Perhaps no other figure in the annals of Roman history played a more integral part in the city’s development from a regional power to an expansive military empire than Julius Caesar. The advances made during Caesar’s lifetime not only set the standard for Roman leadership during the next four centuries of empire but also provided a model to be emulated – or avoided – by world leaders that continues to this day.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 B.C. to a politically well-connected Roman family. From an early age Caesar was associated with the populares ideology that favored the causes of the plebian class. When Sulla – a member of the opposing optimates faction – came to power and declared himself dictator in 82 B.C. the young Caesar was stripped of his inheritance and forced to join the army. Upon the death of Sulla in 78 B.C., Caesar returned to Rome and became known as a successful orator. He quickly climbed the ranks of the Roman political system, having served on the military tribune and as Pontifex Maximus and praetor. In 61 B.C. he was elected as the governor of the Roman province of Hispania.
In Hispania, Caesar quickly honed his leadership skills and gained the respect of his legions. Upon returning to Rome, he joined forces with the statesmen Pompey and Crassus in 60 B.C. and the three took control of Roman politics in what is now known as The First Triumvirate. The men worked to push through governmental and land reforms that conformed with the populares philosophy. Caesar then departed with his legions in 58 B.C. to Gaul to secure Rome’s borders. His most significant military victory was at the Battle of Alesia in 52 B.C. where he defeated the Gallic ruler Vercingetorix and thus Gaul became a province of Rome under the governance of Caesar.
Back home, The First Triumvirate dissolved after the death of Crassus. Pompey aligned himself with the optimates and was the sole political power in Rome. Caesar was stripped of his governorship and was recalled home. Instead of returning peacefully, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions and Pompey – rather than engaging with Caesar in battle – fled to Egypt. Pompey was pursued by Caesar and killed by forces associated with Ptolemy XIII. Caesar proclaimed outrage at his murder and aligned himself with the disposed Cleopatra VII and the two sought to rule Egypt. With assistance from the Roman legions, the Egyptian army was defeated. It is thought that Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers. Cleopatra later gave birth to a son, Caesarion (also known as Ptolemy Caesar) who was proclaimed heir and successor to the Egyptian throne.
A rebellion in Asia Minor forced Caesar to leave Egypt. He then set his sights on Rome, and in 46 B.C. at the Battle of Thapsus he beat forces loyal to the optimates. Caesar returned to Rome victorious and was awarded the title Dictator Perpetuus (dictator for life). As ruler he furthered the populares agenda and continued to reform the government with little respect for the power of the senate. Caesar’s rule is often regarded as a time of general prosperity for Rome.
His disregard for Roman senators, however, cost Caesar his life and on the Ides of March - 15 March 44 B.C. - he was stabbed by as many as sixty assassins, including Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In retaliation, Mark Antony and Octavian began a bloody civil war which culminated in 42 B.C. with Brutus and Cassius' defeat at Philippi. The power-sharing between the victorious triumvirs didn't last long however, and by 31 B.C. Mark Antony had aligned himself with the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra. The two Romans fought one another at the decisive naval Battle of Actium, and the triumphant Octavian crowned himself Augustus, emperor of Rome. His accession to the throne was the death knell of the Roman Republic, and heralded the beginning of the Roman Empire.
The life of Julius Caesar – his leadership, martial successes, scandal, intrigue, love, and politics- has proved a ripe subject for politicians and artists alike. His political reforms are often seen as a predecessor to modern day populism and championing the rights of all citizens, regardless of class. Caesar’s dictatorial reign with few checks and balances and little democratic oversight was a model to be later emulated by Napoleon Bonaparte and Benito Mussolini. In the arts, his life was the subject of works by William Shakespeare, George Frideric Handel, George Bernard Shaw and Orson Welles. Julius Caesar’s legacy is unavoidable and his presence – over two thousand years after his death – still looms large in modern discourse.
Portraits of Julius Caesar are rare and their attributions often contested. The issue of attribution is further complicated by the fact that most of Caesar’s portraits were created posthumously, with only one known extant portrait thought to have been created during his lifetime (a portrait from Tusculum, now in Turin at the Castello Ducale di Agliè, see fig. 26 in D.E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture). The first systematic study of Caesar’s portraits was conducted in 1824 by E.Q. Visconti and A. Mongez in Iconographie Romaine. Another study in 1882 by J.J. Bernouilli counted sixty Caesar portraits, of which several were later discovered to be Renaissance creations or ancient portraits of Romans other than Caesar. A recent review of known marble portraits compiled by F. Johansen (“The Portraits in Marble of Gaius Julius Caesar: A Review,” Ancient Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum, vol. 1, 1987, pp. 17-40) counts about 20 confirmed sculptures of Julius Caesar. Analysis with the secured portraits of Caesar reveal that the Pestalozzi example can confidently be ascribed to him and should be added to Johansen’s list. The re-introduction of this splendid work onto the international stage represents a momentous occasion for both the market and scholars alike to study and reevaluate this important portrait.
