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Idealized Reality in Ancient Rome

Today’s post comes from Stephanie Muir, class of 2015.

Unknown (Roman), Funerary Relief of Attia Rufilla, mid 1st century. Marble. Gift of Joseph Coplin, class of 1988, and Robin Beningson in memory of Renee D. Beningson, and purchase, Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund. 2008.1

One of many classical works in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s collection, the Funerary Relief of Attia Rufilla reveals much about both artistic traditions and societal ideals prevalent within Ancient Rome. The head and neck, sculpted in extremely high relief, reflect the subject’s physical likeness and social aspirations, even in death. The highly naturalistic style of the portrait, a testament to the technical ability of the sculptor, deviates greatly from the traditional idealization of beauty in Greek and Roman Art. Yet, this extreme realism still serves as a tool used to communicate social principles and status to the viewer.

The unique facial features of the subject have not been ignored in favor of a flawless and idealized form of beauty. Lines, blemishes and imperfections mark the face, while the skin on the neck hangs loose as the sculptor purposefully included idiosyncratic and imperfect physical elements. Although these realistic elements make the portrait unique, the work incorporates larger values as an idealized type. Wrinkles and creases indicate age and experience and are associated by Romans with wisdom. Blemishes and marks convey a sense of “civismus” or civic dedication, while the placed worry lines and large eyes communicate the subject’s constant concern for the state of the Republic. The eccentricities, indicative of a life lived well, inform the viewer about the sitter’s desired character. The naturalistic style, although not completely true to reality, aligns the individual portrait with greater societal expectation.

Additionally, other elements of the likeness further advance the status and social position of the subject. Consider the hairstyle, for example. The delicate rendering of waves and grooves reveals the artist’s ability to create texture in form in the difficult medium of marble.  Simultaneously, the hairstyle indicates that the subject was a woman of great fashion and style, reinforcing the subject’s position as a member of upper society. In creating a carefully crafted and calculated piece, the sculptor fuses realism and idealism to reflect the socio-political conditions of the Roman Empire at the time.

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