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Roman Iconography (Portraits)

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  • Joe Geranio
    If you love Julio-Claudian Iconography or Roman Iconography, Numismatics, and Julio Claudian history talk betweeen the reigns of Augustus-Nero join at:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 27, 2007
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      If you love Julio-Claudian Iconography or Roman Iconography,
      Numismatics, and Julio Claudian history talk betweeen the reigns of
      Augustus-Nero join at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/julioclaudian/

      Foreward from Roman Portraits - Phaidon Edition-Oxford University
      Press: 1940 (Public Domain)

      Other nations likewise earlier peoples seperated from the Romans by
      hundreds or thousands of years, were aquainted with the art of
      portraiture. The Eygyptians made likenesses of their kings,
      officials,priests and court ladies, magical harbourage for the soul
      which had become homeless after the death of the body; structures of
      hard stone, composed of seperate facets, of signs commemorating what
      was thought essential. Besides this there was a minor art, which
      worked with soft fabrics, producing portraits more natural and less
      stylized, likenesses of peasants, slaves, prisoners and barbarians.
      The Greeks had their art of portraiture, in which a victorious youth
      would lend his features to images of the gods, while the portrait of
      the general, the philosopher, or the poet was fashioned like a sttue
      of the divine, and was given superhuman touches. And just as, for
      the hellenes, the divine remained a generaliation and
      intensification of the human, so did hellenic art retain the
      generalisation of human bodily phenonmena in their quasi-divinity.
      The Greeks did not endeavour to reproduce particualr details, but to
      present a picture in which had been elaborated the idea they
      embodied. Hence arose the contradiction, that the Eygptians, who
      regarded the body as no more than a temporary domicile for the soul,
      and the soul as the only true reality, tried, in their art, to keep
      close to the aspects of the body, whereas the Greeks, for whom the
      body was the only reality and the soul nothing more than a transient
      breath that inspired the body, did not attempt to reproduce a
      fugitive similarity, but to depict an eteranl identity.(1) The
      Greeks idealised the body; the Egyptions the soul.
      In the past two centuries before Christ, upon Asiatic and African
      soil, and especailly in Alexandria, Greek art arrived at its
      satryric drama. The naturalism which the Hellenes had been unable to
      combine with beauty, became now allied to ugliness. They depicted
      old age with its wrinkles and its turgidity, showed withered dryness
      or obesity, deformity and disease, the stages of the struggle with
      death, without poesy and with all repulsive details, its vulgar lack
      of charm, even when their work had sunk to parody and caricature.
      But all these statues and statuettes of street arabs, hunbacked
      beggars, fat a dwarfed women, dropsical persons, elderly drunkards,
      worn out fishermen, have only the physiognamy of their vices and
      sorrows, being embodiments of poverty and senility; they have the
      characteristics of types not of individuals.-The original home of
      true portraiture is the Apennine peninsula; the Etruscans had made
      likenesses by following the style of the East and the eastern
      Mediterranean, the Hellenic and the quasi-Hellenic style; and,
      without undue titvation, they depicted nature in all her whimsies
      and irregularities. The sarcophagus-figures with sharply-cut
      Cypriote features retained an individual character, however much
      distorted. The obese bald men, wearing rings on their podgy fingers
      and garlands round their thick, soft necks, assembled on decorations
      on cinerary urns and reminding us of Trimalchio at his meal, make us
      specualte curiously upon their lives; the terracotta heads of women
      and children are packed with the peculiarities of an individual
      destiny as if they were little biographies. But the Etruscans
      ventured even closer to nature, or did not depart it so far. We see
      this in their terracotta masks, whose precision in respect of chance
      details can only be explained by supposing them to have been
      elaboated from death-masks or modified from casts taken from nature.
