Highlighted Works of Art

Nero in Budapest

(1).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(1).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

Already in antiquity educated people collected portraits of well-known historical persons, of kings and polticians as well as of poets; in private villas and in public libraries one would see those historical personalities as bronze or marble images. Later, since the Renaissance (at the latest) rulers, both political and religious, were interested in the Roman emperors, since they – at least the 'good' ones – were perceived as models for their own reign. As a consequence ancient portraits of Romans were studied and collected.

(1).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(1).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

The interest in ancient portraits and in a scientific research on "Who is who" in ancient portraiture was intensified by Fulvius Ursinus (Fulvio Orsini; 1529–1600), a librarian of the Farnese family in Rome. In 1570 he published a book with drawings of portraits in his own and in other collections. By comparing coin images (identifiable by the legend around the portrait) with portraits in the round he made important contributions to the knowledge of ancient portraiture: This book and his research influenced a lot of further studies – even today scholars are trying to name ancient portraits.

 

(1).<br> Photography: <br>László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(1).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

In earlier centuries collectors and sculptors restoring ancient portraits named them in a sometimes quite random way, in some cases with a lot of phantasy, just for the purpose to supplement a series of 'Caesars' portraits they already possessed and to create a complete gallery of ancient emperors. In addition one tried to find the individual character of the depicted emperor and interpreted the faces in parallel to what was known of the Caesars by literary sources as for example Suetonius' 12 biographies "On the Life of the Caesars". Even the morally 'depraved' emperors attracted interest which caused newly fabricated portraits that highlight these negative aspects. Both portraits of Nero (Roman emperor A. D. 54-68) exhibited here are illustrating this fashion, but each in quite a different way which emphasizes the various methods how a 'Gallery of ancient portraits of the Roman Caesars' was put together during the past centuries.

(1).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(1).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

The newly restored piece is a marble bust with a tunic and a paludamentum, i.e. a general's cloak carrying the portrait of the emperor Nero (1) . The brilliantly executed restoration was carried out by sculpture restorers József Varga and György Konkoly. A large section of the upper and right part of the head including one half of the forehead has been added as a post-antique supplement to the core of the head. Since the style of the strands of hair and the motifs of the curls are the same on the original left profile of the portrait as on the modern addition, and because the facial features seem to look odd and pronounce the negative characteristics of Nero's nature the whole bust was thought to be a modern 'fake'. This idea was supported by the fact that the bust shows a form and size which belongs to the 2nd c. A. D., so if it would be an ancient one – that was doubted as well – it cannot belong to the head.

The latter argument is correct: The bust including the shoulders and a large part of the upper body can be dated between A. D. 120 and 140. But it is an ancient sculpture as can be proven by the pillar-like form with sharp edges and a slight retraction of the middle part of the support in the interior of the bust's backside. In modern times the support was carved in a rounded form and not chiselled with such an elegant tapering of the central part. Looking at the style of the garment with its softly and slightly curved forms and rounded edges of folds a date around A. D. 130/140 can be proposed for the production of this bust. When during recent conservation the restorations of the bust - some 12 pieces along the edges of folds as well as the knob of the fibula - were taken off one could discern two repairs on the basis of two kinds of modern metal pins for fixing those little supplements.


(3).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(3).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

And there are more indications of two phases of restoration: After removing the head from the shoulders a pair of modern drill holes aside of a central third one became visible. Because there is only one drill hole in the middle of the neck to fix the head to the bust it is apparent that the head of Nero is the third one combined with the bust: First there must have been a male portrait of the Hadrianic period which was chiselled from the same block of marble as the bust. Then, in a first phase of restoration, a (today lost) head was fixed with two metal dowels to the bust.


(3).<br> Photography:<br> Róbert Dankó<br> Savaria Museum
(3).
Photography:
Róbert Dankó
Savaria Museum

And finally the lower surface of the neck and the area between the shoulders on top of the bust were worked to their present form and the head fixed to the bust with a metal dowel. This iron pin reached deep down into the back support and caused later the marble to burst. A closer examination of the head reveals that the strands of hair on the backside of the portrait have a different, smaller structure than the others; and their surface is weathered. So the backside of the head preserves ancient manufacture. Noticing that the right ear (the left is a modern supplement) is relatively large, its form strangely thick and ‚pressed' into the mass of strands one understands that the whole head has been almost totally re-worked – except of the backside. The curls on the right profile as well as the face have been cut down producing the coma in gradus formata of Nero, a hairstyle

(3).<br> Photography:<br> Róbert Dankó<br> Savaria Museum
(3).
Photography:
Róbert Dankó
Savaria Museum

in reality laid with a curling iron in 'steps' (in gradus) of parallel strands. It was fashionable for actors and charioteers in Rome to whom Nero felt attracted, even took part in their business. The restored forking of strands − here above the middle of the forehead instead at the right side as in ancient copies − is a motif known from Nero's portraits of the third type from A. D. 59 which can be recognized on the Roman gold coins exhibited here from the Szombathely-Herény treasure (3). The facial features of ancient portraits in the round and on Roman coins of this emperor are similar to those of this head, but here his ‚bad' character has been emphasized: The eyes vary in their shape and size, the chin is more pronounced and clearly separated from the curved lips.

 

(2).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(2).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

The other portrait of Nero (2) displayed here shows similar facial features, but he is depicted now as a more mature person with a beard and a different system of strands above the forehead: The coma in gradus formata does not have a fork but is laid in a parallel order, all strands turned to one side only. This hairstyle is known from Nero's portraits of the fourth type (A. D. 64−68), the last one which was copied until his murder, exemplified by a gold coin reproduced on a photo in the exhibition (4). Although one can recognize Nero in this head the portrait is a sculpture which has been totally chiselled in modern times. This can be proven by comparing a number of details with secure ancient pieces, and the sort of marble does not derive from an ancient quarry.

(4).<br> Photography:<br> László Mátyus<br> Musuem of Fine Arts
(4).
Photography:
László Mátyus
Musuem of Fine Arts

While the head is altogether a modern piece, the bust with Nero's portrait has several parts of ancient origin. In the one instance the likeness of the emperor was produced totally anew, in the second case a modern restorer re-used two ancient objects, repaired the bust and chiselled a new likeness from an existing head supplementing the upper part; thus he produced a 'whole' image of the emperor. Both pieces probably were once exhibited in galleries of the '12 Roman Caesars'.

 

 

Hans Rupprecht Goette

We are grateful for the generous support of the Hungarian Cultural Fund and OTKA grant no. K68558 for the restoration of the bust

Gold coins from the Szombathely-Herény treasure: loan from the Savaria Museum in Szombathely

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