Dec. 30 Art Minute: Roman, ‘Bust of a Flavian Matron’

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Roman, Bust of a Flavian Matron. Marble, late 1st–early 2nd century CE. H. 20 inches. Gift of The Georgia Welles Apollo Society, 2016.19. Classic Court

Roman, Bust of a Flavian Matron. Marble, late 1st–early 2nd century CE. H. 20 inches. Gift of The Georgia Welles Apollo Society, 2016.19. Classic Court

This sculpted bust depicts an older woman, a matron, gazing off towards her right. The relatively advanced age of the woman is rare for this type of portrait, which can be dated on the basis of the hairstyle. Ornate, corkscrew curls were fashionable for women of the imperial court during the Flavian Dynasty (68–96 CE). The hairstyle is that of a much younger woman than depicted here. Perhaps the matron, whose identity is lost to us, wore her hair as a young person, or perhaps her family intended to remember her ‘young spirit.’ The sculpture was intended to be placed in a family shrine, known as a columbarium, where each year on the anniversary of the matron’s death, her family would have rubbed palm oil on her cheeks. This ritual explains the yellowing still present on the sculpture.

The ability to render the elaborate coiffure in stone was enabled by the development of the running drill, a tool that allowed sculptors to create deep, precise holes with significantly less effort than before. The bust is therefore a marvel of technology and, in its subtle rendering of the woman’s highly individualized features, of Roman artistic virtuosity.


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