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Work Messalina

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Messalina

© Photo RMN / Patrick Leroy

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This double portrait represents Messalina, wife of the emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), with her young son Britannicus. Messalina was notorious for her wantonness and ascendancy over her husband; here, she is portrayed as a respectable Roman matron, in a work comparing her directly with a Greek goddess: the mother and child image was inspired by a famous sculptural group of Eirene and Ploutos (Peace and Wealth), created by the Greek sculptor Kephisodotos during the fourth century BC.

Messalina holding Britannicus

The statue was found near of Rome, and adorned the gardens of the palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV before entering the Louvre after the Revolution. It represents Messalina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, who reigned from AD 41 to 54. The young woman is holding her son Britannicus, who sits on her left arm, his legs wrapped in drapery. The little boy (whose head is modern) is stretching his right hand toward his mother's youthful face in a gesture of affection, while Messalina looks away, with a distant expression. Messalina is portrayed as a respectable Roman matron with a sophisticated hairstyle, elegantly dressed in ample drapery which also covers her head.

A woman of power - and great promiscuity

Despite the statue's appearance, Messalina was hardly renowned for her virtue. In fact, history and ancient authors alike portray her as a highly promiscuous woman who took advantage of her husband's weakness to gain absolute ascendancy over him. According to Juvenal, she went so far as to prostitute herself, and cuckolded Claudius by marrying her lover, a young noble called Caius Silius. The emperor learned of this scandal and, infuriated by his wife's debauchery, had her executed in the Gardens of Lucullus in Rome in AD 48. This official portrait, which was made circa AD 45, gives no indication of the empress's dissolute lifestyle. Her clothing and posture assimilate her to a goddess, in accordance with a type of representation reserved during the first century AD for members of the imperial family alone.

An echo of classical Greek art

Classical Greek art was highly favored in official Roman circles from the reign of Augustus, and its influence is clear in this deified image of the mother and child. The Roman sculptor took his inspiration from a famous work by the Greek Kephisodotos, from the early fourth century BC: Eirene holding the child Ploutos (a divine allegory of Peace and Wealth). A copy of this group (the most complete of its many Roman replicas) may be seen in the Munich Glyptothek. A comparison with the group of Messalina and Britannicus highlights the latter's classical inspiration, despite certain liberties that were taken with the Greek model. The rendering of the drapery, for example, differs from the work of Kephisodotos, but recalls the traditionally-styled drapery of a statue of Hera, whose original (also from the fourth century BC) is known through several replicas.

Bibliography

K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, I, Paris, 1986, n 94, p. 200-201.

Technical description

  • Messalina

    Circa AD 45

    Near Rome

    Rome

  • Marble, free-standing sculpture

    H. 1.95 m

  • Former Royal Collection. Seized during the French Revolution.

    Inventaire MR 280 (n° usuel Ma 1224)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman Art. Julio-Claudian period II
    Room 24

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