      (2) But casts from nature were also one of the roots of Roman
      Portraiture. Every aristocratic or well-to-do middle class Roman
      house in its drawing room, the atrium, a collection of family
      statues, likenesses of ancestors; a museum of " sculptured photos"
      if one may use the term, to distinguish them from intentional workd
      of art-casts in wax, death masks. These wax family portraits were
      kept in cupboards, to be opened on feast days, or when the head of
      the house died. As the dead man lay in state, his face was promplty
      covered with a waxen mask (promptly because of the rapidity with
      which putrefaction sets in a hot southern climate), and a waxen cast
      was prepared portraying the featrures of the deceased. In the
      funeral procession, this would be borne in front of the bier,
      preceded by the crowd of dancers and mimes. The actor who wore the
      recently prepared wax mask represented the dead man, and moved
      onward amid a number of professional mourners. When the processin
      reached the forum, this actor would make a funeral oration, as if it
      had been made by the deceased himself. The crowd of accompanying
      mimes wore the masks of the ancestors(1), which were taken from the
      cupboards, so that athe whole series of ancestors of the deceased
      accompanied the procession and seemed to be listening to adulatory
      oration. Thus, among the Romans, was the art of the portraiture
      combined with that of the mystery play, in which the deceased and
      his fore-fathers appeared in the dress of life, to represent the
      living. Complete statues of the dead were somtimes present, with
      head, hands, and feet made of wax, but the body, made of other
      material, was shown in the rough, though fully clothed.(2) At the
      funeral of Julius Caesar there was a complete wax figure, rotating
      on a pivot, with the face and body showing the three-and-twenty
      stabs. At the funeral procession of Emperor Pertinax, there was a
      borne upon a bier the wax figure of a sleeper representing death as
      sleep-an idea shich recurs in the mortuary monuments of the
      renaissance. To make such wax plastics imperishiable it was needful
      to have bronze casts made of them, and the technique of bronze
      founding was already perfected by the Greeks and Etruscans. In this
      the way the first Roman bronze heads originated as imitations of
      nature, and little scope was left for the scupltor's art with the
      chisel. Imitations in terracotta were likewise an easy substitute.
      (1) Throughout, for the Romans, the mask representing a man's face
      remained of the uttermost importance. In the Flavian period, when
      natualism in sculpture had reached its climax, this still only
      applied to the face, the body being formed in accordance with the
      conventional fourth century types. In contradistintion to this, the
      Greeks always treated the face as part of the whole body; and in the
      spirit they depicted the elevations and depressions of a back and
      prominences of a knee with as much attention to detail as if they
      had been portraying a face. That is why we, trained in another
      school, that of christian art (the heiress of roman art), find the
      heads of Greek statues poor in detatil, whereas the bodies of these
      statues are so packed with detatils that our eyes cannot discover
      them all, but only an exploring finger. This is why, moreover, to us
      Roman statues that have lost their heads seem to lack artistry, and
      we often consider that the most beautiful Greek statues are those
      which remain merely as torsos. The Eygptians, also, in so far as
      they elaborated detatils, gave them only in the face, whereas the
      body was treated diagrammatically.(2) But in their mummy masks, made
      of painted plaster and papier-mache, the Eygptians, from the
      ptolemaic period onward, achieved a verism which can give us an idea
      of that of the lost Roman death-masks. The ruthlessly naturalistic
      marble heads of the republican period, the earliest Roman portraits
      which have come down to us, were obviously direct reproductions of
      wax masks.(3) In the course of four centuries, plastic portariture
      among the Romans underwent many changes in style, but throughout ,
      the realistic trend was preserved. There were two great classicist
      epochs, one in the days of Augustus and the other in the days of
      Trajan. The Greeks were considered their masters by the Romans, who
      collected the works of the Hellenes in the flowering season,
      exhibited them, and often copied them. (1) Greek sculptors worked to
      satisfy the demand of the imperial court, they had their studios in
      Rome and in the provinces, and they took Roman pupils. Their style
      was suited to the wishes of their patrons. Nevertheless Franz
      Wickhoff could write: " The Greeks in Rome would never have shaken
      off this imitative naturalism. It was only when Roman amateurs gave
      up their exclusive patronage of Greek artists and began to give
      commissions to people of their own race, that a change of style
      could take place" (Roman Art, London, 1900, p.46). As an example of
      the Greek share in Roman Portrariture may be mentioned the bust of
      Pompey at Copenhagen (see web. for this photo), which A.W. Lawerence
      (in his Classical Scupture, London, 1923, p. 316) describes
      as "purely Greek". But, for the Romans, realism was not a mere
      popular fashion, as their Graecism was an aristocrataic fashion; it
      suited the tendencies of the national art. THey soon discovered in
      what respect their painted busts of wax and stone fell behind
      nature. In so far as these plastics were based upon wax masks, they
      gave the features a stiffness (no matter whetehr death-masks or life
      masks had been the sources). They reproduced proportions and the
      underlying bony structure with a harsh exactitude, and even
      reproduced chance perculiarities of the surface, such as warts and
      scars; but they failed to reproduce the texture of the skin, the
      mobility of the surfaces, or to disclose the breathing vitality of
      the originals. The Antonine artists (about 160 A.D.), however,
      discovered how to reproduce the texture of the skin. They had
      developed the the technique of impressionism, a deliberate
      inaccuracy and sketchiness, in great measure an indifference to
      detatils of form, so that the onlooker is compelled to fill in
      imaginatively the details shich the artist's chisel and polishing
      have left incomplete. Their sense for the value rough and smooth
      increased. They contrasted the polished marble of the flesh with the
      roughness of the hair, and they left the depth of the mouth rough so
      that shadows might collect there. They worked, indeed, with
      intensified shadows, to produce something intended to be viewd from
      a distance, in accordance with the principles of the illusionist
      style. The black-and -white effects became so powerful, that the
      sculptor often expressly renounced naturalistic tinting.(2) After
      the Flavian epoch, the drill came to be used more and more as a
      tool, for the depiction of mouth and ears, and especially of the
      hair. The fantastic Rococo hair -dressing of women could be
      reproduced by the use of the drill, the tresses being picked out by
      the boring of the holes which cast deep shadows. Since fashions in
      hair-dressing changed rapidly, some busts were provided with
      removable marble wigs. (This begins with Julia Domna, about 200
      A.D.) Towards the middle so the second century A.D., or perhaps even
      earlier, about 130 A.D., during the reign of Hadrian, the expression
      began to be indicated plastically by drilling out he pupils.(1) The
      iris was represented as a segment of a sphere, with depressed
      parallel rings; the pupils were hollows, or sometimes a mere notch.
