Its shifting montage of abstractions from human appearance and character forms a language in which the history of a whole society can be read. Beginning in the first century B. C. , Roman artists invented a new kind of portraiture, as unlike that of the great tradition of Greek Hellenistic art (whence the Romans had ultimately derived the idea of portraiture itself and a highly developed vocabulary of formal devices for its realization) as it was unlike that of their own previous Italo-Hellenistic local tradition.
This new conception, conferring upon the portrait an unprecedented capacity to articulate and project the interior processes of human experience, made possible the achievement in the ensuing six centuries of what is surely the most extraordinary body of portrait art ever created, and forms the indispensable basis for the whole of the later European portrait tradition, from its rebirth in the 13th and 14th centuries to its virtual extinction in the 20th.
No clear account of the nature of this reformulation of the structure of representation or of its historical significance has so far been given. That the portraiture which it engendered is strikingly “realistic” in the sense of evoking the presence of an astonishingly concrete and specific individuality, to a degree previously unknown and rarely equaled since, has been the universal experience of every observer.
But this question-begging term (first used to characterize Roman portraiture, in opposition to the “idealism” imputed to the Greeks, three quarters of a century ago by Franz Wickhoff, at the inception of modern critical studies of Roman art and not yet effectively superseded in modern scholarship) tells us nothing of the specific nature of the innovations responsible for this effect. Indeed, aside from the inadequacy in principle of such a term as applied to works of art, it seems particularly inappropriate to a form of portraiture such as the Roman, in which, as can easily be shown, abstract and conventional lements play so large a part. In sonic important respects Roman portraiture, like Roman art in general, can fairly be described as a system of signs. Both the idea of deliberate address to the spectator with the aim of arresting his attention, and the intent to convey a message, a meaning, are contained in the Latin word signum, one of the commonest terms used to designate an iconic statue.
The will to reach out actively into the world of on-going life and to accomplish specific purposes within it through psychological modifications imposed upon the observer is the central organizational principle of Roman art, notable, for example, in the condensed and forceful propagandistic language of the imperial reliefs and in the elaborate manipulation of the spectator’s movements through spatial pressures in architecture.
Since the dominant function of the monumental portrait in Roman antiquity was the public commemoration of civic distinction, it is natural to search the realm of contemporaneous political and social ideas for themes which may enter into the context of particular portrait modes. These are regularly to be found. III this regard it is instructive to consider the so-called “veristic” portraiture of the first century BCE, in which, in fact, the new portrait conception makes its premier appearance, and which is usually considered both quintessentially
Roman as a social expression and as the example par excellence f Roman “realism. ” This class consists exclusively of portraits of men in later life, often balding and toothless, upon whose faces the creases, wrinkles and blemishes inflicted by life upon aging flesh are prominently and harshly displayed with a kind of clinical exactitude which has aptly been called “cartographic. ” The insistent presentation of unflattering physiognomic irregularities, apparently, from their diversity, highly individualized, extends also to the representation of emotional states: the expressions of these faces are without exception grim, haggard and ungenerous, twisted by used muscular contractions.
The emphasis accorded these contingencies of physiognomy and the resolute refusal of any concession to our – or, so it would appear, antiquity’s – ideas of desirable physical appearance lead one easily to the conclusion that those portraits are uncompromising attempts to transcribe into plastic form the reality of what is seen, innocent of any “idealization” or programmatic bias. These are the portraits of the conservative nobility (and of their middle-class emulators) (luring the death-agonies of the Roman republic. There is no need to doubt that much of their character refers to quite real qualities of their subjects.
These are men in later life because the carefully prescribed ladder of public office normally allowed those who followed it to attain only gradually and after many years to such eminence as would allow the signal honor of a public statue. One may well suppose that these hard-bitten and rather unimaginative faces closely reflect the prevailing temperament of the class and society to which they belong, and the twisted and pained expressions surely testify in similar fashion to the terrible emotional strains of a society torn apart in the chaos of civil war. FIGURE 1 Unknown Republican (nose restored), First Century B.
C. , Marble (Torlimia Museum. Poise) Nevertheless, a moment’s reflection upon veristic portraits as a class reveals such an insistent pattern of recurrence in the selection and handling of particular physical and characterological traits that all these apparently so individualized portraits finally look very much alike, and it becomes clear that we are dealing with ii conventional type, whose properties are dictated by ideological motives and given the political function of the portrait statue-by the intent to convey a clearly drawn and forceful polemical content.
The nature of this content becomes clear as soon as the context of meanings available in the wider range of contemporary portraiture is examined. Through emphasis on the marks of age, these men call attention to their long service to the state and their faithfulness to constitutional procedures, in intended contrast to the meteoric careers and dubious methods of the individualistic faction-leaders – men like Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, later Antony and Octavian-whose ambitions and rivalries in the quest for personal power were rending the fabric of the republic.
The portraits of these duces, when we can identify them, betray rather different tendencies than do those of the veristic group, drawing heavily upon Hellenistic elements for the dramatization of their personalities and the suggestion of a godlike superiority to circumstance. The seeming frankness and air of indifference with which the subjects of the veristic portraiture cknowledge-or, rather, proclaim-their physical ugliness is surely a defiant arid formalized response to the propagandistic glamorization of physiognomy and character in the portraits of the quarrelling war-lords whose aspiration toward personalized, tyrannical power and brutal disregard of traditional constraints were scandalous affronts to inherited values. Against the portraits of the duces, the veristic portrait asserts a self-conscious pride in down-to-earth pragmatism, an absence of illusions, a contempt for vanity and pretense.
The grim restraint which twists these features and the harsh suppression of feeling stand in programmatic contrast to the emotional pathos, the exaltation of spontaneity which had illuminated Hellenistic royal portraiture and which the duces had in modified form incorporated into their own images. It is not individuality, imagination and daring which are celebrated here but stem self-discipline, shrewd calculation, unbending resolution, unquestioning acceptance of social bonds, painstaking conformity to those ancestrally sanctioned rules of conduct which the Romans called the mos maiorum.