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Emperor Hadrian

© 1989 RMN / Patrick Leroy

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Lepetoukha C.

Of the many effigies of the emperor Hadrian that have come down to us, this one stands out because of its material, which makes it one of the most remarkable of the Louvre. The imperial portrait type has not been clearly established, rendering difficult the task of dating the work. The dignified, albeit austere features may point to it being a posthumous portrait made to resemble the prince's successor, Antonius Pius. Alternatively, it may represent the monarch in the early years of his reign.

The emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138)

The wavy hair and voluminous curls on the forehead enable us immediately to identify the figure portrayed: Hadrian was the only emperor to adopt this hair style. This head is all that is left of a colossal statue some 2.6 meters in height. The body would have been idealized, with the emperor shown as a breastplated war chief (a standard type of representation) and not, as has been suggested, as a heroic nude, since the cut of the head eliminates this hypothesis.

Numerous, innovative pictorial representations

The portrait was an important means of political expression in Roman times: statues of the emperor erected in all public places (theater, forum) were for the population of the empire the everyday mark of Roman authority and presence.
Hadrian paid particular attention to his image, as the five hundred or so portraits that have come down to us indicate: with the exception of Augustus, no other emperor has left us as many images of himself.
Moreover, the portraits of Hadrian are of particular interest where the history of Roman portraiture is concerned. From Hadrian's reign onward, sculptors began to show the iris and pupil of the eyes in their marble portraits, no longer by painting them, but by sculpting them. Hadrian, the philhellene, also introduced the custom of wearing a beard, like the Greek philosophers; this fashion was not that of his predecessors but was adopted by almost all the Roman emperors up to the fourth century.

Posthumous portrait or portrait in the early years of Hadrian's reign?

This head is exceptional in both the material used (many Greco-Roman bronzes were melted down and lost forever) and in the type of representation. Portraits of the emperor are generally classified by type, but this effigy does not correspond to any of those defined for Hadrian.
The face, longer than usual, the eyes, wider than was customary, and the hooked, crooked nose were rare, if not novel features among the surviving images of the prince. This was long thought to indicate that it was a posthumous portrait. An idealization of the features of the deified sovereign was combined with an intentional physical resemblance to Hadrian's successor, Antonius Pius (AD 138-161), to underscore the continuity of power. A more recent study questions this theory and prefers to see this Louvre head as a variant of the type developed in the first years of Hadrian's reign, in the period AD 118-121. This new hypothesis illustrates the difficulty of establishing an exhaustive and reliable classificaton of Roman imperial portraits.

Bibliography

Kersauson K. de, "Un Portrait d'Hadrien en bronze," in Revue du Louvre, n 35, 1985, pp. 117-122.
Kersauson K. de, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris, 1996, n 53, pp. 130-13.
Lahusen G., "Dreimal Hadrian," Acta of the 12th International Congress on Ancient Bronzes, Nijmegen 1992, Nijmegen, 1995, pp. 283-289.
Lahusen G., Formigli E., Römische Bildnisse aus Bronze, Munich, 2001, n 115, pp. 192-194.

Technical description

  • Emperor Hadrian

    Circa AD 118-121 or second quarter of second century AD

    Near East (?)

  • Bronze, lost-wax hollow casting, engraved and reworked cold

    H. 43 cm

  • Purchased 1984

    N° d'entrée MNE 793 (n° usuel Br 4547)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor

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