Roman Marble Bust of a Dignitary

Roman · middle of the 3rd century A.D.




H: 56.0 cm (22.04 in)





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The bust represented is a man, his face marked by age, who turns his head to the right and directs his gaze forward. The head, a bit too small, is supported by a well-muscled neck. Its finely modeled and massive bone structure presents a strong jaw ending in a pointed chin. The severe facial expression, emphasized mostly by the modeling of the eye area (the eyes are deeply set), is that of a man used to assume important responsibilities and to command. His age is highlighted by the large bags under his eyes, by a few wrinkles and by the prominent cheekbones.

Despite its exaggerated realism, this image differs from most contemporary portraits by the lack of depth of the incised anatomical details: the small, barely sinuous mouth, the outline of the eyes, the crescentic pupils and the wrinkles resemble light furrows that contrast with the strong features, even caricatural at times, observed on many figures who lived during this period and whose portraits have survived to this day.

An ample surface on the forehead, thin and in very low relief, indicates the hair of a man, who, unlike many of his contemporaries, is beardless. The locks are indicated by simple shallow notches arranged irregularly on the surface of the skull. This austere manner of representing the hair is among the most usual and distinctive features of male images from the 3rd century. For practical reasons certainly, these men, who were often carrier officers, sported a short-cropped hair and/or beard.

The man is dressed in a tunic, the edge of which is visible on the neckline, and in a toga, the archetype Roman cloak that only citizens had the right to wear. The garment that wraps this bust is of a particular type known as toga contabulata, a variant which was most popular in the 3rd century, and allowed to distinguish high ranking figures, as evidenced by the many contemporary representations of emperors with this cloak. The horizontal, thick band that crosses the chest was formed by folding a part of the straight border of the cloth along its length (the umbo).

In spite of a certain resemblance with contemporary imperial portraits, this image probably depicts a private citizen, represented in the realistic and harsh style of his time. Portraits mounted on a bust, typical of Roman art, are, however, rather rare during this period. The stern features of this figure, whose identity is still unknown, and the fact that he wears the toga contabulata singles him out as a high officer or a general, a dignitary rather than a man of letters.

In the Roman art of male portraiture, the fashion of representing images characterized by the realistic shape of the skull and by hard, threatening facial features was started by those known to modern historians as the “Soldier Emperors”, and lasted a few decades: from the end of the Severian dynasty to the accession of Diocletian, between 235 and 284. More than twenty-five emperors, who were generally ruthless military men, promptly assassinated by rival factions, were anointed by the various legions rather than legally elected by the senate, and ruled chaotically the destinies of the Empire at that time. The stylistic development of this bust (treatment of the hair, facial features) corresponds to the male images of the central decades of this century, circa 240-260 A.D.


Surface worn, weathered, and cleaned; a few chips; restoration on the tip of nose (in plaster) and a part of drapery on the proper lower left side (in marble); the hollow inner area filled with plaster. The bust was mounted on a new small cylindrical, molded column.


Art market, prior to the late 19th century;

Ex- Shrubbland Park collection, England, late 19th century; ex- English art market, London, 2006.



The International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show, Park Avenue Armory, New York, September 2014


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