A fragment from a life-sized head, showing in fine detail the right earlobe and its constituent parts, including the outer helix and lobule, then moving progressively inwards, depicting the scapha, antihelix, fossa triangularis, tragus, anti-tragus, and finally, the deeply recessed concha, which is punctuated to convey the visual progression towards the inner ear. Its configuration is therefore three-dimensional and realistic, in a period when art was moving towards abstraction and schematization, as indicated by the coiffure. Part of this is preserved along with the neck.
The date of the fragment can be gauged by the style of the hair, which is carefully worked to produce a series of long, curling tufts with modest incisions. In its original realization, the piece would have been an integral part of an imperial personage, most likely an emperor. This contrasts with the coiffure on the iconic bronze head of Augustus, discovered at Meroë in the Sudan in 1910, in the collection of the British Museum (Inv. 1911,0901.1, 27-25 BC). On this example the locks of hair are ordered in the canonical Julio-Claudian formula, parting left and right with a soft realism, and the earlobe is predictably realistic in its details.
Something of the evolution of hairstyle may be gleaned from the head of emperor Hadrian discovered in the Thames near London Bridge in 1834, also displayed in the British Museum (Inv. 1848,1103.1, AD 117-138). The hair is ordered into tight circular curls and the earlobe is abstract and somewhat hollow in appearance. This configuration is also broadly true of later portraits, notably the celebrated Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museums, Rome (Inv. MC3247, AD 161-180). A provincial style may, perhaps, also be ruled out, since preserved examples tend to blend Roman classicism with local stylistic traditions. This is well expressed in a head of Marcus Aurelius discovered during the 1970s near Brackley in Northamptonshire, and is especially stylized in the Celtic tradition, with lentoid eyes and freely geometricized curls of the hair, the ears are bland and featureless. The head belongs to the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Inv. AN2011.46, AD 161-180) and is thought to have been commissioned by the patron of a luxurious Roman villa near the place of its discovery.
These comparisons indicate that the present fragment is later in date, possibly Severan. Coin portraits of Severus Alexander depict the emperor with well-modeled earlobes and a hairstyle reminiscent of the visible coiffure of our piece. This is also true of the bronze portrait head in the Museum of Dion at Ryakia in Macedonia (AD 222-235) and a second example in the Museum Carnuntinum near Vienna. However, the style is also expressed in the features of the Soldier Emperors, whose chaotic rule was ushered in after the assassination of Severus Alexander.
It was custom to place imperial bronze portraits in the public spaces of Roman cities across the empire as a conspicuous reminder of the might of the ruling emperor, a message expressed to citizens and ruling officials alike, and this is perhaps the best explanation for the original setting of the present fragment, an original component of a life-size emperor portrait, which would have been viewed by countless people who lived and died under the Caesars, in a forum or other civic building such as an amphitheatre, bath-house or theatre.
For a study on the Meroë head, T. Opper, The Meroë Head of Augustus (London: The British Museum Press, 2014).
The bronze head of Hadrian is featured in T. Opper, Hadrian: empire and conflict (London: The British Museum Press, 2008), pp. 80-85, fig 6.4.
A study on the head of Marcus Aurelius in the Ashmolean Museum is given in S. Worrell, ‘Roman Britain in 2009’, Britannia 41 (2010), 421-424.
For the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museums, C. Parisi Presicce and A. Mura Sommella, The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Campidoglio (Silvano: Cinisello Balsamo, Milano, 1990).
The bronze of Septimus Alexander at the Museum Carnuntinum is examined in E.R. Varner, Mutilation and transformation: damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture (Leiden: Brill, 2004), pp. 196-197).
Jacques (1907-1989) and Henriette Schumann (1911-2002).
Anonymous sale; Christie's, Paris, 30 September 2003, lot 97.
European Private Collection, 2003-2015.