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A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT OF THE EMPEROR GAIUS, KNOWN AS CALIGULA
THE PROPERTY OF A LADY
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT OF THE EMPEROR GAIUS, KNOWN AS CALIGULA

37-41 A.D.

Details
A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT OF THE EMPEROR GAIUS, KNOWN AS CALIGULA
37-41 A.D.
The emperor's head turned slightly to the right, the forehead broad with high temples, with deep-set lidded eyes, his lips once pursed and pinched at the corners, his luxurious hair radiating from a pronounced crown at the back of his head and set in comma-shaped locks, brushed forward onto his forehead into a distinctive arrangement and running down the nape of his neck, a thick, short lock falling onto the face before each ear
15 in. (38.1 cm.) high
Provenance
Antonia Pintado (1875-1915), Alto Pirineo de Aragón; and thence by descent to the present owner.

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Lot Essay

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (A.D. 12-41, r. A.D. 37-41), known as Caligula ('little soldier's boot', a nickname given to him in childhood by the soldiers serving under his father Germanicus), ruled as emperor for four short years before a palace conspiracy brought about his death. The first emperor to be assassinated, alongside his wife and infant daughter, he is remembered as a profligate megalomaniac who delighted in barbaric cruelty and indulged his every whim. Legends of his notorious behaviour abound: he planned to make his beloved horse, Incitatus, consul, appeared in public dressed as a woman, and in the garb of Jupiter replete with golden beard, committed incest with several of his sisters, and ordered his men to collect seashells as spoils of war after a mission to Britain was aborted. His reign was seen by later historians as the pinnacle of imperial degeneracy, and, in the age of the adoptive emperors (2nd Century A.D.), a testament to the dangers of inherited supremacy.

Though his successor Claudius (r. A.D. 41-54) prevented the Senate from enacting an official damnatio memoriae against Caligula (lit. damnation of memory, an act passed by the Senate which conferred the greatest dishonour by seeking to erase the memory of a person’s existence), his huge unpopularity persisted, and perhaps accounts for the rarity of surviving portraits of him – most of his likenesses were probably re-used in antiquity after his death. Indeed, the condition of the present lot may point to deliberate mutilation in antiquity. The present piece shares the typical characteristics of the known portraits: the broad forehead, the high, hollow, temples, and the thin, pursed lips, which have been seen as conveying, along with the proud turn of his head, something of the emperor’s vanity. His hair is particularly distinctive; arranged in neat comma-shaped locks on his forehead, it falls in long strands in front of his ears and down onto the nape of his neck. The forking towards the centre of the forehead identifies the portrait as being of the primary type of Caligula’s portraits, created to celebrate his accession (Boschung’s Haupttypus in Die Bildnisse des Caligula, Berlin, 1989). Compare portraits at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, acc. no. 71.20, and Schloss Fasanerie, inv. no. FAS. ARP 21, and, of the secondary type though sharing characteristics, Yale University, acc. no. 1987.70.1, Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 14.37 and NY Carlsberg Glyptotek, inv. no. 1453.

Caligula’s terrible reputation inspired ancient commentators to apply the pseudo-science of physiognomics to him. Thus Suetonius notes ‘his eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim…while his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror’ (ch. 50), rendering his unattractive appearance a reflection of his malevolent inner character. Even more recently, some art historians have tried to identify signs of Caligula’s alleged insanity in his portraits (for discussion cf. J. Pollini, From Republic to Empire, Oklahoma, 2012, p. 370). Hence the great shadow of Caligula’s notorious reputation continues to influence our response to his likenesses, and imbues his few extant portraits with a potent character.

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