Imperial Colors: The Roman Portrait Busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna

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the roman portrait busts of septimius severus and julia domna

Fig. 3.19: Detail of Septimius Severus’s brow and hair. The forehead is dynamically rendered and the hair on the forehead falls into the distinctive “Serapis locks.” Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.33.1.

Fig. 3.20: Detail of Julia Domna’s forehead. The brow is executed in a “masculine” manner that recalls portraits of her husband and son. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.33.2.

84 imperial colors

Fig. 3.21: Head of Caracalla, 212–17, marble, H.: 14 ¼ in. (36.2 cm).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 40.11.1, Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1940.

The differences seen here between the handling of the faces is common for male and female portraits. The handling of the foreheads of the two portraits, however, points to a specific workshop connection. Severus is represented with a furrowed brow: two carefully modeled creases form a triangle over the bridge of the emperor’s nose, which in turn causes the muscles of his forehead to swell (fig. 3.19). This handling of Severus’s forehead is unexceptional as it was part of his portrait type. This rendering of the brow is later transferred in a more emphatic form to portraits of Severus’s adult son and successor, Caracalla (fig. 3.21). This feature, however, is also found on the Eskenazi portrait of Julia Domna, albeit in a slightly less emphatic rendering (fig. 3.20). A dynamically rendered brow is neither a feature of the empress’s portrait type, nor is typical for portraits of women more generally. Rather, it seems to have been deployed by the sculptor to capture the mental focus of both the emperor and empress on the implied subject of their gaze, which in turn heightens the experience of the viewer.24

from marble to figure: carving the eskenazi portraits 85

a result, most museumgoers today are more familiar—and often more comfortable—with the idea of ancient Greek and Roman marble statues being white. This perspective encourages the viewer to appreciate the sculpted forms and surface finishes of ancient marble sculpture as an aesthetic end in and of itself. In this way, the artistic priorities of the ancient artists who created these once-polychrome works have been conflated with those of the much later monochromatic traditions that informed the production of marble sculpture since the Renaissance and neoclassical periods.

These post-antique sculptural traditions, combined with the idealized association of white marble with “classical beauty,” continue to inform the general public’s understanding of the original appearance of ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Margaret Talbot identified this (mis)perception as “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture” in

Fig. 4.2: Portrait of the baker

Terentius Neo and his wife, from Pompeii, ca. 50–75, fresco, 25 ½ x 23 in. (65 x 58 cm).

Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 9058.

92 imperial colors

Fig. 4.3: Experimental reconstruction of the polychromy of a marble portrait of a Roman youth ca. 230, made by Amalie Skovmøller, Rikke Therkildsen, Matthew Simmonds (sculptor) and Per Kapper (painter). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, reconstruction of inv. IN 821.

her provocatively titled 2018 article in The New Yorker that featured the Eskenazi busts.2 In recent years, however, contemporary museum audiences have become increasingly receptive to and interested in the idea that Greek and Roman statuary was originally painted, and curators have responded with didactic materials, exhibitions, and reconstructions in traditional and digital media.3

Color reconstructions of ancient sculptures help raise awareness of how ancient works of art originally appeared, but significant ambiguities remain. While we know that marble sculptures were painted, scholars are far from certain of precisely how they were painted and how details of their individual presentations appeared in antiquity. Ancient Roman portraits in other painted media, however, such as frescoes on Pompeian walls (fig. 4.2), suggest a nuanced naturalism defined by subtle chromatic variation and sophisticated renderings of light and shadow. The visual effects of twodimensional painting extended to three-dimensional sculpture. In addition, white marble’s prized translucency and its ability to take fine finishes afforded a wide variety of contrasting surface textures on which to recreate naturalistic effects (and, in many cases, these effects were likely more convincing on threedimensional surfaces). There was, of course, no uniform way of painting, but rather a multitude of contemporaneous techniques and practices, or polychromies, employed for different visual ends.

Although many of the nuanced and artful visual effects of ancient painted marble sculpture remain lost to us, recent attempts to recreate them and thus model the possible appearances of Roman portraits using modern replicas may help us envision something of this lost art. While the results must remain provisional, the recent experimental recreation of the painting on a marble head of an imperial youth from the second quarter of the third century may evoke the nuanced effects of polychromy on a work that is roughly contemporary with the Eskenazi busts; it is arguably the most persuasive physical reconstruction of Roman polychromy to date (fig. 4.3).4

The modern multidisciplinary study of ancient polychromy on sculpture is only a few decades old and is driven, in significant part, by technological advances in digital microscopic examination, multispectral imaging, and scientific analysis. Such complementary techniques increasingly allow for the detection and characterization of the

from art to life: the polychromy of the eskenazi portraits


fragmentary and deteriorated remains of ancient painting. It should be emphasized, however, that there is much that is still not known, and key issues regarding the techniques of ancient polychromy are only beginning to be elucidated. These include foundational aspects such as the range of binding media (wax, egg, resin, etc.) and the rich and diverse palette of inorganic pigments and organic colorants that were used on marble sculpture in different periods across the wide swathe of the globalized ancient Mediterranean world. Our body of evidence, however, is rapidly expanding and promises to be a central aspect of how we will increasingly come to view ancient marble sculpture in the future.5

Current research supports the idea that the combined effects of marble carving and applied coloration gave high-quality portraits their fully engaging and visually striking lifelike presence. The sculptural techniques that characterize the exquisite Eskenazi portrait busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna—eyes with deeply drilled pupils and incised irises, extensive drill work, and contrasting textures ranging from rough to matte to glossy—were not visual ends in themselves, but rather features of a delicately prepared marble “canvas.” A skilled painter enhanced the carving through the careful application of color, considering not just the colors, but how the binding medium and pigments optically interfaced with the varied textured surfaces of the marble to evoke convincingly the visual properties of skin, hair, and fabric that invite close looking and bring the portraits to life. Sculpting and painting were complementary arts, and the relationship between sculptor and painter in such delicate works was intimate and collaborative. Given the masterful sophistication and nuance of the marble carving and surface finishing of the Eskenazi busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna, we should imagine their applied painting in antiquity was no less refined and artful.

Extant Painting on the Eskenazi Portrait Busts

Until recently, no traces of the original polychromy on the Eskenazi busts were believed to have survived, as none was recorded in earlier documents nor is readily visible today. This is not surprising as the physical environments from which most ancient sculptures are recovered are typically not conducive to the preservation of pigment, and until very recently many traces of pigment often were not recognized by archaeologists, resulting in their inadvertent removal. Fortuitously, the Eskenazi busts received only modest cleaning in their modern history, and they retain small amounts of sinter, root marks, and burial accretion on their surfaces, which are visible in ultraviolet light (fig. 4.4). A combination of microscopic examination and multispectral imaging has revealed remains of ancient painting on both busts, and scientific

Fig. 4.4 (opposite top): Eskenazi busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna in ultraviolet fluorescence (UVF) imaging.

Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.33.1 and 75.33.2.

Fig. 4.5 (opposite bottom): Eskenazi busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna in visible-induced infrared luminescence imaging (VIL) with luminescent white glowing particles of Egyptian blue pigment visible on both busts.

Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 75.33.1 and 75.33.2.

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over Severus is well documented in the ancient historical record. After Albinus’s defeat and death, Severus actively sought to punish those who supported his rival; as a result, coins of Albinus were withdrawn from circulation, his sculpted portraits presumably removed from public view and sometimes destroyed, and his image faded from view.

The Consolidation of Power and Visualization of Dynasty (193–200)

After eliminating their rivals and consolidating their power, Septimius Severus and Julia Domna could turn their attention to ruling their hardwon empire and promoting the dynasty they sought to establish. The imperial couple could point to two promising male heirs, Caracalla and Geta, who were retroactively adopted into the Antonine house along with their father in 195. Caracalla was subseqently appointed Caesar in 196 and elevated to Augustus in 198, at which time Geta was given the title of Caesar. The new imperial titles for the princes were recognized in coinage; and sculpted monuments, freestanding portraits,

Fig. 5.10 (left): Bust of Marcus Aurelius, ca. 140, marble, H: 29 in. (76 cm).

Capitoline Museums, Rome, MC279.

Fig. 5.11 (right): Bust of Caracalla, from the Roman Villa at Chiragan, ca. 195–205, marble, H: 18 7/8 in. (48 cm).

Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, Ra 119–Ra 58c.

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Fig. 5.12 (left): Coin of Septimius Severus in later lacework mount with busts of Caracalla and Geta on the reverse, ca. 202, gold. The legend “AETERNIT[AS] IMPERI” refers to the continuity of the Roman Empire through the imperial heirs.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, 56-128 3e.

Fig. 5.13 (right): Bust of Caracalla or Geta, ca. 208–10, marble, H: 26 in. (66 cm).

Musée du Louvre, Paris, Ma 1076.

and gemstones presented Caracalla and Geta singly, as a pair (to emphasize their fraternitas) (fig. 5.12), and in family groups alongside their parents.9 Not surprisingly, the youthful portraits of the Severan princes, particularly those of Caracalla (fig. 5.11), were influenced by comparable images of the young Marcus Aurelius (fig. 5.10)10 and Commodus (see fig. 2.7)11 that were made during the reigns of their respective fathers. The mop of curls and heavy-lidded eyes of the Severan crown prince are a nod to his Antonine antecedents, while the rounded face with its square jaw and broad nose are part of Caracalla’s own distinctive physiognomy. Before long, the portraits of Caracalla and Geta would be refashioned with closely cropped hair suggestive of athletic and military hairstyles (fig. 5.13). The Severan family’s close association with Hercules may have provided an impetus for this shift, which was exaggerated further in the mature portraits of Caracalla made during his reign (see figs. 3.21, 4.17).

Julia Domna, in many respects, was the linchpin of the incipient dynasty, and she was frequently depicted alongside her husband, for whom she served as a trusted advisor, as well as with her two sons. Her strategic emulation of Faustina the Younger through both titulature and image, with its emphasis on her maternal attributes, has already

portraits, power, and the visualization of dynasty

Pigment Analysis


Rationale for Analysis

Traces of Egyptian blue pigment were observed on the surface of the busts of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna in the Eskenazi Museum of Art using the technique of visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) imaging, indicating that the white marble sculptures were originally painted. Sampling of the pigments was requested to allow for chemical analysis of blue, red, and purple paint remnants. This was undertaken in the temporary storage area while the museum was undergoing renovations. Using an optivisor for magnification, a chemically etched tungsten needle was used to scrape pigment samples from pores and crevices in the marble. These were stored in glass well slides and returned to Newfields for analysis.

Methods of Analysis

Sampling permission: Sampling was undertaken under the supervision of Mark Abbe and Juliet Istrabadi. Seven samples were taken from the surface of the bust of Septimius Severus (SS01–SS07) and five from that of Julia Domna (JD01–JD05). The following technical processes were used to analyze the samples:

• Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) microspectroscopy

• Gas chromatography—mass spectrometry (GCMS)

• Raman microspectroscopy

• Scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectrometry (SEM/EDS)

appendix 2


Raman microspectroscopy

Raman spectra were acquired using a Bruker Senterra microspectrometer on a Z-axis gantry. The spectrometer utilizes three selectable excitation lasers (532, 633, and 785 nm), an Andor Peltier-cooled CCD detector, and a 50 μm confocal pinhole. The green laser at 532 nm was used to acquire spectra of particles thought to be iron oxides while the near infrared laser at 785 nm was used for surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS). Laser power at the sample was always below 5 mW. The spectra are the result of 3–5 sec integrations with 25–100 coadditions depending on the signal strength. A 50 or 100× ultra-long working distance objective was used to focus on select pigment particles. The analysis spot size was on the order of 1 μm, and the spectral resolution was in the range of 9–18 cm-1. OPUS software allowed for automated cosmic spike removal, peak shape correction, and spectral calibration. For SERS spectra, the sample was pretreated with 10% HF vapor prior to the addition of 0.5 uL of silver colloid prepared using the method of Lee and Meisel (1982). The Raman spectroscopy results are described below and summarized at end of the discussion.

Red pigmentation was found to be exclusively a bright or deep red hematite (Fe2O3), often occurring in large particles, but also sometimes finely ground. Calcite (CaCO3) was apparent in nearly every spectrum. Since calcite is a component of marble, it could be found in these samples simply because they were scratched out of crevices of the marble, but it could indicate the use of chalk or marble dust to lighten the colors. No other white pigment was detected in the samples. Sample SS01 was taken from an area of Severus’s paludamentum (Appx. 2, fig. 1).

In one sample from the bust of Julia Domna (JD04), a pigmented nodule on the proper left side—a possible indication of cinnabar (HgS)—was recorded for small bright red-orange particles (Appx. 2, fig. 2). Note the discrepancies in the minor band of vermilion/ cinnabar. Another possibility is the reddish-yellow iron hydroxide lepidocrocite (FeOOH). Unfortunately, no reference material was available for direct comparison. Only a few of these colored particles were observed. If it can be positively attributed to cinnabar, then whether this indicates an intentional use of the pigment along with hematite or an accidental contamination in the artist’s workshop is unknown. If the particles can be solidly attributed to lepidocrocite, then they are likely a natural component of the hematite mixture. In another area on the back of the sculpture described as purple-

appendix 2: pigment analysis 177

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