Constantine I
Ca. 324—337.
Height 95.2 cm.
Inv. No. 26.229.New York, Metropolitan Museum of ArtPhoto by Ilya Shurygin

Constantine I.

Ca. 324—337.
Height 95.2 cm.
Inv. No. 26.229.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Private collection, Giustiniani.

31. Colossal Portrait of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. A. D. 306—337)

Constantinian, ca. A. D. 330.
Marble, overall H. 3712 in. (95.3 cm), chin to crown 2018 in. (51 cm).
Bequest of Mary Clark Thompson, 1923 (26.229).

Provenance: From before 1631 and until 1902, in the Giustiniani Collection, Rome; 1902, purchased from the Giustiniani family through Giuseppe Sangiorgi by Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson (Mary Clark Thompson), New York; 1902—1923, collection of Mary Clark Thompson; acquired in 1926, bequest of Mary Clark Thompson.

The portrait is more than three times lifesize. A standing statue with this head would have been roughly sixteen and one-half feet tall. The neckline, which reveals a narrow transition to the shoulder only on the left side, has led some scholars — among them, Richard Delbrueck and Thomas Schäfer — to propose that the head could have come from a cuirassed statue. However, it is not known to what extent earlier restorers altered the original state of the work. It is apparent, in any case, that the dowel used to attach the head to a statue would have required a hole considerably deeper than the existing one. Given the size of the head, it cannot be excluded that it came from a colossal seated statue like the famous one whose fragments are preserved in the cortile of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome.1 If such were the case, it would have been part of an acrolith, in which only the exposed parts of the body — the head, hands, portions of the legs, and feet — would have been carved in marble.

In side view, considerable disproportion is evident in the way the back of the head is rounded, the crown of the skull flattened, and the face completely flat, with no volume. Since the style of the sharp-edged hair behind the ears is wholly different from that of the broad, doughy locks over the forehead, the head must be a reworking of an earlier portrait. The colossal dimensions indicate that the earlier work, too, depicted an emperor, and the precise form of the original locks behind the ears permits a definite identification of the predecessor. Tire earlier portrait must have been of the emperor Trajan (r. A. D. 98—117) from the late years of his reign (see the detailed discussion in Schäfer 1999).

Scholars have repeatedly theorized that the reuse of an emperor’s portrait, the features of which were destroyed and replaced with those of a new ruler, could signify that the later ruler looked to his predecessor as a model.2 This strikes me as a false assumption. For who among the original viewers of the head could have analyzed it with the interest of a modern archaeologist and, in the present case, recognized from the locks of hair at the neck that it was originally a portrait of Trajan?

In order to turn the image of Trajan into that of Constantine the Great, the sculptor had to chisel up to four inches off the surface of the face and lower the crown of the head, which is arched in the Trajan portraits. In the process, the face acquired its present narrow, rectangular shape, which deviates from that of all the other portraits of Constantine. Since the neck was too wide after this operation, the sculptor reduced it on the right side, and in so doing eliminated the suggestion of the right shoulder. An indication of the left shoulder survives on the opposite side.3

Astonishingly, this extensive reworking of the original Trajan portrait did not diminish the effect of the new portrait that emerged from it. The hair, combed forward, lies in broad strands that curve toward the center of the forehead; on the sides, it sweeps toward the face at almost a right angle, unlike in other replicas of the type. Since the lower part of the face repeats the verticals of the hair at the forehead, the face takes on a narrow, rectangular outline into which the forehead, eyes, brows, mouth, and chin are fitted like separate parts. A straight crease runs across the forehead, from which two short, parallel creases descend to the top of the nose. The eyes show an upturned iris framing a sickle-shaped pupil. The broad upper lids and the articulated brows curve in parallel above, enhancing the effect of the aimless upward gaze. The slight turning of the head to its left causes the flattening of the right cheek and the greater sagging of the skin beneath the right eye.

Despite the modern restorations, the face is captivating for its majestic expression. The viewer was meant to look up in awe at the emperors image, as though at a higher power of the sort described by a panegyrist: eadem in fronte gravitas, eadem in oculis et in ore tranquillitas (in his forehead majesty, in his eyes and mouth tranquility).4 Initial experiments with a new rulers image of this kind are seen in the portraits showing the emperor Gallienus as sole ruler.5 The expression of energy in those portraits, though discreet, is wholly abandoned in this Constantine. That we are not dealing with an artistic expression of superhuman grandeur is shown by the behavior later exhibited by Constantius II (r. A. D. 337—361) on his entry into Rome in A. D. 357. As Ammianus Marcellinus reports in Res Gestae (16, 10, 8), the emperor sat “like a human statue” on his chariot and directed “his blazing gaze straight ahead, turning his face neither to the right nor to the left.”

p.100 To establish the time when the Metropolitans head was created, it is necessary to look at the other portraits of Constantine the Great. In addition to the portraits listed in Fittschen and Zanker 1985,6 three other heads have come to light:

1. Villa Giulia, Rome (from Bolsena): Giuliano 1991, figs. 1—4. The portrait was reworked from an early Imperial head and dates from the first years of Constantine’s reign.

