10.25.2006

Aristotle: The Importance of the Portrait

This seems to be the official Greek photo of the new bust of Aristotle, found at the foot of the Acropolis. It comes from The Times, which has a brief APF wire piece. The basic facts about the figures are below, but the context and dating of the bust are important. All these issues tie in with the importance of Roman Athens and the Philosophical Schools as discussed in my The Elgin Marbles. It's not just about his hooked nose!

The head was found in conjunction with a head of Hadrian (ht. 031 m) and the head of a priest, probably a priest of Dionysus (ht. 0.34 m). The theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis was very important in Antiquity. To the south of it was an equally important sanctuary of Dionysus described by Pausanias, in the area of the Philosophical Schools. Archaeologist were worried that the Greek government was allowing these to be destroyed in their efforts to quickly build the New Acropolis Museum in an unsuitable site as a propaganda move.

Hadrian was well known as a Philhellene emperor who supported the Schools; a bust of him in conjunction with the two others would seem to confirm the interpretation of the site archaeologist have long been suggesting - home to a variety of philosophical schools and an important sanctuary of Dionysus. Aristotle "was found during excavation work that preceded the construction of Greece's new Acropolis Museum, situated near the south of the ancient citadel". The previous Greek government tried to claim that the site of the NAM was bedrock. Then many archaeological strata became visible to the naked eye. Then it was denied that there were any important ancient institutions on the site, or that they were being destroyed.

The official line is "the bust had probably adorned a Roman villa, Horemi said." Alkestis Horemi is one of the best archaeologists I have ever met, and an authority on the archaeology of Roman Athens, having previously worked on the Library of Hadrian. But this is disingenuous, since Philosophical Schools were set in houses identical architecturally to Roman villas.

The date given by excavators for the Aristotle is the 1st century AD, but it seems to have been found with a head of the 2nd century AD (Hadrian). There are some very simple rules for dating Roman portraits. Beard tend to start with Hadrian for Romans, but portraits of Greeks and early Romans are exceptions.

Incised eyes in marbles also tend to start with Hadrian. The photo is too small to tell here, and there is increasing awareness of later Roman restorations of sculpture where the eyes were later incised at the time of restoration: the Ara Pacis is a good example (see my PhD thesis amongst others). The angle of the eyes is also a clue: the more they look upwards, the more they tend to indicate a later date, but is not conclusive.

The small parting in the centre of the fringe and the arrangement of the locks of hair are also dating criteria. The excavators are dating this portrait of Aristotle in relation to portraits of Augustus, but the length of the wisps of hair that continue some way down his forehead, can perhaps even more plausible, based on the photo, be compared to portraits of Septimius Severus and the two distinctive locks he is depicted with over his forehead.

Roman
Marble, height c. 046 m.
From area south of the Acropolis

I will keep adding links and information to this post throughout the day.

This Kathimerini article seems to be based on the AFP wire story, but differs in suggesting that the heads were not found together in Makriyianni.

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