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Friday, April 2, 2021

Veristic portraiture

 Verism first appeared as the artistic preference of the Roman people during the late Roman Republic (147–30 BCE) and was often used for Republican portraits or for the head of “pseudo-athlete” sculptures. Verism, often described as "warts and all," shows the imperfections of the subject, such as warts, wrinkles, and furrows. It should be clearly noted that the term veristic in no way implies that these portraits are more "real." Rather, they too can be highly exaggerated or idealised, but within a different visual idiom, one which favours wrinkles, furrows, and signs of age as indicators of gravity and authority. Age during the Late Republic was very highly valued and was synonymous with power, since one of the only ways to hold power in Roman society was to be part of the Senate. Yet to be in the Senate, a Roman patrician had to be at least forty-two years of age, which in ancient times was considered a mature stage of life.

It is debated among scholars and art historians whether these veristic portraits were truly blunt records of actual features or exaggerated features designed to make a statement about a person's personality. It is widely held in academia that in the ancient world physiognomy revealed the character of a person. Thus, the personality characteristics seen in veristic busts could be taken to express certain virtues very much admired during the Republic.

Verism, while the height of fashion during the Late Republican era, quickly fell into obscurity when Augustus and the rest of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (44 BC-68 CE) came to power. During this imperial reign, Greek Classical sculpture that featured "eternal youth" was favored over verism. It wasn't until after the suicide of Nero in 68 CE that verism was revived.

During the Year of the Four Emperors (68-69 CE) that resulted from Nero's suicide, when Galba, Vitellius, and Otho all grappled for the throne, verism made a resurgence, as seen in obverse portraits of Galba on bronze coins or marble busts of Vitellius. When Vespasian and his sons came to the throne the Flavian dynasty harnessed verism as a source of propaganda. Scholars believe that Vespasian used the shift from the Classical style to that of veristic portraiture to send a visual propagandistic message distinguishing him from the previous emperor. Vespasian's portraits showed him as an older, serious, and unpretentious man who was in every respect the anti-Nero: a career military officer concerned not for his own pleasure but for the welfare of the Roman people, the security of the Empire, and the solvency of the treasury.


Image: Portrait Head of a Man, Roman, late 1st century BCE, at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In the veristic style, the face is riddled with lines, grooves, and crevices. Several of these lines are carved into the cheeks and jowls and the flesh around the nose is sagging. The nose itself is bulbous and deeply lined with large nostrils. The eyes are small and narrow with bags underneath and crow's feet at the corners. The eyebrows are modeled and indicated by hatch marks. Three deep vertical furrows appear above the ridge of the nose and the mouth is downturned with deep lines in the corners. The ears are large and the hair is receding, rendered as quite short with hatch marks. The neck is very short with a number of folds. The top of the head is a roughly worked, sloping plane with an iron dowel in the center. 

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