Sunday, November 1, 2015

Roman Portraiture

Some, with slight exaggeration, claim that we live in the century of the selfie (though who can assume that the selfie will last the century?) This selfie, of three world leaders, made the news a short while ago (do you remember who the female is?) 

Maybe not such a polite thing for our trusted leaders to be doing, considering that they were attending a memorial service, but hey, if you had attended the Nelson Mandela memorial service, wouldn't you have taken a selfie too? (I seem to have gotten into a bad habit of ending each sentence with a question, so I'm going to stop that now.)

So, what is this obsession that we have with our own faces? (Oh, there I go again!) We can certainly trace it back to the Renaissance, with the birth of the modern portrait, when even the artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli start slipping their own faces into their paintings. By the time we reach Rembrandt the self-portrait has come well and truly into its own.

But the history of the selfie goes back much longer than this, to a tradition in the Roman Republic, when a citizen could celebrate their position in society by means of sculpted portraiture. The old patricians of Rome, when burying their dead, had the habit of organizing a funerary parade in which they would carry the wax busts of their ancestors. It was a way of proving and displaying their long, proud lineage. So the portrait was of great importance and every upper class Roman family would keep a collection of marble likenesses of their male ancestors in a cupboard at home, much like we keep family photo albums. (Sorry for another question, but do people still keep family albums or is that unspeakably previous century?)

The funny thing about portraits from the ancient Roman Republic, is that they didn't attempt to beautify their subjects. They didn't even try to hide their age, as we do in our culture that worships youth. On the contrary, Roman Republican portraiture magnified the aging process if anything. Images of the great and powerful would be displayed on pedestals in public places, examples for all to emulate. Take this Head of a Roman Patrician from around 75 BCE for instance.

The subject is certainly no spring chicken. So, would he have been pleased to see himself being depicted like this, wrinkles and all. The fact is, he would have been delighted. For the truth of the matter is, hyper-realistic portraits, like this one, embodied the ideal of the hard working, serious upper-class citizen. This man might have been privileged and well off, but, his portrait tells us, he has worked his socks off for the good of his family and, equally important, for the welfare of the state. No partying or super yacht cruises for him. Instead, he would have us believe, he has dedicated his life to the high-minded fulfilling of his civic duty. In other words, the portrait reflects two characteristics that were greatly valued by the Romans of this time - seriousness or gravitas and virtue. He wears his wrinkles proudly and each one bespeaks his gravitas and virtue. A bit like the serfs of the corporate world today who complain of how hard they work and who wear their stress as a banner of pride.

Inge Lyse Hanson of John Cabot University in Rome has argued (in a lecture that I attended in July 2015) that these Roman Republic portraits must be seen as being in opposition to the Greek values of the Hellenistic world where, for instance, Alexander the Great was portrayed as a youth. Greek sculpture depicted leaders as being young, smooth-skinned, turned to the side with their gaze to the distance; Roman patrician sculpture, on the other hand, showed their leaders to be old, wrinkled, looking straight ahead and staring at the viewer. Furthermore, she insists that these busts were earned, that each statue represents an award set up in a public space by the grateful citizenry.

Art historians refer to this style as Verism. Which might, verily, give you the impression that these portraits reflect reality. But that is not the case. This is art, after all, not reality. These are idealized images, representations of ideas Today we photoshop or airbrush out our blemishes and wrinkles, but in those days they added them in. The times have changed. But they already changed soon after the collapse of the Roman republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

Take a look at this image, from the Vatican Museum, for instance, from the 1st century CE. The blemishes and wrinkles are gone.

Or even better, look at this portrait of Emperor Augustus, from Primaporta, now in the Vatican Museum. Every town in the empire had its official portraits of the emperor, but unlike the veristic portraits of the Republic, the image was one of idealized youth. Augustus would rule for decades to come, but in his portraits he never grew older. He had, literally, invented a new never changing time to go with his new office of Emperor, a time in which he never ages in any portraits, just like the queen of England never ages in any British postage stamps.

Instead, his carefully cultivated public image remained that of the Greek ideal, clearly based on the famous classical statue, Doryphoros by Polykeitos:

At Augustus' feet we find a small cupid, riding a dolphin. The presence of cupid indicates that Augustus is a God, hence his perfect looks and eternal youth.

One obvious difference between Augustus of Primaporta and Doryphoros is (you've probably noticed) Doryphoros is nude, while Augustus is wearing body armour. In fact there are portraits of Augustus that are semi-nude or entirely nude, after all, when you have the perfect, idealized, youthful body, why not show it off?  It is just that in this particular incarnation the Emperor is portrayed as the warrior who has defeated his enemies Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, thereby ensuring the safety and security of all the citizens. In fact his cuirlass or breastplate depict a diplomatic victory that he achieved over the Parthians.

 So, in short, portraits always project an image. Sometimes, as in these Roman portraits, the image that is being projected could be labeled as propaganda. What of our own leaders today? They certainly don't have themselves depicted in the nude, nor do they openly confess to being divine.But would they dare to partake in the sort of role play that the ancient Romans did, dressing up as warriors and so on? Surely we are far too sophisticated to be taken in by democratic leaders who don battle gear. Like this one for instance, who dresses as a warrior and, like Augustus, stretches his arm out towards his troops, a contemporary Primaporta image.

Or let us not forget the following warrior leader, who, though having never set foot on a battlefield, still sported a military codpiece. What are these guys trying to prove?