Roman Portrait Busts

Michael Grant describes how, in their portrait-heads, which reveal an extraordinary grasp of the subject’s personality, Roman sculptors ‘created one of the outstanding arts of all time’.

‘One cannot imagine’, somebody said, ‘any Greek statue carrying on an intelligent conversation.’ That is, on the whole, true of the statues and sculptured heads of classical Greece, one of which, the Pericles of Cresilas (known to us from copies), Sir Mortimer Wheeler rather sacrilegiously described as ‘intellectually a barber’s dummy’: in no way reproducing the individual creative intellect that gave us fifth-century Athens.

Nor, indeed, was that the aim of the Athenian sculptor, who sought to present an ideal picture, a figure that displayed a generalized, overall balance and harmony. A hundred years later, and more emphatically still during the last centuries before our era, there was a change, or several changes. The sculptors of Hellenistic Greece, like the biographers of that same individualistic epoch, increasingly desired to stress the unique, private pattern of the personage whom they were depicting.

One reason why they did so was because people were coming to believe that the human personality was something that to some extent survived after death. And this not wholly destructible soul was felt to shine through a person’s idiosyncrasies, which were carefully studied by adherents of the fashionable pseudo-science of physiognomy, and deserved scrupulous delineation.

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