How
to
Read
a
Roman
Portrait


3451 Words14 Pages
How
to
Read
a
Roman
Portrait
 SHELDON
NODELMAN
 from
 E.
D’Ambra,
ed.,
Roman
Art
in
Context.
NY:
Prentice
Hall.
1993
pp.
10‐20
 Like all works of art. the portrait is a system of signs; it is often an ideogram of “public’ meanings condensed into the image of a human face. Roman portrait sculpture from the Republic through the late Empire-the second century BCE. to the sixth CE -constitutes what is surely the most remarkable body of portrait art ever created. 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…show more content…
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
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