This fine portrait bust of a youth is depicted wearing a thick tunic with deeply carved rich folds. The boy’s cheeks, chin, lips, nose and hair are very carefully modelled and detailed considering the small scale of the sculpture. The pupils of his eyes are drilled. The bust is truncated at an angle and a small rectangular hole, for attachment, is bored into the flat polished surface.
His hair is masterfully modelled as thick individualized, curling locks over his forehead and temple. These rich curls flow over the ears and on to the nape of his neck. A very thick “starfish” arrangement of hair at the crown of his head creates a rich spiral pattern of hair that very carefully merges with the locks surrounding his forehead and the nape of his neck.
The treatment of the hair helps to date the portrait to about AD 200 -220. On the one hand the rich sculptural texture of the hair recalls the handling of hair during the time of the middle Severan era. An excellent comparison can be made to portrait of man from this era, now in Kassel, which features the same very rich sculptural execution of the hair, sculpted into thick overlapping locks around the head and capped with a star-fish pattern on their crown.
On the other hand, the present youth’s plump cheeks, short upturned nose and capricious mouth and the thick head of the hair recall portraits of a youthful Caracalla. These portraits of Caracalla (ca, AD 198-204) show the young Emperor’s hair as a mass of short, thick curls over his forehead and temple that join a thick series of curls on the nape of his neck, such as an example from Toulouse.
Small portrait busts made from precious stone, like this example, are rare. There are only a handful of others including two in the Cabinet des Medailles, Paris and one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The two versions in the Paris are thought to be portraits of Constantine the Great, and the specimen in Boston maybe Vespasian. Like the present bust, these three examples are drilled/notched with a hole at the back, indicating that they were attached to an object. With their angled back, they likely served as a type of imago clipeata; a portrait that projects at an angle from a circular frame, like a shield. Imago clipeatae were used by Romans for a wide variety of purposes, for example on sarcophagi (Fig. 8), military trappings (Fig. 9), public (Fig. 10) and private memorials and as a decorative element in jewellery and silver vessels (Figs. 11-12).
Regarding the present head, its small size, fragile nature and precious material would negate it being used in a utilitarian way, on the contrary, it would have been held in high esteem and prized by its owner. As such, it may have been displayed privately in domestic setting like an altar, the lararium. In Rome, the owner of a house regularly worshipped and burned incense before miniature portraits of the imperial family, his forefathers and important relatives. This head may have been set into a frame and placed within this type of household shrine for veneration. Perhaps it may have resembled a rectangular bronze plaque with a bust of Augustus or mounted in a circular shield, using a phalera as a type example. (Figs. 13-14).
In summary, this chalcedony portrait bust of a youth is fine example of costly Roman klein kunst, dating to about AD 200 - 220. It is a rare item, since there are so few still in private hands.
Agora Antiques, Toronto, Canada, before 1973, (inv. 086, no 1).
Private Collection, Connecticut, 1973-2018.