2. Private collection, London: Giuliano 1991, figs. 9—11. Reworked portrait, also probably from early in the reign.

3. Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome (from a sewer next to the Forum Traianum [Forum of Trajan]): La Rocca and Zanker 2007; Demandt and Engemann 2007, ill. on pp. 103, 105 (N. Hannestad: late image, originally a portrait of Hadrian). The portrait is over-lifesize, measuring 4538 inches with the neck. It was recarved from a Julio-Claudian emperor’s portrait after what might have been a very recent attempt at reworking and appears to have been left unfinished. This attempt also appears to date from the first years of Constantine’s reign.

A comparison of the New York head with the other known portraits indicates that it differs from them primarily in its more abstract forms and long, narrow face, which is in part attributable to the reworking. Because of its equally abstract forms, the bronze portrait from Niš (in present-day Serbia) in the National Museum in Belgrade compares most closely, although it exhibits simplified shapes and differs from the New York portrait in its proportions; because of its diadem, it certainly dates from the period after A. D. 325.7 The portrait from Rome that is now in Copenhagen, with its broad strands of hair, elongated face, and unstructured cheeks, doubtless also produced in the late period, is comparable.8 There, too, the diadem is lacking.9 Most writers now assume that the portrait in the Metropolitan Museum dates from the late years of Constantine’s reign.

Condition: Much over-lifesize, the head has been repeatedly restored. This is unsurprising, given its long modern history. In the nineteenth century, it stood in the cortile of the Palazzo Giustiniani in Rome, where it was identified as “Nero.” The nose, mouth, chin, and ears are completely modern, though only the elegant line of the mouth seems inauthentic. The missing piece on the left side of the skull could be related to an ancient restoration. The marble block or reused head was perhaps not large enough at this spot.

The work must be a reused portrait, as can be seen from the wholly divergent style of the strands of hair behind the ears. Although the surface of the hair is dull, the skin on the face is polished, a contrast that may be related to the original polychromy.

Giustiniani 1631, vol. 1, pl. 25. 2;
Matz and von Duhn 1881—82, vol. 1, p. 506, no. 1942;
Bernoulli 1894, p. 221;
Rizzo 1905, p.101 pp. 16—17, fig. 6;
Richter 1927a, pp. 305—6;
Delbrueck 1933, pp. 112—13, pls. 28, 29;
L’Orange 1933, pp. 64, 139, no. 91, fig. 166 (as from the A. D. 320s);
Richter 1948, no. 110, ill.;
Vermeule 1961, p. 15, no. 4, pl. 33 (as ca. A. D. 325);
Harrison 1967, p. 92, figs. 46, 47 (as ca. A. D. 325);
H. Jucker 1967, p. 125, pl. 43. 3—4 (as ca. A. D. 330);
Sydow 1969, pp. 22, 26—27 (as A. D. 320—330);
Bergmann 1972, p. 216 (as after A. D. 326);
Calza 1972, pp. 221—22, no. 134, pl. 74;
Oberleitner 1973, p. 141 n. 190 (as after A. D. 312—313);
Weitzmann 1979, pp. 15—16, no. 9 (J. Breckenridge: as after A. D. 324, influenced by Trajanic portraits);
Hüfler 1980, p. 96, no. 2 (H. Severin: late repetition of the type with simplified forms heightened in detail);
H. Jucker 1983b, pp. 67—69;
L’Orange and Unger 1984, p. 69, pl. 48d (as after A. D. 324);
Fittschen and Zanker 1985, p. 150 n. 8 (deliberately simplified style, from the later years of Constantine’s reign);
Greece and Rome 1987, pp. 158—59, no. 123 (M. Anderson);
Knudsen 1988, cat. 15, fig. 54 (as recut from an earlier portrait);
Schäfer 1999 (detailed account of the reworking from a late portrait of Trajan);
La Rocca and Zanker 2007, pp. 149—50;
Picón et al. 2007, pp. 404—5, 498, no. 473 (as after A. D. 325).

1Compare the reconstruction of the colossal seated statue, the fragments of which are in the cortile of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, in Demandt and Engemann 2007, p. 131.

2Most recently, Schäfer 1999.

3By contrast, compare the colossal head from the Forum of Trajan, discovered in 2005, in which the original neck, much too thick after the reworking, was not carved down.

4Panegyrici Latini X (4), 35. 4.

5Wegner, Bracker, and Real 1979, pp. 108, 117, pl. 45.

6Fittschen and Zanker 1985, pp. 149—51.

7Ibid., p. 150 n. 9; good illustration in Delbrueck 1933, pl. 35.

8Fittschen and Zanker 1985, p. 150 n. 7; V. Poulsen 1962—74, vol. 2, p. 191, no. 198, pls. CCCXXXII, CCCXXXIII; good illustration in Demandt and Engemann 2007, p. 115.

9La Rocca and Zanker 2007, p. 150.
© 2013. Photo: Ilya Shurygin.
Info: museum annotation.
© 2016. Paul Zanker. Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze in the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. P. 99—101.
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