Tuesday, February 28, 2023


THE J. Paul Getty Museum is set to acquire an over-life-size ancient Roman marble bust of the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled AD 138–161).

The work was purchased for $5 million at auction in December. Its final acquisition is subject to an export license being granted by the Arts Council England. First documented in 1851, the bust was previously unknown to scholars or the public.

A prime example of Antoninus Pius's main portrait type, the bust was created some time after he ascended the throne in AD 138. With minor variations, this portrait type remained the emperor’s official image throughout his reign until AD 161. 

Carved from a single block of fine-grained white marble, the bust shows the emperor as a mature man with distinct facial features, a full, neatly trimmed beard, and thick curly hair. He wears a tunic, a cuirass (body armor), and a fringed paludamentum (a general’s cloak) folded in half and pinned at his right shoulder.

"This exquisitely sculpted and remarkably preserved portrait ranks among the finest of more than 100 versions of Antoninus’s image that have survived from antiquity," says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the Getty Museum. "The bust adds a new highlight to the series of high-quality imperial portraits at the Getty Villa, including the full-length statue of Antoninus' wife Faustina the Elder, and the busts of Augustus, Germanicus, Caligula, and Commodus."

Born in Lanuvium to a family that had migrated to Italy from Nemausus in southern Gaul (today's Nîmes in France), Antoninus was not groomed to become emperor. At the advanced age of 51, following a career as governor of the province of Asia and as Roman senator, he was adopted by Emperor Hadrian to be his successor. Antoninus’ long and exceptionally peaceful reign brought great prosperity to the Roman Empire, and the economy, culture, and artistic production flourished. The emperor started the dynasty of the Antonines, which lasted for more than two generations and ended with the death of Commodus in AD 192.

"Many objects in our collection were made in the Antonine period, as it is known today, including portraits, mythological sculptures, sarcophagi, and numerous other works," says Jens Daehner, associate curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum. "The bust of Antoninus provides a firmly dated visual reference for what characterized Roman aesthetics during that period. On display in our galleries, the bust will convey to visitors how, for example, Antonine sculptors carved drapery folds, used drills to give texture to hair, or incised the eyes of their sitters."

The marble bust was acquired in 1851 in Naples, Italy, by Robert Martin Berkeley (1823–1897), who brought it to his estate at Spetchley Park, Worcestershire, in England. It remained there with his heirs until it was offered at auction late last year at Sotheby's, London. Although documented in the estate's archive, the bust was previously unknown to the public or scholars.

Once acquired, the bust of Antoninus Pius will go on display in the Getty Villa's Later Roman Sculpture gallery with its selection of other Antonine period portraits.

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