Large head of Aphrodite

About This Artefact


Large head of Aphrodite




I.D. no: 49811

Dimensions: Max. H. 39.5 cm; Max. W. 26 cm.

Material: Fine-grain white marble.

Provenance: Unknown

Current location: National Museum of Archaeology, Reserve Collection


Condition: The smooth bottom surface of the neck suggests that the head was not broken off but was separately worked for attachment, even though a peg-like convex bottom would have offered more stability for insertion into the cavity of the respective statue.[1] Compared to the much better preserved back, the front and sides of the head are heavily battered and eroded, suggesting selective exposure to weathering and mechanical damage. Most of the facial features and the hair-do bear considerably large chippings as well as eroded surfaces. The nose is almost completely gone and the eyes are hardly perceptible, though the right one still shows part of the incised circle of the iris, and the little that survives of the eyelids betray sharply edged ones. The lips are chipped and worn away, leaving visible only the drilled horizontal opening and two tiny drilled holes on the corners of the small mouth.


Description: This piece consists of a slightly larger-than-life-size head of a female idealized figure, most probably the goddess Aphrodite, attached with a slight tilt to its right to a rather thick and solid neck. The latter itself seems to have been set at an inclined angle in relation to the absent body. Originally the eyes were incised to show the irises and pupils. The face is oval, framed by a thick-set and elaborate hairstyle. The hair is parted in the middle above the forehead and drawn back in shallow undulating strands, concealing the greater part of the ears. Most of the hair strands are collected on top of the head crown in a large and prominent knot (a krobylos), some are collected in a central thick bun behind the nape, while two long and curly locks fall freely on the sides behind the neck. Below the krobylos the head is crowned by an undulating fillet holding six ivy leaves, now hardly identifiable.



This type of head of Aphrodite, with exactly the same hairstyle and the same inclination and turn of the face to its right, is known from a great number of examples.[2] The ultimate inspiration for such heads must be the work of an artist contemporary with or under the strong influence of the fourth-century BC sculptor Praxeteles because, whereas the ‘top-knot’ is not found in copies of known Praxitelian works of widely different styles and times, it appears, often in an exaggerated form, in later works of his school, like the Capitoline statue of Aphrodite.[3] A very close parallel to our head is the one from the villa ‘of Poppea’ at Oplontis, with which it shares many common features, like the side tilt and the hair style.[4] The facial expression, though, and the general sculptural treatment are warmer and less  traditionally classical than in the Oplontis head which obviously predates the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79.


An important item which is found in our head but in none of the others representing Aphrodite of this type, is the fillet which crowns the head below the krobylos and which is decked with six ivy leaves. Such crowns are normally worn by Dionysus – who is also, sometimes, represented with the same elaborate hairstyle, as well as Apollo (the most famous of which being the Apollo Belvedere). The feminine features, however, and the two tresses hanging loosely behind the ears suggest a female, rather than a male, divinity. In fact, the head attached to an unrelated statue of a muse in the Royal Museum of Stockholm has a wreath of two such fillets decked with flowers, but these, the krobylos, and the whole crown of the head are modern restorations.[5]


The eroded and battered state of this Valletta head do not allow a fair assessment of the quality of the execution and original finish, but all-in-all it appears to be a mediocre and somewhat heavy Roman copy of a Hellenistic prototype of the early 3rd century BC, ultimately inspired by a Praxitelian work. The limited use of the running drill in the treatment of the hair on the sides by the ears and the incised irises assign the dating of the piece to the second half of the 2nd century AD.



Bibliography: (previous publications of item):

Bonanno 1972: 44-47.



[1] As in the case of the head of Aphrodite from the villa at Oplontis, cited further down.

[2] Jones 1926: 124, no 89, pl. 43; Kaschnitz-Weinberg 1936-1937: 142, no 292, pl. 32; Mansuelli 1958: 149-150, no 119 (head only; statue is not pertinent). For a general overview of Aphrodite and her iconography see Pickup & Smith 2010.

[3] Bieber 1955: 20, figs 34-35: ‘probably a creation of the second century BC’; Caskey 1925: 68-71, no 28; Comstock & Vermeule 1976: 39, no 55. See also the discussion and respective references of the ‘Head of Statuette of Aphrodite, item with ID no. 32327 of the present catalogue.

[4] Moorman 2019: Catalogue no 20, figs 16. 69-70.

[5]Leander Touati 1998; 131-133, no 8, pls 18-20.