I’ve been talking a lot about the Greeks, but the ancient Romans also made enormous contributions to the classical tRAdition. A new photo of Richard Armitage that emerged over the weekend put me in mind of the Roman tradition of portrait sculpture. The classical Greeks were skilled and prolific sculptors – arguably far surpassing the later Romans in virtually all areas…except one: portraits. It wasn’t that the Greeks couldn’t generate realistic portraits, it was that they just weren’t interested. I think that it has to do with a vast divide in ideologies between the Greeks and Romans. To boil it down, the Greeks saw much of life as a quest to achieve ἀρετή (arête or excellence in English). I’ll have more to say about Richard Armitage and ἀρετή at a later date, but suffice it to say now, that viewed through this lens, realism gave way to idealism for the Greeks in many artistic genres.
The Romans, in contrast, have been defined by many as centering themselves around the concepts of pietas (piety) and gravitas (gravity or severity) If the Greeks were the great “out of the box” thinkers of the classical world, the Romans were the pragmatic doers. In its original role, portrait sculpture served as a visual means of keeping the pious Romans connected to the spirits of their departed ancestors, an important part of traditional Roman religion. The earliest Roman portrait busts are thought to have been sculpted from wax “death masks” molded from the recently deceased’s features. Not surprisingly, the results are realistic down to the wrinkle…a “warts and all” sculptural tradition.
As the Romans expanded out of Italy, into the wider Mediterranean world, amassing a huge territorial empire, the function of portrait sculpture also expanded to include realistic portraits of important public figures like the one of Julius Caesar below. It is meant to be a realistic portrait, but also to show the power and importance of this individual. This portrait represents Caesar in the mid 1st century BC (BCE) at about the age of 50…not a young man, but not old either.
By the 2nd century AD (CE) we can see a very different style of portrait sculpture emerging. After several hundred years of exposure to the Greek artistic aesthetic, some of it has clearly rubbed off on the Romans in this “portrait” of Antinous, the favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian. To be fair, Hadrian was a massive Hellenophile, Greece’s 2nd century sugar daddy, so the Greek influence is extremely pronounced here. But Roman portraits from this period forward reflect a blending of the Romans desire for realistic portraiture with the Greek preference for an idealized look.
So how does the latest Robert Ascroft portrait of Richard Armitage (below) fit in here? The Romans would have loved modern photography for its ability to realistically portray the human face down to the last wrinkle, blemish and gray hair. The Greeks would have loved Photoshop for its ability to make that all disappear and produce an idealized view.
I can’t tell you if this image has been retouched – although I doubt that many professional images are released without some adjustments. We see a mature man, not an idealized youth here, and for me, at least, the impact is a stunning blend of the realistic and ideal. ὅ παῖς καλός indeed!