Julius Caesar is depicted here slightly turned to his left and with a thin, elongated face. He has a high, slightly-creased forehead, almost made square by the short crop of his wavy locks. Caesar has narrow, almond-shaped eyes, a prominent nose and distinctive cheekbones. He has deep nasolabial folds and thin, long lips. An Adam’s apple is present under his strong lower jaw. In comparison to the aged and bald Caesar of the Tusculum portrait, the Pestalozzi example is comparatively young and vivacious; indeed, as Jucker (op. cit., p. 47) observes, one can read the faintest hint of a smile emerging from his parted lips in an otherwise stern face.
Johansen (op. cit.) records two portrait types of Julius Caesar: those based off the Tusculum portrait and the so-called Chiaramonti type named after the finest example now in the Sala dei Busti in the Vatican (see fig. 1a in Johansen, op. cit.). Another related portrait – in the Camposanto in Pisa – and its variants were once considered their own discreet group but Johansen contends that these works instead belong to the overarching Chiaramonti type. The Pestalozzi Caesar fits neatly into the Chiaramonti type and is most closely related to examples at the Museo Nazionale di Antichità, Parma, and in the Palmegiani Collection, Rieti. All three portraits show Caesar with a comparatively square forehead, prominent cheekbones and deep nasolabial folds. A similar, serious quality permeates the portraits. In profile, the same curving sideburns, protruding chin and creases to the neck are visible. When viewed in conjunction with the confirmed heads of Caesar in Parma and Rieti there is little doubt that the Pestalozzi portrait is of the same individual.
As Kleiner notes (op. cit., p. 45), coins contemporaneous to Caesar’s rule depict him wearing a laurel wreath. Suetonius writes that Caesar was “tall, fair and well-built, with a rather broad face and keen, dark brown eyes…his baldness was a disfigurement which his enemies harped on, much to his exasperation…and of all the honors voted him by the Senate and the People, none pleased him so much as the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath on all occasions – he constantly took advantage of it” (Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar, 45). The struck coin portraits thus reveal a true-to-life depiction of Caesar and record both his distinctive facial features and his attempts to hide his baldness. In contrast, the Chiaramonti type portraits of Caesar – the Pestalozzi head included – are more idealized than these earlier examples and are posthumous creations. The full head of hair with comma-shaped curls and softer facial characteristics recall Augustan state portraiture and a date of the late 1st century B.C. to early 1st century A.D can comfortably be assigned to this portrait.
An Augustan date for this portrait is further confirmed by political developments of the era. As emperor, Augustus sought to strengthen his connection to Caesar in the visual arts to confer legitimacy onto his rule. In the most overt example, a sestertius from 38 B.C. shows on one side the young Octavian and on the other side a portrait of Julius Caesar (see British Museum acc. no. 1872,0709.432). Notably, as Kleiner writes (op. cit., p. 61), “the bond between Octavian and Caesar was in part a fiction because Augustus was not really Caesar’s son but was adopted posthumously in Caesar’s will.” As Augustus developed his own portrait style that broke completely from the veristic nature of the Republican era, we can understand this portrait as bending to the classicism prevalent during this new Roman age. In the Pestalozzi portrait we see features specific to Julius Caesar while simultaneously agreeing with the artistic program espoused by Augustus. In a more abstract sense we can observe the legacy and historical memory of Julius Caesar conforming to Augustan ideals in an epic remolding of history.
This portrait head was formerly in the collection of the art historian Dr. Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960) and later dispersed at auction in 1999 by his descendants. Dr. Burchard was an expert on the works of Peter Paul Rubens and after he moved to London in 1935 enjoyed the patronage of Count Antoine Seilern and mounted a number of influential exhibitions on the Flemish painter. Upon his death, the great collection of books and documents that Dr. Burchard amassed over his long career was donated to the city of Antwerp where it now forms part of the library at the Rubenianum, a research institute for Flemish art of the 16th and 17th centuries.