A Roman marble male portrait head
Lot 82
A Roman marble male portrait head
£ 60,000 - 80,000
US$ 80,000 - 110,000

Antiquities

5 Jul 2018, 10:30 BST

London, New Bond Street

Lot Details
A Roman marble male portrait head
A Roman marble male portrait head
Circa 1st Century B.C.-early 1st Century A.D.
Probably a priest, the face powerfully sculpted with large, lidded, unarticulated eyes set deeply beneath prominent brows, a strong, straight nose and pronounced cheekbones, the thin lips closed, the square chin slightly dimpled, with naturalistic wrinkled brow and creased cheeks, the ears sculpted in high relief from the head, a circular hole at the crown of the bald head, probably for insertion of a separately-made head-covering, the back of the head and neck more roughly hewn, the large tenon remaining, 42cm high

Footnotes

  • Provenance:
    Mr Charles Probst, Galerie de la Corraterie, Geneva, 2000.
    Swiss art market.
    with Bernard Blondeel Kunsthandel, Antwerp, 2005.
    Private collection, Belgium.

    See F. Johansen, Roman Portraits I, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 1994, p. 74-5, no. 25 for another bald portrait head with similar treatment of wrinkles, lips, and ears sculpted in high relief, dated to the early Augustan period. The hole at the crown of the head was evidently made in antiquity, probably for the insertion of a separately-made head-covering, a feature which would also explain the cursory rendering of the back of the head. Having the head covered in such a manner would characterise the subject as being in the act of sacrificing, and therefore probably a priest; for a comparable priest, see ibid., Roman Portraits II, p. 58-9, no. 17, and Vatican Museums inv. 1751, though in both these examples the head-covering is rendered in the same piece of marble.

    The subject of this sculpture is not just bald, but seems to have a fully shaved head. Though completely bald portraits of private individuals from this period are known (see C. C. Vermeule, Greek and Roman Sculpture in America, Berkeley, 1981, no. 232), this fairly unusual element combined with the aforementioned head-covering raises another hypothesis. The practice of shaving one's head is believed to have been an act of worship undertaken by priests of the cult of Isis, which enjoyed popularity in Rome from the late Republican period onwards, notwithstanding a brief period of suspicion about their activities during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius; cf. a portrait head of a priest of Isis in the Museo Archeologico al Teatro Romano in Verona, which also has a circular hole at the crown. However, the key identifying feature of a priest of Isis is a scar usually visible on the upper forehead or crown of the head (see S. Wood, 'Isis, Eggheads, and Roman Portraiture', JARCE, vol. 24, 1987, p. 123-141 for discussion of the portrait iconography of Isis priests). No such scar is discernible here, and so this attribution must remain uncertain. See also Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. no. 126368 for another shaven-headed male portrait, similar in countenance to the present lot and dating to the late Republican period, and also at times suggested to be a priest of Isis, despite lacking a prominent scar.
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