Ancient Painted Portraits 101

Very few ancient painted portraits survive. Bronze statues were melted down for their metal, so most of those we have are marble. And paintings tended to be on fragile materials that have been eaten away by the centuries. I know people were quite surprised by the 'modern' quality of the drawings in the Artemidorus Papyrus, so I thought it might be worth highlighting some information about ancient 2-D portraits. Aba of Caria was probably represented on the wall of the tomb of Hecatomnus.

Many portraits on wooden panels survive from Egypt, but these tend to be the mummy portraits of private individuals. This tondo is more interesting as the head-gear worn by the family show that it represented royals, and the style of dress that they were Roman, so it depicts the Imperial family.

Romans were clean-shaved until Hadrian, a philhellene, revived the beard and his subjects copied him. (Incised rather than painted eyes in sculptures also date to the reign of Hadrian).

The face could be Clodius Albinus or Septimius Severus - the two can look very similar - but the bifurcate beard shows that it is the later. Sometimes the two strands of the beard were even longer and more pronounced, a portrait type known as the Septimius-Serapis type because of its similarity to depictions of the god Serapis.

The forked beard is visible on this coin of Septimius ... but gold, like marble, does not show colouring.

Septimius Severus was an 'African' emperor in the sense that he was descended from Romans that had settled at Lepcis Magna in Libya, but the extend to which he had native or Berber blood is a matter of conjecture. The tondo shows him as having browner skin than his wife, but brown men and white women were a convention of ancient art seen in Egyptian and Minoan paintings.

Some portraits show Septimius Severus with a gaunter face or longer beard, but this head from Herculaneum in the Louvre of the Septimius-Serapis portrait type is the closest I could find to the tondo portrait.

If the man is Septimius Severus, then the woman must be his beloved second wife Julia Domna (as we don't know much about the first one, Paccia Marciana - he erected posthumous statues to her as emperor, whose bases survive, but chose to ignore her in his Memoirs). Julia seems to have married him in AD 187, giving birth to sons in 188 and 189. Septimius reigned from AD 193 to 211, and the tondo must have been produced during this time, probably in the earlier years when the children were young.

The hairstyle of this Julia Domna in the Louvre is similar, but the marble cannot show is her colouring and make-up in the same way as the tondo can. The sculptor has also chosen not to depict her magnificent pearls.

The gold coin above shows Julia Domna on one side, and her two sons on the other. The elder one in the coin profile wears a diadem, but not the sort of elaborate wreath-crown shown in the painting. A few funerary wreaths survive, but these are mostly made out of gold foil and cannot show us how magnificent the long melted-down Roman crowns once were.

What I find particularly fascinating is the face of the small boy on the left - it has been erased, suggesting he suffered from Damnatio Memoriae after his death and proscription by his brother - therefore it represented Geta. That makes the boy whose portrait survives Caracalla.

And if you want to see some non-marbles images of Caracalla, then Google the Aboukir Medallions for an image of the adult brute that he became (article, see also images of Alexander the Great and Olympias in Berlin)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the interesting entry. I had never heard anyone question the ID of the Tondo before (and still accept it as being Septimius witout question.

    It would be good to note that Septimius Severus was emperor for a long time and we all change in time. Considering what four years has done to the faces of some US Presidents, we should allow Septimius becoming a bit more gaunt considering what was going on during his long reign. The Tondo must date to c. 198-200 since Caracalla is shown in the trappings of Augustus. Before that his head would have been bare. The gold coin shown for Julia is from that date and matches rather well. The aureus of Septimius is from the first year of his reign when portraits tend to show a great deal more variability and hardly hint at the bifurcate beard for which he would later become famous. Perhaps a better choice would have been the matching coin to the Julia:
    Even c. 200 coins do not show the curls we see on coins of the last few years of his reign.


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