This wonderfully individualized terracotta bust of a man is the product of a unique and tumultuous time in Roman history. From his neat, close-cropped hairstyle and the straps running over his shoulders, we can deduce that this is a bust of a citizen from the time of the soldier-emperors during the ‘Anarchy of the third century’; a time that saw the end of the first period of Imperial rule, leaving behind all vestiges of the Republican leadership that birthed the empire.
The Bust in Detail
This diminutive bust is molded and sculpted out of fine-grained, tan terracotta that was then fired at a very high temperature, giving a slightly glossy surface. The man depicted is middle-aged and rather stern. His short, wavy hair is receding and tufts slightly at his temples. The sideburns are long but thin and trail onto his cheeks. His forehead is low with a pronounced, straight brow, furrowed through the centre by a prominent vertical wrinkle. His eyes, with their incised pupils, look upwards, focusing on a point in the distance and giving the bust a pensive look. The nose is long, thin, and slightly curved, while the small, full mouth is slightly parted. The garment is adorned with a thick strap - probably meant to be leather - across one shoulder, indicating the presence of a military uniform.
The piece is in very good condition; aside from the missing portion of the chest, it appears to be intact. The smooth edges that remain suggest that this was meant to be a solitary bust, as opposed to part of a larger statue.
The Romans had a long and well-developed tradition of smaller scale portraiture. Whether it was in the form of intaglios set in rings or brooches, or smaller scale portrait busts in terracotta, bronze, or marble, Roman society encouraged the promotion of self-image. This was coupled with the advent of true portraiture in the late first century BC during the time of the Republic. Drawing on the techniques of Classical sculpture, emphasis was put on verisimilitude and psychologically loaded representations, as opposed to the idealized faces of Greek art.
The emperor and the imperial family were the ultimate tastemakers of their time. Whatever style the imperial court preferred was soon copied by those looking to curry favour with the upper ranks in a show of admiration and solidarity. Thus, our terracotta bust may very well have been commissioned by a Roman nobleman, either a military officer or someone affecting a military background to show a connection with the soldier-emperors of his time. The style of this piece is firmly rooted in the political and artistic upheavals of the third century AD, which saw the rise of military coups and frank battles for power that did away with any pretensions of a connection with the philosophical ideals of the founding Roman Republic. Hair and beards became short and tidy; military costumes and trappings were the norm. The expressions have a grim toughness to them rather than the dreamy, idealized faces of the previous era, reflecting the violence and turmoil experienced by the empire during this time.
The lack of a beard on our terracotta - as well as his double chin, hairstyle, and curved nose - bears a resemblance to images of emperor Valerian, who ruled from AD 253-260. His portraiture breaks somewhat from that of his predecessors in its slightly longer, more volumetric hair and clean-shaven face.Similar features present themselves in the only known portrait head of Valerian at the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. One can clearly see the rather stern, disciplined personality captured by the artist, qualities that are in keeping with the image of a military man.
Swiss Art Market, 2000.
Pierre Bergé & Associés, 17 June 2010, no 354.