      Light and shade replaced colour in these representations of the
      eyes. In the later development of the art, the lids were gouged, and
      the pupils were drilled. From the third century onward, the eye
      became more and more the chief feature in representation; it was
      surrealistically enlarged, and borings where made which had the
      desired effect. These various ways of representing the iris, the
      hair, and the beard enable archaeoligists to date a portrait bust;
      but in this matter the shape of the bust is also a help. In the
      course of the imperial epoch the amount of the busts increased. In
      the Julian-Claudian epoch, it was shown only as far down as the
      collarbone; and in the Flavian epoch , it represented shoulders and
      the top of the chest; in the Hadrian and Antonine epochs, it has
      gone so far as to include the greater part of the thorax and the
      upper arms; in the third century, it gave the complete thorax. The
      modern form of plastic portratiure, showing no more than head and
      neck, did not exist in the days of antiquity. The antique heads of
      this sort that we find in our museums were only made to be affixed
      to headless busts or statues. Such partial statues were turned out
      by the mass, the artist in portraiture being commisssioned to add
      the head, and sometimes also the hands and the feet. This practice
      was very general in the middle of the imperial epoch, when it became
      fashionable for the great to have themselves depicted as gods, as
      Apollo and Mars, as Venus and Ceres, as Ariande and Maia. If this is
      an obvious exemplification of Roman vanity, we see vanity still more
      in the eagerness to have as many portraits of oneself as possible.
      The well-to-do had busts made of their friends as presents, or
      promised them as bribes. A rich gentlemen in the third century paid
      for the portrait bust of a vestal virgin, this being given to her in
      return for her patronage when he was elevated to the equestrian
      order. Portrait bust would be given to a man who had spent money
      upon public purposes; because he had entertained the citizens;
      because he had financed plays, animal-baiting, gladatorial shows,
      and chariot races; because he had paid for the sending of the
      embassies. The right to the public exhibition of a statue was
      purchasable in Rome, just as in some countries during the nineteenth
      century titles of nobility were purchasable. But, apart from
      corruption and the conferring of honour, statues and busts were
      multiplied by the thousand. THe guilds gave commissions for the
      portraits of their patrons and patronesses; the towns for musicians,
      pantomimists, athletes, and circus stars; the bronze busts of
      scholars, playwrights, sophists, and leading doctors were placed in
      public libraries and in the market-places. No site was thought
      unworthy of this mark of appreciation nor any considere too good, so
      that the likenesses of gladiators, courtesans, and minions stood in
      the temples among the images of the gods. The number of the statues
      amd busts of the emperors was legion. The erection of these
      memorials began directly a man mounted the throne, so that we have
      numerous likenesses even of caesars whose reign lated no more than a
      few months. Wickhoff remarks that we should make a mistake if we
      should try to study the Roman art of portraiture by looking only at
      the imperial busts, for most of these were produced in dozens of
      replicas by the copyists. Statues and busts of the emperors were
      erected in the temples, and there received divine honours; and there
      were other busts in the exchanges, the shops, and the workshops.
