How
to
Read
a
Roman
Portrait


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How
to
Read
a
Roman
Portrait

SHELDON
NODELMAN
 from
 E.
D’Ambra,
ed.,
Roman
Art
in
Context.
NY:
Prentice
Hall.
1993
pp.
10‐20
 Like all works of art. the portrait is a system of signs; it is often an ideogram of “public’ meanings condensed into the image of a human face. Roman portrait sculpture from the Republic through the late Empire-the second century BCE. to the sixth CE -constitutes what is surely the most remarkable body of portrait art ever created. Its shifting montage of abstractions from human appearance and character forms a language in which the history of a whole society can be read. Beginning in the first century B.C., Roman artists invented a new kind of portraiture, as unlike that of the great tradition of Greek Hellenistic art (whence the Romans had ultimately derived the idea of portraiture itself and a highly developed vocabulary of formal devices for its realization) as it was unlike that of their own previous Italo-Hellenistic local tradition. This new conception, conferring upon the portrait an unprecedented capacity to articulate and project the interior processes of human experience, made possible the achievement in the ensuing six centuries of what is surely the most extraordinary body of portrait art ever created, and forms the indispensable basis for the whole of the later European portrait tradition, from its rebirth in the 13th and 14th centuries to its virtual extinction in the 20th. No clear account of the nature of this reformulation of the structure of representation or of its historical significance has so far been given. That the portraiture which it engendered is strikingly “realistic” in the sense of evoking the presence of an astonishingly concrete and specific individuality, to a degree previously unknown and rarely equaled since, has been the universal experience of every observer. But this question-begging term (first used to characterize Roman portraiture, in opposition to the “idealism” imputed to the Greeks, three quarters of a century ago by Franz Wickhoff, at the inception of modern critical studies of Roman art and not yet effectively superseded in modern scholarship) tells us nothing of the specific nature of the innovations responsible for this effect. Indeed, aside from the inadequacy in principle of such a term as applied to works of art, it seems particularly inappropriate to a form of portraiture such as the Roman, in which, as can easily be shown, abstract and conventional elements play so large a part. In sonic important respects Roman portraiture, like Roman art in general, can fairly be described as a system of signs. Both the idea of deliberate address to the spectator with the aim of arresting his attention, and the intent to convey a message, a meaning, are contained in the Latin word signum, one of the commonest terms used to designate an iconic statue. The will to reach out actively into the world of on-going life and to accomplish specific purposes within it through psychological modifications imposed upon the observer is the central organizational principle of Roman art, notable, for example, in the condensed and forceful propagandistic language of the imperial reliefs and in the elaborate manipulation of the spectator’s movements through spatial pressures in architecture. Since the dominant function of the monumental portrait in Roman antiquity was the public commemoration of civic distinction, it is natural to search the realm of contemporaneous political and social ideas for themes which may enter into the context of particular portrait modes. These are regularly to be found. III this regard it is instructive to consider the so-called “veristic” portraiture of the first century BCE, in which, in fact, the new portrait conception makes its premier appearance, and which is usually considered both quintessentially Roman as a social expression and as the example par excellence

of Roman “realism.” This class consists exclusively of portraits of men in...
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