The Roman Portraiture

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The Roman society, “obsessed” with images, reflection of a competition played even at the figurative level, produced from the 4th century BC to the 5th century a multitude of works in the most disparate materials.

The many effigies are not just of emperors, but also of “private citizens”. How do we recognize them today?

It is possible to identify emperors (and their families) thanks to comparisons made with coins: their official nature is guaranteed by the transmission of numerous replicas. Together, mimicry and hair served as a communication strategy. Ascending to power and being confirmed in a role depended on constructing an image (just as it does today).

How can we distribute the portraits of “private citizens” on a chronological grid? The use of a drill to indicate the pupil is a novelty observable from 130 AD onwards. Also, the dates can be determined using stylistic exams.

Many portraits of “private citizens,” of all ages, reveal great affinities with portraits of emperors. These affinities are not limited to the hair, but extend to even to facial features.
How closely did the effigies objectively approach the faces of the persons portrayed?

One must not consider the smoothest and most youthful faces as being impersonalized and, on the contrary, consider wrinkled faces as being more realistic: every creation originates from the fusion of fidelity to the truth and artistic intervention, the latter often based on the commissioner’s desires.

Women, for example, demanded that the painters depict them as being beautiful. This is confirmed by the many effigies that demonstrate pulcherrimae feminae.

The body played a great role in the communicative impact; for example, a loricate statue was fitting for the representation of emperors, while nude statues were used to emphasize the charisma of those portrayed.

This throng of images was committed to perpetuating the memory of individuals, establishing a strong tie with the represented person; a constraint that not even the diverse removals, elaborations and mutilations, perpetrated from the 3rd century AD onwards, could completely break.

Caterina Mascolo

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