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Marble bust of an old man


Height: 45.750 cm

GR 1973.3-30.7 (Sculpture 1966)

Room 70: Roman Empire

    Marble bust of an old man

    From Rome, Italy
    About 60-40 BC

    Reminiscent of a death mask

    The bust shows an old man, clean-shaven and with closely-cropped hair, indicated with rows of simple shallow gouges on the head. The details of his face are closely observed, especially his rather small eyes and the jowls and cheeks, which are quite heavy and sagging. This has suggested to some that the portrait may have been taken from a death mask. This realistic 'warts and all' type of portrait, which sometimes looks startlingly unflattering, was extremely popular during the late Republic and early empire (first century BC to early first century AD) and was initially the preserve of the upper echelons of society such as senators, generals and other high-ranking officials.

    Portraiture of this type served two main functions depending on whether the image was of a living or dead person.

    Images of the deceased were used primarily in a private or family context as part of the important ritual ancestor worship. Ancestral busts were kept in the home, where they served as a reminder of the person's good name and deeds and also as a legitimisation of the family line. Masks of prominent ancestors were sometimes worn at funeral processions. Images of the living, set up in public to commemorate military victory or public benefaction, were essentially an advertisement of present greatness. For Augustus and successive emperors, the image was of paramount importance as an extension and affirmation of power .

    S. Walker, Greek and Roman portraits (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)