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Work Unknown person (formerly thought to be Aulus Postumius Albinus)

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

Inconnu

© 2010 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Lepetoukha Charlotte

The person depicted in this dignified, moving portrait of an old Roman dignitary, previously identified as the consul Aulus Postumius Albinus, is now considered to be unknown. The sensitive, naturalistic style of the sculpture reveals the dominant influence of Hellenism in Rome at the time.

Portrait of an old man

The age of the old man depicted in this very fine portrait is rendered in a striking manner. The artist is pitless in the use he makes of his chisels to set down all the marks of age: sagging flesh, lips closing over a toothless mouth, wrinkled face, folds of the neck. Nevertheless, the expressive character of the face, with the head turned sharply to the right and the mouth on the point, it seems, of speaking, breathes life into a figure the pride and vivacity of which inspire respect rather than pity.

A sign of social status

The large number of surviving replicas of this work have prompted some commentators to see in it a portrait of a famous man. Comparison with heads on coins has led to the names of Mark Antony - Julius Caesar's rival - or the consul Aulus Postumius Albinus being put forward. Neither proposition is truly satisfactory, and it is safer to leave the portrait shrouded in anonymity. It is just possible that it is an effigy of a member of the Roman aristocracy. Only the nobility enjoyed the privilege of being able to have their portraits made and of possessing effigies of their ancestors.

Ancient Italian and Hellenistic influences

The Roman portrait in the second century BC inherited the verist tradition of ancient Italian art but, at the time of the Roman conquests in the Mediterranean, acquired a Hellenistic coloring. As Rome gained control of the Hellenistic world, Greek works were brought back by the victorious generals, and artists left the conquered kingdoms for Rome, the new capital of the Mediterranean world.
The phenomenon can be seen in this portrait. The pitiless realism of the toothless mouth and the sagging flesh of the neck is characteristic of the portraits of the republican period and brings to mind the custom of making death masks out of wax. The brutal realism is sublimated, however, by the movement of the head, the mobility of the flesh, and the expressiveness of the face, which owe much to the pathos of the Pergamon school. The artist has invested this face ravaged by time with a passion that links it to the tradition of Hellenistic portraiture, endowing this mortal figure with the bearing of a monarch.

Bibliography

KERSAUSON K. de, Catalogue des portraits romains, I, Paris, 1986, n 3, p. 14.
Exposition Visages du Louvre - Chefs-d'oeuvre du portrait dans les collections du Louvre, 18 septembre-1er décembre 1991, Musée National d'Art Occidental, Tokyo, n 32, pp. 85-86.
MEGOW W.-R., "Beobachtungn zum Bildnis-Typus des sog. Postumius Albinus", Antike Porträts - zum Gedächtnis von Helga von Heintze, 1999, pp. 113-122.

Technical description

  • Inconnu

    Copie du Ier siècle avant J.-C. d'un original datable vers 110 avant J.-C.

    Rome

  • Marbre

    H. : 36 cm.

  • Vente Hoffman, 1888 , 1888

    N d'entrée MNC 1004 (n usuel Ma 919)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art
    Room 22

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