The “Sangiorgi” Roman Chalcedony Portrait of a Contemporary of Trajan

Roman · Trajan Period, beginning of the 2nd century A.D.




H: 8.7 cm





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This extraordinary bust was carved from a small block of opaque beige chalcedony and crossed by a few slightly darker veins and it represents a middle-aged man under the reign of Emperor Trajan. As is often for this kind of object, it is supported by a small chalice formed of three acanthus leaves. This work has been known to archaeological critics for several decades.

The man, whose identity it is currently unknown, wears a tunic and a cloak, which descends from the shoulders to the chest. The neckline is indicated by a raised edge, while incised lines mark the folds of the fabrics.

The hair, cut very short, covers the character’s head like a skullcap. The type and treatment of the locks confirm the dating of the bust: they are rendered by a series of regular incisions which go from the center of the head forward and form a small stiff fringe on the top of the forehead, as is seen on the male portraits from the beginning of the 2nd century A.D..

The face is elongated, with a strong and prominent chin. The features are rendered in a precise and very linear way: the deeply marked wrinkles on the forehead, on the cheeks and near the eyes, reflect on the one hand the advanced age of the man and on the other, a strong character, accustomed to commanding and perhaps directing an important household in contemporary society.

The miniaturized portraits carved in precious materials certainly enriched the gallery of family images and ancestors that each person had to keep in one of the most important rooms of the domu, such as the tablinium (the “office” of the master of the house, which also contained the family archives) or as the triclinium (the banquet hall). Their size made it easy to move them and display them in the most appropriate places.


Complete and in good condition; back smooth and polished but not patterned.


Formerly, G. Sangiorgi collection (1886-1965), Rome; thence by descent


JUCKER H., The portrait in the leaf calyx; History and meaning of a Roman portrait form , Olten – Lausanne, 1961, p. 76, no . 17, pl. 25

MEGOW W.-R., Cameos from Augustus to Alexander Severus , Berlin, 1987, no E4, p. 308, pl. 41, 9.10