a balding or a receding hairline, with wrinkles on the forehead. The eyebrows are meticulously carved with detail given to each individual strand of hair. The eyes have soft almond shapes with crow’s feet in the ends. There are marks of sagging under the eyes, and wrinkles are all over the face. The tip of the nose is round and big, and its lips are very thin and are tightly closed. Further individualistic features are accurately recorded, such as Vespasian’s slightly protruding chin. Like the Hellenistic portrait head of Alexander the Great, this marble head also has a solid neck, although it is marked with deep wrinkles. Vespasian is represented as a man in his later life with unflattering marks that are clearly depicted rather than being fixed up and perfected. This is because Romans valued individualism over idealism, and departure from idealisitic qualities meant absence of pretense and deception. Vespasian’s veristic portrait is full of conventions that celebrate the humble, wise, and responsible characteristics of a well-qualified ruler. Borrowing the words from Nodelman, this veristic portrait is a “system of signs” that is carefully “condensed into the image of a human face.” Conceptually, Vespasian’s marble portrait head can be seen as a mosaic, in which desirable physical features are juxtaposed and carefully fitted together to create an image of a noble ruler.
The Primaporta Augustus departs from the veristic style, and falls back on the Hellenistic style of idealizing and perfecting tendencies. It is a 6 feet 8 inch tall marble statue depicting Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire (fig. 3). It was created during early 1st century C.E., and it was found in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Italy. Augustus (reigned 25 B.C.E. to 17 C.E.) deliberately avoided the veristic style that Republic so adored and celebrated, because the humble and honest manner of veristic portraiture would not effectively communicate the youthful energy of Augustus to the audience. Augustus did not want to be seen as a weak, aging man or as a ruthless dictator, but rather as a young and energetic emperor who is about to
bring change to the Roman Empire at the time of unstability. The statue has a short, curly hair and its face is void of any marks; its skin is smooth and radiant. Its right arm is raised, which is a gesture of address. This gesture depicts Augustus as a powerful public figure who has the charisma to lead the public. The statue is wearing a battle dress that presents Augustus not only as a civic ruler but also as a military commander. It is standing in contapposto pose, in which the weight of the body is shifted to one foot while the relaxed other rests. The particular stance, short hair, and smooth face strongly evoke Polykleitos’ Doryphoros (fig. 4). Doryphoros is rendered in Classical Greek style and Augustus intentionally chose to echo the Classical style in a calculated attempt to portray himself as the conqueror. On the bottom of Augustus’ right leg is Cupid riding on a dolphin. The presence of Cupid, the son of Venus, is important because it serves both a functional and symbolic role. It functions to provide support to Augustus’ right leg, but also serves as a visual reminder of Augustus’ divine lineage. Lastly, Augustus is shown barefoot. This was done to link Augustus to a god. Ultimately, these various elements come into play to shape Primaporta Augustus as an effective political propaganda to send a message that Augustus’ rise to power will bring stability to the Empire at the time of civil war and chaos.
The desire of both the commissioners and the sculptors to condense various meanings into a portrait is clearly reflected by the distinct styles and manners in which the subject is treated. Roman sculptors, as well as artists of other cultures, clearly had a range of styles to choose from, and they artfully, effectively and quite beautifully utilized the chosen styles to convey certain messages to the viewers. Through such efforts, portraits become a complex system of signs and symbols that form a “language in which the history of a whole society can be read.” A Hellenistic style with an idealizing tendency was chosen to glorify the subject and to demand imperial and divine exaltation from the populace. On the other hand, a Roman veristic style with emphasis on physical imperfections and marks of aging was chosen to denote a conscious departure from illusions and vanity. It was chosen either to gain public votes to win a noble position in a society or to reflect noble virtues of an emperor, such as responsibility, wisdom, faithfulness, and selfless devotion.
Ultimately, veristic Roman portraits were visual and symbolic expressions of the subject’s interiority. Various conventions were orchestrated by motives to put across political messages. The portraits were not merely well crafted works of art to be passively enjoyed, but were montages of meanings to be actively interpreted. Both intellectual and psychological engagement of viewers were demanded to understand the messages that Roman artists so passionately celebrated.
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