Roman bronze bust
Period: 1st century A.D.
Dimensions: Height: 16 cm
The surface is covered with a partially flaked, beautiful green patina. The eyes were inlaid, but are now lost.
A bust probably cast in the lost wax process, whose interior is hollow. Eyes were made separately, certainly of another material (glass paste?). Would have surmounted a small column or pillar.
Rectangular in its lower part, the statue develops in the bust of an adolescent with a rounded face and a long hair, his gaze directed downwards and his head slightly tilted to the right shoulder. The partially chubby shapes of the cheeks and of the chin, as well as the absence of any trace of beard, indicate that the figure was barely older than a child.
He is dressed in a tunic (probably a Greek chiton), forming circular folds on the neckline, and of a cloak furrowed by vertical folds: only a small part of this himation (the ancient Greek cloak) is visible, because of the angular outline of the shoulders, which are lightly marked.
This bust is of a good artistic quality, as evidenced not only by the delicate face, but also by the richly embellished hair and by the careful rendering of the plant garland. The figure can be identified as a young Dionysos (Bacchus to the Romans), the god of the vine, wine and, more generally, of vegetation and fertility. The presence of the thick wreath of ivy encircling his head like a headband is the main attribute that leads us to this identification; besides, the god wears two bunches of grapes, hanging from his ears like big earrings, which emphasize the distinctive features of the deity.
Chronologically, this bust can be dated to the early Roman Imperial period, although stylistically the features and the type of the representation generically imitate schemes that would have been created still in the 4th century B.C.
As the name implies, Hermaic pillars – which can be considered a symbol of happiness and abundance – were usually dedicated to the god Hermes, a protector of travelers and traders. His image, in the form of a quadrangular block sometimes summarily carved and topped with the god’s head (mid-height of the pillar were generally his genitals) originally stood on the cross-roads: it served to indicate which direction to take and to sanctify the places. Other examples would be found outside the doors of private homes or even inside the houses.
In the Classical period already, other figures surmounted the herms and, in particular, the head (or mask) of Dionysos: pillars in his image are largely attested in the Greco-Roman iconography, both in stone sculpture and in the minor arts (ceramics, statuettes, paintings, etc.). Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, these busts took the form of many other mythological or mortal figures: satyrs, silenes, Pan, Herakles but also philosophers, statesmen, etc. Double herms are also attested (the two heads representing a common theme, such as two philosophers for instance, are soldered in the back).
Bronze examples of reduced size like ours (which can be considered as luxury items) would occupy a niche or a small domestic shrine, probably for prophylactic purposes, such as guardians and at the same time symbols of good luck. It may reasonably be thought that such Dyonisiac sculptures were placed on a table or in the dining room of private houses and that they were especially honored at banquets.
On the iconography of the young Dionysos and his herms, see:
Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae (LIMC), vol. III, Zurich-Munich, 1986, s.v. Dionysos, nos. 97 ff. (youthful Dionysos), nos. 157-158 and nos. 161 ff.; s.v. Dionysos/Bacchus, nos. 1 ff.
On herms in general, see:
WREDE H., Die antike Herme, Mainz/Rhine, 1985.
MITTEN D.G. et al., Master Bronzes from the Classical World, Mainz/Rhine, 1967, no. 294.