      Medallions with their portraits were placed on the walls of
      goverment buildings and law courts. (1) Ohers were found to be in
      schools, barracks, and prisons. These likenesses were multipled in
      routinist fashion and sent to all the provinces, so that there were
      almost as many if them among the Romans as there are colour prints
      of sovereigns in our own days. Augustus had in Rome eighty statues
      of silver, a good many of gold, equestrian statues, and likenesses
      of him driving a four-in-hand, Thousands were sent to every town of
      the empire. No doubt when a detested ruler died, many of these
      scuptures were destroyed during an outburst of popular wrath, as
      happened after the death of Domitian. Often to save time, or from
      thrift, earllier statues were retouched. Pausanias reports how a
      statue of Orestes was renamed "Augustus"; while Philo informs us
      that event the statues of women were transformed into statues of the
      emperors. Pliny speaks of the refurbishing of old statues by fitting
      them with new heads and writing new inscriptions; and Cicero refers
      to the giving of false names to earlier statues by effacing the old
      names and chiselling new ones.(2) On the other hand, we have to
      remember that not all statues were made during the lifetime of those
      whom they represent, but some of them even centuries later. Thus
      Herodianus informs us that Caracalla had statues of Alexander,
      Sulla, and Hannibal put up. Coins bearing the head of Augustus were
      minted during the time of Tiberius. As material for making the
      statues the Romans used not only marble(3) but also softer
      materials, such as basalt, porpyry, ebony,ivory-besides bronze,
      precious metals, and gold alloyed with silver (which was called
      electron, the word also used for amber). Pausanias, speaks of an
      electron bust of Augustsus at Olympia, but it is not clear from what
      he writes whether this bust was made of amber or of metallic
      electron.-A love of art seems to have been widespread among the
      Romans, so that there were a great many amateur artists, and some of
      these amateurs were emperors. Heliogabalus (HerodianusX,5) sent a
      self-portrait to Rome; Nero, Marcus Aurelius, and Alexander Severus
      were amateur painters; and Valentinian I was a scuptor. The
      paintings of the days of Roman antiquity should be used to throw a
      comparative light upon the sculptured portraits of those days.
      Portraits from El-Fayum, most of them belonging to the second
      century A.D., have little to do with the matter, for, though they
      date from the Roman epoch, they were not painted by Romans. More
      useful, therrefore, are the portraits of Proculus, the baker and his
      wife, and certain mosaics (see Roman portraits-Phaidon Edition).
      Though few portraits have survived , we know that a great many were
      painted, especially for use as the title-pages of books, but also
      other portraits of poets, scholars, and artists. Varro made a
      collection of 700 portraits. We read of a colossal portrait of Nero
      (Pliny XXV,51), which was 120 ft. high; also of portraits of
      courtesans and of betrothed princesses. Lucian tells us that ladies
      insisted upon flattering portraits. In the days of Pliny there were
      galleries filled with painted portraits. Still, so few of these
      remain that for the pictorial history of the Roman people and its
      rulers during four centuries we depend almost exclusively upon
      sculptures. Between Hellenic portraiture and Roman portraiture
      therre is as wide a gap as between the Acanthian capital and the
      plant sculptures of the Ara Pacis. The Romans tried to make fidelity
      to nature a part of their art. Portraiture is always regarded as the
      highest peculiar development of Roman art-with the proviso that
      modern "classicism" from the renaissance on into the eighteenth
      century clung to Hellenising and Baroque statues of the emperore,
      whereas the close of the nineteenth century , which was the period
      of impressionism (and of Wickhoff), preferred the illusionist
      portraits of the Flavian epoch and of the barbarian emperors; until
      our own time (since Riegl), when expressionism developed or art
      became unnatural and the portraits of the latest epoch of ancient
      Rome were more in vouge. Two recent writers may be quoted to show
      their estimates of Roman portraitrue. Wickhoff writes; "One merit
      has never been denied to Roman art, and that is the excellence of
      its portraiture. Who has not seen, in its collection of antiques,
      heads from the period of Vespasian to Trajan whose striking
      lifelikeness and apparently superficial technique, adopted for a
      distinct purpose, puts one in mind of the best portraits of
      Velazquez and Frans Hals" (op. cit. pp. 17-18). In another place
      Wickhoff writes that portraits whose boldness in technique outdoes
      that of the early painters of the Netherlands and Spain are
      described in the catalouges as "hasty work" because the critics
      failed to recognise the touch of an experienced master who, thus
      showing his vast experience, with broad strokes of the chisel
      created vivid pictures in shich his genius manifested itself so
      easily that he almost seemed to be at play. Gisela Richter describes
      Roman portrariture as "the natural expression of the Roman genius";
      and in another place she says, " In one branch art, however, their
      own native qualities helped the Romans to achieve real greatness,
      viz. that of portraiture". LONDON, JULY 1940- L. GOLDSCHEIDER.
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