Roman Sculptures on Loan from Italy

Three very fine works of Roman sculpture, together with an exceptional Attic red-figure stamnos, are now on extended loan from the Republic of Italy. The sculptures offer Princeton students and visitors an opportunity to envision the role of works of ancient art in the private sphere. For all three of these sculptures were surely made for the art market in antiquity and meant to adorn town houses and villas. They suggest not only the diverse roles of art in ancient life, but also the wide-ranging taste of ancient patrons — with respect to styles, to subject matter, and to materials.

Professor Koortbojian with students in the Roman galleries, spring 2013The first is a slightly over-life-size head of a young athlete in gleaming, highly polished marble. This was not a portrait of an individual, but, like many other surviving sculptures of young men of similar appearance, a highly idealized, almost stereotypical representation of an exemplary youth. Its style—in the treatment of the facial forms and the hair—is that of a Classical Greek statue of the later fifth century B.C., yet the character of the carving suggests that the head was made in the early second century A.D., probably in the era of the emperor Hadrian. Whether it is actually a replica of lost Classical statue, or merely a work invented in the style of the Classical age, is not possible to determine. But the production of such a statue, more than five hundred years after the period in which that style had emerged, tells us that it is a manifestation of Roman interest in Greek works of art of an age that was, already for the Romans, the distant past. Displayed in the home of its second-century owners, it would have declared their refined sensibility and their appreciation of what was “classic.”

A striking contrast is provided by the portrait bust of a young woman. From her distinctive features and hairstyle we may recognize in this work of the mid-first century A.D.—despite its damaged state—the appearance of a particular individual. While the Greek athlete’s head quite probably belonged to a full-length statue, this woman’s image was made in the abbreviated form of a bust, which the peculiar treatment of its underside and back suggest was likely set, originally, in a tall pillar-like base, known as a herm. This was an artistic form invented for the private display of portraits on a scale suited to domestic settings. Its material—hard, dark Egyptian basanite—distinguished the work from the color of Greek and Italian marbles but was obviously foreign, although it is impossible to know whether the sculpture and the sitter were also of Egyptian origin.

The small bronze Putto with a Dolphin is something very different. Found in Herculaneum, one of the cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, this is an example of the use of sculpture for decorative embellishment of a very particular setting. Its subject, recalling the youthful figure of Cupid, derives from the realm of myth. The dolphin’s mouth once poured forth jets of water and may well have originally served as a fountain alongside a garden pool—surely in a private setting, given the small scale—where he beckoned visitors to come to join him.

Michael Koortbojian
Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology