Let your eyes wander over this sculpture. Folds of fabric cross the woman's chest, drop off her shoulder, swing across her belly, fall to her ankles only to swoop back up towards her head. But the action stops there. Curls of hair cling tightly to her scalp in orderly rows. They frame a stern face, with firm jaw and tight lips.
Cover her head with your hand. Beneath the folds of fabric we sense a body that is active, strong, and young. Her shoulders are almost dainty, and her breasts are firm. Now take your hand away. Does the head surprise you? Perhaps a bit large for the body, it bears the steady gaze of an older, more mature woman than the body suggests.
The contradiction between the head and body of this sculpture may seem odd at first. But the puzzle reveals important aspects of this woman’s character and role in life.
Roman, Portrait of an Older Woman, 60-70 A.D., marble
Who is this woman? Her name will never be known. But the sculpture gives enough information about her looks that we feel we would recognize her in person. A long, straight nose with a slight bump in it, thin lips, a pointy chin–even a mole to the left of her eye. Signs of aging, like slight bags under her eyes and loose muscle tone around her mouth, tell us that she is middle-aged.
Roman portraits are well known for showing people as they really appeared. A face full of wrinkles and scars revealed a life of overcoming difficult experiences. A Roman man earned virtue on the battlefield or in politics. A Roman woman earned virtue by being faithful, pure, and patient through challenge and temptation. An older person has endured more than a younger person, so signs of age are signs of virtue.
Many portraits like this one were made at a person's death as memorials in family tombs. Because this one is carved on all sides, scholars think it more likely stood in a public area– possibly in the city of Pompeii where it is thought to have been found.
The body of this sculpture seems to belong to a younger person than the face suggests.
Realistic details, like the mole to the left of her eye, suggest that this is the face of a real person.
If the features of her face identify this woman as an individual, her hairstyle helps place her in time. Elite women of the Roman Empire followed the hairstyle favored by the current empress. Scholars can match styles seen in portraits with images of the empress found on the coins of the realm. The hairstyle on this woman dates her to the time of the emperor Nero, around 60-70 A.D.
This woman's hair reveals more than just the fashion of the time. It also tells us that she was a woman of wealth. She could afford to spend hours having her hair done, and must have had a servant to help her she could not have created this look by herself. Elaborate hairstyles were an important status symbol for both men and women in the ancient Roman Empire.
Tight curls like these were formed with a tool called a calamister, much like a modern curling iron. Hair was wound around a solid cylinder of wood or metal. Another cylinder of hollow metal was heated on a fire, then wrapped around the hair to form the curl. It must have been a long and painful process.
Roman writers mocked women who chose fancy hairstyles out of vanity. But this woman was not vain, to judge from the expression on her face. It seems more likely that she wore the hairstyle to show her loyalty to the empress.
The unusual hairstyle this woman wears was popular among elite women around the time Nero was emperor in the first century A.D.
The face belongs to a particular individual. The hairstyle belongs to a particular decade. But the body, covered head to toe with drapes of clothing, is less specific.
True, an upper-class woman of ancient Rome would have dressed in the style seen here. She would have worn an ankle-length dress called a stola with a length of fabric called a palla wrapped around her shoulders. She would have modestly pulled this palla to cover her head when she was out in public, much like a veil.
But that style was not unique to the time this woman lived. Women dressed this way throughout the history of the Roman Empire. And Greek women had dressed similarly for centuries before. In fact, the garments seen here may have been copied from a Greek sculpture.
Romans greatly admired Greek culture. Many Greek statues stood in the gardens of great Roman estates. Romans hired Greek artists to create copies of still other sculptures. Greek sculptures tended to show the human body in its ideal form, free of imperfections. Sometimes portraits of Romans, shown with their individual flaws, were added to bodies copied from Greek examples.
Why would a Roman woman want to be shown with her head on a Greek body? Just as the lines on her face revealed her character, and her hairstyle displayed loyalty to a ruler, a body from the Greek past carried meaning as well. It connected her with the timeless perfection of the gods and goddesses themselves.
This Greek sculpture was found near Rome. The flowing folds of cloth in the skirt are typical of late Greek sculpture, like that which must have inspired the Portrait of an Older Woman (above).
The Roman philosopher Seneca honored his mother with the words, "You never polluted yourself with makeup and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honor of modesty.” (Seneca, Letter to his Mother, c. A.D. 41) Look again at the images of this woman's face. What do you think she might have been like as a person from what you can see in her face? Compose a three-sentence inscription for the statue that might describe her importance to the people in her life.
D'Ambrosio, Antonio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001) Kleiner, Diana E. E. and Susan B. Matheson. I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1996) Yale University Art Gallery. I, Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000)
Compare the Portrait of an Older Woman with a number of other examples of Roman portrait sculpture. Choose one of the other sculptures and write an imagined conversation between it and the Portrait of an Older Woman. The conversation should reflect character traits suggested by the expressions on the faces of the sculptures.
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