Portrait head of Antoninus Pius

About This Artefact

I.D. no: 100896

Dimensions: Total H. (including peg) 54 cm; H. (without peg) 45 cm; Max.W. 29 cm.

Material: Fine-grain white marble (Cararra ?) with light-brown flaking patina.

Provenance: Unknown

Current location: National Museum of Archaeology


Condition: Though surviving whole, together with its long, cone-shaped peg below the neck, the piece is in a rather bad state of conservation. The whole surface is heavily worn, especially of the hair and beard. The face is damaged in various places: chips on the forehead, both eyebrows, the right cheek, temple and ear, as well as on the locks of hair above the forehead. The entire nose is broken leaving the end of two drilled holes visible in each nostril. A thin, film-like skin has detached itself from the marble surface of the right cheek and it seems that the same process has affected the whole surface of the neck, especially below the right ear, and the hair on the crown of the head.


Description: The piece shows a larger-than-life head of a bearded man with copious curly hair and a medium volume beard of comparatively smallish curls. The head is slightly turned to the right and tilted backward. The eyes, which are not deep-set in their sockets, are turned up to the right, emphasizing the touch of melancholy that marks the portrait. The forehead is lined by two deep horizontal wrinkles and two small vertical ones above the nose-bridge. Naso-labial folds depart from the nose and follow the outer edge of the moustache, separating the mouth from the cheek-bones. The somewhat small mouth has closed lips and is framed by a thick moustache which overlaps a comparatively short beard. The hair departs from a point high up at the back of the crown of the head and, assuming progressively more volume, ends up in thick, curly locks around the face and on the neck without covering the ears completely.

The sculptor took some pains in rendering the individual characteristics of the personage. A dreamy and melancholic expression is conferred, perhaps solely, by the direction of the eye pupils which are indicated by crescent-shaped depressions. The movement of the facial muscles does not seem to penetrate beyond the skin surface (especially on the forehead where the wrinkles are very linear and graphic) and fails to put in evidence the bone structure underneath. The summary execution of the beard and the compact mass of the hair on the crown, as well as the deeply scratched horizontal wrinkles, betray a somewhat hasty work which lacks accuracy in the treatment of details. This is rather unusual in the portraiture of the early Antonine period when great care was lavished on the treatment of the hair.


Discussion: Both the physiognomy and the expression of this head belong to the iconography of Antoninus Pius, emperor from AD 138 to 161.[1] J.J. Bernoulli listed a total of 82 portraits of this emperor way back in 1891,[2] to which many more were added by Wegner in 1939.[3] Both of these compilations failed to include the Maltese head. The correctness of this identification, as well as the general iconography of the founder of the Antonine dynasty, is confirmed by the coin portraits of the emperor.[4]

Following the classification by Wegner, the Maltese portrait should fall amongst a series of official images of the emperor headed by a portrait from Ostia now in the Sala a Croce Greca of the Vatican,[5] of which it reproduces the general traits. It differs from the latter, however, because of a number of minor features such as the movement of the head and the direction of the gaze, the pattern of the hair locks around the forehead and, above all, the style and expression. The emperor as portrayed in the Maltese piece appears more overwhelmed physically and spiritually by the weight of old age. The sturdy nobility of the countenance of the Formia type[6] (and even of the Ostia/Sala a Croce Greca portrait)[7] are gone and are replaced by a more transcendental aspiration expressed by the turn of the head and eyes.[8] In the Maltese specimen the latter turns out to be somewhat empty, perhaps artificial. This very transcendental quality may well be taken as an indication of a posthumous version.

In general style the Malta head is very close to another portrait from Ostia and, from the technical point of view it conforms with it by its limited use of the drill which is practically absent in the Ostia portrait.[9]

The apparent low quality of the modelling of this portrait may result from its bad state of preservation but, considering the areas where the original surface has survived, such as on the forehead and the left cheek, one certainly cannot qualify this marble among the better known images of Antoninus Pius. The very restrained use of the drill would suggest an early image of the emperor, but the more intensive spiritual expression would rather date the portrait towards the last years of the emperor’s reign.

Date: a date close to the death of the emperor in AD 161 seems the most probable.


Bibliography: (previous publications of item):

Ashby 1915: 77, no. 12, fig. 32: ‘Head of imperial personage, of period of Septimius Severus [sic!], 17 ½ ins high. Pupils rendered by bean-shaped segments; beard and moustache shown by thick clustering locks. Provenance unknown; museum no. 17’. Zammit 1919: 25: repeats Ashby verbatim. Sestieri 1936: 67-70, figs. 1-2: ‘copy of another portrait carved by a local artist’. Calza 1964: 88, n. 5. Poulsen 1951: 482, no. 690: ‘A much damaged head in Malta … should be included’. Bonanno 1971: 147-151. Bonanno 1992: pl. 39. Fittschen & Zanker 1994: 66 note 16.

[1] His full name as emperor was Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius. See P.v. Rhoden, s.v. Aurelius, RE II 2, col. 2493-2510, no. 138 (https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/RE:Aurelius_138); B.M. Felletti Maj, s.v. Antonino Pio, EAA I: 442-5.

[2] Bernoulli 1891: 140-7.

[3] Wegner 1939: 15-25, 125-53, pls. 1-9. Now the list has been extended to about 120 portraits: K. Fittschen, s.v. Antonino Pio, EAA, IIo Suppl., I: 265-6 (with updated bibliography). For a fuller discussion of the various types see Fittschen & Zanker 1994: 59-60, pls. 67-9, additional pls. 39-49.

[4] See Wegner 1939: pl. 58; Mattingly 1968: pls. 1-51; Robertson 1971: pls. 48-66.

[5] Wegner 1939: 22-5, 145, pl. 4a; Calza 1964: 86-7, no. 137, pl. 82; Fittschen & Zanker 1994: additional pls. 47 c-f.

[6] Wegner 1939: 16-22, 141, pl. 3; Felletti Maj 1953: 106, no. 203.

[7] See note 5.

[8] In this it is more akin to the colossal head also from Ostia in the Museo Chiaramonti of the Vatican no. 702: Wegner 1939: 145; Calza 1964: 87-8, no 139, pl. 83. Fittschen & Zanker (1994: 66 note 16) place it rather under this type on the basis of the pattern of the hair locks above the forehead.

[9] Calza 1964: 88-9, no. 141, pl. 84: ‘c. AD 160’. In the treatment of the hair and beard a better comparison is made with the portrait in Fulda: Von Heintze 1968: 53-4, no. 35, pls. 62-3, 123b.c.