This enchanting fragment of a female face is all the more intriguing because of its fractured form. The nature of the break, running from the centre of the forehead, down one side of the nose and through the mouth, to preserve only the proper left side of the face, gives the illusion of a ‘profile’ view. Portraits in bronze from the ancient world are exceedingly rare, since the majority were melted down in later antiquity. The incomplete nature of the present portrait underscores this fact, offering us only a mere glimpse of the subject; no doubt once a prominent individual in society, her identity now obscured by the missing pieces.
The eye is delicately rendered, with a crisp, heavy eyelid, and the pupil and iris are delineated through the use of incision. The eyebrow is also finely detailed, the individual hairs incised to create a full, feathered effect framing the eye. The young woman has high cheekbones, her nose with prominent ridge and slight downward curvature, and a subtly-downturned mouth. The remaining portion of the subject’s hair reveals part of what would have been an elaborate coiffure; the section framing the face comprises wavy locks pulled back, behind which are two narrow, and one slightly wider, braids, that would have presumably encircled the head, forming a braided bun. The hairstyle resembles what scholars have termed the ‘turban coiffure’, particularly popular in the mid-second century AD and again in the early fourth century.
The fragment is cast using the ancient lost-wax technique, a method that enabled the creation of large-scale hollow sculptures, thus economising on material and ensuring that these works of art were not prohibitively heavy. During the process, a system of vents was installed to evacuate the wax, which was replaced by molten bronze. After the moulding, these vents were cut and filed down and the holes filled in by bronze pellets – one of which has been lost from the cheek of our portrait.
The shape of the eye and lid, the delineation of the pupil and iris, and the manner of the eyebrow are details very reminiscent of marble portraits of the Severan dynasty (AD 193-235), for example, those of Fulvia Plautilla, wife of Caracalla. A marble portrait now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, exhibits the same heavily-lidded eye, high cheekbones and feathery brow. Her hairstyle is similar in character, featuring a band of wavy locks pulled back and a curl in front of the ear, behind which the hair is twisted into sections, rather than into fine braids as in the present bronze. It has been suggested that the so-called ‘turban coiffure’ exhibited here was associated with esteemed women of high virtue, either priestesses, or elite women who chose to adopt the hairstyle because of its similarities with the headdress worn by the Vestal Virgins. It therefore connoted the virtue of castitas, expressing the modesty, chastity, morality, and altogether elevated status of its proponent.
Former collection of General Amourel (1848-1908), Captain of the 15th armed corps based in Marseilles, France, thence by descent.
French art market.