Ancient Roman Art: Head of a Roman Patrician


It could look creepy, but this Head of a Roman Patrician has a lof of hidden meanings!

Let’s find them out! Ancient Roman Art: Head of a Roman Patrician

Patrician Torlonia, Ancient Roman Art: Head of a Roman Patrician
ARTIST Unknown
NAME Patrician Torlonia
LOCATION Palazzo Torlonia, Rome
YEAR 1st century AD
TYPE Sculpture
Hi everyone!

In the last post we learnt more about the use of reliefs in the Ancient Roman Art and we understood their communication importance (reason why we call them “narrative reliefs”). Today we are going to look at another ancient Roman sculpture: “Head of a Roman Patrician”.

Ok, the name could sound creepy, but I am talking about another sculpture category really important in the ancient Rome: the portraiture.

Roman portraiture from the Republican era is characterized by a strong realism, reaaaally marked… and a modesty that for us is really difficult to understand. Think if you would post a pic of you on Instagram when you look really “bad”…;-)

That was true in particular for the patricians’ portraits while, in the Imperial age, the style will change and the sculptures will look more “cool” and “beautiful” with heroic poses.

Augustus of Prima Porta, Ancient Roman Art
Augustus of Prima Porta

Head of a Roman Patrician

But let’s see why we should thank our Head of a Roman Patrician. The one we have today is a copy of the first century AD based on the original dated back to 80-70 BC It is also called Patrician Torlonia from the name of the palace in Rome where it is housed and it depicts an old Roman aristocrat.

And for sure what it is evident in the portrait is the extreme realism that show a man tired and aged with deep wrinkles, sagging jowls and corrugated forehead. We are in the Late Roman Republic era, a very complicated time full of changes when a lot of old-school politicians were trying to save the “democracy” with the values that have been the foundations of the Republic.

In the portrait we can read some of these values. In particular, the seriousness of mind (gravitas) and the virtue (virtus) of an intense public career. That is why in this representation the endeavors’ marks are not hidden, but even enhanced!

Starting from the Imperial age, that “strategy” is going to change becoming what we have today: politicians and men of power who want to look stronger than they are and not the opposite. But at that time the realism wanted to communicate the efforts of living a life based on deep values and be proud of that!


Because of that we can talk about “verism”. A sort of hyper-realism where the naturally occurring features are exaggerated.

However, that was not the only justification for such a will of hyper-realism…

Actually the origins of this style seem to be an evolution from the wax death masks. These masks, sometimes made also from bronze, marble and terracotta, were taken from bodies and kept in a home altar.

Now, for historians, the fact that molds for the masks were made directly from the deceased give an accurate representation of typically Roman features. But at that time it was a way of establishing societal legitimacy and achieving status, in particular if the ancestor has been famous! These masks served as a sort of family track record, and could get the descendants positions and perks.

As a result, the “Head of a Roman Patrician” represents a perfect example of communication tool. It is not just a portrait, but a map that shows us the story of a man and of an entire culture.

Even if we don’t know his name or anything about him, we can still clearly find many elements to read and that allow us to understand not just Roman art, but also a culture still full of surprises.

I hope you enjoyed this post and in the next episode we’ll explore a beautiful Roman painting, so don’t miss it! Ciao!

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